This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rethinking Epistemology

I'm nearly finished with Wright's "Surprised By Hope" book, which is full of very huge, big, meaty things that i need to think and rethink through (i'll probably read it again and probably again). One big thing Wright brings up that is of particular interest to me as a philosopher is the need to rethink traditional epistemology. Epistemology is just a fancy, i-sound-smarter-than-you word for studying knowledge--What is knowledge? How do we come by it? and What can be known?

In academic and published philosophy, there has been wide agreement among many that knowledge is at least (1) justified (2) true (3) belief. A significant project in epistemology is to offer and critique accounts of how justification works--offering and critiquing answers regarding how much and what kind of justification is needed for a person to "know" something. It usually becomes a matter of trying to escape skepticism which can always come back and ask, "well how do you know that?" So people try to give knock down drag out arguments about how a person can definitely be 100% justified in knowing something.

The thing that has struck me about the matter in my last couple years at OU is how traditional study of knowledge seems to treat the human mind and its function as a knowing device as little more than a data cruncher. Wright offers the complaint that epistemologists have largely treated human beings as though we're "computers made of meat." Knowing something amounts to just having a chain of hard data where one line follows indisputably from the previous until a conclusion is reached. --and this is how people "know" (so many epistemologists claim). (Wright poses the ideas that "knowing" can by love and by hope, but he doesn't write nearly enough detail about those suggestions to give much to work with philosophically. argh!)

i myself have felt that same complaint in my philosophy classes. is knowing really just about being a data cruncher? (If anyone even slightly philosophically savvy is reading this, i realize i am GROSSLY oversimplifying a lot of the issues involved, but much of the details really aren't relevant to the point i want to make in this blog.) Is knowledge really about possessing enough abstractions which accurately represent the external world in your brain and putting them together the right way? Well, i admit that SOME knowledge is like that. Knowing that a certain math equation is true or false is something akin to that. What i have found troublesome is that a lot of epistemology treats *all* knowledge as though it is at least comparable in nature to knowing whether a certain math problem is right or wrong.

Consider this: do you have children? or do you have a spouse or significant other? just think of someone you love very dearly. If someone were to ask you the question, "how do you know you love that person?", what would you say? i'm sure we could come up with all kinds of reasons which justify us knowing that we love someone. And let's say we put down on paper all of the reasons you could possibly think of. Here's the thing, would you really say that knowing that you love that person is completely reducable to just possessing all those reasons in your brain and making connections between those reasons? Does the idea that this is *all* there is to knowing you love someone--does that seem right to you? For instance, let's suppose we could take all your stated reasons (say, 100 reasons total) and input them into a super computer. If we could input them into that computer, and if the computer arranged all that data in a certain way, would you accept the claim that now the computer knows it loves that person?

i daresay that there is one or more components to knowing certain things which cannot be captured as mere interconnected data. And many of the traditional Justified-True-Belief accounts of knowledge come very close, in my view, to suggesting something like this.

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