Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts

Friday, 21 March 2014

Epistemology is Prior to Ethics

I am currently doing a course about writing from a philosophical perspective on social ethics, and it is beginning by the usual, and frankly overdone, introduction to different ethical theories. There is consequentialism (used essentially synonymously with utilitarianism, which has a few brands that are mentioned), deontology (of which nobody but Kant is mentioned), virtue ethics (of which it seems Aristotle is apparently the only expert, despite giants in 20th century ethics being virtue ethicists) and the occasional mention of other theories – sometimes it is pragmatic ethics, this time it was feminist ethics.

Now, when feminist ethics was introduced, I found it bizarre because it was more of a critique, instead of a form of ethics in itself. It seemed essentially an aporia, a negative philosophy, attacking traditional ethical theories and replacing them (when they actually got that far) with a brand of situational ethics that seemed to either subtly re-introduce essentially the same values, or otherwise was so unspecific that it did not give any practical guidance. The feminist ethicists challenge the older theories as being products of patriarchy, enshrining male-dominated values into theories - which is all well and good, but what next? The tutor said that they rejected absolutes, but like most rejection of absolutes, I suspect what that means is that there is some absolute that is meant to trump the others.

Sitting later on in the day in a talk where I was challenged to not view things solely from within the context of my own mix of cultures (it was in the context of missions), I was reminded of that critique. Originally I had discarded it for the most part - sexist as the major thinkers behind these ethical theories might be, their arguments required no assumption of male superiority, for the most part, and in fact, results we consider should have been condemned can largely be ironed out now. Sure, Aristotle tried to argue that slavery could be moral, and yet it has not been missed by later minds reading Aristotle's ethics that the justification for slavery sits uneasy with his philosophy, suggesting that Aristotle was perhaps trying to argue himself out of the position that seemed to be demanded by his system. No doubt Kant would be considered sexist by today's standards, but his arguments concern things related to men and women: freedom, self-determination and autonomy, rationality, etc. And so on with other philosophers in these ethical traditions.

No, it was not the feminist critique itself that was convincing, as a feminist critique, but as a reminder of how our rationality is shaped by culture, and particularly so in the case of ethics. Let me consider utilitarianism, the system I know the best of the three (which is not that well regardless): it makes no sexist assumptions, and in fact, it was the utilitarians that originally alerted the world to another form of unjustified discrimination, that of speciesism (the favouring of one species over another without justification). It seems to require no assumptions which are not common-sensical, no unjustified discrimination...and yet it arose when and where it did for the most obvious of reasons. Britain was the standard of empiricism in the world, and utilitarianism is, at its root, simply the empiricist approach to ethics.

A similar story can be told about Kantian ethics and its backdrop in rationalist Germany. Kant's theory of deontological ethics is a masterpiece in rationalist ethics (even if I do think he makes a mis-step, pointed out by Bernard Williams). The point that becomes increasingly clear is not that culture informs, perhaps even dictates, our values – that point has been made over and over again, and is said better by MacIntyre than by the feminist ethicists – but that our cultural backdrop effectively dictates what one considers a rational approach to ethics. In short, before we worry about cultural subjectivity in virtues, we must be concerned with being objective in the case of epistemology. In short, epistemology is prior to ethics, and epistemology is not any less bound to particular traditions, particular cultures and particular people.

What does it mean for me to say that I think utilitarianism, generalized as I explained elsewhere, provides a coherent theoretical framework for ethical deliberation? Perhaps it means nothing more than that I am a sort of empiricist (generalized, again, as Lonergan has done). It is not in the slightest bit surprising, once I think about it, that my system of ethics depends explicitly and implicitly on foundations given by my epistemology.

The first question that arises is whether or not this is a problem. Certainly, living in a cultural context and studying in an academic context tightly linked to the analytical and empiricist traditions, I have epistemological views that seem foundational to my ethical views – but this is only a problem if there is some invalid step between epistemology and ethics, some sort of know-do gap that I am unaware of. Hence, whilst it is certainly the case that there is links between the two fields, it appears that it only implies that to be correct in epistemology means to be well-guided to pursue ethics.

Maybe this is only an issue for persons like myself, but there is another issue that arises: coherence. Suppose I know that ethical proposition E is true. If my epistemological theory implies an ethical theory that dictates that E is not the case, then I have evidence that my epistemological theory is flawed. For most people, epistemology to ethics is a one way street, but as a Christian reliabilist, I consider myself justified in knowing ethical propositions, in a sense, before elaborating an epistemological theory. Or in other words, whilst most people have no conceivable way of knowing E, and so no way of using E to falsify their theory, I do.

