Thursday, January 15, 2009

Epistemology: Is It Worth It?

How much does the fact that nothing empirical can be proven beyond a doubt (Hume) affect belief, faith, and how we view epistemology? At times, it doesn’t seem to matter to me that I cannot prove the existence of anything outside of my own consciousness (if even this). However, at other moments, this matters significantly. When I realize that every fact in my pool of knowledge – every argument I believe in, every belief, value, and idea that I hold – these rest not on the shoulders of giants, but instead on a precipice of nothingness (Heidegger), I falter. Perhaps it is the existentialists who have taught me to feel very alive at these sorts of moments – to experience intensely the existence that may not have been. Despite this shocking aliveness, these ideas have the uncanny ability to unsettle me.


  1. Epistemology: Is It Worth It? Ha! Great question! And my answer: not nearly as much as modern philosophy spends on it. I had the privilege of studying under John Hawthorn, one of the leading contemporary epistemologists, and a really good prof. In my opinion, it's not that the topic of knowledge is unimportant, but that epistemology does not ask the important questions about it.
    My ideas rest not on a precipice of nothingness, but on an invisible mountain. I do not pretend to know the right question to ask, but my intuition tells me it's somewhat connected with the archaic meaning of "know"--carnal knowledge, as in "Adam knew his wife Eve, and she bore him a son..." This is not a matter of proof, but of experience. "I know that I have hands"--yet I do not even attempt to prove without a doubt that I have hands; I first have certain experiences that I sum up with the statement: I have hands. Then, from other experiences, I doubt that first statement. But even my doubt comes out of experience.
    All this logorrhea is simply to point to the idea that proof is not always as central or important as some would think, at least not as we often define proof.

  2. I like your point Basil, particularly the mountain v. precipice dichotomy.

    Here's a fun thought - when we get to Heaven, will we still be able to entertain the Cartesian doubt that the whole thing is really just in our mind?

  3. I have no reason why not, but there is something in my gut that says "absolutely no."

  4. I love this original post so much that I can hardly construct an intelligible reply. Hume and Heidegger in the same paragraph, joy!

    I agree with Basil on this one to a major degree and given that I was in the same class I think that makes sense. I think the importance of clarifying knowledge lies not in the abstract realm of analytical philosophy which does not seem to have any end but itself; no telos, so to speak. Deciding whether that table or this computer exists for no reason other then to know it, seems generally meaningless to me. However, developing an understanding about the source and basis of my knowledge for the sake of authentic living does mean something. This stems back to a general complaint I have on the nature of modern western philosophy, which has lost almost all touch with the world as it is and is distracted by one constructed out of logic and reason. Reason must be practiced, but for the sake of the improvement of the whole life, and must be recognized as such. Modern philosophy does reason and logic for its own sake, and in doing that loses touch with anything meaningful, i.e. we get a truth that is abstract and distant and has zero effect on my life, over and against a truth that affects how I live and act. In example: if it were proven to me that the world is all in my mind a la Berkeley, would that alter my life at all? Would my day to day living be affected? Of course not, because life cannot be lived in that way. However, if I were to study how and why I carry a specific bit of knowledge to discern its basis, that can drastically affect my life. Hell, that is was we are doing here in these blogs.

    On the seemingly nihilist perspective of Heidegger and your response to it, I think that is in those moments of apparent contradiction that real meaning is found. We sit on the fine edge between meaning and meaninglessness. Life is fantastic, powerful, and absolutely meaningful, but that life could not have been, or be taken away by as little as the wrong turn in the morning or a misstep at work. Real “living life,” as the Dosoevsky says through the Underground Man, is uncomfortable, it is unsettling. I think that uneasiness stems, in part, from the seemingly precarious state of meaning.

  5. I agree with Porch Rat when he finds major problems with modern philosophy. Damn Descartes; a lot of the problem can be originally traced back to his cogito, although someone else would have done it if he hadn’t. Proving one’s existence is nonsensical. It’s like the ancient Greek philosopher who proved we couldn’t move (his name eludes me at the moment…I think it starts with a Z). OK, so we can’t move. Now what? I am hungry. There is a chicken outside. Moving. I need to move to kill it. I kill it. Yum, so good… I would still be hungry now if I couldn’t move, but I’m stuffed. Chicken is good.

  6. Post-Script: Skrignov’s answer to the post’s question: No, epistemology is not worth it. In fact, it has been detrimental to true, authentic thinking.

  7. Skrignov; i don't understand how epistemology has been detrimental to "true authentic thinking". Are you stating this simply because it has brought about questions that are somewhat nonsensical or purposeless? I know that when i took epistemology i found it fascinating but at the same time thought, who cares if i'm a brain in the vat, i'm "experiencing" that which i think to be real and i haven't been told of any neo character to come and save me so why would it matter. If you could expound upon your statement that would be appreciated.

  8. Well Monsieur J, welcome to the discussion. Since my time at the moment is limited, I shall attempt to be concise. Feel free to respond again, or to let me know if I did or did not sufficiently answer your question.

    Answer #1: Epistemology has been detrimental to true authentic thinking in a physical-time sense, since it has occupied perhaps genius people’s time and energy. This time and energy was wasted on nonsensical proofs and silly conclusions. By becoming so powerful a force of intellectual academia, brilliant minds with a philosophical bent spent their time answering childish questions, instead of spending their time exploring more authentic, practical, and real issues. In this way, it has been detrimental to true authentic thinking.

    Answer #2: Epistemology has been detrimental to true authentic thinking since the type of skepticism that is logically connected to it can stagnant thinking completely. This answer is more complicated, and I sense my language becoming vague… I hope to be clear, but correct me if I am not. Let me take a Nietzsche/Socrates issue: If I ask a warrior to define courage to me, and I, like Socrates, prove to him that every definition of his doesn’t actually make sense, the end result could be that the warrior questions whether or not he is courageous, or whether or not fighting is worthwhile at all. In this case, he stops fighting, i.e. attempting to prove something leads here to stagnation. But in fact, the warrior does KNOW what courage is; he has always known. He has experienced it plenty of times on the battlefield. The problem is that he doesn’t know courage in a proof/definition/epistemology sort of way. The epistemological reflection of courage here leads the warrior to question courage and to stop fighting altogether. If you could apply this small example to EVERYTHING else, you should begin to see my point. Putting things under the epistemological microscope first skews our perception of reality itself; and second, if taken to its skeptical conclusion, it can stagnant true thinking, like the warrior.

  9. Sir Skrignov,

    I do understand now your viewpoint and i believe that we are of the same mind set. We both see epistemology in a similar perspective in that, it raises questions, but questions that need not be asked for they have already been answered through our present and past experience. The fact that it questions our past experience which we know to be true, is indeed both a stagnant way of thinking and a somewhat useless thought process. Yet, I still find myself tempted by its alluring qualities, perhaps it is because i am a novice when it comes to the philosophical and epistemological field, or that I possess a cynical view when it comes to matters of truth and knowledge. In spite of that i thank you for your response and have found it rather illuminating.

    Seamus aka J