“We cowardly avoid it, courageously pursue it, and lament its distortion, but when pressed to say what truth there is, we find ourselves tongue-tied and frustrated”. Michael P. Lynch, The Nature of Truth (2001)
Many people of a reflective disposition will have at some time in their lives asked how can we really know anything, what is knowledge, what does it mean to believe an idea, and what is truth? Those interlinked questions are particularly important in the branch of philosophy known as ‘epistemology’. The word ‘epistemology’ is derived from the Greek words ‘episteme’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘knowledge or understanding’ and ‘the study of’.
This work is primarily concerned with 2 epistemological questions. What is truth? How can we develop and enrich our understanding so that we can think about truth in the context of knowledge and its relationship to the process of enquiry? The totality of what I write should be taken as no more than an introduction. I do not only mean by this an introductory level of analysis, although that certainly also applies, but an introduction to what could be and has been already written.
A Caricature of Philosophy
The caricature of traditional epistemology (and philosophy in general) is of the philosopher sitting in the armchair musing about the world inside her head. By the process of highly abstract contemplation, the philosopher is apparently trying to discover indisputable ways of explaining things that can be wisely passed on to the rest of humanity. In fact, there have been some who would argue anything else is not philosophy. There are even those who claim that philosophy can tell us how to think and how to seek justifications for our explanations. It is probably best to think of such people as being part of a modern job creation scheme for philosophers or custodians of a medieval trade guild.
In formal terms, these people claim a normative role for epistemology. The Wikipedia article on normativity explains that in philosophy these are “claims about how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong”. I would add to that definition ‘it involves claims about how to apply the best available analysis’. Depending on your own experience, you might or might not see this as cultural progress. Fortunately, a new discipline of experimental philosophy is just beginning to develop.
A Traditional Approach in Philosophy to 2 Types of Thinking
The concept of knowing something without experiences has been referred to as the ‘a priori’. This term, the Encyclopedia Britannica article tells us, has its first recorded use by Albert of Saxony, who died in 1390. A traditional and now very controversial claim in philosophy has been that philosophical analysis of particular subjects or domains of thought, can be carried without reference to direct evidence about the way things are in the world. The concept of knowing something without experience can, for example, be imagined to play a very important and even a central role in mathematics or logic. The ‘invention’ of the square root of -1 as an imaginary number, now referred to as ‘i’, did not require any observation of the world. It was literally a work of imagination, which at the time of its conception did not appear to have any explanatory or practical application, let alone a basis in observation. After some more imaginative thinking, imaginary numbers have in fact proved very useful.
This idea of the a priori developed out of the Greek-influenced medieval notion of one type of analysis that started with imagined causes and found the effects of those causes. Most modern people, whether religious or not, would tend to seek explanations in the opposite direction. We observe and then imagine causes. This way of thinking was known in Latin as the ‘a posteriori‘. Indeed that is the way we often operate in life. We make observations and then form explanations on an iterative basis.
We are each aware of imaginative or abstract thinking within ourselves. We sometimes consciously imagine first, then act, particularly in creative processes. In abstract thinking, we also ask ourselves questions about what we do not know and have not observed. Nevertheless, the role of an absolute a priori in a wider philosophy, outside of logic and mathematics, seems unlikely to many thinkers and so the concept has become a matter of philosophical dispute. At best we can perhaps say that the a priori is many steps away from direct observation in a chain of thought connection. Another and perhaps more satisfactory way to think about this issue is to escape the binary thinking that still afflicts much of philosophy and instead see ‘the immediate’ and ‘the purely abstract’ as being situated at opposite ends of a continuum. Even then, we need to exercise some caution and realise that our most apparently direct observations of the world are still interpretive, or in the jargon of the philosophy of science, are ‘theory-laden’.
The Britannica article on the a priori states the American philosopher Saul Kripke proposed “that there are propositions that are necessarily true but knowable only a posteriori and propositions that are contingently true but knowable a priori“. A contingent truth is one that does not have to be either true or false in all circumstances. In more formal language there are said to be necessary truths that are true in all circumstances, such as 1+1 =2. As you will see in the more comprehensive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the a priori by Bruce Russell, one can argue that revised observations of the world and explanations we might then reach as a consequence of new observations might undo any apparently a priori justifications, to which we might already adhere. Again we return to the importance of observing the world.
By now you might begin to feel that traditional ways of thinking in epistemology tend to go round in circles or start to feed on themselves and so become increasingly bogged down in an introspective cycle of considerations.