These questions, and various others, lead me to think that I should hold my tongue for the most part on ethical issues until I explore ways of getting around or accounting for the subjectivity inherent in developing an ethical theory as a particular person, in a particular cultural setting, at a particular time and place. Alasdair MacIntyre's work is probably the best place to start.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Reason, Experience, and Christianity

Richard Feynman
I sometimes get asked the question directly, and often find the question posed to me indirectly, as to how I can be a Catholic, given my fields of interest and study seem to suggest I should not be: epistemology, philosophy more generally, physics and mathematics. These are all areas where the standards of knowledge are quite high, and the questioners seem to imply that I should hence re-consider whether I am justified in being Catholic. To be Catholic brings, after all, a relatively large set of new and difficult (if even possible) to prove or verify beliefs. That, even within these fields, I am particularly fond of René Descartes, Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac, only makes the problem more acute.

I wish to explain my position here in brief. It is not quite a full picture, and like most things outside of logic and mathematics, it is difficult to see how it can be made objectively normative. Furthermore, it completely omits the sorts of arguments and pathways that led me to some of the premises in this framework originally - a path that involved the methodological scepticism of Descartes, some study of philosophy, history and science. That story would be my best attempt at a foundationalist approach to Christianity - and I think it gets one relatively far, certainly to the point of being some sort of Christian. But it does not truly ever arrive at Christianity. I have instead found the position I hold now to be far more compelling and satisfying, even if it will alienate certain conversation partners.

To begin, I must quickly introduce what epistemologists mean by knowledge. Precise definitions vary because of some rough edges, but the classical definition still holds relatively firmly: knowledge is true and justified belief. That is to say, that some proposition constitutes knowledge in the case that the knower believes the proposition (one cannot know what one does not even believe), the proposition is in fact true (one cannot know a falsehood) and finally, one is justified in believing the proposition. What separates knowledge from belief is that the belief is true, but perhaps more importantly, that the knower actually has sufficient reason, or justification, to believe the proposition. Not surprisingly, some of the fiercest debates in epistemology seem to be around theories of what constitutes justification.

Very simply, I will term my position Christian reliabilism. Reliabilism, in the sense in which I will use it, refers to an epistemological theory of justification which says, in a somewhat crude form, that a belief is justified if it arises from generally truth-giving (or "reliable") faculties or sources, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. For example, I am justified in believing that I am sitting on a chair because I sense that this is the case with my sense of touch and sight. If there were evidence that I was dreaming, then I would no longer be justified in believing I am sitting on a chair.

Reliabilism is a broad family of theories of justification, and can actually be used in a broader sense than just justification. One reason it is powerful is that it is probably the only practical theory: the two other major families of competing theories are foundationalism and coherentism, both of which are excellent, but neither of them can really be thought of as "day-to-day" theories of justification. Foundationalism is very intuitive for people like myself who study mathematics, since it consists of the view that knowledge is built out of self-justified, basic beliefs. These could be said to correspond to what mathematicians call axioms. Descartes is surely the most famous and clearest foundationalist. Coherentism is a less ancient theory, but it is one which tends to appeal to scientists (as well as others) because it holds to a view that is somewhat similar to the approach taken in the natural sciences: coherentism is about finding justification in a coherent set of beliefs. A belief is justified if and only if it forms part of a coherent set of beliefs. Although the natural sciences involve other principles, such as Occam's razor, that a theory be coherent with all the data (both the data that has already been obtained, and the results that the theory predicts) is what defines a good scientific theory.

I struggle to see how truly self-justifying propositions can form a proper basis for knowledge without an impractical degree of scepticism. I doubt that even such basic things as the existence of the external worlds, or other minds, or perhaps even of the self, could be proven from self-justified propositions. So whilst I am drawn to foundationalism by my mathematical training, I cannot support it as a practical theory of justification. Coherentism is a theory I would be biased towards accepting, since its internalist structure makes it fairly straightforward to be a Catholic. But alas, I cannot see how it can be ultimately defended; it has elegance, but I see no way of bridging the gap between what reality seems to be in itself, and a coherent set of propositions. Elements of coherentism feature to some extent in many forms of reliabilism, however, and so coherentist theory may appear implicitly in what follows (in particular, note that the clause "without evidence to the contrary" given above in regards to reliabilism is essentially a statement about coherence).

Now, what constitutes a reliable faculty or source of truth is the area where Christian reliabilism is set apart from non-Christian reliabilists. It considers there to be three broad sources of truth: reason, experience, and Christianity. Reason is reliable as a source of truths, for instance, in mathematics or logic. Experience, by which I mean sensorial experience or experience of the empirical, is a reliable source of truths, for instance, in the natural sciences. God is a reliable source of truths in all areas, though I do not know of anyone who argues that God is a source of truths in actuality, since God is generally said to have revealed things of a particular kind, if any.

