31 March 2007

Philosophy post 2: EPISTEMOLOGY

On to the second major field of philosophy: Epistemology, or “The theory of knowledge, especially its methods, validity, and scope” (OED). Here is the overarching question for the week:

EPISTEMOLOGY: How can we know anything for sure?

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book/story in which the protagonist was trying and trying his/her hardest to find out some fact? Think of Sherlock Holmes, for example, who uses logical deductive reasoning based on empirical facts to come to surprising (and almost always correct) solutions to mysteries. Think of dilemmas that are exacerbated because characters do not even know what kind of reasoning or proof to use—such as Hamlet, who didn’t know whether or not his father’s ghost was an illusion, or, if it was a “real” ghost, whether it was good or evil; or Macbeth, who didn’t know if the witches were supernatural beings or not, or whether he could trust their prophecies. When you talk about characters’ epistemological crises, whether fictional or historical, discuss how much they could have known using a given kind of reasoning—and see how far you get.

Philosophy students: Please post a response to at least two of the following questions/discussions. Add other thoughts as well as they come to you. It’s a good idea to browse some of the recommended websites on your syllabus to get ideas. Others besides students are, of course, more than welcome to join the conversation.

1. What is A Priori reasoning? Look up the definition, then explain it in your own words. Think up an example of a time you have used this kind of reasoning in discovering the answer to an academic or practical problem. Explain the use of this kind of reasoning in an historical, scientific, or fictional (book/movie) situation.

2. What is A Posteriori reasoning? Look up the definition, then explain it in your own words. Think up an example of a time you have used this kind of reasoning in discovering the answer to an academic or practical problem. Explain the use of this kind of reasoning in an historical, scientific, or fictional (book/movie) situation.

3. What is Rationalism? Look up the definition, then explain it in your own words. Think up an example of a time you have used a rationalist attitude in discovering the answer to an academic or practical problem. Explain how someone in history, science, a book, or a movie used this attitude towards trying to know something for sure.

4. What is Empiricism? Look up the definition, then explain it in your own words. Think up an example of a time you have used a rationalist attitude in discovering the answer to an academic or practical problem. Explain how someone in history, science, a book, or a movie used this attitude towards trying to know something for sure.

5. And then here’s the philosophy-and-faith aspect of this question. Three questions in one: How much is it possible for a human being to know without revelation from God? How much is it possible for a human being to know with revelation from God? And finally, how much does God Himself know? You might like to take a look at this new book title. Or you could come at that question from a different perspective: How much do you think Jesus knew when He was a man on earth?


Poi said...

I believe that empiricism gives way to rationalism are two bodies of thought that are so intertwined, it seems absurd to try and define them separately. When we are first born we must first experience life in order to create any kind of rational thought about it from which to reason with later on. I experience in my textbook that a triangle has three sides. When I am told by someone that a "yield" sign is in the shape of a triangle, I can reason that it has three sides as well.

I feel the following may be a sensitive subject, but I feel I must present this case as well. Through experience I have never been witness to any supernatural phenomenon. I have never seen or experienced anything that cannot be explained through any kind of logical reasoning. Therefore when I am told by many (or few) that there is a supernatural being who watches over us, answers prayers and performs miracles, I can't help but say that that it is an irrational concept. Through logical reasoning, we can say that "God" does not exist for many reasons: we cannot perceive him through any of our senses (sight, touch, sound, etc.), and nor has anyone been able to. Because a book predating modern civilization tells us the opposite, it does not change the fact of my first point.

I'd hate for this to be perceived as an aggressive attack against anyone "of faith." I merely see the concept of epistemology, and especially those underlying subjects of rationalism and empiricism as applicable to the "religious debate," as it were.


Hey Mrs. H!

Question 4.
Empiricism according to the dictionary means, the view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge. Basically it’s saying that experiencing something is really the only way to really understand something or feel how it really is. I know that I tend to use this type of thinking a lot without even noticing but I can only think of one example. When I was younger in Sunday school we had this discussion on what a hard thing it was for God to give up his son to die for us. A big reason for why giving his son up was so hard had to do with a parents love. I wasn’t fully grateful of the gift because I never experienced the feeling of a parents love for their children. After practically raising my brother Billy I can really feel for how hard it would be to let Billy go like that. Now I can understand how important his gift was to us. I think that this type of thinking is right but its not the only source of knowledge as it says in the dictionary. I hope I understand what empiricism means.

