Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Epistemology and the Limitations of Knowledge

By Steve Rensberry  

Epistemology is an important branch of philosophy concerned with the parameters and limits of human knowledge, with beliefs that are justifiably true and based on that which is genuinely real. It is concerned with the capability of things in general to be known and understood in their deepest essence.
   Are abstract constructs real? What do we make of the thoughts, images and emotions experienced by a conscious human mind? Certainly they can be said to be subjectively meaningful to the person experiencing them, but are they grounded in some deeper type of reality, independent of the subject? Plato attempted to make this exact point in his Theory of Forms, Aristotle argued against it and many others throughout the ages have sought to add their own insight into the definition of what is real, what is imagined and how it is we can know the difference.
   This essay will consider the idea that this thing we call knowledge is fundamentally a linguistic tool, albeit one which presumably helps us to understand and control the world around us. Giving a name to phenomenon which we consider most certain also helps us to reduce the physiological stress that can arise from doubt. In similar fashion, the attempt to define reality itself will be considered as making, at best, a series of relative and subjective affirmations. What we say, what we believe, what we think, takes shape only after it is filtered through a maze of human cognitive processes, replete with all of its genetic predispositions, emotional baggage and life experiences.
   First, let me address the false dichotomy which is frequently drawn between those who are skeptical about the existence of absolutes on the one hand, and those who are skeptical about skepticism on the other. Typical is the following criticism of absolute skepticism, as stated in Questions That Matter by Ed. L. Miller (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1984, pg. 191): "Actually, there have been relatively few absolute skeptics. It is not hard to see why. Critics of this position have been quick to charge that it is impractical and impossible. It is impractical because, from the purely practical standpoint of getting along in the world, no one in his or her right mind can actually live on such a premise. Our daily lives are pervaded by what we take to be (whether they actually are or not) assurances, certainties, and in a word, all kinds of knowledge."
   Likewise, Miller provides the traditional response to relativism by pointing to its supposedly self-contradictory and self-refuting nature. "For they maintain, with the greatest assurance, that we cannot maintain anything. Otherwise stated: If we cannot know anything, then how do we know that? Stated again: If absolute skepticism is true, then it must be false!"
   Such criticism, however, misrepresents the issue. When people hypothesize that absolutes do not exist, all they are saying is that the weight of evidence appears, from their limited perspective as finite human beings, against the existence of absolutes; in the same way, modern empiricists question that substantive knowledge can be derived from sources that are completely independent of the senses.
   Why must we assume anything to be infinitely true, to necessarily be absolute in nature in order to live our lives? Perhaps this is just one dimension of many. Perhaps what we see now is not the way things always have been, nor how they will be millions of years in the future. Why must we make a leap into absolutism to be sufficiently certain about the world around us. Is it not enough to interact with things as relative phenomenon that are simply true most of the time, that display a high degree of probability and consistency but that also carry with them the chance of floundering in the face of contrary evidence? To object to absolutism is not to make a metaphysical claim but merely to point to the illogic of the concept and to the dearth of empirical evidence available to substantiate it. As I have mentioned in previous posts, to claim that there are absolutes is implicitly claim that there is no place anywhere in the universe where absolutes do not exist.
   Obviously there are many things which present us with a high degree of certainty that we cannot readily see with the naked eye, things such as wind and gravity, but we can test them as to their veracity through empirical, scientific means that act as an extension of human sensory organs. There also are many presumed entities and abstract concepts which, while theorized as real, are little less than figments of the human imagination. Placing our complete trust and in that which we have no solid evidence for, that is presumed in fact to be outside of the realm of scientific analysis altogether, is the issue at stake.
   Since the dawn of recorded history, human beings have embraced a large number of false beliefs. For one list of such beliefs, see: List of Common Misconceptions.
   Though it doesn't take an illness to believe a falsehood, the false beliefs of those who suffer from schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis are well documented, as are the suspected physiological basis for them.
   One report discussed in Time Magazine in a story by journalist Maia Szalavitz links the phenomena of false belief to the presence or absence of a particular fold in the human brain, a fold that is missing in an estimated one-quarter of people and 44 percent of those with schizophrenia.
   Hanna Pickard with the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and All Souls College at the University of Oxford has written an interesting piece entitled Schizophrenia and the Epistemology of Self-Knowledge, in which she discusses what is termed "alien thought," leading many people suffering from paranoid delusions and schizophrenia to mistakenly assign alien responsibility for their own thoughts.