Probably the first objection one might have to adding divine revelation to the old empirical-rational duo of reliable sources is that divine revelation (sometimes called special revelation, or hereafter, just revelation) does not build off the others. However, whilst that line of critique would be fruitful if I were advocating foundationalism, it is somewhat irrelevant to a reliabilist. This can be seen from mere consideration of the other two: someone who denies the existence of the external world could just as well argue that experience is not a reliable source of truth, because it is not giving truths about anything that actually exists. Arguing that reason is a reliable source of truth is more difficult, because all arguments make inferences that are deemed valid by reason, but somebody stuck with a Cartesian demon would, nonetheless, doubt their own capacity for rationality. At bottom, both reason and experience must be deemed to be properly basic by the reliabilist - the foundationalist may mutter in despair, but they can do no better.

The Christian reliabilist, then, adds God to the list of properly basic reliable sources, and specifically, God as revealed in Christianity. Supposing God to exist, it seems obvious that God is a reliable source of information. Furthermore, there exists an parallel between the existence of the external world and the existence of God: whilst I think the existence of God can be proven, many dispute that arguments I find sound truly are sound, just like how philosophers such as G.E. Moore believed they could prove the existence of the external world, and yet, many dispute the arguments he offered (including myself). It could be said that, like the existence of the external world, the existence of God must be assumed. Whilst I have some discomfort at holding that position, particularly since I think the existence of God can be proven,* it can nonetheless be held with intellectual rigour, so long as it is granted that one is justified in believing in the existence of the external world without a priori proof.

The second objection is far more substantial, in my estimation: I have used God-as-reliable-source and Christianity-as-reliable-source somewhat interchangeably. But they are not the same, as a Muslim or Jew (et cetera) would inform. The same point made above could be a fruitful venture, that is to say, that one must assume Christianity to be properly basic, and yet, that route is supremely unsatisfying. The most obvious reason why that is the case is that the truth of Christianity is not like the truth of the existence of the external world, or God, but of a choice between multiple different competing sources for the title of divine revelation.

The difficulty could be resolved by trying to dip into the other theories of justification: I could attempt the foundationalist route, as I did when I became Christian, and argue from historical Jesus studies, in particular, any evidence for the resurrection. A similar approach could be taken for some other path from reason and experience to Christianity in terms of foundationalism, although I cannot think of any that are uniquely Christian and sufficiently powerful.

Or via the coherentist one, I could assume that God has "spoken" through some religion, and test them all to see which presents itself as most coherent. That the union of secular fields of knowledge and Christianity yields a powerfully coherent set of propositions, including with historical Jesus studies, keeps my mind at rest whenever I have major doubts about things, and yet, as I said, coherentism leaves me unsatisfied in general as an epistemic justification theory.

This second objection is not, in any case, unsurpassable since one could in principle assume Christianity is properly basic. Objections such as "given Christianity is true, what follows?" - in the same vein as the satirical xkcd comic strip on string theory below - are also important.

As one person noted to me, there is an important problem of interpretation: creedal statements like "Jesus is the Son of God" can be variously understood. What does it mean to be the Son of God? (One would naturally jump to some sort of sexual reproduction, which at least to some extent, would be completely mistaken) What does that imply about Jesus, other than origin? (The Arians, for instance, generally did not deny Jesus' sonship, but they did deny his divinity). If there is a difficulty in interpretation, there is a difficulty in understanding what is said to actually follow from the view that Christianity is a reliable source of truth. To a large extent, but not fully, this objection is met by Catholics in reminding the protester that the Church is herself a "living voice" - Christianity, in the view of Catholics, is not a religion of the book. As the Catechism quotes St Bernard saying: Christianity is the religion of the "Word" of God, "not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living". (CCC 108) And yet, that does not always yield perfect interpretation.

So Christian reliabilism has some issues that remain outstanding. Still, I contend that they are largely rough edges which can be fixed. One issue, however, remains crucially outstanding: Christian reliabilism is not objectively normative. By that I mean, whilst I can hold to it with intellectual rigour, I see no reasons within the system that would convince someone who did not hold to it. Whilst the same could be said, once again, about those who deny the existence of the external world, and to a large extent, absolute objective normativity is generally not thought to be possible, this is a theory which involves a much more ambiguous series of entry points. To this issue, I will return at a later date.

* It is actually a de fide teaching, I am told, of the First Vatican Council. Strictly speaking, though, since God is beyond what the usual arguments show (except, were it sound, the ontological argument), I do not believe the existence of God can be proven, only the existence of a being which is remarkably like God.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.