Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Meeting of the Great Minds - Spring 2015

This semester we will explore ontology, logic, and ethics. It will be a busy semester! We will have between 3-5 meetings of the great minds. You will discuss questions posed to the forum by Socrates.

Select a philosopher for these enactments and become acquainted with the philosopher's main contributions to the philosophical project. You must remain in that role during the forums, wearing the hat you select or design to represent that philosopher.

Your final paper for the semester will be about the philosopher you have portrayed in the forums.

Philosophers you may select for the Spring Semester include, but are not limited to:

Jeremy Bentham

George Berkeley

Jacques Derrida (See also "Something Older")

Phillipa Foot

Martin Heidegger (See also "A Closer Look at Martin Heidegger")

David Hume

Immanuel Kant (See also "Modern Trends in Ethical Thought")

Niccoló Machiavelli  (See also "Machiavelli Believed in Fortune")

Charles Sanders Peirce (See also "Pragmatism and American Education")

Ayn Rand

John B. Rawls

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Story of Ontology

Alice C. Linsley

In our study of epistemology, we encountered philosophers who recognized the importance of the imagination:  Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, even Berkeley. Imagination plays a key role in this story of ontology.

Imagine that you are a spider weaving a web. Do you perceive of the web as the entire universe? Probably not, since you fabricated the web in such as way that it extends through air, something you didn't fabricate. You did this in order to trap other beings: flies, gnats, etc., so you are aware of other beings in your universe. There is the reality that the web will be broken and another will have to be built. The web is the spider's way to acquire nourishment to sustain its life, but does it recognize the web as a bounded ontological context?

Of course, spiders do not reason as humans, but this illustrates how humans think about our existence. We fabricate from what we have and we think we are creators. Why is that? We recognize the existence of other entities in our world, especially those upon which we depend. We understand that things break in our world and sometimes the very web of our existence crashes. We grasp intellectually that there are other universes, but we do not know them because they are beyond our bounded context.

The philosophical study of theories of existence and being is called "ontology" and it is probably my favorite area of philosophical study. The term "ontology" is derived from two Greek words: onto (being) and logia (written or spoken discourse).

In this unit, we will look at the nature of being, becoming, and existence (even extinction). In other words, we will explore the web, the air, the relationship of the web and the air, and the relationship of the web in air to the larger universe called "reality." Because the whole story of reality is an impossible tale for humans in our bounded ontological context, we will have to narrow our exploration. We will not wander far from metaphysics. We will not discuss ontology related to aesthetics or to ethics, though ontology determines and informs views of beauty, goodness, fairness, etc.

I hope to tell the story of ontology by staying with concrete particulars like air, fire, water and earth. Let us consider an illustration that employs fire.

When you build a fire, do you believe you have created the element of fire or do you recognize that you have merely started a process? When you contain the fire so that it will not spread, do you also contain the products of the process you started, the smoke and chemical reactions? You are safe while the fire is contained in a small space, but at the same time, you are not safe if the smoke and fumes are contained in the same small space. Apparently, the value or benefit of something being contained (bounded) is relative.

If these illustrations that speak of air and fire remind you of the pre-Socratic debates about primal substance, your thinking is headed in the right direction! Why did Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes not agree as to the substance that makes existence possible? Because each had to interpret their experiences, and no two humans can have exactly the same interpretation. The art and science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Maybe ontology is simply hermeneutics, or maybe hermeneutics is ontology.

That is what Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) thought. He developed this in his book Ontology--The Hermeneutics of Facticity (1988). The book is a compilation of the lectures he delivered at the University of Freiburg during the summer of 1923. In these lectures, Heidegger reviewed and critically appropriated the hermeneutic tradition, beginning with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and including the thought of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Dilthey (1833-1911). He attempted to reformulate the question of being on the basis of facticity and the everyday world (phenomena/phenomenology).