   "There is evidence that both schizophrenic and paranoid patients show a generalized attributional reasoning bias towards assigning causal responsibility for events to others, rather than to assigning them to themselves," Pickard writes, citing two references. (Baker, C. A., and Morrison, A. P. 1998. Cognitive processes in auditory hallucinations, Psychological Medicine 28(5): 1199-208; Moritz, S., Woodward, T. S., Burlon, M., Braus, D. F. and Anderson, B. 2007. Attributional style in schizophrenia, Cognitive Therapy and Research 31(3): 371-83.)
   Pickard also notes the tendency for such subjects to jump to conclusions more so than normal subjects. (Garety and Hemsley, Delusions: Investigations into the psychology of delusional reasoning, Oxford University Press, 1994).
   "The proposal suggests that they are prone to alien thought because they may also show exaggerated irrationality in the capacity for conscious reflection to causally influence the maintenance and revision of beliefs and other mental states; that it is something which in principle is open to empirical testing. But importantly, as I have emphasized, it is an abnormality that places them along a continuum together with the rest of us. Indeed, it is natural to envisage a spectrum of related abnormalities, more or less pathological, moving from immoral or selfish or shameful thoughts, to addiction and akrasia, to obsessional thinking and disorders, through to prodromal alien thought and finally full-blown schizophrenia," Pickard states.
   If only it were possible to venture into the epistemological jungle without also addressing the multi-faceted issues of belief, truth and evidence (or justification), but it is mighty difficult. One way to depict the relationship is by use of a Euler diagram. The diagram places knowledge within a subset represented by two overlapping circles, one representing truth and one representing beliefs. Something can be true but not believed, and visa versa. True knowledge, categorically speaking, must be something that is both true and believed. This is not to deny instances where a person's belief just happens to be true by accident or by luck. (see: The Gettier problem). Whether such cases of "luck-based belief" are justified ultimately begs the question: how do we determine (know) what things are real and what things are not?
    The great divide in epistemological circles is, generally speaking, between empiricists such as Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and David Hume; and rationalists such as Plato, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, with philosophers such as Immanuel Kant attempting to bridge the gap by arguing that both are necessary to some degree in acquiring knowledge -- with reason being necessary to help make sense of experience, yet impotent in regard to claims about things of which no human can possibly have any experience of.
   Either way, the idea of knowledge being acquired by some sort of intuitive sense of truth that we are all born with seems to me an idea which can only survive by assuming an immensely broad definition of what constitutes evidence. Analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga's reformed epistemology posits the idea of a "properly basic belief," as reason enough for one's beliefs, needing neither inference from established truths nor empirical evidence of any kind. The proposition falters in essentially appealing to subjective experience and to an overly-broad definition of what constitutes sufficient evidence.
   Plantinga, as with fellow theist C.S. Lewis, makes the mistake of reaching for absolute certainty without warrant, and by taking aim at empirical, naturalistic approaches to knowledge by building up the traditional straw man in order to be able to knock it down, falsely claiming that they are self-defeating and incoherent.
  Let me invite your consideration of two views, one espoused by Hume in his work, the Treatise of Human Nature, and the other by G.W. Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit.
   Hume writes: "But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations." (ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge; Oxford University Press, London, 1888 pgs. 251-153). See: Of Personal Identity.
   Faced with perceptions of an "inconceivable rapidity," and in a state of "perpetual flux and movement," as Hume puts it, is it any wonder the human animal is so prone to tether itself to something that is of an eternally unchanging nature, permanent and lasting, yet without proper justification?
   Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Mind), writes: "The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind, in the nature of the case, cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains."
   Hegel's point: The imperfect human consciousness instinctively establishes its own criteria for knowledge, subsequently modifying its concept of reality (the object) to fit an imperfect knowledge, rather than adjusting its knowledge to conform to the object, a distinction which ultimately is immaterial. As noted in this Wikipedia entry on Hegel: "At the end of the process, when the object has been fully 'spiritualized' by successive cycles of consciousness' experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself."
   A rather interesting phenomenon often takes place whenever a person who has made an intellectual and emotional commitment to transcendent truths runs out of logical defenses. "It doesn't really matter," they'll say. "I know what I believe is true because I have a personal relationship with (pick your transcendent entity). In other words, they "just know," as if by magic, as if by some invisible force and source of knowledge wholly beyond human comprehension. By any measure, it's a response that relies on such a broadly subjective criteria for knowledge as to be essentially no criteria at all.

For Further Reading
David Hume
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
The Phenomenology of Spirit
Plato and the Theory of Forms
Logical Positivism
Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy
The Ontology of Concepts: Abstract Objects or Mental Representations
Schizophrenia and the Epistemology of Self-Knowledge

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion