General Thoughts on Epistemology I: A (Mostly) Platitudinous Introduction

The School of Athens

Everything I would like to discuss in the realm of epistemology may require a little background, especially for those who are new to this area of study. In addition, it was drilled into my brain that I ought to prove that I know a little bit about something before I enter the discussion, so it is perfectly permissible for the reader to see this as part of my self-consciousness made real. What follows is some mildly chronological context, sprinkled with some arguments and scare-quotes, all communicated a bit lazily.

Epistemology is supposed to be the study of knowledge and how we know. It is pretty simple as far as the general definition goes, but one will soon realize upon closer examination that writers have been complicating this area of study for years. The obvious pattern to follow through history is the longstanding debate between rationalists and empiricists, and less obviously, the debate between rationalists who tend to overcomplicate and empiricists who come dangerously close to (if not logically imply) that we cannot know anything at all. Here is a machine-gun history of epistemology:

Plato thinks that everything in the living world is a reflection of underlying reality, called the forms, with which we hang when our souls enter the land of the dead; he also “invents” the idea of “Justified True Belief” as the definition of knowledge.

Aristotle, with a slightly more scientific approach, develops his distinction between phainomena (observations as they appear) and endoxa (reasoned opinions about phainomena).

Fast forward about two-thousand years, and we get René Descartes, who coins the phrase, “I think. [Therefore,] I am,” as the first thing we can know with certainty purely through reason. He also attempts to defeat any doubt about our experiences (that we may be dreaming or being fooled by an evil genius) by “proving” that God exists.

John Locke, a British Empiricist during the Enlightenment period, argues that experience is the “basis” for knowledge in opposition to Descartes. His Causal Theory of Perceptions puts focus on the interaction between the world, our perceptual organs, and our minds.

David Hume, another famous British empiricist expands upon Locke and divides knowledge into two categories: relations of ideas (math/logic) and matters of fact (observation). His skepticism about the external world leads him to conclude that there is no rational justification for the existence of anything, that there is no such thing as “perfect knowledge,” and that metaphysics is stupid.

Hume finds an opponent in Immanuel Kant, who contends that metaphysics is not stupid and that it is possible to “know” things through reason alone. He frames this discussion with his introduction of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which I may explain at a later date). His overarching theory is called transcendental idealism, which postulates that there is a barrier between the mind and the external world created by our perceptions, marking yet another conceptual distinction between phenomenon and noumenon.

The spiritual successor to British empiricism became phenomenalism, which is the view that the existence of physical objects in the external world is not justifiable. According to a phenomenalist, when we speak about physical things we are talking about mere sense-data.

In the early nineteenth century, logical positivism went in a slightly different direction. Logical positivists pushed the verification principle, which states that a proposition is only “meaningful” if it is verifiable—can be proven true or false. A.J. Ayer defends this theory famously in his twentieth century work, Language, Truth, and Logic.

In 1963, Edward Gettier introduced a problem (previously raised by Bertrand Russell in 1912) with the “Justified True Belief” model of knowledge, explaining how a belief could be both justified and true but not be something that we would consider knowledge. The problem occurs when a person’s justified belief is coincidentally true, not by the original justification, but for different reasons. (I find fault with Gettier’s original problem, but there are many other examples that may or may not succeed.)

We also get some critical, agnostic thinkers, like Barry Stroud, who believe that none of the positive theories from these philosophers or movements are correct about epistemology, and we still haven’t solved the problem that Descartes elucidates—that we have no way of knowing if our experiences are real or just a dream.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism similarly rejects the views of most mainstream philosophers like Hume and Kant, but instead of stopping at criticism, presents a fairly straight-forward way of defining knowledge and its processes. On the basis that reality exists self-evidently, Rand claims that knowledge is a conceptual organization of our perceptions of that reality. She defends the simple assumptions that we tend to accept about knowledge, but goes into detail in providing her framework for how it works. Unfortunately, she has trouble building a bridge between her philosophy and the established bodies of work, and there are a lot of holes that remain unfilled.

The most contemporary philosophers have the fortune of instant access to a wealth of present-day knowledge obtained via rapid advances in science and technology. Modern philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, now examine the nature of the human mind from a more scientific perspective in order to learn more about “knowledge” (or better yet, how we interact with the external world), as opposed to knowledge in and of itself. Now epistemological theories look like this.

So begins my foray into a somewhat outdated field in order to explain some things that the reader may already realize, but may not often think about.

My first order of business is to communicate this: the term “perfect knowledge” is unintelligible.

My second order of business will be to write the next post.

