The Themes of Epistemology

We're going to start the more detailed discussions in the area of Epistemology. Not only have a few people mentioned it as their weak point of understanding, but it's the most crucial to understand if you're going to get a strong grasp of the other areas of philosophy.

I call this thread The Themes of Epistemology because there are some broad patterns to Epistemology you need to be aware of before going into more detailed analaysis. You need to understand what are the goals of Epistemology, and the kinds of topics it covers.

The first thing to note is that it deals with knowledge about reality. This is the first major theme. We need to be able to understand how our minds are able to make sense of reality, and whether it's even reality that we're making sense of. A lot of philosophical discussion in history centered on these kinds of questions. Are we directly aware of reality? If so, how does it work? How much of our perceptions of the world a product of what we want to see, or what we expect to see? Is knowledge automatic? Or is some knowledge automatic? Lots of tricky questions.

Let's look a little more carefully at some of these, to see why they might be problems. What happens if we're not directly connected to reality in any way? In other words, what happens if our senses are flawed? What if they just present a picture of the world to us, but it's not accurate? What if we only see a shadow of reality? The problem then is that you can't have real knowledge about the world. Since you wouldn't have contact with the real world, your conclusions would start off wrong, and never get better. You would be cut off from what's real, and you'd have to fill in the gaps with your own imagination. Imagine you're blind, and someone tells you about color. You could try to imagine, but it probably wouldn't be close to accurate. And what if all of your life was like that?

We rely on our reasoning ability to analyze the information we get from the world. If we see a dog chase a cat, we make a hypothesis about dogs chasing cats. But if our sensory information was unreliable, or distorted, we couldn't really be sure about anything. And worse, we don't know how big the distortion is. In that case, reason fails. If it's garbage you're feeding into the system, it's garbage that'll come out no matter what means you use. The rational and the irrational would be equally useful, in that neither would be useful at all.

So part of Epistemology is to show us how exactly we are connected to the world. The validity of the senses is one major part of it. But even if you assume the senses are valid, at some point our minds take over and start doing something with the data. The earlier you start, the more room there is for error. Understanding where your mind takes the baton and starts running with it is useful so you can understand the kinds of errors that are possible. I'll get into these topics later, but the point is that epistemology is charged with discovering how we're connected to reality.

In the same category, we have to answer how abstract ideas or concepts are related to reality. In other words, after your mind has taken the data from your senses, how does it not lose validity? If you meddle with things, abstract away details, compare and contrast, how is it that you make sure that your conclusion still reflects reality? The consequences of this not being true are pretty severe. If abstract thinking was necessarily invalid, we would have to live at a perceptual level. You could trust only what you see in front of you, and generalization or principles would be wrong.

Clearly that's not the case. Our abstract thinking can relate to reality, so that we do know that we're making proper conclusions. But the question is how do we do it.

So the first theme is all about making sure our thinking is related to reality. That when we make statements of knowledge, it's knowledge of reality. This is a huge part of epistemology, and everything needs to be considered from this point of view.

The next theme to talk about it is the human form of knowledge. One particularly nasty philosophical view is that if we can't know everything, we can't know anything at all. It leads to Skepticism, which is the belief that we can't know anything. But surely we do know plenty of things. You know how to drive to work, you know that 3+3 is 6, you know what your name is, you know what your favorite TV show is, you know that force=mass x acceleration, etc., etc. So this "omniscience" standard of knowledge, which means you have to know everything and be god and whatnot before you can believe anything, is clearly wrong. Instead of thinking about knowledge and certainty in those terms, we need to identify them in human terms.

For instance, when measuring the length of a table, you don't have to measure it exactly (whatever that would mean). You know that if you measure it to the nearest millimeter, that's good enough. The point is you don't have to measure it to an infinite level of precision before you can say anything about it. This is the kind of thing this theme is getting at. We have to have a theory of knowledge that is attainable. Thinking in terms of some god-like being isn't useful.

A third theme of epistemology is efficiency. Look at the world around you. There's a ton of stuff going on. How do you remember each event, each detail, and everything else. There's too much. You mind has to organize the data in a way that you don't have to keep you head full of every last detail. Concept-formation is one such method. It creates a kind of mental structure that holds an enormous amount of information, but in an easy to digest manner. For instance, you've all seen lots of cars in your life. But if you want to describe the fact that they all have 4 wheels, you can say "cars have four wheels". You don't have to say "My car has 4 wheels, your car has 4 wheels, that guys car has 4 wheels...". There are a number of examples where our minds have to be more efficient. We can't afford to spend the time to list every last detail. Of course, this connects with theme 1 from above. We can abstract these details, but we have to have some assurance that our method of creating efficiency doesn't actually sever our connection from reality.

These are the three big themes I wanted to bring to your attention, and they should help you understand what exactly epistemology is all about. These are in general the problems that need to be solved. From here we'll try to go into detail on how these are solved.

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