May 9, 2007

But Can We Know For SURE???

I wrote this paper for my philosophy class and thought I'd share it with you. Tell me, does it suck?

One of the main questions posited by the enlightenment philosophers was the question, “can we be certain of truth?” It is an interesting question, and one that has dominated thought for nearly five hundred years in the western world. One of the central claims made by enlightenment philosophers is the claim that, if I can know something, then I can prove it. As it is traditionally defined in the classic analysis of knowledge, S (the subject) knows P (a proposition) if and only if:
1. S believes P (conviction condition)
2. P is true (truth condition)
3. S is properly justified in believing P (justification condition)
This brings to light a more fundamental question: can I, in fact, “know” anything at all? While there are only two options (“yes” or “no”), the three conditions of knowledge form a unique synthesis; for a given bit of information, all conditions must be met, or I cannot be said to know it to be true.

It is a foregone conclusion that the subject believes the proposition; we would not be asking the question if he did not. Thus it is down to the truth condition and the justification condition. The trouble comes in the second proposition; if we knew that the proposition was true, we wouldn’t require the three conditions. To put it another way; in a universe of absolute truth (given that there is an absolute, granting the second condition), the only human conditions of the three are the conviction and justification conditions, both of which are subjective in nature. The question must thus be rephrased: what could justify the third condition? How are we justified in knowing something?

In the premodern world, it was widely held that divine revelation of some variety (from God, gods, ancestors, or other spiritual entities) were the source of all knowledge; a person could know something to be true because it was revealed to him (rarely “her”) by a spiritual entity. Another way this might be said is that the objective reality (conceived of in spiritual terms) revealed itself to the subject. At the advent of the enlightenment, this changed; no longer could a person claim that a spirit ancestor or God or some other entity revealed the truth of the universe to them. What led to this is debatable, but it can be conjectured that abuse of the claim of divine revelation led to its disfavor. In the modern western world, the favored method became any of the five classic senses: primarily sight, but then smell, touch, taste, and hearing; reason (and to a diminishing degree, revelation) was used to conceive of the objective reality.

But consider: if my five senses are used to perceive reality, by what means am I assured that my five senses are working properly? How can I be sure that my brain is interpreting the input presented in a truthful fashion that accurately represents an objective reality? An example of this can be found in the American legal system: when interviewed, many witnesses recall the same situation in many different ways. Consider also the notion of sensory vertigo: when two of my senses give conflicting data, I become disoriented. If it is possible that one of my senses can give false data, what if it were true that all have been giving false data and I’ve simply been unaware of it? How do I know that the lie presented to me is not just as coherent as the true objective reality? The answer is that I cannot be certain; simply because it appears that everything works properly is no guarantee. That I have not perceived a problem does not mean there never will be, nor does it mean that I have not perceived a coherent lie. It simply means that the world as I perceive it makes sense in my learned worldview.

Rationality is itself a function of the human mind. The concept of a “rational” worldview is simply a leap of faith; one puts one’s faith in the concept of “rationality” as a means to truth, rather than in one’s relativism or revelation. “Rationality” is thus another subjective tool – a “lens,” if you will – used perceive the objective world. Furthermore, rationality is oft equated with the majority’s perception, disguised as objective reality; in this way we can come to terms with words such as “sensible” and “reasonable,” words used to convey the subjective rationality of the masses. Furthermore, rationality is dependent upon memory; if I cannot be certain that my memory has properly relayed the past properly to my conscious mind, I cannot be certain that my rationality (or the five senses by which it was recorded) is an accurate representation of an objective – or even a previous subjective – reality.

If I cannot be certain of my memory, my reasoning power, or my five senses, it stands to reason (ironically) that I cannot be sure of those powers in other people! If I cannot trust my own faculties, how can I trust another person's faculties when I am relying on their subjective interpretation of potentially false data? This of course does not take into account the potential that the other person might not have pure motivations and could relay falsified accounts of their own perceptions towards a mischievous or maleficent end; they could lie.

