Truth and Its Apprehension

Truth and Its Apprehension

Truth is reality. 

To agree to that is simply to agree to regiment the ordinary use of ‘truth’ in a specific way.  It’s just a verbal agreement.  Without specifying the content of the concept of reality (what-is), it’s hopelessly vague.

What is reality?  Good question! 

Reality is the subject matter of ontology, the philosophical discipline that investigates reality.

Suppose someone specifies the nature of reality and claims that to be real is to be _____.  Once we understand whatever content fills in the blank, we should naturally ask, ‘How do you know that to be real is to be _____?”

Since people have all kinds of false beliefs, we shouldn’t believe anything just because someone else says it.  It’s true that, sometimes, there are experts, but, if we are not experts ourselves, how do we recognize who is an expert?

Apprehension is the subject matter of epistemology, the philosophical discipline that investigates how we come to apprehend reality.

Ontology and epistemology are like two sides of the same coin.  From a logical point of view, they are “first philosophy.”  Everything else is secondary.

There’s a critical difference between knowing something and having an opinion about it, namely, while opinions can be false there’s no such thing as false knowledge.

Objects of knowledge (and true opinion) are real.  That’s what connects ontology and epistemology. 

Claims about what is real are worthless unless justified by evidence. Knowledge claims are backed by demonstrative evidence, whereas claims that are opinions are backed by nondemonstrative evidence.

To have demonstrative evidence that some judgment about reality is known to be true is to find mistake in believing it inconceivable (unthinkable, impossible).  Demonstrative evidence is the unthinkability of mistake.

man thinking

That’s a very high standard.  For example, suppose that I see a tree before me now.  Do I know that that tree is real?

Well, it certainly appears to be real.  There’s no doubt about that.  I know that I seem to see a tree before me now.  However, is that visual perceptual evidence sufficient for knowledge?

No.  As philosophers have realized for literally thousands of years, perception is not a source of knowledge. 

One way to come to understand this is to realize that I could be sound asleep and simply dreaming that I see a tree before me now.  Do I know that I am awake?

Well, no.  I know that I seem to be awake.  I remember waking up earlier and eating breakfast.  Is it not, though, possible to dream that I awoke and ate breakfast?

It is.  I may dream anything that I may experience when I’m awake. 

Even if I had a test for telling the difference between waking consciousness and dreaming consciousness, there’s nothing to prevent me from misapplying that test by simply dreaming that I’m using it.

So, although perception is a source of nondemonstrative evidence and, so, a (partial) justification for opinions, it’s not a source of demonstrative evidence, a justification for knowledge.  Why?  It’s possible to think how I may be mistaken with respect to any perceptual judgment.

A similar argument rules out memory as a source of knowledge.

Connect this to time.  Because memory is not a source of knowledge, I cannot know past reality.  Because perception is not a source of knowledge, I cannot know present reality about the so-called external world.  Because it doesn’t exist, I obviously also cannot know anything about the future.  We should ask:  is time itself real?

Let’s be honest.  We don’t know as much as we’d like to know or as we ordinarily take ourselves to know.  Let’s not live in bad faith with ourselves believing that our opinions are knowledge.  Any opinion may turn out false.  Humility should be our attitude.

Since science is based on perception about the so-called external world, science does not yield knowledge.  Ever!  At best it yields true opinion.

Even the criterion for knowledge is questionable:  it doesn’t follow from the claim that a judgment is supported by demonstrative evidence that it’s true.  Why?  It’s logically possible that we are inherently defective such that, even though we find mistake in believing some judgment inconceivable, nevertheless that judgment is false.

That’s really a heavy dose of skepticism, isn’t it?  Nobody actually believes it.  It’s not possible to give an example of it.  Why?  Because to give an example would be to find mistake conceivable, whereas the criterion for demonstrative evidence is finding mistake inconceivable.  So, we may set that aside and only pull it out when we get too attached to our own opinions.

We want to be honest with ourselves and we want to know the truth about the world.  However, if knowledge is finding mistake inconceivable, it turns out that there’s not a lot we can know about the world.

So, let’s lower our epistemic standard and settle for having opinions about the world that seem to work reasonably well.

That’s what modern science does.  It proceeds using the process of methodological materialism, which is the assumption or pretense that to be real is to be material.

What is it to be material?  It’s whatever has material energy a la Einstein’s famous equation.  We learn about matter by perceiving it directly or indirectly by perceiving machines that supposedly detect it.

Since we know about the material world ultimately via perception and since perception is not a source of demonstrative evidence, science cannot yield knowledge about the material world.  Let’s not be confused about that.

Scientists seek to know the truth.  We’ve just seen, though, that they cannot succeed to know the truth about the material world.  Still, as Plato pointed out, since true opinion is as good a guide to action as knowledge, perhaps our position isn’t too bad.

The intellectual problem comes when we slip from methodological materialism to ontological materialism, which is the view that to be real is to be material.  Many scientists (and others) actually do so slip.

The view is rampant in the so-called hard sciences such as chemistry, physics, and biology.  It’s also popular in the soft sciences such as psychology and sociology.

The critical confusion concerns consciousness (awareness, attention). 

You may think that the soft sciences can study it.  Nope!

For example, suppose that a psychologist wants to study dreams.  How?

Well, suppose he or she recruits you to be a subject, attaches electrodes to your head to determine electrical activity in your brain that connects to an EEG machine, has you go to sleep, and wakes you up when it seems that you are dreaming in order to determine whether or not you are dreaming.  What’s wrong with that?

Notice clearly what the psychologist learns.  What happens when you wake up?  You either report that you are dreaming or that you weren’t, right?  Therefore, the psychologist learns nothing whatsoever about your dreams.

What the psychologist may learn to correlate is the behavior of the machine that records the electrical activity of your brain and your linguistic behavior in which you report a dream or not. 

The correlation is behavior-behavior.  The correlation is not between the behavior of the machine and consciousness of a dream!

In this way, scientists are limited to the truncated world, the material world devoid of consciousness.  They treat the world as if consciousness were nonexistent. 

That can be a useful methodological approach.  However, obviously, it’s an extremely limited approach and can never be more than that.

You may have noticed that scientists don’t like to talk about consciousness.  They like to pretend it doesn’t exist.  When pressed, they think that it is some kind of strange emergent quality that somehow came from the evolution of matter.

What if it were the other way around?  What if consciousness were the root and ground of reality and that it is infinitely more powerful than matter?

What about causation?  What’s that?  Everyone assumes that scientists come up with causal theories composed of causal laws.  The fact is that there is no clarity among epistemologists and philosophers of science about the nature of causation.  More than one thinker has denied that causation even exists.

The big takeaway here is to be a lot humbler than we typically are when we are trying to apprehend what is real.  Be a lot more open-minded.

When scientists or others claim to know the nature of reality, do not fail to ask them how they know.  Is what they claim to know really knowledge or only opinion?

I’ve been trying to prepare the intellectual soil so that you’ll ask an extremely question:  is it wise to assume that the best way to know reality is by trying to gain more and more conceptual understanding?

That’s what scientists and many people do.  The alternative doesn’t even occur to them.  What is it?

We already are reality. 

If so, we do not need to seek reality somehow “out there.”  What if there’s no “out there” out there?  How then could we come to apprehend reality?

It’s by dissolving obstructions to our apprehension of reality.

What are those obstructions?  They are our attachments, particularly our attachments to our opinions, our views.

What happens when we surrender all those attachments?  Could it be that we apprehend reality?

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SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:   Panayot Butchvarov, Skepticism About the External World, and David Hawkins, Letting Go.