Question 5.

How much is it possible for a human being to know without revelation from God?
I think it is possible for a human being to know as much as the world has answers for. A lot of the questions that we can’t answer are ones that only God can answer. So without God giving us the answer we can only know how much is already known by the world. If you think about it all the answers we have in the first place were told to us by God.

How much is it possible for a human being to know with revelation from God?
God is the source of all information and answers. If God wanted us to know everything he would let us. He has his limits because the answers are just so incomprehensible. Even if God wanted us to know everything we couldn’t because everything isn’t in out type of thinking.

How much does God Himself know?
God himself knows the answers to everything because he made everything. He is limitless. He can understand everything and things don’t need to be put a certain way so he can understand it. He’s the one who came up with every detail of everything therefore he knows everything.

I don’t think what I said actually answered any questions.

See ya Wednesday/Thursday!

Ariel said...

These are solid questions; sounds like an excellent class.

Darlin' said...

Hey Mrs. H!
Well let’s see here…
Rationalism: Thinking based on the principles of rationality or rationalism, the latter being defined as: The characteristics of... rationalism are: (a) the belief that it is possible to obtain by reason alone a knowledge of the nature of what exists; (b) the view that knowledge forms a single system, which (c) is deductive in character; and (d) the belief that everything is explicable, that is, that everything can in principle be brought under the single system.
(Wow- that was my definition of rational thinking/ rationalism (or how at least how I perceived and understood it)…and it actually sounded intelligent…. I hope it is at least somewhat right.)

I use this (rationalism) all the time, especially in Math. Math is kind of hard to solve using faith…rationalism is an important tool in understanding. However; I do not believe that everything can be solved using rationalism. I do not believe that everything can be solved at all. It is impossible there are just some things that we (human beings) do not have the answer for. There are some things that only an ultimate creator could know/understand.

Empirical thinking/reasoning is important as well. (Which is thinking based on experience and empiric data acquired through our bodily senses.) However, because empirical thought draws heavily on the material provided by the body and therefore is liable to errors, illusions, prejudice, misconceptions, etc.
We use this everyday. We use emotion to understand a lot of things.

As for religion and belief in God being irrational because we cannot “sense Him”: Just because one person in particular cannot sense God that does not mean that no one has sensed him. When I pray, I can sometimes feel God and I know that I am not alone. I personally have seen my prayers answered. In the Bible there are documented accounts of God making himself known. (Like when He talked to Moses).

If we were not created… and we are here on accident, then what purpose do we have to live? What ultimate purpose does man have? If we are accidents… then does good/bad, right/wrong even matter? If we have no purpose, how could anything matter at all?
The suggestion that we are not created seems irrational to me. I believe that rationalism can be biased just as much so as Empiricism.

Well I have to finish schoolwork… so see you tomorrow Mrs. H!

Andrew said...

well, no one's done the first two yet, so i guess i will...

A Priori reasoning is independent of experience. This means that when one uses A Priori reasoning, he is simply using logic to come up with a logical outcome. an example of this is taking an entire driver's ed course while never even touching a car. You would be able to logically reason outcomes of specific scenarios, but never be completely postive of the actual outcome, were it to ever happen.
A Posteriori reasoning, however, is the opposite. This method of reasoning is dependant on experiance. To continue the driving example... You have never taken any drivers ed, or had any form of instruction on driving a car before. nevertheless, you get into a car and start to drive. Initially, you would not be able to logically think of outcomes to any situations. However, as you continued to drive the said car, you gain experiance, and therefore can start to predict what will happen.

When combining these two forms of reasoning, you will be an awesome driver.. ;)

RawkChick said...'s my answers...