Realists and Idealists

Realists VS Idealists

Realists VS Idealists (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

At some point in time you have probably been taught that there is a difference between a realist and an idealist. There are two chief understandings of this perceived dichotomy. The common usage is a description of human behavior, often seen an explanation for political decisions. This is dependent upon the second philosophical usage, however, which largely denotes an epistemic stance. My argument is that the philosophical version is a false dichotomy, and as a result, the common version is not a very useful mental construct.

Usually idealists are understood to take action based upon what they want to see as an ideal theoretical end. Sometimes we call people “idealists” when we observe that they think big without adequately taking into account the steps needed to achieve their goals. They are dreamers and eternal optimists.

Realists, on the other hand, are thought to be more pragmatic in their approach. They tend to be more pessimistic about the world and what can be accomplished, but they are coincidentally (if not causally) more often correct and may even live longer.  Realists supposedly see the world as it is, and they act more pragmatically without looking outside of their personal sphere to accomplish lofty, theoretical goals.

In a philosophical context, the respective meanings are different but related. In one sense, realism and idealism can be understood as metaphysical interpretations that may apply to any field of philosophy. Within every interpretation is a claim about the existence of something and to what degree it exists independent of our knowledge. Therefore the discussion is rooted in the most primary forms of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology.

Generic Realism goes something like this: “ab, and c and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as F-nessG-ness, and H-ness is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.” So a theory of epistemological realism might make the claim that all things we know are generically real. This theory would be a subcategory of objectivism.

The theories in opposition to epistemological realism, labeled non-realist, are numerous. But the most widely referenced is—you guessed it—epistemological idealism. Plato was one of the first epistemic idealists, with his cave analogy and his famous theory of the forms. His key belief was that knowledge consists of “memories” that your “soul” recalls from its time in the underworld hanging out with the forms (which are supposedly perfect versions of all the “imperfect” knowledge we gather in the human world).

A more representative picture of current philosophical idealism can be seen in German idealists like Kant and Hegel, who are among the most influential. Kant posits that all we are capable of observing is the sense data we obtain through our experiences, and therefore, knowledge relies on a framework of universal, a priori truths in the human mind (like the logical implications of space and time) in order to understand our experiences. He divides these two understandings into two realms: the phenomenal (experiential) and the noumenal (transcendental).

Hegel accepts Kant’s belief that knowledge begins with our experiences, but he rejects the idea that we can know anything transcendental. He argues that we can only be skeptical of such things. Although, he does agree that our experiences are mediated through the mind.

Part of the reason I say what follows is because I know there will be no recourse from dead men: most of these epistemological debates are just an intellectual pissing match. Their differences about the nature of knowledge are essentially unessential, and only the things they agree upon, for the most part, are important. Realists and the various idealists all agree that we have experiences by way of the senses, that we analyze them with our brains, and by that general process we form “knowledge” (whatever its nature may be). Most of the disagreement results from a failure to clearly define knowledge and its characteristics. I suppose this makes me a semi-quietist.

Ultimately, generic epistemic realism and most forms of idealism are not actually in conflict. It may be that Kant’s framework of understanding is valid—that all we observe is sense data and that it is meaningful to (at least) distinguish between physical and nonphysical things. Perhaps Hegel is right that we should be skeptical about nonphysical things. In the end, it serves no purpose.

What idealists have mostly done is to bicker about the degree to which realism can(not) be proven. But they fail to deny (or sometimes even to observe) that realism must be assumed in the actions of every day life. Imagine living a life full of the worry that things will spontaneously phase out of existence of you pay them no attention. Along a similar line of thought, we make use of “transcendental” or metaphysical concepts all the time. We can disregard their idealistic origin should we so choose, but we must recognize their utility, for example, when we employ mathematics, geometry, and calculus to solve real-world problems.

The problem with this philosophical dichotomy is similar to its colloquial cousin. At most, “realist” and “idealist” could be used as labels for people who actually fit their narrow description. Almost all people, however, operate according to the simple, functional framework that I just explained and thus, would not be categorized as such. Even those who use them regularly typically concede that the dichotomy should be understood in terms of a scale, in which an individual may favor one disposition over the other.

This practice, even with the concession, is still dangerous because it pigeon-holes people into mental structures that limit their capabilities. If a person thinks he or she is predisposed to acting on ideals, then it will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that person may refuse to take certain realistic issues into account when it would not be difficult to otherwise. And the related outcome is true of people who think that they are “realists.”

The important thing for people to recognize is that there is no real utility to the mutual exclusivity between colloquial realism and idealism. They should strive to make use of both in concert, as our brains already do functionally according to a more accurate conceptual understanding.