Beyond Traditional Epistemology
Traditional epistemic analysis of truth stresses the value of abstract reflection. By contrast, a naturalised outlook on epistemology, emphasises that a theory of understanding is arrived at by a combination of abstract reflection and by the contemplation of experience. Both have their part to play. In old-fashioned philosophical vocabulary, a more modern epistemology can use the a priori and the a posteriori. In so doing we can aspire to have a much richer understanding of the world and develop what is referred to as a ‘Weltanschauung‘ or ‘worldview’ in German academic culture.
We will partially arrive at a worldview and a general theory of understanding by using nature itself and science as a source of inspiration, for systematic and scientifically-styled enquiry is our most developed way of understanding the physical world. However, even this is not sufficient. We are wasting an opportunity if, in addition, we do not draw the appropriate lessons from our everyday practices that we as individuals absorb from the culture that surrounds us, imbues all of our lives and strongly influences our ways of thinking.
We as a species have arrived at our present cultures by long and diverse social experiments in communal living and have produced various ways to live throughout our history and prehistory. When coming to philosophical positions, where possible we can seek to blend reflection with observation and analysis of nature and social understanding. In our search for a theory of truth, we could, for example, be prepared to equally contemplate the basis of human logic and be familiar with traditional philosophical discourse. We could also consider the lessons that we can learn from medical research or engineering design, decide what we can learn from the courtroom lawyer and judge, as well as a lot more besides. The general approach used here is therefore in part a blend of what has been called ‘traditional epistemology’, ‘naturalised epistemology’ and ‘social epistemology’. Alternatively, we might come to the view that there can be no theory of truth that says anything useful in a practical or even intellectual sense.
Lastly, if we ignore the fact that we are evolved animals, we miss the opportunity to see how evolution has shaped our senses, our ability to reason and the outcome of our reasoning processes. Could evolutionary theory help to explain why we tend to find the Correspondence Theory of Truth instinctively attractive? (Correspondence theory states that ideas should be regarded as true if they correspond to something in the world.)
Biological evolution has, of course, brought about an evolution of human culture, that is apparent to all practising archaeologists and anthropologists. Each of these considerations leads me to think that we can productively contemplate the idea of ‘evolutionary’ epistemology (6,7). I personally feel however that it is unwise if we only have regard to the evolution of animal cognition, since we should consider ourselves as very much more than a slowly evolving collection of genes. Indeed the concept of emergence in the philosophy of science helps us understand why it is beneficial to consider various levels of explanation in anything as complex as a human being. (You can skip to my thoughts on ‘emergence‘ here.)
Many people in the world feel that religious ideas can contribute to their ‘world view‘ and hence their conception of truth. Although I am not a religious person, I would not deny that for the religious, their religiously derived explanations of the truth of certain ideas can seem as real and as important as their own existence.
One conceptually oriented definition of religion that I like is provided by Keith Yandell and quoted by Alister McGrath “religion is a conceptual system that provides an interpretation of the world and the place of human beings in it, bases an account of how life should be lived given that interpretation, and expresses this interpretation and lifestyle in a set of rituals, institutions and practices.” For me, ritual is often mindless and institutions of a religious kind frequently and actively inhibit the development of new insights. As for the wider social practices associated with particular religions, they are for me merely particular experiments in living that evolve over time, despite claims to be enduring and even timeless.
I feel that in seeking inspiration, I do not personally wish to rely on institutional sources of authority that are not open to sceptical and constructive challenge. For this reason, I will therefore not be concerned in this work with religiously inspired ideas. I hope of course that we can all exchange ideas that we personally regard as beneficial, whether or not they are religiously inspired. My only other comments on religion are to be found in the autobiographical note I have added to this book.
1. The Nature of Truth Classic and Contemporary Perspectives (2001) edited by Michael P. Lynch
[A heavyweight (802 pages!) anthology of readings in the Philosophy of Truth by well-known 20th century philosophers with very useful sectional introductions by Lynch. For those who take the subject seriously. OK, I have not read every word. ]
Encyclopaedia links to non-traditional epistemologies
2. Social epistemology
3. Social Epistemology (2015), Alvin Goldman and Thomas Blanchard, Stanford Encyclopedia of
4. Naturalized epistemology, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalized_epistemology
Naturalistic Epistemology, Chase B. Wrenn, Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy
5. Naturalism in Epistemology (2016), Patrick Rysiew, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
6. Evolutionary Epistemology, Nathalie Gontier, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
7. Evolutionary Epistemology (2016), Michael Bradie and William Harms, Stanford Encyclopedia of