Towards a Fundamental Epistemology

Many of us have a fairly confident sense of how we know what we know. Many imagine that knowledge starts with something called ‘science’. Others believe that a faith system provides the foundation of truth. Yet, as fundamental as these may or may not be in their own right, they are also necessarily the result of a process of inquiry. What we call science, for example, depends upon the notion of public observation. The existence of a public that can observe collectively is a prerequisite to science. This, in turn, must be arrived at, one way or another, through the experience of the individual who does not have direct access to the observational capacity of others. Science, in other words, is not and cannot be the starting point of inquiry into truth. There is a lot that goes on before we get there, or arrive at any other system that informs us. A truly fundamental understanding of how we know what we know or believe what we believe, a fundamental epistemology, must start further back. Indeed, it must start bang at square one.

Epistemology, to give a general definition, is the philosophy of the process of inquiry. The keyword is process. It says nothing whatsoever about the results of inquiry, nothing about what is ultimately true in the grand scheme of things. An epistemological statement does not amount to an ontological or metaphysical one or vice versa. To assume that they do is a category error. In my approach the center of inquiry is the subject, he or she or I who experiences, as opposed to that which is experienced, the object, percept, etc.. This does not amount to some sort of metaphysical model of the ultimate relationship between subjects and objects. It does not, for example, contradict the hard-line materialist view that consciousness itself is ultimately an object no fundamentally different to any other. (Whether consciousness is compatible with materialism is a separate, metaphysical, argument) Indeed, my very definition of ‘subject’ is an epistemological one, for epistemology is the context in which I adopt the category. It is not a metaphysical concept or a psychological one. Similarly, the epistemological authority I attribute to the human senses does not convert to a statement about their actual dependability. And again, it does not follow from my arguments that the materialist or any other metaphysical position on the senses is true or false, nor does it follow from any of those views that mine are true or false. If this point is not obvious in the abstract, hopefully it will be in light of my arguments.

So what is the basis for my notion of fundamental? The concise answer is this: a hierarchy of dependency relationships. By dependency I refer to the fact that a perspective cannot undermine or affirm the perspective that it depends on. It is logically impossible, for example, to use the human eye as a tool to prove that the human eye is not a tool capable of proving. This is a fatal contradiction, in the form of sawing off the branch that one is sitting on. In this respect, what we call science is dependent on the senses, and is eternally barred from inquiry into their basic validity. In keeping with the tree analogy, the senses represent a lower epistemological level than science. It is in this sense that different levels of perspective necessarily exist, that to some extent the process of inquiry involves a hierarchy of levels.

It is important to understand what does not follow from this. First, the levels are strictly relative, pertaining only to perspectives related via dependency. There are no absolute positions apart from the bottom, no level 3, 6.2 etc.. That being said, I generally describe empirical studies, metaphysical theories, religious doctrines etc. as high level perspectives, and sense, individual judgment etc. as low level. Second, these dependency relationships say nothing about how people actually form their views in the real world, and especially do not suggest a chronological order: this is not a theory of how children progress from immediate sensory experience to advanced social skills! Third, dependency relationships do not imply that different levels exist in mutual isolation, which is hardly the case. Finally, a related point. Dependency does not preclude feedback in the opposite direction. The only hard and fast rule is that a level of inquiry has no say over the validity of the level it depends on. This does not prevent, for example, empirical studies from evaluating the reliability of the eye, or related organs. Empirical studies have somewhat eroded the reliability of the human senses. This is not a contradiction, because the degree of reliability attributed to the senses is still consistent with the degree that is necessary for empirical studies in the first place. After all, the blind spots caused by nerve bundles in your eyeballs are not stopping you from reading this sentence correctly! Also, I am hardly oblivious to the fact that the ‘immediate experience’ that I identify as the bottom level and basis of all others is actually shaped by a history of experience, including the influence of culture.

Readers unfamiliar with epistemology may benefit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject. That being said, I do not find it very relevant to my project. Conventional contemporary epistemology seems to begin with a notion of truth, conceived of as justified true belief etc., and then asks how one arrives at such truth. This seems to reduce epistemology to a sort of truth testing machine, almost like a lie detector. My fundamental approach does the opposite. It starts with the process of inquiry and follows the construction of our understanding of truth from the most primitive building blocks to the most sophisticated methodology. I believe this approach achieves much more than an attempted truth tester. It brings the structure of our fundamental premises and assumptions and their relationship to each other to the forefront, facilitating the efforts of the system builder.

Most importantly, it clarifies some ground rules for what can and can’t logically work. By framing itself around the dependency relationships between perspectives, it militates against any violation of dependency, any subtle act of sawing off one’s own branch. And by working visibly across the different levels that emerge from these dependencies, it helps us understand when given epistemological principles and questions apply, why they apply, and when they don’t. Fundamental epistemology is an essential reality check for anyone exploring the broader canvas of truth, belief and reality. More to the point, it aims to prevent the concealment of any logical fallacy, unjustified assertion or epistemological sky-hook that a given system might contain, by negligence or otherwise.

Recall my point about peoples’ foundations themselves being conclusions. From the perspective of fundamental epistemology, I am particularly unsympathetic to approaches explicitly based on a particular system of ideas, like naturalistic epistemology, feminist epistemology and so on. My approach is not of much interest to those who are especially complacent in their worldview and its superiority over other perspectives. It is of interest to those seeking a dialectic between worldviews, or to those disillusioned with established worldviews who regard the construction of an alternative as a legitimate project. Perhaps most importantly, it aims to provide an epistemological framework that doesn’t suffer the liability of dependence on a particular system, a framework that cuts across the petty boundaries of ancient and modern, religious and secular thinking, a framework to which Thomas Aquinas and Daniel Dennett are equally accountable.

One final point. If the goal of soundness is taken seriously, then epistemology must be judged by the ability to correctly identify epistemological problems, not by the ability to solve them. If for example, your idea of a satisfying system is one that proves you’re not a brain in a vat, then you’re shit out of luck. That’s the sort of thing we’re simply stuck with, and if you’re looking for a way around it you’re kidding yourself. The real question is “what does and does not follow from that possibility?” The correct answer to questions like this is what separates sound epistemological reasoning from incompetence and fraud. And this soundness is the only basis for judgment that matters in the pursuit of truth.

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