Epistemology: What it is and Why it is Important.

This post has been a long time brewing. It is essentially a summarized primer on knowing, and knowing how one knows. It is foundational to the perspective arching throughout the various posts of this blog, but the same may be said for its relevance for individual point-of-view and socially-constructed realities.

First things first: definitions. “Epistemology” derives from the Greek, “episteme” and “logos” which translates as “knowledge” + “discourse.” The OED defines it as, “the theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge.” Put in other words: “Epistemology” is the study of how (human) conscious beings know, properly speaking. But “epistemology” can also mean the specific method chosen to know, essentially a chosen framework for a point-of-view. To differentiate between these two definitions the former will be spelled with an “E” and the latter with an “e.”

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There are essentially five types of epistemologies, and each (often a combination of) type is taken as a practical system of knowledge.

  1. Experience: what an individual lives on a daily basis, informing their knowledge of what is known and real. Specifically, what an individual, or group, experiences.
  2. Folk Wisdom and Superstition: a “loose” collection of knowledge passed down through culture.
  3. Faith/Religion: a lot like folk wisdom and superstition except that this epistemology constitutes a more established doctrine and as such more pervasive, influential, and accepted.
  4. Empiricism/Science: a systematized body of laws, truths, and rules for understanding the world in a specific way.
  5. Reason, Logic, and Mathematics: like empiricism and science, these epistemologies are systematized but unlike the former, the latter uses solely thought to determine knowledge and each has its own variable effect upon reality.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each type of epistemology. What follows is a very brief summary:

Experience, for example, is often limited by the person who experiences their own personal reality. So a person who’s had bad experiences with a business, institution, etc will tend to generalize; while another person who has positive experiences will do the same. Who is right, who is wrong? Both and neither. But without some sort of system to investigate the phenomenon at large, and in more objective ways, it becomes difficult to make definitive conclusions about a particular phenomenon. Its simultaneous strength and weakness is that it is personal, and that it informs an individual on a visceral level, thus making it profoundly strong.

Folk Wisdom and Superstition incorporates the personal and turns it into the social. What has happened to an individual, a tribe, or even a (segment of) society becomes a generally accepted truth, .e.g. black cats are bad luck, mirrors on window-sills scare away demons, opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck, etc. Like personal experience, these epistemologies exert a strong influence, and similarly they are often limited in terms of being true.

Belief systems like Faith and Religion are also particularly susceptible to fault since what is often believed has no verifiable basis in reality. For example, the belief that there is life after death has no verifiable justification for that belief. It is simply something we cannot know since it involves an experience after life that cannot be neither confirmed nor denied. Despite the several accounts of life after death, the entire near-death experience can be explained in other ways, i.e. the experience of death itself as a common neurobiological process, like love. In other words: it amounts to a personal conviction – at best – and wishful thinking – at worst – much like the belief in Santa Claus, omens, or any other such phenomenon. Its strength is that beliefs are commonly shared and exert a strong influence, thus informing personal actions – in other words: they are powerful social guides.

Science and – the philosophy on which it is based – Empiricism have their shortcomings, too. They assume, for example, – because it cannot be proved; in other words, it believes – that the observable and testable world is an accurate representation of reality. It is also a fairly specialized epistemological system (despite its simplicity), requiring education to how the process by which it explains the world works. It is for this reason that science is often misunderstood (even by those who “believe” in it), and being fairly new in human history makes it weak to assault by other established epistemological systems, propaganda, and junk science. Despite these shortcomings, Empiricism/Science provide tangible results that we all enjoy today, like skyscrapers, cell phones, modern medicine and agriculture, space exploration… the list goes on. And this bountiful effect of its system demonstrates its practical value and its value as true.

The more ephemeral epistemologies of Reason, Logic, and Math, too, share similarities to all the others. For example, Reason, is a process by which truths are arrived at by (oft, individually) thinking about a particular phenomenon, like reality, human nature, society, etc. Almost all the systems presented here involve a reasoning that justify their validity. But herein lies its weakness: not all reasoning is created equal, and the quality of the conclusion(s) reached depends in large part on the quality of the reasoning. Logic is an outgrowth of the reasoning process and was invented to limit the shortcomings of the process of undisciplined reasoning. By laying out concepts like premises and conclusions, Logic specialized reasoning in a strict way. In so doing, Logic has become a difficult system to learn and apply correctly, and it also suffers the shortcomings of such a closed system. Despite this shortcoming, it is still a very effective tool to knowing. Mathematics is an extension of reason and logic but utilizes a different set of symbols entirely: numbers. The effects of mathematics cannot be denied – it explains the physical world in ways that seem to make it the preeminent epistemology of all those that have been explored previously. However, it has a serious flaw. For example, there is an earnest debate as to whether or not Mathematics is a phenomenon intrinsically tied to the nature of realty or whether it is an invention of the human mind. In other words, mathematics may not reflect the nature of reality, but it can explain, in the greatest detail , the world by which human minds can conceive in ways only the human mind can conceive. To use a corollary: dogs sense the world primarily through their noses; humans through the eyes, and, especially, through their languages as a conscious function. Perhaps, this world that humans perceive to be true are as limited as the dogs’ sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the olfactory world. In fact, Emmanuel Kant argued just this: that the reality humans perceive is a function of the brain by which human consciousness is bound – to extrapolate that ultimate reality conforms to this perspective beyond human understanding is fallacious. Just as dogs are limited by their exquisite senses, so, too are humans, limited by theirs – and cannot be taken as a totality.

