Friday, May 21, 2021

Answering the Epistemologist

A reader who contacted me privately asked a number of questions the proper philosophical starting point and related matters. This reader, in spite of all the material I’ve assembled on my blog, apparently persists in thinking that some cognitive structure or mental operation (e.g., beliefs, faith, reasoning, inference, etc.) must be the proper starting point, apparently unaware of the fact that mental operations must always have some independently existing object to which said mental operations must refer and conform, and without which those mental operations would simply have no basis or purpose. 

After I made several attempts to explain why the human mind must start with the objects of consciousness rather than with some cognitive structure or mental operation, the reader announced that we had basically reached an impasse and that we were “going to agree to disagree.” However, where exactly the disagreement lies remains a bit of a mystery, at least to me. 

Instead of identifying what precisely was still in dispute, the reader explained the reason for persisting disagreement by citing what some unidentified floating epistemologist (UFE) “will always ask” him. It’s as though every would-be UFE’s questions will be unanswerable. But are they? Let’s see. (Below are the reader’s questions, and also my responses to those questions, which themselves remain unanswered to this day.) 

The reader wrote:
Because the epistemologist will always ask me "how do you know it is absurd to say 'nothing' could be thinking? How do you know something must exist in order for you to think? What is your epistemological justification for that?" and so on.
Which epistemologist specifically do you have in mind? What is his starting point? How does he know? Why is whatever he might ask of any importance? I’m happy to explore the kinds of questions you put into the (hypothetical?) epistemologist’s mouth, but they do not seem to be speaking directly to the matter of starting point. 

At any rate, let’s look at the questions: 

Question: “How do you know it is absurd to say ‘nothing’ could be thinking?” 

 Answer: That’s easy: the law of causality tells us that action (in this case, thinking) is action performed by something doing the acting. Action is the action of something. Action is not a self-sufficient entity; action is not even an entity. I know of no such thing as action apart from a thing which does the acting. We can abstract actions from things which act (hence we formulate verbs like ‘swim’ and apply them to fish, dogs, people, etc.), but that’s a conceptual operation; it would be confusion to draw from our ability to abstract actions the notion of action actually being able to happen apart from an acting thing. Also, thinking is a type of activity, and it is human individuals who think. 

But the statement “it is absurd to say ‘nothing’ could be thinking” is in no way a conceptually irreducible fundamental. Of course, we can apply reason to conclude that this statement is true. But it’s not a starting point. 

 Question: “How do you know something must exist in order for you to think?” 

Answer: Think about what? There’d need to be something to think about in the first place for me to do any thinking. Also, I would have to exist in order to think. Thinking doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Thinking is action performed by a thinker, and thinking must have an object – the something about which one is thinking. Try thinking about absolutely nothing. What did you think about? 

Again, I can use my reason to tease out answers to these questions. Of course! But the affirmation “something must exist in order for you to think” is not on the same level as the recognition that existence exists. So I’m not exactly sure bearing this relates to the points I made in my two replies to you. 

Question: “What is your epistemological justification for that?” 

 Answer: Ultimately, for my answers above and everything else, my epistemological justification is the same: the axioms, the primacy of existence, and the objective theory of concepts. Got anything that does not assume the truth of the axioms or the primacy of existence, or makes use of concepts? 

You wrote: “In the end I'll have to say something like "It is self-evident" or "It is obvious." I will always invoke the reasoning process in order to reach these conclusions.” 

Of course, to reach any conclusions, you need to “invoke the reasoning process.” But if you’re reaching your answers by means of inference, then your answers are in fact likely not be self-evidently true. If they were, what does inference add that’s not already there? It may be that the answers are, at this point in your development, so obvious that they seem self-evident, but I’d wager that has more to do with automatization in your mental process than with the actual status of the truths in question, relative to their place in the knowledge hierarchy. 

But no one has argued, that I know of, that making use of reason is out of bounds on questions like these. I certainly haven’t! That’s the nature of a conclusion – it is the goal and destination of inference. But we do not start with inferences, is my point. Inferences themselves need a starting point. Even the most basic syllogism, which outlines the steps of an inference, has a beginning premise. Inference itself is not conceptually irreducible – it must have content. One can say “I inferred from [X] that [Y is the case].” But it would make no sense to ignore this and say “I began by inferring.” Inferring from what? 

Think of it this way: reasoning is a conceptual process, a process aimed at identifying. We identify by means of forming concepts. What is your starting concept? What does it identify? It can’t be “reason,” because reasoning hasn’t taken place yet, not at this level of awareness. To what would “reason” refer at this level? On what inputs did you form “reason” if this is your starting concept, and by what means were you aware of those inputs such that they were available to your consciousness to serve as objects to be identified? And of course, reasoning about what? The concept ‘reason’ does not denote existents outside of the subject-object relationship. But the objects of awareness do exist outside the subject-object relationship. It’s only when we come into cognitive contact with objects that there’s any relationship to speak of. But those objects were existing all along, before we came on the scene, and they’ll continue to exist long after we’ve “departed.” 

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...

Great article. I've found that most people I get into discussions with don't really want to hear about fundamental principles. I was talking to a physicist the other day about the origin of the universe. I brought up the law of causality and the law of identity. He said he had never heard of these laws, they were not in any of his equations, and that they were just assumptions on my part. I asked him if he made use of logic in doing physics and he said of course he did. It's amazing to me how many people want to talk about complex philosophical and scientific issues but have never considered the most basic ideas that all these things rest on. He would hear none of it.

Robert Kidd

Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Thank you for sharing this, Robert. Your experience mirrors mine. It’s alarming and unfortunate.

I’ve known many very intelligent people, many who I suspect are far more intelligent than I am, and yet I’m astounded by the lack of curiosity they exhibit when it comes to the structure of their own minds and the knowledge they possess. It’s as though they had determined at some point in their lives that exploring such matters was not a worthy exercise, for whatever reason.

I have a family member with two PhDs (yes, two, both in the sciences), but this person is utterly incurious when it comes to understanding the nature of knowledge as such. Frankly, it’s as frightening as it is disheartening given the implications this invites. And while I try to refrain from overgeneralizing, it often seems that those with “advanced degrees” are sometimes the least introspective on such matters. After all, they’re part of the expert class, so they’ve earned the title of know-it-all. What could they possibly learn by exploring the roots of their knowledge?


Robert Kidd said...


I know what you mean by disheartening. I find that I have to really limit myself to people like this. I go onto some philosophy, Christian and, atheist forums and if I stay too long I find myself losing all hope for a future. I've been having a particularly hard time with dispair this year with all that's going on. I find myself staying put on my farm and not wanting to be around people and their crazy ideas. I think about leaving it all behind to go live in a cabin deep in the woods where I won't have to hear about what's going on.

When the most controversial thing that you can say on any forum is that existence exists, well, that really says it all about where we are.

But then I come to places like this and I'm recharged. I remember that this is not a malevolent universe and that reality is on my side and I feel like there is a chance.