Heidegger explored the structures of human consciousness, the categories of experience of being, what he called "Dasein." He is one of the philosophers whose work we will investigate in this unit on ontology. Another is Jacques Derrida, an Arabic-speaking, North African Jew who explored the relationship between ontology and theology, calling this "ontotheology," a term he picked up from Immanuel Kant. Derrida's deconstruction employs interpretative principles that have the effect of restoring a more ancient Afro-Asiatic approach to meaning (binary oppositions). He identifies the importance of context and presence, and initiates a deeply ontological conversation. A fundamental assertion of deconstruction is that "there is no outside-text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte). This oft-quoted phrase from Derrida's Grammatology means simply (or complexly) there is nothing outside of context.

As we came to recognize in our study of epistemology, there are limits to what humans can know. There are perplexing questions that philosophers have never resolved. These include the mind-body problem: how can that which is not extended act on the material world?; and the problem of induction: when is the evidence sufficient? We hit the same roadblock when we explore the central questions of ontology: What really is?; What constitutes being? Plato's Forms was an approach that sought a way around the roadblock. For Plato, the objects perceived as existing have a nature that is beyond what is perceived by the senses. Things are not what they seem to be because they are reflections of the true Forms.

And that takes us to our next illustration. This one uses the element of water and comes from Plato's Republic (X. 602c). The "oar in the water" illustration demonstrates how circumstances (contexts) can affect the individual's perception. Consider an oar half submerged in water. Beneath the water's surface the oar appears to be bent. It appears to have a different trajectory. Many have found this illustration trite. J.L Austin's comment reflects the modern attitude: "Does anyone suppose that if something is straight, then it jolly well has to look straight at all times and in all circumstances?" (Sense and Sensibilia, pages 21 and 29) However, Plato's illustration is less about sensibility than it is about his "two worlds" metaphysics. It is used to make his point that, since we can have only knowledge of Forms, we cannot have any false beliefs about Forms. What is below the surface, though refracted, is yet the very real projection of what is above the surface.

Austin appears to be unfamiliar with the Nilotic background of Plato's belief in universals. Indeed, this binary perception of reality was already ancient in Plato's time. Austin attempts to dismiss this, writing, “Ideally, I suppose, a discussion of this sort ought to begin with the very earliest texts; but in this case that course is ruled out by their no longer being extant. The doctrines we shall be discussing—unlike, for example, doctrines about 'universals'—were already quite ancient in Plato's time.”(Sense and Sensibilia, page 2) (Italics mine for emphasis.)

We do keep coming back to this binary feature. In telling the story of ontology, we cannot escape it. Our human anatomical structure, with bilaterialism, makes greater range of movement possible. Our bicameral brain/mind makes greater complexity of thought possible. Daily we are faced with the binary pattern of universal sets: male-female; night-day, and most significantly, life-death.

The mind makes distinctions along binary lines. We tend to think axiomatically: good-bad, normal-strange; one-many; now-not yet, etc. The mind recognizes that something can be and yet not be: the Biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God. Something can exist (actuality) while not yet existing. The kingdom is here now and yet still to come (potentiality), if we take Biblical eschatology seriously.

Aristotle's understanding of the elements now comes into play. He wrote, "The elements ... cannot be eternal. It is a matter of observation that fire, water, and every simple body undergo a process of analysis [i.e., destruction]. (On the Heavens 304b23). Fire can be destroyed by water. Water can be evaporated by wind/air. Vacuums exist, so air cannot be said to be everywhere at all times. And then there is earth, our final illustration.

The Greek comic poet and "wise man" Epicharmus (540-450 BC) was known to both Plato and Aristotle. He expressed a widely held ontological idea: "Life is compounded and broken up, and again goes whence it came; earth indeed to earth, and the spirit to upper regions." Many regarded the elements as deities. In this view, the gods are the winds, the water, the earth, the sun, the fire, the stars. To which Epicharmus quips: "But I think that the only gods useful to us are gold and silver."

Ben Sira (the author of Ecclesiasticus) writes, "How can dust and ashes be proud? Even in life the human body decays." (Ben Sira 10:9) He calls man "dust and ashes" and asserts that all things that are of the earth return to the earth. "Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes." The connection seemed obvious to those who came upon sites where humans had been buried long before and all that remained was an outline of ash and dust. This sight necessarily confronts us with the reality or unconcealment (aletheia) of our death as non-existence, what Heidegger termed "negation."

