Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Philosophy 001 - Epistemology

I am almost always reading one philosophy book or another ever since I first read Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, which, whenever that was, was a long time ago. It is possible that I read Plato or Spinoza before that or at the same time as a freshman in college. I just can’t remember anymore. But before I ever read philosophy, I was a philosopher of sorts, however uninformed or juvenile my thoughts may have been, since at least second grade. What I mean by that is that it was my impression – still my impression - that I thought about things such why the universe is as it is, why people believed what they did, should we blindly follow traditions, was there a God or gods, why do people argue as they did - more than other people seem to do to me. Even today, though there are certainly many others who do the same, it is not all that common.  Perhaps it led me to be somewhat unorthodox, in that I didn’t believe things just because my parents said so or because they were popular. The first of these issues, to my memory, was atheism, hardly popular and not what my parents were pushing either. 

However, I foolishly resisted reading philosophers once I knew there actually were such people, so that I would not be tainted by their thoughts and my philosophy would be purely mine. Of course that was ridiculous as I was a product of my environment to some degree like everyone else and it merely restricted me to the views of a small group of people I knew or read. 

I have a deep interest in science as well, but more so the history of science and theoretical issues about science itself.  Science I see as a subset of philosophy, however, it is often the case, particularly in modern society, that the tail wags the dog between the two. Science is for me the best method we have of understanding what is real or not of those things that are testable, however slow and imperfect it might be. However, it is not possible without philosophy, that is, at least epistemology – how we know what we know – and logic, the rules of reason without which we cannot assign truth or false to any propositions. As for metaphysics, which concerns things like being and reality, I do not reject it as completely meaningless as some philosophers do, but I do not think we have sufficient means to say much about its main questions – why is there anything and what is its essence? And, sometimes, metaphysics is indistinguishable from epistemology (how do we know what we know). It depends on how you frame the question.

As I get older, I read fewer philosophers directly (some of them are just so hard to get through and there is a lot of gibberish), and read more books about them or their theories by scholars who separate the chaff from the wheat for us. Here’s a list, probably partial, of some of the philosophers I’ve read directly in some depth, leaving aside those theologians others might consider philosophers, but who I do not consider sufficiently so (roughly but not quite in chronological order):

·        Lao-Tze supposedly wrote the Tao te Ching with which I am in at least theoretical sympatica; I include him knowing that he did not likely exist; Who cares? The book exists, probably written over time collecting like thoughts forming a very early philosophy which still exists.

·       Confucius. I’ve actually read a very compelling book arguing that he did not exist either, though he is more often believed to be an actual person; the ostensible creators were actually Christian missionaries to China a couple of millennium after he was thought to have lived.
      Plato. This is as close as we can get to Socrates. We don't really know either when Socrates is really speaking through him and when it is purely Plato or some combination. It has been said that all philosophy is commentary on Plato, and while it is an exaggeration, it is not hard to understand why it is believed.

·       Aristotle was in some senses, the most significant of all Greek writers for us, along with Homer, who again probably did not exist, and Plato. The breadth of Aristotle's knowledge and expertise (even where he was completely wrong) is remarkable.

·       Thomas Aquinas. I read him to no great advantage but he is historically important.
          Epictetus. He’s not that well known to the general public. He was a stoic; we have some aphorisms, many of which pass the test of time, even if at the same being more to aspire to rather than live fully.
          Marcus Aurelius was a stoic emperor; again, what we have is very aphoristic but often wise.

·       William of Ockham (or Occam). He is best known for a single statement he never wrote, but which was a logical expansion of what he did write; however, it is relatively unknown that he also played a role in the great march of freedom. I’ve only read him recently and had to go to a university library to do so. These aren't exactly bestsellers.
         Bacon. The Elizabethian Aristotle. This British philosopher is not only great fun; but he was also capable of great wisdom. I have more than one copy of his essays (possibly three – one a gift) and I pick it up and read it all the time.
         Spinoza. I have to date not made up my mind about the value of his philosophy, however original, brilliant, etc., he was; nevertheless, his influence cannot be doubted. Although much of what he wrote was really a commentary and in imitation of Descartes, I’ve never read but a few pages of Descartes directly and leave him off my list. Much of Spinoza also seems to me derivative of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. I'm sure that every philosophy can be shown to have been derived from others in some way, but, I think Spinoza might . . . I say might . . . be given more credit than he deserves.

