Epistemic Epistemology

I’ve been thinking about thinking, if you’ll pardon my meta.  More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what happens to thinking when it becomes writing.  Thoughts may or may not be safe if they’re left in your head, but once they’re on paper other people start to get concerned.  A diary, of which the weblog is a public variety, is often private.  You may write to remember.  You may write to stab at mortality.  You may do it just for fun.  No matter why you do it, if enough people read it, your writing will be misunderstood.  Ironically, even in a nation with freedom of speech, and the press, the writing rights of individuals aren’t guaranteed.  Take this blog, for example.  Over the decade I’ve kept it, a few jobs—two actual and one potential—have instructed me in what I could or could not write.  Like Niagara Falls, you’re getting only a portion of what flows in my river of thoughts.

Thoughts can change the world.  Considering the news lately that might not be such a bad thing.  In any case, the vast majority of writing remains private.  Even with Amazon and others making self-publishing simple, it’s not easy to get ideas out there.  Getting the attention of a major publisher has odds that are vanishingly small.  And the internet’s a big place, getting bigger by the day.  In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, I guess.  Even on a smaller scale, my own computer complains that I write too much.  “Not enough space for updates,” it says in its dialogue box dialect, “too many documents.”  Never mind that I purchased it for writing, and a bit of surfing.  It wants more of the latter.  Other’s words, in other words, commodified.

My writing life began young, but not as young as that of many fictional writers like Jo March or Francie Nolan.  Our apartments and eventually small house had no space for one of the kids to hole up and write.  When I did start, in my early teens, I breached the dam without anticipating the results.  I’d been reading a lot, and writing seemed the right way to join the conversation.  I started composing novels before high school, but my first published book (and for many years my only one) was my dissertation.  I always believed that writing could be done on the side for any job, but that’s not the case.  Well, it is if you keep it in your diary, I suppose.  If you open the tap, however, you’d better make sure you have a mighty big glass in hand.


Knowing How To Know

Some questions are deceptively simple.  For example: how do you know?  The fancy philosophical word for this is “epistemology,” although that often takes it a step further to ask how do you know you know.  Given that many powerful individuals are motivated by a Fundamentalist faith the question of how we know is more important than it might seem.  Back in the days when faith commitments meant thinking such things through, theologians in the western world came up with three bases of knowledge: scripture, tradition, and reason.  Anglicans, especially, favored this “three-legged stool.”  If you removed any one of the three, the stool became unstable, topsy-turvy.  The analogy worked well.  It assumed that all three factors would be weighed against each other.

Image credit: Blackash at en.wikipedia

As time went on two developments occurred—the wider belief in science, and the work of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England and founder of the Methodists.  Science argued that reason alone led to knowledge, whereas Wesley’s thought suggested a fourth leg for the stool—experience.  This latter configuration eventually became known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, sometimes one leg was bigger (usually Scripture), but the other three could not be dismissed.  Science, however, rested on a one-legged stool, reason alone.  Fundamentalism, which is a fairly new form of religion, chooses Scripture as its one leg for a wobbly stool.  It may sometimes claim “tradition,” but since it only dates to the nineteenth century its tradition can’t hold a candle to that of, say, Roman Catholicism.

Amid all the drama we see developing in the halls of government where, increasingly, the power to declare truth resides, it’s important to understand how we know.  For a large and growing segment of society Scripture has been removed as a leg of the stool.  For others it is the only leg.  Having attended a United Methodist seminary, I admit the Wesleyan quadrilateral made great sense as soon as I heard of it.  At the time I didn’t think of this, but if you remove Scripture, the stool still has three legs, and could stand for even a secular person.  Scientists, if they examine their own precepts closely, could see that their stool has those three legs: tradition, reason, and experience.  The largest, of course, is reason.  Still, science builds on the work of earlier thinkers (tradition) and the observation of results (experience).   Knowing how we know the truth has become a question that theologians would’ve never anticipated.  The self-assured assertions of a self-convinced egoist don’t have a single leg to sit on.

 

 

Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons


Monster Epistemologies

A friend ensures that I see internet stories of hidden monsters. Not hidden in that you can’t find them, but hidden in that my freedom to explore the web entails only weekends and even some of those are very busy. In any case, a bestiary from Mental Floss landed on my virtual desk recently and I couldn’t wait until the weekend to check it out. A bestiary is a list of strange creatures, what we might today call monsters, some of which reflect a world not well explored and others which reflect religious, or—admit it—superstitious ideas. In the days when travel was limited and news was slow and unreliable, garbled accounts of strange beasts were compiled in bestiaries. The tradition continues today, as is evidenced by this article by Paul Anthony Jones.

Whenever I see monster stories like this I ask the question: did they really believe such things “back then”? Some of these monsters clearly have analogues in the natural world, but part of my brain reminds me that we are destroying species faster than we can count them in the rainforest, and who knows what we have yet to uncover? Is it really a matter of belief or is it actually a matter of knowing how we know? The fancy word for the latter is “epistemology.” As I used to ask students: how do you know that you know? Has that changed since the days of the bestiary? Knowing about medieval monsters seems to have been the acceptance of the reports of those who, if they hadn’t actually seen the beast, had at least talked to someone who knew someone who had. It is the authority of the senses. Or of reliable reporting. Seeing is believing.

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Fast forward to a day of popular cryptozoology. We have monster hunters of many sorts on television. Some claim evidence for what they have seen. Lighthearted laughter is the common response. Monsters just don’t fit into our worldview anymore. Our epistemology has become more circumspect. If it doesn’t come from a lab, like a genetically modified organism, we have no reason to believe it exists. We’d like to create our own monsters, thank you. It’s at times like these that I like to reflect that a bestiary doesn’t sound so different from a breviary. Both are medieval sources of knowledge. Our modern epistemology seems to have grown a little too narrow to see a world that is full of wonder. Unless, of course, it’s on the television. Seeing is believing.


Know It All

Perhaps it’s the fact that I had a career malfunction in the middle of my chosen vocation, or perhaps it’s a natural consequence of earning an advanced degree. Whatever the cause, I am convinced that I know less than I used to know. That’s not the same as not having learned—indeed, it is a consequence of precisely that. You see, my education has led me to believe that things I thought I knew were not, in fact what I knew them to be. We all live with false assumptions—the sun rises and sets, the earth holds still, and that we aren’t made up of particles so tiny as to be invisible and that are mostly empty space. There was a time when I believed that science gave “the truth,” but we now think of science as ever provisional—the best theory to account for the facts at this time. It is open to change. And in fact, we know very little.

A deep irony lurks in the fact that many people treat their religion as the locus of certain knowledge. This is a known fact; Jesus resurrected, Muhammad was a prophet, Maroni spoke to Joseph Smith. When confronted with contrary data, such thinking withdraws into itself claiming all the more loudly that it knows the truth already. Learning should, I think, may one more humble. More circumspect. Of course I think I’m right about things. If I thought I was wrong, I would change to the correct way of thinking. What I know, however, is a different matter. As I set out to learn a new career, I find I know less than I thought I did. I know little and I know less all the time.

As an academic I can’t help but to spend my life trying to gain knowledge. I read voraciously, I try to engage in intellectual exchange with others. If I’m lucky, I learn something. And know that much less. That which I learn teaches me that I know less than I did before. The world is vast. The universe infinite, according to our best understanding at the moment. We travel through it all, picking up information and treating it humbly as we go along. I’m moving toward knowing nothing at all. Perhaps that is the true goal of all of this—to get to the point of knowing nothing. Then we shall be truly educated. Except, of course, for the true believers who already know everything there is to know. Of course we are all mostly empty space. I think.

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