Negation means to deny, and Heidegger is concerned with a specific form of denial: the denial of one's non-existence, the refusal to face the reality of one's death. How we live and die tests the authenticity of our being. Awareness of my mortality changes how I live. For Heidegger, the proper response to being as a human is reflection on existence as a way to tug the veil that covers essence. We must do this to own our being as individuals living in the everyday world. We must look at the dust of the earth and say to ourselves, "That's what I am and to dust shall I return." Yet, as soon as we say those words, we know we have spoken a half-truth. The human is more than dust. We find ourselves turning from our well considered philosophical pretenses to language that has a God concept as its first order predicate. This has happened in the thought of many philosophers as they aged and approached death: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida are examples. By avoiding the use of the word God and by replacing it with a god concept, they have unveiled a presence that has always been there. The presence serves as a function whereby existence is explored as second order extension. This "turning" (as Heidegger called it) appears to be a sign of authentication of individual being.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Imagination is what providence uses to take men captive in actuality, in existence, in order to get them far enough out, or within, or down into existence. And when imagination has helped them get as far out as they should be - then actuality genuinely begins.” (The Two Ages)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Philosophy: The Most Impractical Practical Tool

One of the many small surprises of the recession has been a significant growth in the number of philosophy majors, according the the Philadelphia Inquirer. It has slightly exceeded the growth of enrollments in the last ten years; many other humanities and social science fields have just kept up. At the University of California at Berkeley, despite or because of the state's economic turmoil, the number of majors has increased by 74 percent in the last decade.

What makes philosophy different? It can seem self-absorbed; philosophers themselves joke about Arthur Koestler's definition: "the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose." But it also is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.

Read it all here.

This defense of philosophy as practical is ironic considering that Aristotle said the exact opposite and conditioned the supreme value of philosophy precisely on its non-practicality. That said, the philosophy classroom is the single space in American public education where anything, absolutely anything can be discussed. In the present environment of bureaucratic intrusion, students are glad to find such a space.

Where else do students get to discuss this?

Related reading: St. Paul's Application of Greek Philosophy; INDEX of Topics at Philosophers' Corner

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Student Graphics Illustrate Fallacies

Anna Price – Chronological Snobbery
(Copy Reads): The mindset that sees an idea, way of thinking, culture, art, or science of an earlier time as inferior, based solely on the assumption that whatever is newer is better. For example: "It is really hard for me to enjoy Medieval art – after all, these are people who didn't even have indoor plumbing."

This is an excellent project! When we begin our unit of Logic, I'm going to ask my philosophy students to create some posters.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 4

"The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."-- Eden Phillpotts

"In truth, truth inhabits fiction as the master of the house."--Jacques Derrida

"The world is governed more by appearances than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it."--Daniel Webster

"Hell is truth seen too late."--Thomas Hobbes

Hume and Kant
Alice C. Linsley

David Hume categorized all objects of human reason into two groups: Relation of Ideas and Matters of Fact. This is often referred to as "Hume's fork" and can be further investigated in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV, Part 1. Here we read: "All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic... discoverable by the mere operation of thought... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing."

The truth claims that Descartes posed when he introduced the evil deceiver argument are in Hume's second category - "relations of ideas" and Descartes further developed the argument that all real knowledge consists of relations of ideas, including knowledge of the material world. Descartes thought that the material world can be explained by physical laws of causation and that one day physics would be established as an a priori science along with geometry and algebra. Hume, on the other hand, sought to demonstrate that science is not a priori. Instead, Hume argued that there is never certainty concerning causes and effects by using reason alone. Science requires experimentation and observation, and there is always the possibility that the next experiment might not provide the same results or conform to the hypothesis as did earlier experiments.