·        Locke. Also, a highly influential person in politics and psychology and certainly an inspiration to the founding class in America.

·        Berkeley. George Berkeley’s exploration of the nature of reality is much overlooked, easy to  criticize, but also prescient of modern physics. What’s underneath it all – nothing?

·        Hume is my favorite philosopher; leave aside his not surprising views on non-whites which is sometimes used to discredit him; he is in my view, the most influential philosopher in the west since the Greeks. More so than Spinoza, Kant and even Descartes.
      Kant. Feel free to try, but he is largely unreadable and we are all much better off with a summary, which some other writers will tell you is a mistake.
      James Madison - to the extent that The Federalist Papers and other writings are political philosophy.
          Alexander Hamilton – again, to the extent that The Federalist Papers are political philosophy.
           Schopenhauer. Sometimes a nutty guy (try his views on women), he was a preview and more understandable version of Nietzsche; but also a gateway to eastern philosophy.
            Nietzsche. I appreciate some aspects of his philosophy, but much of it is incomprehensible to me and as much poetry and fictional as philosophy.

·        Lord Acton. He was a proto-libertarian mostly famous these days for a statement in a letter which is  now misquoted as – Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, or some such version.

·        Emerson. The father of American philosophy, he did not excite me the way Thoreau did, but  certainly he was Thoreau’s mentor; he did not create the tag Transcendentalism for his loose group,  but whatever linked that group, he was undoubtedly the leader.

·        Thoreau. I’ve written several posts on him; he was one of the three greatest American writers in my  view and I am not sure whether he influenced me directly or I just found him to be the philosopher  who most closely matched my own opinion. Surely though, many of my own thoughts mirror or are  very consistent with his and that is undoubtedly gratifying for me as I greatly admire him. Or is it  that I greatly admire myself and therefore think I admire someone who agrees with me? Maybe, but  he was such a great writer, I am not worthy to sharpen his pencils.

·       Charles Peirce. If you haven’t heard of him (and that’s likely), it is because he was disgraced over adultery and slandered. An original American philosopher and scientist little known in his time or ours, but very important - hard to exaggerate in fact, particularly in logic and epistemology and he is having a bit of a renaissance. Although on some subjects he is crystal clear, on some he is impenetrable, including pragmatism and semiotics, both topics which he founded. His fallibilism, which described the process of modern science, long preceded Popper, often thought of as the father of modern science theory. 
      Bertrand Russell. Perhaps the easiest of all to read and pretty much a poly-math; he wrote one of the two best summaries of philosophy, Durant’s being the other, that I’ve read and also authored endless books and pamphlets on a myriad of philosophical topics.
      Einstein. I consider him a philosopher as well as a theoretical scientist because he probably went further in explaining the nature of the universe than anyone else; I’m still working on relativity and will be for the next 100 years, or shorter, if I can do so while traveling at the speed of light.

·        Heidegger. Oh . . . my . . . God – I tortured myself  reading him as a young man and I don’t think I ever understood it. I tried. I tried. I think I read Being and Time. He was also a Nazi, but, I tried to get past that too if he had something worthwhile to say. I do not, in the end, think he is influential.

·        A. J. Ayers, Russell’s biographer and a very knowledgeable philosopher himself, but I believe with little important to say himself and capable of writing some of the most convoluted prose I’ve ever read.*

         I feel compelled to quote Ayer, just because I find it so funny: "For, roughly speaking, all that we are saying when we say that the mental state of a person A at a time t is a a state of awareness of a material thing X, is that the sense-experience which is the element of A occurring at a time t contains a sense-content which is an element of X, and also certain images which define A's expectation of the occurrence in suitable circumstances of certain further elements of X, and that this expectation is correct: and what we are saying when we assert that a mental object M and a physical object X are causally connected is that, in certain conditions, the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of M, is a reliable sign of the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of X, or vice versa, [a]nd the question whether any propositions of these kinds are true or not is clearly an empirical question."  Oy vey.

