"Thanks and thanks again to Him who offers to the man whom the sorrows of life have assaulted and left naked–offers to him the fig leaf of the Word with which he can cover his wretchedness." -Søren Kierkegaard

Pissed At Epistemology

Posted in Philosophical, Questions For You by matt on Saturday, March 22, 2008

Oversimplified epistemological premise (a): Knowledge is necessary.

Humor me and pretend like a person is capable of learning absolutely nothing. Doing away with bio-genetic predispositions, theories such as the Social Learning Theory, and the simple fact that humans learn even unintentionally, let’s imagine that people are able to come out of the womb likened to a catatonic vegetable and to voluntarily not learn anything – I know, but just go with me. If a person doesn’t learn, he or she will be at an extreme disadvantage. And by ‘extreme disadvantage’ I mean the only possible way to live is to have other (learned) people nearby to help. Learning makes it possible for a person to survive, live comfortably, experience relationships, etc. Truly, knowledge is power and learning is necessary, even if to only have enough power to continue ones own existence.

Oversimplified epistemological premise (b): An answered question (acquired knowledge), while perhaps helpful, will eventually provide more questions.

Here I recognize a number of objections: Aren’t there answers that everyone can satisfactorily agree on, i.e., aren’t some subjects closed and without more questions? And isn’t the satisfaction with the answer dependent upon the person? How can you, a single individual, claim to determine or are some people just unaware of the new group of questions? These, along with many other, objections will have to be momentarily set aside. I’m no philosopher and I haven’t ever formally studied epistemology. I’m just thinking and writing wile I’m bored at work (like now =)). So, once again, please imagine that, for the thinker, answers provide more questions and questions provide fewer answers. Even the person who is content to never question anything will surely admit to this – it’s a cycle.

So if both (a) and (b) are true then we have an apparent tension. Knowledge is necessary, but the acquisition of knowledge only makes us more fully aware of how little we know! The academic term for this is The Regress Problem, and it can be understood like this:

Belief (i) must be justified by belief (ii). These two are interconnected and dependent upon one another in order to be established as true. However, belief (ii)’s veracity is also dependent on belief (iii) and (iii) is dependent on (iv), and so on and so forth. And, like any chain, when one link is broken the chain’s usefulness lessens.

So to put it simply: the more you learn, the less you know. Julian of Norwich, in one of her alleged revelations from God, described it this way, “For I saw this truth in our Lord’s meaning: the busier we are about discovering his secrets in this matter or that, the farther we shall be from their discovery.”

The “so what” of this post can be summed up in this question: If this is true and learning does lead to an increased awareness of ignorance, then what is its purpose? More specifically – and I mention these two because they’re the two I’m most interested in – what is the purpose of theology and philosophy? The pursuit can’t be about getting all the answers because we know that will never happen, so why pursue it?

I’m going to think about it more and I’ll see if I can’t write out some other thoughts later. Any thoughts would be welcomed.

4 Responses

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  1. macriner said, on Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 10:08 am

    you pursue answers cause we’d all be idiots if we didn’t… even if we never find answers.

    like cancer. We look for a cure even though we may never find an “answer” beyond Jesus. And maybe that’s the point. We try and try to find answers but in the end it leads us to realize our finiteness and turn to the infinite One Jesus for help.

    nice work.

  2. matt said, on Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 8:13 am

    i definitely think that’s true. a lot of this pursuit is about growing in the recognition of our need, but i think there’s more to it than just that.

    there has to be a beneficial purpose.

  3. aiyanmernerd said, on Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Well, obviously we should ask questions because God is glorified in our pursuit of Him. But that’s the easy answer isn’t it?

    As for a beneficial purpose, I don’t look any further than Colossians 3. It says to set your hearts and minds on things above. Right after that, it talks at length on putting the earthly nature to death and ridding oneself of impurity. Then it talks about putting on virtue. It is my understanding that setting your heart and mind on things above is the primary way we remove vice and gain virtue.

    Just a thought

  4. aiyanmernerd said, on Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    Well, I would first say that asking questions about God is glorifying to Him, so who cares if there’s a beneficial purpose.
    But I guess that’s the easy answer.
    As for the beneficial purpose, Colossians 3 comes to mind. The first thing it says is to set your heart and mind on things above, followed by instructions to remove vice and put on virtue. I believe that setting your heart and mind on things above is one of – if not the – best way to do both of these things. Asking questions is a way of focusing on God, which can only have good consequences, right?

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