This radical doubt poses a problem for scientists. It means that the scientific method cannot be said to ascertain beyond doubt. This is Hume's problem of induction. Inductive methods predict or infer and are essential in scientific reasoning. One cannot assume that something is immutable and necessary because it has always or usually been reliable in the past. Though 20 experiments produce the same results, we have no certainty that the results will be the same after experiments 21, or 32 or 45. Though the sun has risen daily since the founding of our solar system, we have no certainty that it will always do so.

In 1953, Richard Rudner published “The Scientist qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” in which he argued that since no hypothesis is ever completely verified, in accepting a hypothesis the scientist must make the decision that the evidence is sufficiently strong to warrant the acceptance of the hypothesis. The problem of induction which David Hume framed so precisely is really a problem of decision about which action to take, not proof of the fallibility of science in general. For Hume this is where the element of the human imagination comes in to play. In Hume's view the most ordinary interactions and common observations of bare facts involve active imagination. They do not represent passive perceptions of the world. His critique of metaphysics involves a criticism of what he sees as lack of imagination or blind imagination. In his view, the errors of philosophy arose from the fact that imagination determined human thought more than people recognize.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was aroused from his "dogmatic slumbers" by David Hume. Kant thought that Hume went too far in his skepticism about the capability of the inductive method of science. He saw greater agreement among scientists than among philosophers and thought that, unlike metaphysics, the motions of material objects are governed by laws. Everything that happens is determined by antecedent happenings or prior conditions. But this caused a problem for Kant's anthropology. If everything is predetermined in the universe, how is it that humans have free will?

Kant concludes that the human has free will to choose to fulfill his duty at any given moment and the universal moral law concerns performance of duty, regarding humanity as an end in itself rather than as something to be used to achieve selfish ends.

Much of what Kant wrote is an attempt to defend the Christian understanding of God and the value of reason against Hume’s skepticism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant agrees with Hume that there is no absolute ground to assume the existence of God. However, against Hume, he adds that the idea of God is intrinsically connected to happiness and morality as the “ideal of the supreme good.” In his later treatment on Logic (1800), Kant argues that the idea of God is proved only through the moral law and only with “the intent so as to act as if there be a God.” 

Kant claimed that virtuous living results from practical reason. Schopenhauer discredited Kant’s moral system mainly because it is based on individual duty. He believed that the individual’s sense of duty cannot be the grounds for every moral decision or action. Instead he emphasized that a study of the great world religions suggests a universal moral code which he expressed in these words: “Don't do to another what you don't want done to you.” Schopenhauer claimed that virtuous conduct has nothing to do with reason and may even be opposed to it, as with Machiavelli’s rational expediency. In the face of a bloody civil war in Italy (1502-03) that involved mass killing, street assassinations, and widespread anarchy, Machiavelli wrote:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

It is possible to argue with Machiavelli that reason might lead to actions that in most contexts are regarded as immoral.

Kant's synthetic a priori knowledge

One of Kant's contributions is in the area of logic. He recognized a class of propositions termed "synthetic a priori." Such propositions are distinct from a posteriori judgments based on observation and experimentation. These judgments, being of an empirical nature, are largely descriptive; that is they define rather than inform. In this class of propositions we find propositions such as "a bachelor is an unmarried man" or "swans are waterfowl."  A synthetic judgment, informs, not merely defines. Typically, synthetic judgments are associated with a posteriori knowledge (knowing the particulars) and analytic judgments are associated with a priori knowledge (knowing the universals). An example of a synthetic a posteriori judgment is “all swans are white.” This is synthetic because whiteness is not a necessary part of the concept of swan.  The statement is also an example of an a posteriori proposition because the only way to find out if all swans are white is from observation and experience.

Kant argues that mathematics and the laws of physics contain synthetic a priori knowledge. For example, “7 + 5 = 12” is a priori because it is a necessary and universal truth we know independent of experience, and it is synthetic because the concept of “12” is not contained in the concept of “7 + 5.” Kant argues that the same is true for the laws of physics such as “for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction.” Because such laws apply universally, they must be a priori knowledge, since a posteriori knowledge only tells us about particular experiences. The fact that we are capable of synthetic a priori knowledge suggests that pure reason is capable of knowing metaphysical truths.