·        Sartre. If I ever pick up Being and Nothingness again, it will be as a paper weight – I couldn’t get far; but I do enjoy his fiction and some of his essays. I know just enough about him to say that I disagree with most everything he has to say.

·        Wittgenstein. The anti-Popper in some senses; they can probably be described as personal enemies; Wittgenstein was not an easy person to get along with; despite his meager published writings; he was a deep and original thinker and is still influential.

·        Popper. As with Hayek below; not surprisingly, these two Austrians were friends. Popper is considered the great philosopher of science and his epistemology is very dominant now. Some of it I think a little crazy. Other parts brilliant. I much prefer his political philosophy, and The Open Society and its Enemies is one of the last century's greatest non-fiction works.

·        Hayek, who I probably have read more from directly than any of the others is, along with Popper, the writer I have learned the most from about why I actually believe as I do. In other words, I've found that they provide a deep basis with great scholarship for things I've concluded with much less evidence.  The Road to Serfdom is Hayek's most famous work, although I believe little read by those who celebrate it; I found his Constitution of Liberty, similar in nature, more complete and important, though it is now virtually unread by anyone.

Others of the above philosophers are as unreadable as Ayer, particularly some of those discussing metaphysics like Heidegger, Sartre and Kant, and not just because they are translations. Admittedly, many of the easiest philosophers for us to read wrote in English. However, some translations are very good and it is not hard to read English translations of Plato or Aquinas, Occam (who though English wrote in Latin), Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hayek or Popper among others. Sometimes it is the writer, not the translator.

But, I do not consider that above listed group of philosophers to be the best source of my philosophical knowledge. Many philosophers that I have found fascinating or important cannot be read in the original, if they even existed. From the east, the Buddha (who, again, likely did not exist) and the sages of the Vedas or all important to me. From ancient Greek, the some of the pre-Socratics like Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Leucippus and Democritus made contributions still resonating today. Arguably, we are what we are in the west today to a large extent because of their philosophical investigations, even if we never heard of them. Other than Epictetus, I have not read of whatever little is available of the stoics like Zeno, Chrysippus or Seneca, but enough in general works to feel that I know what they believed, their strengths and weaknesses. I could make a long list of other philosophers of whom I have read a little bit or summaries of their work, but I don’t see it as important. What feels important to me is that I feel satisfied that I have learned sufficiently, because you can never learn perfectly or about everything.  I never stop reading or learning, but, my philosophy is generally my own, to some degree formed before I read Durant.

Does all this reading philosophy do me any good in life? I’m not sure. But, I take what I want from them and exclude the rest without any problem. I have known some people who stopped reading philosophy because it depressed them. Russell wrote in one of my favorite of his philosophical works, Unpopular Essays, “[c]ommentators on great philosophers always politely ignore their silly remarks,” but that shouldn’t stop us. Don’t let it detract from wisdom where it strikes you true.

