Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Introduction to Epistemology: Foundations of Knowledge (Part 1)

Epistemology, from the Greek word episteme (meaning to know), is to do with the science, or art of knowing what we know.

I say “science or art” here because epistemological debates often center around one of the following issues: Do we discover knowledge of things, or do we create our knowledge and understanding of them?

Let’s state this another way: Are our minds passive or are they active in the cognitive, or knowing process? 

When passive the mind plays no active part in the cognitive process. In one sense we might say knowledge is pure, untainted by anything outside or in the mind. There is also a correlation between the thing perceived and our mind’s ability to receive knowledge of it. In the end the mind acts as a repository or a store for the knowledge we acquire, and that is all.

In contrast, when we say the mind is active in the knowing process, we are suggesting it plays some role in deciphering and organising knowledge. For instance, the mind receives sense impressions from things, but these are filtered and organised through an array of social and cognitive (that is mental) filters to give us knowledge.

For example, imagine this coffee-maker is our mind. To make coffee we put water in, which passes through coffee granules in this filter, which fills this jug underneath. If this is our mind then every moment sense-based experiences (what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell) are pouring in, passing through a variety of physical and cognitive filters, on the way to forming knowledge. 

The passive mind model suggests there is nothing affecting the knowledge we acquire, whereas the active mind model suggests there is, and this seems to resonate more with our experience of things. 

For instance, many people enjoy drinking coffee. Their taste buds react positively with the experience and this creates knowledge and a memory that they like to do this. However not everyone enjoys the taste of coffee. For instance, some people, like me, prefer to drink tea!

Now nothing is fundamentally changing in the nature of the coffee to cause someone enjoy drinking it, and me not so much. It is not the case that the nature of the coffee is changing according to the person drinking it. Instead it is each person’s personal preference and taste, which change and influences our experience of drinking coffee (or tea).

Let’s expand this analogy to talk about religious knowledge. 

For someone who believes in the existence of God, sense-experience also passes through the “God exists” filter. For example, if they pray for x to happen and x happens, then they would interpret that experience as God answering their prayers, which for them is also proof that God exists. Of course, some might suggest this is circular logic; that prior to having the experience of answered prayers, one is already assuming God exists and will answer them.

Let’s expand this cognitive model a little more. Just as different flavoured coffee granules can be placed in the coffee maker to give different flavoured coffee, so different social and cultural factors will influence the way our mind acquires religious-based knowledge.

For instance, someone born into a Christian family will most likely understand God as Trinity. A Muslim will experience God as Allah. A Hindu will perceive God to be Brahman, the living presence in all things…. and so on!

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion that the mind is active in the knowing process has led to skepticism and difficult questions about the nature of truth, belief and justification. For instance, can we claim any knowledge to be ultimately true? What criteria is needed to demonstrate true knowledge? Can anyone claim to be truly objective in terms of what they know?

In terms of religious knowledge, a believer might interpret an experience as the product of Divine interference, but an atheist interpret the same experience differently, judging it to be the product of natural causes and that is all. How do we decide whose experience is true?

Ever since the time of Immanuel Kant it has become increasingly popular to view what goes on in the mind as highly influential in the knowing process, and this has tended towards the notion that there is no independent source of knowledge beyond our own realm of sense-experience. But this is not exactly what Kant believed. Although he argued that the mind is active in the knowing-process, he also proposed the existence of a realm beyond human perception (called the noumenal realm) where we find the true nature of things (or things as they are). The problem he left us with is how to attain knowledge of anything as it truly is.

And so we arrive at the crux of the matter: Ontology!

Ontology is to do with the nature of reality. Obviously, logically, reality must have an essential and true nature, but the question is whether we can ever come to know and understand what this is?

If we accept the notion that knowledge is always influenced by social and cognitive filters, then this might suggest we never can never know the true nature of things. On the other hand, if we accept the possibility that mystical experiences or some form of mental training can take us behind the veil of human reason, then it might be argued that (in theory) we can.