1. a priori reasoning is reasoning that someone has not based on previous study of examination, or something that has existed in the mind before an experience or something. i have used this when deciding whether or not to do something that might have some consequencesi'd rather not have. in the Belgariad, by David Eddings, Garion unconsciously says burn, and slaps Agachak (?). Later, he confesses that he didn't know what he was doing, he just knew that he could.

3. rationalism is accepting reason as authority in matters of "opinion, belief, or conduct". in math, as Darlin' said. i'm told by my math book, that collinear means that all points are on the same line, or that coplanar means that all points lay in the same plane. i have to accept that it "just is", and that there isn't always a satisfactory answer. to use the Belgariad again, some of the characters ask "why me?" and sometimes they just had to accept other character's reasoning. i know that that wasn't a very good example, but i couldn't think of anything else.

as usual, hope it makes sense and see you all on thurs!

Pere Grin said...

Rationalism is the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct. This means that when one is a rationalist then one always tries to find a logical explanation for anything that happens. All things spiritual and supernatural are ignored or explained away. I use rationalist thinking in many circumstances. Such as when I am doing a math problem, aiding my team in another victory for a game of This Day in History, or simply typing up my answers to blog questions for philosophy class. The elves in the book of Eldest were rationalists. They believed that there were no gods and that any miracles that seemed to happen only appeared impossible because they themselves were lacking the knowledge and not because any natural laws had been broken.

Empiricism is the doctrine that claims that knowledge derives from experience. This is the “I have to see it to believe it” form of thinking. I have used this form of thinking when I was wondering how much it actually hurt to break a bone. I decided to forgo this style of thinking after I broke my arm twice in two months. I definitely had to experience that pain to believe that it could hurt that much. After I got my first cast off I wondered what a bad break would feel like because my first break had been relatively small. Three weeks later I snapped one bond and cracked and bent the other. I now have decided to forgo such thinking because it seems to turn into reality. The disciple Thomas was one person who employed this reasoning. He told the other disciples that he would not believe that Jesus had resurrected until he saw Jesus for himself and was able to touch his wounds. Because he did this Thomas is now known more commonly as “Doubting Thomas”. With such consequences such as this, one wonders why anybody bothers to follow this form of reasoning as it seems to always be followed by some form of unpleasantness.

Did you notice that, except for the question at the beginning, numbers 3 and 4 are identical paragraphs??

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear everybody: Keep it coming! I love the fantastic thinking. I would encourage more of you to tackle Poi's deep questions.

Pere Grin: Excellent work. Well said. And yes, I did notice that, except for the questions at the beginning, numbers 3 and 4 are identical paragraphs, as are 1 and 2 also identical to each other. I designed it that way.

Rosie Perera said...

I will respond to poi and also share some of my questions in the area of epistemology.

I have experienced things which cannot be explained through logical reasoning, or for which attempts to explain them rationally seem to fall flat. One particular experience of Jesus' physical presence in the room with me stands out. Was I hallucinating or was it really the Lord? Whatever it was, it was enormously encouraging to me and came at a time in my life when I was in deep pain, and a hug from him was exactly what I needed and got.

Let me step away from the realm of the spiritual for a moment and give an analogy. When one person falls in love with another, sure, you can explain the phenomenon entirely with reference to the cellular strucure of the body, chemicals, hormones, brain activity, etc. But if you try to explain it that way to the one who is in love, it will be perceived as dismissive of his or her real experience. The scientific explanation seems cold and unloving. It might be true in the literal sense, but it is most likely irrelevant to the person who is in love. And there is no reason why it cannot be equally true that the person's experience of love is transcendent.

It's like that when a person who believes in God experiences God's love or provision. Some brain scientists are beginning to posit that the phenomenon of faith can be entirely explained naturalistically: a person's neurons react in certain ways to stimuli and give her an experience of the presence of a being she identifies as "God". Of course this could very well be true biologically (this might be how God has "wired" us to be able to relate to him), but it still doesn't explain away God any more than understanding pheromones reduces the mystery of being in love.

