Epistemology

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge.  ‘Knowledge’ is here used very broadly; perhaps a better word would be ‘apprehension.’

To apprehend conceptually is to employ our epistemic capacities in an effort to understand reality.  [See the post “Define Reality.”]

There is no guarantee that it is possible to conceptualize reality correctly, but it is important to come as close as possible.  The less deluded we are, the less likely it may be that our decisions have disastrous consequences.  Epistemology has practical importance.

Ordinary thought and speech seem to regard believing and knowing as the two modes of apprehending; if so, this commonsense view of the subject matter of epistemology requires revision.

With respect to beliefs, where ‘p’ stands for some proposition, it is senseless to make statements such as “I am believing that p.”  A belief is not an occurrence.  (Since there are no occurrent beliefs, a belief cannot be a disposition to assent to an occurrent belief.)

Epistemologists have had great difficulty answering the question, ‘What is a belief?’  If that surprises you, just try answering it clearly for yourself!  Without a clear answer to that question, let’s set aside the notion of believing.

Instead, let’s focus on judgments.  We regularly experience being conscious of a (real or unreal) state of affairs (fact, situation), and that is all that an occurrent judgment is.  A judgment is a direct mental relation to a (real or unreal) state of affairs; judgments are either occurrent or dispositions to engage in such episodes of consciousness.  Judgments are familiar, distinctive, unquestionable, and not further analyzable.

Making judgments is independent of evidence (justification). So a simplistic, straightforward voluntarism in this context is false.  For example, if I’m walking across a road and suddenly notice that a truck is rapidly approaching, I am hardly at liberty to choose to refrain from that judgment or not.  I simply jump to avoid the truck.

On the other hand, if I claim to know that p, then evidence is required.  What is evidence required for knowledge?

Demonstrative evidence is incompatible with the falsehood of the judgment it is evidence for.  What is demonstrative evidence?

The phenomenological rock bottom here is the brute psychological fact of one’s finding it unthinkable that one is mistaken in judging the particular proposition in question to be true.  Knowledge is the unthinkability or inconceivability of mistake or error.

(Since the particular proposition in question may be contingent, knowledge is not the unthinkability of its falsehood.)

The relevant inconceivability is neither vague nor abstract, and it is neither purely conceptual nor purely logical; instead, it is the inability by a particular person at a particular time and in a particular context to think there is a mistake about a particular proposition.

Therefore, the inconceivability of mistake does not entail truth; it is not the same as infallibility, which trivially entails truth.  However, since what is unthinkable is one’s not apprehending truth, the inconceivability of mistake is the closest we can come epistemically and conceptually to truth.

The inconceivability of mistake is self-validating.  Why?  Appealing to the phenomenological rock bottom experience guarantees genuine self-evidence; the brute psychological fact is epistemically critical.  How could there be any circularity or infinite regress?

If so, a traditional, major problem in epistemology is solved.

Nondemonstrative evidence, on the other hand, is compatible with the falsehood of the judgment it is the evidence for.  The concept of nondemonstrative evidence is useless, inapplicable.  Why?  It lacks a phenomenological ground.  It’s a conceptual phantom.  There is, at least so far, no concept of epistemic probability.

Hume is the western philosopher with the most important arguments about nondemonstrative evidence.  Two excellent contemporary works are Panayot Butchvarov’s The Concept of Knowledge and Skepticism About the External World.

If the arguments of Hume, Butchvarov, and others similar thinkers (like Paul Feyerabend) are sound, they undermine any supposedly articulate understanding of rationality or rational belief or probable belief.

This consequence is not just important in epistemology.  It is very important in ethics and political philosophy as well as in the philosophy of science.  Our ability to apprehend reality conceptually is restricted (and perhaps distorted), which is a point that many monists and mystics have made.

This explains why the nature of nondemonstrative evidence is the most serious problem in epistemology.

My hunch is that it is insoluable.  Why?  To conceptualize reality is to distort reality [see the post “Define Understanding”].

Does this mean that reality [what-is, truth] is beyond our reach?  Not necessarily.  It may be beyond our ability to conceptualize, but what if we are able to apprehend it directly without conceptualizing it?

Some sages have thought that a direct, undistorted grasp is possible–but only if we let go of conceptualizing completely.  The requisite experience is known as awakening (spiritual enlightenment, satori).

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