Kant suggests something very like Hume's understanding of the mind. Much of what we consider to be reality is shaped by perception. Kant agrees with Hume that the mind does not passively receive information provided by the senses. Rather, it actively shapes and makes sense of that information. If all the events in our experience seem to take place in a temporal progression, that is our minds arrangement of sensory experience. If we perceive that some events appear to cause other events, that is because our mind's cause-effect arrangement of events. According to Kant, the mind is constrained to perceive or experience sensations in time and space and according the laws of causation. He argues that time and space are intuitions of our faculty to sense things, and physical laws such as gravity and inertia are intuitions of our faculty to understand things.

Related reading:  Theories of Knowledge - Part 1; Theories of Knowledge - Part 2; Theories of Knowledge - Part 3; Why David Hume Was Wrong: Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 3

Descartes, Locke, and Hume

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." -Francis Bacon (1605) The Advancement of Learning, Book 1, v.8

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things." -René Descartes

Alice C. Linsley

Francis Bacon insisted that methodical observation and experimentation (the scientific method) can progressively increase human knowledge and benefit all of humanity. Bacon also demonstrated through his experiments that the senses can be fooled and thus raised doubt about "common sense" ideas. Descartes insisted that true knowledge must begin with doubt. In his view one must reject entirely all beliefs about which there is the slightest doubt.

Descartes' point of certainty was his own rational existence:  "I am thinking, therefore I am existing." He wrote in Discourse on Method, "But I soon noticed that while I thus wished to think everything false, it was necessarily true that I who thought so was something. Since this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so firm and assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were unable to shake it, I judged that II could safely accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking." (Part Four on "Proofs of the Existence of God and of the Human Soul)

Descartes develops this as a proof for the existence of God. He continues, "After that I reflected upon the fact that I doubted, and that in consequence, my spirit was not wholly perfect, for I saw clearly that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt. I decided to ascertain form what source I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself, and it appeared evident that it must have been from some nature which is in fact more perfect... I was not the only being in existence..., and it followed of necessity that there was someone else more perfect upon whom I depended and from whom I had acquired all that I possessed. For if I had been alone and independent of anything else, so that I had bestowed upon myself all that limited quantity of value which I shared with the perfect Being, I would have been able to get from myself, in the same way, all the surplus which I recognize as lacking in me, and so would have been myself infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and, in sum, I would possess all the perfections that I could discover in God."

Here Descartes articulates a form of the argument from design. The reasoning goes like this:  I find imperfection in myself and I recognize it, which means that I have consciousness of something or someone more perfect than myself. That being so, I must have been designed by that greater Perfection. Descartes wrote: "The very principle which I took as a rule to start with, namely, that all those things which we conceived very clearly and very distinctly are true, is known to be true only because God exists and because he is a perfect Being, and because everything in us comes from him. From this it follows that our ideas or notions, being real things which come from God insofar as they are clear and distinct, cannot to that extent fail to be true."

Descartes contributed to the development of new theories of mind and consciousness. He defined thought "to include everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware [conscii] of it. Thus all the operations of the will, the intellect, the imagination and the senses are thoughts."

John Locke (1632-1704)

The British empiricist John Locke believed that experience alone is the basis of all knowledge. He argued this against Descartes's position that the human mind holds innate ideas.

Locke contributed to the development of theories of consciousness. If a thought is something “within us" of which we are conscious, what is the nature of consciousness? Locke insists that the mind is empty at birth, a tabula rasa. All our ideas are shaped by experience; sensations, and reflections.

Locke wrote that "the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences." He argued that the "associations of ideas" that one makes as a child are very important because they are the foundation of the self. He warned against letting "a foolish maid" convince a child that "goblins and sprites" are associated with the dark of night for "darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other." Locke's theory of association influenced educational theory up to the nineteenth century. Educators warned parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations. 

