Epistemology - Definitions and Examples
What is Epistemology?
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that tries to define what knowledge is, and how we acquire and validate the knowledge we claim to possess. The type of knowledge we acquire often depends on the focus of our senses, which may be determined by the beliefs and desires we currently hold. For example, hunger will direct our senses towards food; anxiety will direct us to potential sources of danger; and anger will direct us to blameworthy individuals. In the same way, particular religious, political, or social beliefs are more likely to direct us towards information that supports or reinforces those beliefs.
Once knowledge is acquired, the process of validating or justifying it may be similarly skewed by existing beliefs and desires. If knowledge serves a purpose, such as confirming an existing belief or satiating a particular emotional need, we'll strive to justify its validity. For example, when cigarette smokers underestimate the risks associated with their addiction, they do so because of the pleasure smoking creates. Thus, epistemology is a philosophical field of study that is highly dependent on our cognitive biases and dispositions.
Doubt and Certainty
Until these self-serving attributes of knowledge are seen as reasons to generate doubt, we'll forever mistake convenient truth with philosophical truth. Doubt is often curtailed because it otherwise generates an unpleasant state of anxiety and apprehension that in some cases can lead to ostracism or punishment. Thus, we are slaves to our dispositions, and our dispositions make us slaves to others.
For religious individuals, doubting the existence of supernatural beings can have disastrous social consequences. Throughout history, the human capacity for doubt has been suppressed and condemned for its unpleasantness and rebelliousness. We are left with a propensity towards faith, and a certain level of respect for those who have it.
Doubt could be associated with freedom of thought, but there are many instances where doubt seems unnecessary, or even comical. We assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that solid objects cannot pass through each other, and that all people inevitably die. Yet, none of this is absolutely certain. The Earth may be pulled out of orbit, quantum mechanics allows a small possibility for passing through solid objects, and medical advances could allow people to live forever. One might dismiss the need for debating such trivialities, but with the assumption of one truth an infinite number of others may follow.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.— Albert Einstein
It's possible that nothing is absolutely certain. Mathematics is as fallible as the physical phenomena it's used to represent. It's a description of real-world observables that are detectable through our limited senses. Our usage of mathematics is dependent on the limited sensory data we are attempting to interpret. Billions of individuals may have used the same mathematical model to produce the same answer, with the probability of an incorrect answer decreasing in each instance. However, doubt will never vanish, much like a mathematical asymptote will never meet its curve.
Most of our knowledge is constructed from empirical observation that is inherently limited. If you happen to stumble upon something that is true, there would be no way of justifying its validity through your senses. A similar argument was put forward over two millennia ago by a Greek philosopher and poet called Xenophanes.
No human being will ever know the truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even know they had done so.— Xenophanes
Epistemological Arguments for Knowledge
So do we know anything? Many philosophers have defined knowledge as justified, true, belief. However, evidence is needed to justify belief, and this must also be justifiably believed! This begins an infinite regression of beliefs for which the only escape is to presuppose something that is self-evident.
Foundationalism is the belief that there are self-evident truths. Foundationalists support their argument by referring to the Münchausen Trilemma, i.e. if one assumes knowledge exists, and that circular arguments or infinite regressions are impossible, the only alternative is foundationalism. It is essentially a religious argument because it interprets a lack of philosophical knowledge as reason to accept something that is unproven. Predictably, proposed self-evident truths are often of a religious nature.
Coherentism is an alternative position that attempts to avoid the infinite regression. Coherentists argue that a system of beliefs can fit together in a way that makes it self-supporting. In other words, many pieces of evidence can be used to support the same piece of knowledge. Unfortunately, all this accomplishes is a greater number of infinite regressions, making justification even more difficult.
However, the main problem with coherentism is there has to be a belief in what coheres and what doesn't cohere; something that is justified by every belief that is (apparently) coherent. This turns every belief into a circular argument, i.e. my belief is justified because it’s coherent with my other beliefs, and my belief is coherent because it’s justified by my other beliefs.
Even the concept of knowledge being a true justified belief can be torn apart. For example, Isaac Newton may have believed the Earth orbits the Sun. He may have justified his belief with experiments to reveal gravitational laws, which he may justify with the accuracy of the experimental apparatus and the competency of the experimenter. However, another experimenter may then discover that the Earth orbits the Sun for completely different reasons. Thus, Newton had a true, justified belief, but he never knew that the Earth orbits the Sun because his particular justification was false. This is an example of the Gettier problem.
The heedless striving for answers within foundationalism and coherentism returns us to the general point of this article: people often believe what they want to believe, not what makes philosophical sense. The best supported answer happens to be the least desirable position to accept. As the skeptics say: knowledge doesn't exist because it can never be completely justified.
I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.— Socrates
Thus, it may be better to abandon knowledge altogether, and to just accept our beliefs as being rational or irrational. Rational beliefs are likely to be true because they cohere with our existing beliefs and experiences, and are devoid of emotional influence. One would recognize that a different set of beliefs and experiences, or a different emotional state, would result in a different subjective judgement of what is rational.
All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.— Friedrich Nietzsche
To offer a short aphorism: We can always be wrong because we can doubt everything. However, we should not give up on acquiring truth. This article has been an exercise in dispelling certainty and the existence of knowledge. It was not an exercise in dispelling truth as a philosophical construct. We can still use the means at our disposal to attempt to get as close to the truth as possible. Near-certainties are just as well to live by as absolute certainties, but if the sun doesn't rise tomorrow morning, you can blame me!
I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.— Karl Popper