Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Epistemology - modernism

Epistemology is a part of philosophy that is to do with how we can know. It represents a foundation for our knowledge. We need to know how we can know before we can draw meaningful conclusions about what we know. Questions of epistemology are deeply fundamental – even more fundamental than questions like whether or not there is a god. The nature of our epistemology will have an impact on the conclusions that we draw about the nature of the universe. But epistemological questions are so fundamental – so low-level – that for the most part, they remain below the level of our consciousness. In this series of posts, I want to talk about what I understand of epistemological questions, where I am coming from, and how I justify my beliefs.

A possible epistemological foundation is the idea that an observer is able to objectively apprehend the nature of the universe around him or her. We can know things because when we look at the universe around us, we see it universe as it truly is. This is the foundation of modernism and naturalism – it continues to underlie the work of most scientists. Its philosophical roots were in the Renaissance – in, for example, Leonardo da Vinci looking as an observer for universals (incidentally, he failed – he was left only with mechanics) – and it reached its height in the Enlightenment.

But there are various problems with it. One is that it is not possible to determine whether an observer's view of the universe is objective. I don't know whether what I perceive of the universe is really how the universe is like. Hence the reference to Descartes in earlier posts - “I think therefore I am” allows me to conclude that I am truly conscious. However, it doesn't allow me to be confident of anything “outside” me – it gives me no confidence that what I perceive has any objective reality. In philosophical terms this foundation was beginning to look shaky before Darwin appeared. Various things have acted to discredit it. For example, Gödel's incompleteness theorem showed that there were propositions within mathematics that could not be proved – and that maths isn't an “absolute”, or an “objective truth”. The neodarwinian synthesis – a concept built up from this foundation – suggests that our consciousness is no more than a side effect of chemical processes. As such, we have no reason to believe that there should be any correlation with what our consciousness perceives and the nature of the universe. The fact that data can be interpreted in different ways also takes away confidence in this understanding of the universe.

It would be wrong to suggest that this foundation was useless. It wasn't the foundation of knowledge that modern science was originally built on (I'll come to that), but “modernist” scientists continue to dominate science – and they have achieved a great deal in helping us to understand the universe, even though their epistemological foundations don't allow them confidence that the universe exists!

One might argue: “Well, if this foundation is so helpful in allowing us to understand and explain the universe, then why not just run with it?” I would suggest that it's all about the difference between a mathematical observation (say that the sum of the squares on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides) and a mathematical proof of that observation. We may observe that we seem to be able to objectively apprehend the rest of the universe – but if we are unable to prove why that is the case, then have we missed the point somewhere? Many people simply work on the basis that this sort of knowledge is impossible, but they assume that their analysis of the universe is correct – I think this is what “empiricism” is. But without knowing that we have a sound epistemology, we are left wondering: will the universe continue to behave in this way? Do I have any way of knowing whether my observations of the universe will still be correct tomorrow? Do I have any way of knowing that my observations of the universe are shared by anybody else? Do I have any way of refuting an observation that somebody else claims to have made about the universe?