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Epistemology and Me
June 18, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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Certainty and Nature

Epistemology is the branch of Philosophy concerned with how we know things. In other words, not so much with knowing particular things, but whether we humans can be sure what we think we know is in fact about reality. It has been the subject of argument since the birth of philosophy; there are libraries full of books on it. Here I offer my brief take.

The timing of this essay has to do with my reading Neurophilosophy by Patrician Smith Churchland. I have not finished the book, and am not necessarily in agreement with all its arguments, but it lays out the problems of our understanding our own brains, and our brains understanding the world, pretty well.

Cynical philosophers, of several schools, say we do cannot really know anything. Particularly in the 19th century some philosophers realized that what we think we know about the world, our immediate sensations and thoughts (that is a flower, a daisy!), are activities in our brain. These are suspect because they come to us second hand through the senses, and we don't know what the raw reality is. Even if someone else says "That is a flower, a daisy!", their words are also in our brains, we might be hearing them wrong, and they might be misinterpreting something for a daisy. Thus some philosophers may conclude that we cannot be certain of anything. That is close match to the Buddhist view (5th century BC) that the world is just an illusion. [In which Buddhists build giant statues of the Buddha.]

In dealing with a complex subject like epistemology it is easy to sink into the quagmire of complexity. To avoid that one famous philosopher, Rene Descartes, came up with the starting point "I think, therefore I am." He then built an at times ridiculous edifice on that foundation. But seeing one thing with clarity can get us off to a good start.

So I start with ignorance. I am certain that I have no explicit memories of what I did before I was two years old, and no memories at all pre-conception. The world existed before I did; I was born into it. I have observed children, and I do remember myself being a child. When I was a child I thought like a child. I believed what my parents told me until I realized they could not be trusted. Certainly by the time I was five my brain had made good sense of the basics needed for survival in the world: what were solid objects; how gravity caused things, including oneself to fall; not to pick up bees at the urging of my older brother, etc.

I was told certain imaginary things like heaven and hell, angels and demons, and three-gods-in-one were real. You can learn a lot that is true from people, teachers, language, books and video, but there are those who will teach you lies. You can accept the lies and repeat them, or you can sort through them.

I had heard enough about philosophy to take my first course in it (Introductory Logic, Professor Luscei) in my first semester in college. Philosophy has many branches, all important, and I spent more time studying Political Philosophy than the other branches (I ended up with a Political Science major). But I did take a very helpful course about Ludwig Wittgenstein, which brought up topics like metaphysics and epistemology. Around that time, appalled by how I saw people behaving in the real world (Vietnam War, racism, poverty), I turned cynical. I tried Zen Buddhism. The world being an illusion seemed better than a world filled with war criminals, hypocrites, and liars.

Unless you die you can think the world is an illusion all you want. I suppose if you can con people into giving you alms so you can sit on your ass meditating or chanting all day that might seem okay. But I was active in the world. Working for a living, protesting injustice, falling in love, etc.

I may be a bit cynical about the Big Bang Theory (extrapolating things past to the point of nonsense), but I believe the universe is very old, life evolved on earth, humans have been around quite a while, and that, collectively, we have actually learned some things. Including about how brains work.

I believe my brain, like all healthy human brains, allows me to make sense of the world. To survive. To reach out, even as a child, and grab a fruit or piece of cooked chicken. Eventually, to sort out when people were talking nonsense, and when they were conveying accurate information about the world beyond my immediate sense impressions.

To summarize my view of epistemology: we are able to know things because of Evolution, which produced brains that can build sensory inputs into a reasonably true picture of the immediate world. There are a number of cynical arguments that can be used against this view, but they don't hold up well to honest scrutiny. After all, they would not be able to argue if they did not have real brains in a real body in a real world. They can argue all they want, but Nature is out there, and we are all part of it.

See also my other Philosophy pages.

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