Term Papers on Should The Fundamental Question In Epistemology Be "How Can I Know"?

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Science Shakespeare Social Issues Sociology Speech Sports Recreation Supernatural Technology Theater Zoology Term Papers on Should The Fundamental Question In Epistemology Be "How Can I Know"? O Term Paper TitleShould The Fundamental Question In Epistemology Be "How Can I Know"? O # of Words2978 # of Pages (250 words per page double spaced)11.91 Should the fundamental question in epistemology be "How can I know"? On the other hand, should it rather be "What can I know"?

INTRODUCTION: In this essay, I will look at both these questions as they both seem to play a major role in the study of knowledge. I will cover two of the main elements that correspond to these questions of attaining knowledge, Empiricism, and rationalism. In order to show examples of both these views; I will use the philosophical thinking of Rene Decartes, a rationalist who asked, "Of what can we be certain"? (Descartes, 1968) By using a method of systematic doubt, and David Hume, an empiricist that argued that "true knowledge can be derived only from data collected by our senses". (Hume, 1977) Can we ever really know, in the sense of being sure of, anything? In addition, if so what? (Magee,1998:7) These questions are essentially the fundamental questions in epistemology.

To ask what can we know? Relates to the basic features of existence, not the sort of information that science gives about particular things, but about whether concepts such as justice or love have any external objective reality, about the structure of the world as we experience it. To ask how can we know? Moreover, is there anything of which we can be certain? Do we depend entirely on our senses or can we discover basic truths simply by thinking? These questions are considered under the umbrella of epistemology as the theory or study of knowledge. It is how we justify the truth of what we claim. Epistemology as defined by Chris Lawn for Oscail's philosophy foundation module states "the study of knowledge, its scope and limit" (Oscail, 2003:12-2) It is the critical study of philosophical problems associated with knowledge, what it is, how we acquire it and its many forms. It is the branch of philosophy, which is concerned with procedures by which we come to claim that something is true. For epistemology the fundamental issue is whether our knowledge originates in and is dependant on data we receive through our senses or whether the only true certainties are those that come from our own minds, from the way we think and organise our experience using reason and logic. This brings me to the two main elements of the study of knowledge, Empiricism and rationalism, the former holds that all knowledge starts with the mind. When we experience anything there are tow factors at work, firstly sensations of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. These sensations seem to come from outside ourselves and therefore give data about the world around us. Secondly our own senses. If I had bad hearing, it is possible I may be in error as to what I hear, if I am colour blind, I will be mistaken in my patterns, shades, contrasts etc. Empiricists will start with sensations of an experience and say all knowledge of the world is based on sensation. The latter will claim that the basis of knowledge is the set of ideas we have. The mind set that interprets experience, i.e. the mind is primary, and the data of experience are secondary. However, there does seem to be a certain category of things of which we can be certain, for example 2+2=4, We know there is a definite truth to this statement, "Mathematics and logic work from agreed definitions. When these are accepted, certain results follow. They do not depend upon particular situations or experiences" (Oliver, 2000:35) In epistemology empiricism has been contrasted with rationalism

If in favour of empiricism it would seem in some respects that empiricism is the easier option, compared to rationalism which has one more entity to contend with; Innate knowledge. To the empiricist, innate knowledge is unobservable and does nothing; this knowledge may lay completely dormant. If an individual were born with no sight, how would they have any concept of colour? Innate knowledge would surely not include colour. Alternatively, take the idea of the perfect triangle, again classed by the rationalist as innate knowledge. yet we could manifest from experiences of other 'average' triangles and the use of imagination, a perfect triangle. The main argument in favour of empiricism is science, which is founded on empirical principles. "If we base our conclusions about the world on empiricism, we can change our theories and improve upon them and see our mistakes" (Ferm, 1948:17) There is also a disagreement among rationalists themselves about innate knowledge. Plato believes in forms and re-incarnation, and Descartes who does not believe in either yet believes in a soul, the disagreement involves the self and nature, How can this be if there is innate knowledge of these things. Empiricists argue that true knowledge can be derived only from data collected by our senses. Our observations of our surroundings form the only certain basis for knowing whether something is true or false. If in favour of the rationalist approach, one could argue that mathematics and logic are true regardless of our senses, morality also seems to be innate, we cannot experience things like moral good and evil, justice or moral duties via our senses. If we are nothing other than what we experience, then we should be able to be made do whatever we are taught. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be the case. Rationalism had it that there is an invariable core that refuses to be manipulated. This is what makes us unique. Rationalists have suggested that it should be possible to identify certain types of knowledge based purely upon mental analysis and without recourse to observations of the world around us. Rationalist Decartes posed the question, "what can I know"? (Descartes, 1968)

