Thursday, December 15, 2011

So many epistemologies, so little time....

BBC "World Have Your Say" is hosting a discussion on science v. religion as I sit and try to do other things, and now the discussion has veered over to the question of whether or not religion can provide "actual knowledge." "Actual knowledge," of course, is a loaded term. One assumes the questioner putting it to the other participants means it in a rather logical positivist way, where the only knowledge worth having is knowledge as provided by science.

One problem with that, and we have this notion in Western culture: that kind of "knowledge" is what the Greeks, like, say, Plato, would call techne: knowledge of the world which is useful for making clothes, raising crops, building houses and other structures, but it isn't "actual knowledge" in the sense it's being put here. And now religion is being compared to fire, which can be useful or destructive, and can we not say the same of science? After all, mass death and global warming are both products of techne, are they not? Is that a good, or a bad, use of "actual knowledge"? Some would say good, some would say bad, some would say it's a mixed bag. Is religion, then, as this person put it, a human construct? Of course it is! But does that make God a human construct, an artificiality? Not necessarily, unless God is to be equated, let us say mapped, in a one-to-one correspondence, onto religion. I don't know of a world religion where God is equivalent to the faith itself. Certainly the concept of the God of Abraham and of Jesus of Nazareth is of a God far beyond even the imaginings of religion. Simply because we cannot fully know a thing, does not mean it cannot be.

Take the Higgs boson as an example. Earlier in the week, on the same BBC programme (British spelling, v. posh!), this idea of physics (it has yet to be established, except theoretically) was said to explain why things have mass. Anything, you see. And then it was said that without this we would not exist.

Well, of course, that's not quite true. It may be the theory is wrong (I understand Stephen Hawking thinks it is, and he may be proven wrong about that; or not.). It may be the boson has not yet been identified after all, and the theory survives to another day and more investigation. What is certain is that things do have mass. Why? Well, answering that will not cause things to have more or less mass than they do now, but it will explain, to physicists, some very important things: about their theories about the nature of the universe. Which is good for techne.

But I'm damned if I can see what it has to do with the rest of us.

Not meaning to condemn the science behind the discovery, or even to disparage such things as the "Green Revolution" which, according to some, staved off the "population bomb" predicted by Malthus and then by Paul Ehrlich (and which was made possible by science). Techne is good; it would be insane to deny it. But is techne "actual knowledge," and no other contenders need apply?

How does finding the Higgs boson change my life? How does it affect the pollution in my city, the violence of the people around me, the nature of the traffic and the modern world I must contend with, both physically and spiritually? Will it create the political will to combat global warming, or rising poverty in America, or the grotesque inequalities in the economic system? Does it's discovery mean anything to ordinary persons? Does it affect daily life, or how we approach life, or answer in any way the question: "How should we then live?" If it is "actual knowledge," what real good is it? If we aren't careful here, we quickly find ourselves back at Hume's distinction between synthetic statements and analytical statements, and before you know it we're back to logical positivism (which has the sole distinction of being a thoroughly dead end in philosophical circles). Knowing about the Higgs boson may produce a valid synthetic statement about my sense impressions, but what does it tell me about the state of my being? However, since my being is not amenable to sensory impressions (because, per Hume, there is no one behind my eyes making these observations. It is all just a collision of sensory impressions that seems to be an identity), can I actually say I have being?

Not according to Hume. And there we discard him. Because the question of being became the question of the 20th century. And the problem is, while being is not really deniable, neither is it subject to "actual knowledge." After all, do you know you have being as an a priori matter, or as a posteriori matter; and does the distinction matter to you? Hume would say your knowledge of being is illusory, but Wittgenstein, after cataloging as carefully as possible the very nature of "actual knowledge," knew he had not categorized all there is to know: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Which is an address to the issue that, if we cannot speak of it, can it still be?

Take "love" as an example. Libraries could be filled with the books that would be needed to contain all the words expressed on the subject of love, and yet can anyone say to have "actual knowledge" of the subject? Is it contained solely within our words about it? Are our words ever sufficient to express any aspect of this subject, much less all of them? Is your experience of love truly contained within what you can say about it, or even what can be said? We cannot adequately speak of it; but does that mean it cannot still be, tantalizingly apart from our impressions of it? Can love be no more than what I can experience of it, much less the smaller set of what I can express about it, in words, art, music, dance?