Now on to my barrage of questions. I have sometimes had people come to me and tell me that they have "heard" God "tell" them thus and such (called the "gift of knowledge" in charismatic circles). Sometimes it is even something involving me (it usually annoys me when they don't keep that sort of "knowledge" to themselves, because it messes with my mind). Sometimes these prophets have proven to be right afterwards (if it was a case of foreknowledge), but sometimes they haven't. Were they false prophets? Or is the gift of knowledge sometimes fallible, affected by our sinful nature? How can we be so certain it is God speaking to us and not just our own wishful thinking, or educated intuition? How can one person "know" something spiritually which is not accessible to another person? If we can explain away the phenomenon of ESP or clairvoyance naturalistically (fraud, probability, good guesses, etc.), then can't those same explanations apply to the "gift of knowledge"? Or, conversely, if we cannot explain away knowledge of "a word from God" rationally, then might there also be some validity to the epistemological psychic phenomena?

I used to play games with myself to see if I had some sort of gift of clairvoyance. I'd try to sense what song was playing on the radio right at that moment, and then I'd turn it on to see if I was right. I never got it right. Of course I was just guessing randomly, and might have had a .01% chance of guessing right eventually if I kept this up often enough, but would that have proved anything?

All of this relates to the human desire to know the truth, indeed to the original lust for knowledge that led to the Fall. Some things are intentionally not revealed to us. ("No man knows the day or the hour, not even the Son." "What business is it of yours whether I want him to remain alive until I return?" (my paraphrase of John 21:22)) Why are we so hell-bent on figuring out things which are not ours to know? Does it give us a sense of power over our circumstances? Does it give us a sense of special closeness to God, that we know something others don't know?

Are there things you can't possibly know that you wish you could know? Things you wouldn't want to know even if you could? Such as the date and mode of your death -- well in advance? Do you believe in a divine gift of supernatural knowledge that is not necessarily accessible to all others nor available through the senses or the revealed Scriptures? Does one have to be a Christian to receive such knowledge? What about that sixth sense that some native peoples claim to have, which is depicted in the film "Rabbit Proof Fence?" They were able to tell (through some mysterious vibrations in the earth or something) that their family members hundreds or thousands of miles away were in trouble. Is that just their own superstitious explanation of a kind of knowledge that is imparted by God alone? Are there dark forces which also impart supernatural knowledge for evil purposes? Can't we twist true divine knowledge to evil purposes anyway, so isn't the source of all true knowledge God, regardless of how it ends up being used?

Lots of questions, I know. This is an area that has fascinated and disturbed me for decades. And I know it probably always will, because there are some things that are not given to us to know.

Sarah said...

Okay... i guess I'll try to answer some questions now...

1. with a priori, you pretty much start at the beginning, and you get to an answer, that may or may not be correct, an example would be that you could see a yellow rose, and assume that all roses are yellow, but then later you find out that not all roses are yellow, but it could work the oppiste way and what you assumed with logic could be correct. I have no clue if that makes sense. A time that I used this would be in geometry...well, that was deductive reasoning, which is pretty much the same, I think.

2. A posteriori is pretty much the oppisite, you start at the end and find other things, like you could say that all pianos can play music, then you can assume that the piano infront of you can play music...unless it's broken. Again, i used this in geometry, for inductive reasoning.

So yeah, i don't know is any of that made sense of if I was right *sigh* well, see you at class.

Sarah said...

....Switch what i said about deductive and inductive reasoning, you start at the end with deductive, and I'm still pretty sure that thats the one that a priori is like.

Andrew said...

answering #5 I don't think it is possible for the human mind to technically "know" anything without God. We may think that what is in our minds to be true is knowledge but in reality that truth is a lie and we do not know anything. and even believing in God we still can not know everything for several reasons we are human beings and can not comprehend all things for example we cannot understand the triune being (God the father God the son and God the holy spirit). you see there are spot the human mind cannot know and that is where faith lies in the depths of the unknown in unchartered areas. How much did Jesus know when he came to earth is a hard question to answer. if i were to say that he knew everything then you would say Jesus became man when he came to earth therefore what i stated previously would be false. but if i were to say he did not know all then we are saying that God the triune is not God because God know all and he is all. so im going to put it like i think Jesus would have if someone asked him no man can know all.