To find the answer Descartes used a method of systematic doubt. He knew his senses could be deceived and therefore would not trust them. He considers all the things he has been taught and all the things he thinks he knows, and on reflection he asks himself if he believes them simply because that was what he was taught, or would these beliefs stand up to critical reflection. He chooses to reflect on these things he believes and separate them into that which is certain and that which is not. The basic idea behind Cartesian methodological doubt is; to put to one side all that can be regarded as uncertain in any way. To strip away the layers of mere habitual belief in order to lay bare whatever can be known for certain. That which cannot possibly be doubted. For Descartes only the latter is suitable as a foundation for knowledge. Descartes comes to the realisation that if he doubts everything including his own logic he has stripped bare everything except the certainty of his doubting. For Descartes the fact that he doubted meant he was thinking. He therefore concludes he must exist in order to doubt. Descartes thus arrives at the 'Cogito' "....I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I think, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind" ( Descartes, 1968 ) "Accordingly, this piece of - I am thinking, therefore I exist - is the first and most certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophises in an orderly way" ( Descartes, 1968 ) The 'Cogito' is the Cartesian foundation for knowledge. He infers that his mind is better known than anything else. Based on this and on the ideas he perceives in his mind, he sets out to establish that there must be a God who is not a deceiver, and who would not allow him to be long deceived about the testimony of the senses without also providing him with the cognitive means of correcting his errors. This is how he recovers the external world. "Descartes is a classical rationalist because he relies on pure reasoning to recover a basis for whatever trust we place in our senses; he does not rely on the testimony of the error-prone senses by themselves" ( Magee, 1887 ) There is one crucial question regarding Cartesian doubt; did Descartes actually doubt everything as he claimed to have done? There is direct textual evidence to support that he did not doubt everything. "What ever is revealed to me by the natural light - for example that from the fact that I am doubting it follows that I exist, and so on - cannot in any way be open to doubt. This is because there cannot be another faculty both as trustworthy as the natural light and also capable of showing me that such things are not true" (Descartes, 1968) Descartes reference to natural light is also used as a justification for the principle of causality, "Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much (reality) in the efficient and total cause

as in the effect of that cause" (Descartes, 1968) Descartes does not seem to doubt natural light or any aspect of it. So, what is natural light? According To Descartes, its source is God. "I have no cause for complaint on the grounds that the power of understanding or the natural light which God gave me is no greater than it is " ( Descartes, 1968 ) If Descartes is relying on God not being a deceiver about natural light at the earliest stages of his meditations before his ontological argument, he has somewhat contradicted himself. He has not yet established that God either exists or is who he says he is, i.e. is not a deceiver. It would seem that if Descartes were going to subject all his beliefs to methodological doubt this would include his implicit belief in the efficacy of reason to deliver valid and reliable results. Why did this not include natural light? Descartes may have somewhat prematurely reached his 'Cogito' on the strength of an oversight. Like Decartes, Hume an empiricist, is concerned with the thought that science is ultimately grounded in perception, However unlike Descartes, Hume does not think knowledge requires certainty. He is mostly concerned with the empirical sciences where claims are more or less confirmed. Hume argues that the origin of all our knowledge, including all we imagine and our concepts, is experience. According to Hume, there are two kinds of knowledge; knowledge about ideas and knowledge about the world. He doubts any claim that cannot be given a firm foundation in experience. He doubts whether causal relations really structure the world, whether the future will be like the past. Nevertheless he does not live his life according to the belief that the future is completely unknowable and that there are not causal relations in the world. In fact, it is part of his theory of human nature that he believes that human beings habitually live according to the assumption that the future will be like the past, and that there are cause and effect relations in the world. As an empiricist, Hume believes that anything we learn, we learn from experience, that all our ideas ultimately depend on experience. Obviously our ideas of colours, tastes, and sounds etc come from experiencing them, these are impressions. Other ideas such as that of a silver dragon or a leprechaun derive not

form some single impression but are a compound of simple ideas each of which is copied from some impression. Hume gives as an example of an idea derived from impression, our idea of God. Not through an experience of God. It is derived from inward impressions of the workings of the mind and in particular of our own goodness and wisdom. These ideas are then manipulated and combined to reveal the idea of God. It could be argued that in order to have even an idea of God, God must exist. Descartes' proof of Gods existence would be similar to this. Another argument, which is important to Hume's philosophy, relates to sight. Hume says, "A blind man can form no notion of colours" (Hume, 1977)

If Hume is right, then people who are blind cannot have colour ideas, cannot imagine the colour yellow for example. People who have been blind from birth do use descriptive colour words such as red as blood. However, Hume would contend that those people do not really have the ideas of colour that sighted people do. They use the words, but do they really know what redness is? For Hume, we do not know anything experience. He also argued Hume including colour quality unless by

the case of cause and effect.

felt that each causal event is independent of another.