Now take "God" as another example. Love is accepted as an experience of Western culture, but "God" is denigrated as a fiction, or at best something inexpressible. And yet, to return to the Austrian philosopher:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994). Can you penetrate my experience and tell me it is false, when it is not yours? To some degree, yes, of course. If I hallucinate giant bugs on the walls, or imagine myself to be God, the community (i.e., just one other person) can say I am wrong in what I describe. But is Bunyan wrong, or Julian of Norwich, or St. Teresa of Avila? Is my experience of God, real to me beyond description, false because it is not similarly real to you?

Who is the final arbiter of what experiences are real, and which false? Certainly some are falsifiable, but if others are not empirically provable, are they equally false? Then prove that you love someone: your wife, your child, your significant other, a family member. Prove it to me, as you would prove a stone is heavy, or an idea consistent with accepted reasoning. Go ahead. This should prove interesting.

I cannot falsify your passions; but neither can you establish them empirically. So, are they actual knowledge? Hume accepted them, but we don't have to; and besides, Hume denied the reality of identity, of the person, of what I call "me". And, as Kierkegaard pointed out, how can I prove that I exist? And yet if I don't, who is there to do the proving?

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)
That is yet another epistemology; an epistemology of the season. As Wittgenstein said of Bunyan, this is "a description of something that actually takes place in human life." I'm happy for those excited about the possible discovery of the Higgs boson. I'm bemused by people who think they know what "actual knowledge" is, as if knowledge were reducible to a small and convenient term. My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has put the arrogant to rout, he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things.

And that is the reason for the season.

Yes, I had a different picture up originally. Then I found this one at the Mad Priest, and I couldn't resist. It is so much better.


  1. Anonymous5:41 AM

    What do you have to do to get yourself some of this "actual knowledge"?

    Is knowing that there was an attempt at genocide in Rwanda "actual knowledge"? It is a fact that left massive physical evidence as well as documentary evidence both as it was being encouraged and as it was happening as well as in the period after it was left. It is a more massively documented in physical evidence alone, not to mention that documentary evidence than this Higgs Boson matter is ever going to generate. But, certainly, knowing that it happened is a matter of historical knowledge and not scientific knowledge, though, of course, science can be useful to inform the historical knowledge. So, if it isn't "actual knowledge" that that genocide is a fact of history, doesn't that mean this "actual knowledge" stuff is less reliable?

    And how do the people bandying about this "actual knowledge" "know" what "actual knowledge" they possess? Did they verify it through direct observation of nature or experiment? Did they work out the lines of logical proof required? Did they work out the mathematical proofs of any mathematics they used? Or did they rely on the reports of scientists? What level of support does the original theory have in physical evidence or experimental evidence? To what extent is it confirmed with replication? To what extent is their "actual knowledge", actually, no more supported than their knowledge of any historical event or even far less so? If you've actually got to have mastered the reasoning, never mind to have experienced the physical evidence directly, then there is mighty little of this "actual knowledge" about. Even the most brilliant polymath would have a teensy amount of it because, as a practical matter, there wouldn't be the time to get more.

    What most people would have of would be more properly called faith in both the integrity of mathematics and science and in the fail proof nature of the bodies of mathematicians and scientists. Actually, what I see among the ultra sciency is exactly the practice of faith. Most of what is "known" among them is "known" in not much different a manner than someone who can articulate an understanding of the creed can be said to "know" it. And, especially in the patter of the Scienceblogs set, it often isn't even something they can articulate to the extent someone who has mastered a catechism could talk about it.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. Anonymous5:41 AM


    In his great and ignored book, Computer Power and Human Reason, Joseph Weizenbaum is quite articulate about the disaster that positivism and scientism are. I've come to the conclusion that the evidence of their inadequacy in replacing, admittedly imperfect, religious attempts to restrain the most depraved aspects of human nature is massive and increasing in our scientistic times. Yesterday NPR had on a story about the increasingly present psychotically violent "anti-hero" in popular entertainment. I see that and hundreds of other pieces of evidence of what having an ideological framework that sees people and living beings as mere objects, collections of molecules, and I see the disaster that scientism as a substitute for religious morality is. Science can tell us many things about physical objects, it can't tell us much of anything about anything else. And we can't live on "actual knowledge" alone. That is becoming ever more undeniable as we destroy ourselves with science and technology and the behavior that is derived in the absence of more than that in our lives. People are more than just objects, all living beings are. The inadequacy of mechanistic scientistic "enlightenment" framing when considering life is massively evident, its moral depravity in a political context is as obvious as the disasters of the "scientific" political regimes of the past two hundred twenty years. Its inadequacy in human life is as obvious as the continuing failures of science to even find, nevermind address, aspects of our consciousness, the most known fact that any of us possesses.