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Friday, November 28, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Bacon and Descartes

"Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate"-- Francis Bacon

"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

Alice C. Linsley

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 RenĂ© 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.

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