If we can never have grounds in experience for asserting that one event necessarily brings about another, how is science possible? It may be that every time water is heated it boils at 100 degrees Celsius, but that does not prove that the heating causes the boiling, there is also no proof that if heated again that it will boil at exactly 100 degrees Celsius. A good example of this, is "for thousands of years all the swans that any European had ever observed had been white, and Europeans took it for granted as a self-evident fact that all swans were white, but when they discovered Australia they discovered black swans. No number of observations of white swans, however high, could ever have guaranteed that

all swans were white" (Magee, 1998: 115) Hume emphasised that the expectation of one thing followed by another does not lie in the things themselves, but in our mind. To speak of cause and effect, is to speak of what we expect, rather than what is logical or reasonable. If we see lightening, we expect thunder, yet there is no cause and effect here, lightening does not cause the thunder. In fact, both thunder and lightening are due to electric discharge; they are caused by a third factor. Hume brought another argument to causality, the existence, and continuity of the self. He states that although we take for granted that we have selves, and they are continuous, we cannot actually locate this self in observation or experience. " When we introspect, what we encounter are thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions and so on, but we do not encounter some other entity, a self, that has those thoughts, feelings et cetera. This is a disconcerting, indeed startling, thing to be made to realise" (Magee, 1987:150) Conclusion: In Meditations on First Philosophy and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Descartes and Hume present and defend strong sceptical challenges to epistemology. Their arguments suggest that deductive reasoning alone cannot justify one's reliance upon information gathered from sensory perception. With the idea that the senses provide some measure of truth relegated to that of a baseless assumption, both philosophers find themselves arguing for an ethical system in which people ought not to behave in any manner that reflects a use of sensory perception. While knowledge certainly helps people decide how to act, ethics does not require absolute certainty. Most people would play the lottery if they knew it gave them a ninety- percent chance of winning back twice their wager. They do so not because they are certain it will earn them money--a desired end--but because the likelihood of each of the outcomes makes it worthwhile for them to make such a gamble. Similarly, Descartes and Hume want to argue that people should behave based on knowledge provided them by their senses, since they do not have completely certainty as to the truth of such knowledge. However, an ethicist might suggest that people only need to know that the senses are more likely to provide truthful than falsity. This seems a far less daunting task, as both Descartes and Hume seem to admit that sensory perception likely provides truth. Says Descartes, �even though the senses do sometimes deceive us when it is a question of very small and distant things, still there are many other

matters concerning which one simply cannot doubt, even though thy are derived from the very same senses.� (Descartes, 1968:18) When Hume says that, �The hearing of an articulate voice and rational discourse in the dark assures us of the presence of some person,� he appears to make a probabilistic argument. (Hume,1977: 29) The phenomenon he speaks of could be explained in other ways, such as a recording. Thus the inference made is that the sound likely originates from a human being; in order to support such a claim, one need not deductively prove that the sound does originate from a person. Although Descartes and Hume have a similarity in that they both use scepticism they are still two sides of a coin in that Descartes rationalism versus Hume's empiricism. For Decartes his main concern was with what can we know. For Hume is was how can we know. The nature of knowledge is a fundamental topic in epistemology. What is knowledge and what is required for knowledge? Does knowledge require certainty or just belief? What are the good reasons for our knowledge? It is difficult to debate that we can have knowledge of if we don't know what knowledge is. At the start of this essay I felt both questions were equally valid to the study of knowledge, and having reviewed both, I still feel this is so. Bibliography : Descartes, R. (1968) Discourse on method and the meditations, Penguin: Hammondsworth Ferm, V (1948) a history of philosophical, The philosophical library : New York Hume, D (1977) An enquiry concerning human understanding, Hackett : Indianapolis Lawn, C (2003) Modern philosophy, Philosophy 1, units 12-14, Oscail : Dublin Magee, B (1987) The great philosophers, Guernsey press : Channel Islands Magee, B (1998) The story of philosophy, Dorling Kindersley : London

Oliver, P (2000) 101 Key ideas in Philosophy, Hodder and Stoughton : London

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