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KnowledgeVenn.jpg

Epistemology is a subject in which it is easy to get lost, and that is why I include this (Gettier) diagram: to ground the discussion as much as possible. As such, I think it important to the discussion to include some more definitions (as always, according to the OED).

Proposition – 3.a) the action of propounding something, or that which is propounded; the setting forth of something as a subject of discourse; something proposed for discussion, or as a basis of argument.

Belief – 3) the thing believed; the proposition or set of propositions held true.

Knowledge – 11) the fact of condition of being instructed, or having information acquired by study or research; acquaintance with ascertained truths, facts, or principles; information acquired by study; learning; erudition.

Truth – II.5.a) conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity; 7) genuineness, reality, actual existence; III) something that is true; 9.a) true statement or account; that which is in accordance with the fact; 12.a) the fact or facts; the actual state of the case; the matter or circumstances as it really is.

It is easy to get lost in definitions when discussing E(e)pistemology, so I will untangle this web in a more straightforward manner, one that accords with Gettier’s diagram.

First, a Proposition is simply an assertion – one that is subject to investigation and debate. Second, Belief is a simple acceptance of a proposition (or a set of propositions). Third, Poorly Justified Beliefs are those that can be justified in some sort of way, i.e. personal experiences, an ideology, or a methodological system that justifies those beliefs – they are true to an extent but aren’t necessarily (or precisely) a reflection of reality. Lastly, Truth represents those propositions, beliefs, and poorly justified beliefs that have stood the test of verification, and, thus, deserve not only human credulity but the esteemed category of that which is, in fact, true.

In this way, Gettier’s diagram demonstrates that not every proposition is true, not every belief is true, not every poorly justified belief is true, and that what is considered is “true” is actually true without some sort of methodology that can actually determine truth. Moreover – and most importantly – that to be able to determine truth depends on some other process, one that can sift through the data, and make a more accurate assessment of what the data means in accordance with reality. That process is a systemic and intense scrutinization of the experience, ideologies, and the presented/accepted account of things. In other words: despite the innumerable assertions regarding fact or fiction, true or untrue, reality or unreality, that those propositions that can withstand the tests of verification and justification are those that deserve an individual’s abeyance; everything else is hopeful fiction or worse.

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Why do these technicalities matter? For one: that to know truth is no easy task. Discerning truth from fiction is a much more complicated task than is led to believe. Second, that truth itself matters – not just from a philosophical perspective but from a profoundly practical one as well. And, third, in a “post-truth” society – one in which facts without context, propaganda posing as facts, and outright lies and mis/dis-communication are the norm – understanding what is true and what is not, is imperative, not only to informed human being but to the survival of the human species itself.

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To demonstrate this point I will give an example: Global Climate Change/Global Warming. So the epistemological question is: Is it a real/true phenomenon? and, how do we know?

Let us look at the question through the afore-mentioned epistemologies. First: Experience. While the experience of hotter temperatures everywhere globally may confirm to a person uncritical of the proposition would accept without verification of this phenomenon; an individual who is inclined to believe the opposite – that it is a hoax, or at least, not a result or man-made activities (because of snow in winter or severe winter-storms) – would be as justified in denying it. Partly, the confusion is based on the ignorance of the difference between weather and climate. Without a deeper level of understanding or investigation, it is impossible to justify one proposition or the other.

Second: Folk Wisdom/Superstition: fairly limited in areas that aren’t immediately affected by the effects of these phenomenon, since this epistemology is also mediated by experience.

Third: Faith/Religion: also fairly limited since, in this example at least, global climate change/global warming is not mentioned in scripture or doctrine (unless one considers related scriptural passages like Genesis 2:15, Proverbs 12:10, Revelations 11:18, Numbers 35:33, and Leviticus 25:23, to name a few).

A necessary caveat here would be ideology. Specifically, there are political ideologies, i.e. Republican and Democrat, that make supportive pronouncements about the verity of Global Climate Change. These caveats are important because political ideology now function in ways similar to religion/faith.

The Republican platform, for example, is one that believes that Global Warming is a hoax (at worst) or not caused by human activity (at best). The Democratic platform takes the opposite position, namely: that global warming is real, and that it is caused by human activity. As such, these parties advocate for policies based on those propositions. But why do they believe those propositions? What methodology/epistemology are they using to inform their beliefs? In a word: Science… which leads us to our fourth epistemology.