David Hume (1711-1776)

The Scottish philosopher David Hume continues the empiricist trajectory, developing the consequences of Locke's thought. Hume held that in the search for truth, we cannot rely on the common-sense pronouncements, popular notions, or metaphysical speculation. Building on Locke's epistemology, Hume tried to describe how the mind works in acquiring what is called knowledge. He concluded that no theory of reality is possible; there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience. He wrote, "If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

In Hume's view, normal human reasoning is flawed and this raises radical doubt about all claims to know something. When we give the reasons for our beliefs about the world, we find that many of the offered explanations are contradictory. For example, one person asserts that something is true for them, but another denies that it is true in their experience. How can something be said to be true for one person and not for another? After exposing a series of contradictions within the human reasoning process, Hume reaches this conclusion: "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another." (Treatise of Human Nature)

To the epistemological conversation he adds an additional criterion: do not consent to any belief that is not found to be universally true. This is the ultimate test of truth: that it should be demonstrated mathematically as a universal truth or, following Sir Isaac Newton, as a universal physical law.

Hume conceived of philosophy as the inductive, experimental science of human nature. He sought to discover the causes of human belief. For Hume, this is the proper work of philosophy. Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature and all of the first Enquiry represent his attempts to do exactly this. He wrote, "my intention never was to penetrate into the nature of bodies, or explain the secret causes of their operations. For besides that this belongs not to my present purpose, I am afraid, that such an enterprize is beyond the reach of human understanding, and that we can never pretend to know body otherwise than by those external properties, which discover themselves to the senses." (Treatise of Human Nature, Sec. V)

Despite Hume's radical empiricism, he continued to value common sense, and apparently did not take his own skepticism, such as the problem of induction, to the extreme that others did after him. He recognized that the consequences of his radical skepticism clashed with common sense and his concern for enlightenment scholarship.  [Antony G Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, rev 2nd edn (New York: St Martin's Press, 1984), p 156].

Friday, November 28, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 2

Bacon and Descartes

Alice C. Linsley

"I think, therefore I am."--Rene Descartes

"Our only hope, then is in genuine Induction... There is the same degree of licentiousness and error in forming Axioms, as in abstracting Notions: and that in the first principles, which depend in common induction. Still more is this the case in Axioms and inferior propositions derived from Syllogisms."--Francis Bacon

"A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."--David Hume

Epistemology explores questions related to knowledge. It is concerned with how knowledge can be acquired and how to substantiate truth claims. Is it possible to know the true nature of something? What can be known? What are the limits of human understanding?  How can I verify that this claim is true? Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Does innate knowledge exist? Is it possible to understand natural phenomena solely on the basis of observation and the senses?

From the dawn of human existence, the need to know about things in nature has contributed to human survival.  It moved early humans to explore and discover new places.  It motivated them to sample berries, nuts and grains. Through trial and error they came to know which fruits were good and which would make them sick. Archaic human populations gained knowledge by interacting with their environments, by observation of patterns in nature,and by reasoning.

Plato would say that the earliest humans had some innate knowledge of Truth, assuming that they had souls. Ritual burial, symbolic markings, primitive counting devices, and stone works such as the 70,000 year old carving of a python in the side of a mountain in Botswana, indicate that archaic human populations were essentially "religious" and concerned about knowing what is beyond their day-to-day lives.

Some ideas we have about reality may have been found to be inadequate. If we are thoughtful people, we will re-evaluate these ideas. Throughout history, philosophers have shown that many ideas are not true, or at only partially true, and therefore not reliable. We are wise to exercise a certain amount of doubt, especially when it comes to following people who have shown themselves to be careless and/or pig-headed.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) showed that the senses can be fooled and that appearances can be deceptive. Yet more than any other thinker of his time, he urged that the senses be used in a methodical way to discover the nature of heat, light, wind, motion, the tides and the stars and even the human being. The future belongs to "Those who aspire not to guess and divine," wrote Bacon, "but to discover and to know... who propose to examine and dissect the nature of this very world itself, to go to facts themselves for everything."