The above discussion, however, does not mean that rationality, memory, or any of the five traditional senses are useless; indeed, all are entirely useful within one’s own worldview, as tools, higher functions, perhaps even as senses in their own right. But this is conditional upon the acceptance of one basic, rather paradoxical premise: that everything upon which we base our worldviews are themselves based upon leaps of faith. The very dependency we place upon faculties like reason, memory, and our five senses is a leap of faith that these faculties are useful and will not fail us. All knowledge, to this extent, begins with faith, a decision to believe in something based on our perceived confidence in our faculties. In light of this, it is nearly safe to say that we cannot ever be 100% justified in a belief, and therefore cannot be said to “know” anything – our religion, our beliefs, our worldviews, even the existence of the basics like our friends, family, or physical objects – to be true.

We have, in our enlightenment reasoning, maintained what I have called the five traditional or classic senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. While these seem to be the most real, I submit that it is because we have been taught thus, not because they are, in truth, the only five senses. All senses need training; our sense of sight is trained, as infants, when our eyes open and we are able to observe the world around us; immediately, we begin processing the visual input and cataloguing images into hermeneutics. Likewise, our senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch need to be trained to ‘properly’ (defined by those who train us) interpret input. It might be said that there are more than just five senses. Through history, and also in other present-day cultures, we see many other sensory claims; the sense of God (Godsense, or perhaps a sense of the spiritual or metaphysical), the sense of the passage of time (timesense), the sense of memory (pastsense), the sense of the non-concrete (intuition and interpolation), and the sense of right and wrong (moralsense) are all considered senses in one culture or another.

We have observed that when a person is deprived of one sense, the other senses tend to compensate; a blind person can hear, smell, and remember things better than one whose classic five senses remain intact. In this manner, it is possible that, because we do not use it, our sense of God is much harder to recognize. If a person grew up in a culture accepting the sense with a different label compared to another culture, that person would have a hard time believing somebody else's account of its input. Likewise, memory could simply be an extension of a sense of the past; do we all believe that the past occurred because we have memory, or do we have memory because we can sense the passage of time? Reason itself may simply be an extension of a sense of order; humans believe that reason works because we have a sense that the objective reality has about it an intrinsic (if chaotic) order.

Given the overwhelming odds the human mind must face in light of the combined uncertainties garnered from the above discussion, it is little wonder that there are so many worldviews prevalent on our planet. Worse, the above questions only garner more questions, rather than answers. My proposed worldview is, of course, dangerous; it opens up the possibility that I or anyone else could be wrong about what we believe, and that those that we disagree with – even those that seem insane – might be right. If we truly do have a Godsense, it requires training (like the other senses), and given an incorrect training, we would interpret the raw objective data in an incorrect, non-truthful way. While this accounts for the multitude of religious experiences, thoughts, and feelings perpetuated in today’s postmodern culture, it also provokes feelings of intense worry among many; if it is true, it means that we once again don’t know for sure whether our worldview is in fact correct.

In the twilight of the enlightenment, this might at first seem to be a problem, but in fact, it is a marvelous advantage. Instead of proving the validity of one's model with well-known, “objectively-proven” facts – facts which inevitably pass through the subjective lenses of perception and interpretation – we as Christians can now appeal to the results, rather than the premises, of worldviews. Instead of arguing whether something is true in the objective sense, we can rely on the more subjective – and I believe, holistic – understanding of truth as action; we understand a worldview to be true by its fruit. As imitators of Christ in our actions, rather than in words only, we are brought back to our apostolic roots; to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When one sense fails – memory, emotions, rationality – the rest can compensate, becoming stronger. The world could truly know Christians by their love.


shawna said...

I thought that was rather well put, I quite enjoy philosophy. Also interesting to think that a person that is trying to lie could in fact be telling the truth becuase their senses where wrong in the first place...

Chris said...

Thanks Shawna! I like philosophy too, usually, but this course has been a bear. This is the comment I got on the paper:

"But how then do we KNOW Christianity to be true? I'm not sure how your somewhat skeptical worldview accounts for Christianity being true above other religions other than (by the) subjective criteria of corrsepondance with experience."

Did I miss something? I'm pretty sure that I said it's dangerous because we CAN'T for sure know, that it takes a leap of faith in the first place, but that it's ok because it's still useful. *sigh* It's an uphill battle ...

shawna said...

Perhaps he does that on everyones paper just to make sure you keep thinking and never get too comfortable with your own ideas...maybe??