Science/Empiricism: the single most important epistemology that can answer this question. For it is this epistemology that has even brought the subject to the attention of humans world-wide. So, let’s briefly discuss how science works. First, Science observes the physical world. Next, it makes a hypothesis about what is happening, i.e., that the Earth, as a whole, is warming and that this warming has an impact on climates globally. Then, Science seeks to test that hypothesis by collecting data and subjecting it through rigorous experimentation. So, for example, scientists will look at the amount of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere, land temperatures, sea temperatures, extreme weather fluctuations and natural disasters, sea-land level rises, and glacial melting (to name only a few) relative to past levels. The data of these examples is fairly conclusive – if one were so inclined to research/look – but suffice it to say: the levels of these indicators is on the rise, and has been since the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

The other half of the hypothesis is: what is causing these conditions? Again, investigators/scientists looking into the phenomena have determined that fossil-fuel use is the culprit. The data show that CO2, the by-product of burning – literally burning – fossils fuels releases the by-product, CO2, into the atmosphere which traps the solar energy from our sun in our biosphere, which in turn keeps the planet warmer than it should be. It’s exactly like wearing a coat in summer. In order to cool off, one needs to remove the coat. The CO2 acts as that coat of human activity; and the human activity (of burning fossil fuels) not only prevents the removal of that coat but raises the temperature that the jacketed individual experiences by adding layers to that jacket.

Does the warming phenomenon negate weather like snow or winter storms? The answer is “No.” What Global Warming argues is that there is a change in the climates themselves, the patterns of weather any region may experience. And this says nothing of the average-breaking heat-waves, temperatures, and increase in natural disasters like floods, droughts, and fires that go on recorded continuously.

What part is left of Reason/Logic/Mathematics to play in this debate? Quite frankly: it depends. As mentioned previously: the quality of the conclusion depends on the quality of the reasoning. If the reasoning is tethered to a particular ideology, then it is highly suspect. If, however, the reasoning is based on a systematic approach to understanding the world, then it is more credible.

Logic would dictate that if global climate change is real – and, that if it is a result of human activity – and that the goal of human activity is to enhance human survival, then something must be done to counteract the effects of man-made climate change. Mathematically: the data must be evaluated and decisions must be based on the data.

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So… how does an individual know whether or not Global Climate Change is a real phenomenon – that it is occurring? and that whether or not is the result of human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels?

The short answer is epistemology. How does an individual ascertain truth? The basic methods have been presented and all have their strengths and weakness, but in matters of the physical world the best epistemologies use some strict method of investigation – in other words: Science. Science is the best method to answer this question since it is intended to investigate and answer questions such as these. But another caveat is warranted: what “Science?”

There are, now, effectively two types of science. The former is a method of investigation and the body of knowledge resulting from that method described above. In science, there are necessarily debates, uncertainty, and the application of different methods of measurement. This is natural and embodies the spirit of science. An idea – a description and explanation of (Newtonian) gravity, for example – is discovered and evidence looks to disprove it (the principal of falsifiability); if it is unable to, then that idea is held on to as a functional truth. Then, eventually, a new description and explanation – Einstein’s gravity, for example – is developed (based on data) and does a better job than the previous idea at explaining the phenomenon. This is the natural progression of the body of knowledge based on science, and the falsifiability of ideas is not only legitimate to progress of knowledge, but absolutely necessitates it.

However, there is another “science” – one that uses the poor understanding of the scientific method, particularly falsifiability, as a propaganda weapon to manipulate people’s knowledge, often at their expense. This is commonly referred to as “junk science” and it takes many shapes and forms. Some major examples of junk science are the “data” presented in public and political discourse arguing that leaded gasoline is not poisonous to people; that cigarette smoking has no relation to cancer and is safe for consumption; and, that global climate change is not real, and that it is not caused by human activity. All these examples include the testimony and evidence of “experts” to make their claim, sometimes convincingly – almost all hired by interest groups to advocate for the cause of those interest groups. However, it is only convincing to a point, namely when it comes into contact with reality. Eventually, the truth does emerge but the time it takes depends on the quality of epistemologies, epistemologists, and the efficacy of those experts who fight for the truth and the good; and, in many cases, the time that goes by has a deleterious effect on people and the planet – and this is certainly the case with the current “debate” surrounding Global Climate Change.

And, yet, this is just one example of a subject that requires people’s critical attention. Mis- and disinformation are occurring on a sweeping scale in areas as diverse as economics, politics, international relations, intelligence, and culture. And they deserve both intense scrutinization and a disciplined epistemology.

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In closing, this author hopes that the meaning and importance of epistemology has been communicated. For it is not an easy subject, and proper knowing is no easy task. But it is an important subject and practice because living well requires knowing how to, and this requires knowing our world and the phenomena in it. Otherwise, we run the risk of unhappiness, or worse: death.