Sir Francis Bacon
Bacon is regarded as the father of modern empiricism. His method of investigating natural phenomena involved inductive reasoning, in contrast to deductive reasoning, which had dominated science since Aristotle.  Bacon introduced an inductive method of testing and refining hypotheses by observing, measuring, and experimenting. An Aristotelian might deduce that water is necessary for life since it is evident that organisms cannot survive without water. A Baconian would test the hypothesis by experimenting. The results of those experiments would lead to more informed conclusions about the necessity of water for organic life.

After centuries of knowledge shaped by Roman Catholic beliefs, Bacon issued a summons to feast on knowledge acquired by the senses, through experimentation and logical principles. He organized his first book the Advancement of Learning in two parts. The first was called Experientian Literata. In this section he proceeds from one experiment to another. The second part, the Interpretation of Nature, moves from experiments to general principles or axioms, and then on to new experiments. Bacon loved to innovate!

In The Advancement of Learning and in New Organon, Bacon sets forth the idea of technological and scientific progress.  He is the first to articulate the popular notion that human advancements are progressive, rather than cyclical, static or in linear decline. He held a Utopian view of the gradual acquisition of knowledge, and he advocated this progressivism with the ardor of an evangelist.

The philosopher in the trajectory of empiricism that embodies Bacon's method most fully is David Hume. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume wrote, "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines,with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement,the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances of experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably begets a pretty strong degree of assurance." (Chapter 10, Concerning Miracles) These words could have been written by Francis Bacon himself!

René Descartes (1596-1650)

Just as Bacon is considered the first modern empiricist, so René Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. He contributed to the philosophical project in many areas:  theories of consciousness, the argument from design, and moral philosophy. He is an important figure in epistemology because he developed a method of weighing evidence that allowed for innate ideas.

Descartes' method involved setting aside his previously held views in order to begin from a point of logical certainty. He believed that most of what he "knew" was not reliable. He wrote, "All that up to the present time I have accepted as true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely anything by which we have once been deceived." (Meditations on First Philosophy) Here Descartes sets out a principle that guided his epistemology: If there is any reason for doubt, then the entire category should be treated as doubtful and unreliable. His method was simple: don't accept anything as true if there is the slightest possibility that it is not true. This is known as the Method of Cartesian Doubt. Modern philosophy begins with doubt.

In attempting to toss out what he had believed and later doubted, in order to construct a system of belief based on certainly, Descartes began with this: "I think, therefore I am" or "I am thinking, therefore I exist." (Cogito ergo sum.)  His awareness of his own self constituted the point of certainty from which he intended to consider and verify knowledge.

Descartes is often considered the founder of modern philosophy with its bent toward empiricism. He conceived of all the branches of science as a whole and sought a methodology that worked toward a unified science. He wrote that “philosophy is like a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences..." The metaphor is strange in the context of what he attempts. Descartes attempts to show that what is not mental or mind-like is extension, that is, it takes up space. However it is not possible to speak of philosophy as taking up space as a tree does. Here we recognize an inconsistency in Descartes’ thought.

Descartes viewed mind and body as distinct entities or substances. He concluded that the basic features of material objects are geometrical. They have size, shape, volume, etc.  The mind can not be measured in the same way.  It is characterized by thinking, reasoning and imagination. For Descartes the essential property of the mind is that it thinks and the essential property of the body is that it is “extended.” Extension is the property of taking up space. In this view, action or movement is explained by the impact of one extended object upon another. How then can mental events, that are without extension, have an impact on objects that take up space? Descartes is a great nightmare for the paranormal cults!

Descartes has been criticized for separating mind and matter into two distinct substances and failing to explain how they may be said to be related and/or interactive. This Cartesian dualism gave rise to fascinating reflections on the Mind of God, which Descartes believed to be the Principle that unites the realms of Mind and Matter. George Berkeley (1685-1753) would take this to a logical extreme with his immaterialism and the idea that all things are an extension of the Mind of the Creator.

Cartesian doubt influenced many thinkers of the modern era. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is one of them. He began is operations with three theses that he came to appreciate in the conversations of many modern philosophers. They are: (1) philosophy begins with doubt; (2) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted; and (3) modern philosophy begins with doubt.