There are three pre-eminent reasons to read philosophy in my mind (I’m sure we could all come up with others) – First, because you teach or write about philosophy, which has to account for the smallest group, almost not worth mentioning.  Second, because you are determined to understand yourself and/or the universe better and believe it helps you do so. Third, because you feel it adds to the happiness in your life. With myself it is a mix of the latter two. One could argue that two is a subset of three anyway, and perhaps it is. But, while “learning” gives me satisfaction, there is definitely some internal pleasure I get from reading philosophy separate and apart from learning anything about the subject. It feels good, often better than it does with most novels I have read.  I can recognize the difference between the gratification of learning from philosophy and the gratification that is separate and apart from it easily enough because I find the same dichotomy, although greater, with theology. I do not read theology at all to educate myself, but only for pleasure. Why it gives me pleasure to read someone trying to explain something I am not likely to believe, I can’t say. But, it tells me there is a difference between the pleasure of learning something specific and the pleasure in learning what someone or group believes whether I believe it or not.
I suppose that if wanted to (and had the time and money) I could write thousands of pages on my philosophical beliefs, because just commenting on what others have written would amount to hundreds if not thousands of pages (I have hundreds and possibly thousands of pages of notes from books I’ve read and limit it only because there is no great purpose to it). Fear not, I have no intention of writing all that here and I have already squandered about half my self-limited post on these preliminaries words anyway. I have not given the following a lot of thought as to how to present it and don’t plan on even mentioning many philosophers. Rather, I will just put it out there unadorned (after all, the sub-title of this blog is, My thoughts, what else?). And just as I couldn’t be comprehensive in a thousand pages, don’t expect it in a few. In fact, because philosophy is so broad – even excluding the ridiculous discussion of aesthetics – I am going to concentrate on one – my favorite, epistemology and save the others for another day.
The center of my philosophy is also probably the thing that irritates my evalovin’ gf the most – I say I don’t know a lot. And though often enough I throw out a guess about things in answering her or others,* I notice that with respect to most questions, I’m perfectly comfortable saying I don’t know when I think I don’t. One of my earliest memories of any kind of philosophical discussions was my mother telling me that Socrates said that he was wisest because he knew that he knew nothing. My own research much later tells me that Plato never actually puts these precise words into Socrates’ mouth, but something vaguer and harder to translate into English. But, it wouldn’t matter if my mom was the first to say it because it’s the thought that counts. In reading philosophy, I find that I am most attracted to those who explain why we don’t know things or how irrational we can be, rather than those who think they know, but always fall far short when pressed even a little. Most of our beliefs or actions in life have to be based on some level of faith that reason can exist, that there are “things” in the world and it isn’t all an illusion or a misperception, but the most unsatisfactory answers are those which rely on faith for complex solutions, usually religious answers.
*Another silly story - I was walking through a mansion/museum I had been to many times before with a friend who rented the tape you play into ear phones as you walk around. We came to a great big rectangular room with a hard wooden floor, easily the biggest room in the place. She said, "What room is this?" I answered without hesitation "The ballroom." She hit the button on the tape and cracked up. She re-wound, gave me the ear phones and played what she had heard - "No, this is not the ballroom."

Coupled with I don’t know is a second principle, which is I don’t care. By that I mean that our inability to know virtually anything shouldn’t stop us from taking some things for granted or doing anything in life without some other good reason (like it is dangerous). And, not knowing generally only bothers philosophers. In real life, no one else cares that much. Things that we are used to or which seem overwhelming obvious or highly unlikely to be a fantasy, we ignore not knowing the whys and wherefores of it. 

Hume said something like this in dealing with inductive knowledge, that is, what we know through experience. As he explained, you can never take what happened before (experience) to mean something is going to happen again. I hear this argument all the time when arguing with people and consider it vastly overused. While it is technically true, it is virtually useless except in doing science or having abstract discussions about whether we can ever know anything. What I find is that people use it as a last ditch argument to avoid coming to common sense conclusions they don’t want to believe based on the best evidence or arguments. But, since Hume’s problem of induction is technically true, the only way to handle it is to not care. If we accept we can’t know anything, there is simply no reason to do anything. For Descartes it may have been sufficient to believe only in his own existence because it was all he could know without doubt. Maybe it’s true. But, if you look at his doubts of other matters that seem pretty certain to all of us on a day to day basis, based on the highly unlikely possibility they may be created as an illusion by a demon, it is pretty hard to take him seriously if you just want something to eat. In a sense, Hume’s inductive problem is the same thing as Descartes determination not to believe true anything we have doubts about. Just as Hume also said that we are crazy to worry about the inductive problem in real life, we are also crazy also to let the existence of any doubt overtake our common sense or to believe the only thing we can know is that we ourselves exist. Almost everything we do in life is based on our prior experience (sometimes aided by our instincts) or things we must have at least minimal doubts about. We get out of bed in the morning not knowing for absolute sure if the floor will be there or collapse under us. But, we do not hesitate. If we did, we’d be called mentally ill. We speak to people all day long knowing that they are not supernatural chameleons changing identities, eat food knowing it will nourish us, and so on until infinity. Doubts do come to us, but that is just part of life. And some things we doubt to a degree that we say - I just don’t know, and other things so much that we say - I don't believe it.

