Friday, March 30, 2012

Epistemological Lenses vs. Epistemological Eyes

I am skeptical of the idea that we can come to the 'truth.' Not because I do not believe that there is a truth – I do believe that things are the way things are. I am skeptical because I think that the way we make sense of the world is based upon particular epistemologies rather than general epistemologies. The difference being that a general epistemology would do what we intuitively expect from an epistemology: tell us how the world is and what the facts are and how to make an unknown known by inferring from our present body of knowledge, building facts upon other facts until all of the facts are assembled; a particular epistemology, however, takes a certain point of view in that it chooses its first principles or its epistemic foundations relative to a certain goal or task that it is employed in service of.

The most basic and near example of a particular epistemology is the common sense we use to navigate our everyday lives. It is not a very rigorous system, we generally accept something as true as long as it works, in areas that cannot easily be tested to see if something works we accept whatever seems to account for the greatest number of circumstances while favoring those things that lend themselves to a certain level of life-affirming emotional comfort. The way of looking at things for navigating through life is not the same way of looking at things scientifically, which tries to distill the world down to matter, energy, quantity, and law. Still again, these two things are not the same as looking at the world romantically, which seeks to view the world through emotions and general, human themes.

It may be objected that there are epistemologies which seek the truth, and could therefore fulfill the role of a general epistemology, perhaps the scientific epistemology or an epistemology that tries to only look at facts while discarding anything that is not a plain, public, objective fact. My response would be that their axioms are not and can not be justified, and that this means that they exist not as a description of the world according to the eye of the facts, but rather as a way of looking at the world through a certain kind of lens.

When someone says that some proposition is 'true,' we typically know what they mean because we implicitly understand the context in which they are speaking. Like someone who says that it's true that their father was a bad man – we understand in what sense they think he was bad and what evidence would be necessary to say that their father did indeed fulfill the criteria of being a bad man. But if someone says that something is 'true' absolutely, I would say that they probably do not really understand the way that human knowledge is dependent upon context and framework for making truth judgments.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

If You Have a Soul, You Still do Not go to Heaven

Suppose that men do indeed have souls.

Suppose then that a man dies and his soul goes to heaven.

The fact that a part of the man went to heaven does not mean that the man went to heaven. The soul is less than the whole of the man.

Either our bodies are like vehicles that we are driving, and therefore nothing physical makes up a part of us. Or, so far as we are concerned, dead is truly dead, even if we do have an immortal soul, since the configuration of parts that made us up is still dissolved.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Philosophy of Life vs. The Study of Facts

Ever since I read a little C. S. Lewis and started calling myself a philosopher back when I was 15 (if you do not realize what a sin that is, you have much to learn about philosophy), I've always been preoccupied with what I'm calling for the moment the Philosophy of Life. Basically the Philosophy of Life encompasses all of those questions that humanity considers most pivotal, things like the meaning of life, how to live well, how we should treat each other, do we have free will, is there a God, is there life after death and so on. One of the key features of the Philosophy of Life is that one's investigation never really goes anywhere, the kinds of progress you can actually make in the area are severely limited.

You can expand your knowledge of what other people have said on the pertinent topics. You can memorize or discover key areas where people tend to lapse into logical contradiction. You can find tricky dichotomies where most people would regard both options as unacceptable. What you cannot do, is come to conclusions. You cannot make progress on answering the questions.

And yet, there is perpetually something disheartening about the whole study. I think most people who get caught up in this kind of philosophy start from a religious background, and it's no wonder that most people who study it for very long end up in one of two camps: “post-religious” wishy-wash spirituality that wants there to be a God but also can't tie the idea of God to the world of facts as they have found it, or very poor pseudo-philosophers who take the tone of someone who believes in plain, obvious fact while trying not to betray the fact that they too know that their claims rest on shaky ground; it is no wonder because this is the expected result when people ask a lot of questions that seem distant to the facts and world around them. I do not think I really understood until recently just what it is that makes exploring the Philosophy of Life so disheartening.

Philosophy of Life starts with no firm foundations for thought. You do not know nor can you really imagine what the epistemic rules for good thinking in this area are. You do not really know what your starting premises are. In fact, as you proceed through it for a bit, you may find that a lot of your initial ideas were in conflict with each other. You may get the feeling that you're making epistemic decisions based on the wrong criteria – such as judging something 'true' because it is interesting or convenient rather than because it is where some kind of evidence leads. You find very quickly that all of your thinking is taking place in a kind of nebulous sphere, and you realize that you need to find some concrete concepts so that you can tether your thoughts and ideas to something measurable. You cannot, though, except in rare and qualified occasions. Rarely can you really come to any kind of measurable ideas in the Philosophy of Life, such as realizing that science appears to have some things to say about free will and life after death (although, the things they say aren't as profound as some might believe).

What made me realize that this was what was so disheartening was simply learning some basic HTML and then moving on to start learning basic C++. You can immediately notice the difference. This isn't nebulous, this isn't floating out in space somewhere, you can follow the lines of logic in the way the mark-up and coding works, and you can see why things are the way that they are, and you can see how they interact, and most importantly you realize that there are right answers that you can come to. You realize you don't have to just pick the side on a dilemma that seems most right to you, you can look and see what the right answer is.

The same holds true for other studies of facts. When you look at them you start noticing how they all hang together, they all relate to each other, and even though you cannot grasp it, you can imagine all the facts you're looking at coming together to form a united whole.

Of course, the Philosophy of Life won't die. It still asks the most important questions humanity has. Although, once you know what it is like to have a question answered, it is difficult not to wonder if maybe the Philosophy of Life is really not asking questions at all.