Where do we draw the line between things we doubt so much we don’t believe them, things we think might be so but aren’t sure about (that is, some doubt), and those things we can’t be sure about but are sufficiently so that we either believe them true or don’t even think about? I have to fall back now on the first principle. I don’t know. Our cognitive scientists don’t know how the mind works sufficiently and I sure don’t know either. When I studied (I will politely call it that) psychology in college, it was mostly all theory then. And though brain science is skyrocketing since functional mri machines and other technological tools have opened up venues unknown a couple of decades ago, the science is still in its infancy, despite carloads of new data. Only when an understanding of how our memory works – without which knowledge is impossible – can we hope to have a clue. And until then, I fall back on my second principle – I don’t care. Because our memory works and we obtain knowledge every day without knowing how the process works since time immemorial.

However, I have not written all this clap trap to just say I don’t know and I don’t care, which sounds suspiciously like an Abbot and Costello routine and gets you nowhere. There is a third principle which gets us where we need to be – able to tell the difference between different levels of doubt such that we can say we don’t know, we might know and we do know. This revolutionary theory, is actually the same as my theory of what makes a group of symbols a word – the principle of enough.

As to the question of why certain symbols are words and others not, I believe the answer is when a word is determined to be so by enough people, and that judgment is subject to time and place and to a lesser degree - individuals. If this seems simplistic, it’s not. It is actually taking into account how complex the language is and how to explain subjective phenomena that we seem to recognize as real and want to differentiate (like some symbols being words and others not) but that can’t be measured or explained with numbers or traditional measurements. That using the concept of enough (you could call it a tipping point or even something scientific sounding) sounds folksy or simple does not make it wrong.

It is relatively the same with deciding between levels of doubt – what we know or don’t know - as with deciding what is a word. It might seem at first blush that answering the question of whether a group of symbols is a word is a social question because communication between people can be involved, and it might also seem that knowledge is more a personal matter. But, in truth, both are mixed. Words are used to communicate with ourselves as well as with others. In fact, we think much more than we talk to ourselves. As for knowledge, much of it is communal. So much of what we think we know, we do so because we have been told by others it is so and have no personal experience of it at all. We are all sure that Pluto – planet or planetoid – is out there. Have we seen it? We all believe that the bump bump in our chest is a heart? We’ve heard it, but have we seen it? Some people have considered the workings of the circulatory system, and yet unless they do surgery for a living, in most cases everything they think about it comes from another person, even if found in a book. But most of us never even really give a thought to how our circulatory system works. We’ve been told we have a heart, have seen pictures of it, and take it for granted it is so. Why do we believe that?

The answer is, because of the rule of enough. We have enough information we trust to believe it is true and not reasonably doubt it even if we acknowledge that anything is possible, and maybe even that everyone could be wrong (as often happens). But, generally we don’t do that. We just feel we know. Or if you prefer, we just believe it.

And by enough – I do not mean only that we’ve heard it enough, or that there was enough supporting information or that it was logical enough. It would include enough information from any other source that would tend to lessen our doubt or support our belief including those which are logically fallacies – such as when we learn information from someone or something we consider an authority.

Just to make sure we are on the same page, when I ask the question of when we can say we have knowledge, I do not also mean to ask by it - when can we know something is real or true. Our knowledge is based on what we think is true or real and we may be completely wrong. If we learn we were wrong about a belief or fact, it merely means that we now have increased our level of doubt, or do not have enough certainty to believe we have knowledge.  

That’s it on epistemology. Just writing this last sentence I thought of a few other avenues I could go down, but I think it’s enough except for the summary of my epistemology. To some, this may seem too simple. Simple was my goal, not some high fallutin’ sounding gobbledy-gook. And, if you take a look at something considered profound, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, it is very simplistic itself. And, you would be surprised how many philosophers would disagree with what I've written.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .