An Epistemic Story, pt. I

A genealogy in philosophy is a dangerous undertaking. The historical roads are long, winding and overlapping, often doubling back and forth. However, I think a genealogy of epistemology, frought with danger though it is, can be reasonably established along the following lines.

Epistemic anxiety (EA) tends to be thought of as a fairly modern phenomena, generally emerging with Descartes. This anxiety, possibly more than anything else, defines modern philosophy. How do we know? What do we know? Do we, in fact, know things? This is not, however, a strictly modern attitude. As much as we like to think of epistemic anxiety as a post-cartesian condition, it is quite clearly something that afflicts the ancients.

I think we can establish something that looks like this: EA afflicted the ancients, did not afflict the medievals until the later medieval era, and reemerged with a vengeance by the dawn of the modern era. Consider Plato as a case study in the ancient era.

Plato is interesting in that he combines what we would call metaphysics and epistemology – if we were to divide his theory of knowledge in half, one half would be a modern-esque question of justification – what justifies a person in making a knowledge claim – and the other would be a near-kantian question – what must the world be like given the fact that we do know things? His epistemology is inseparable from his metaphysics, and though a large part of Plato’s writing is spent teasing out the question of justification (Socrates being the star of this particular show), just as much if not more time is spent on the metaphysical aspect of the question of knowledge, where this cashes out to his ‘theory of forms’. Here we have a metaphysical (we might today call it a ‘transcendental’) explanation of knowledge and the possibility of knowledge (taken to task by Aristotle, but that’s another story for another day).

Now, as we move to the medieval era, let us take Aquinas and William of Ockham as case studies in both non-skepticism and the beginning of skepticism.

What appears to happen is that by the medieval era, epistemology is separated from (but grounded in) metaphysics, and becomes wedded to psychology, Aquinas being the key example of this. As Fr. Copleston notes, it is futile to look for, in Aquinas, a proof of the certainty of knowledge or a rebuttal against subjective knowledge on favour of objective knowledge. The problem for Aquinas is how to justify and safeguard metaphysics, as opposed to justification of belief in the external world. Knowledge at this point in philosophical history seems to be simply given. Indeed, there are skeptics of knowledge of God – Scotus and Aquinas both argue that we can, in fact, have knowledge of God – but not skeptics of knowledge by itself. However, towards the end of the Middle Ages, loosely situated around William of Ockham, epistemic skepticism slowly begins taking shape – Gilson traces the twofold nature of this skepticism (epistemic and metaphysical, having to do with Ockham’s empiricism in both epistemology and causality, both of which were, if not entailed then strongly implied, by his nominalism) in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’. Simply put, Gilson locates the error of Ockham in his proto-humean psychologism – that is, the mistaking of the’ description of our ways of knowing with the correct description of reality itself’, (p 71). Gilson argues that a consequence of psychologism is that, ‘Left without objective justification, human knowledge becomes a mere system of useful conventions, whose practical success remains a complete mystery to the minds of the very scientists who made it.’ (p. 72)

The space is thus cleared for the setting of the stage of modern epistemic anxiety – though some hundreds of years in the future, as Gilson astutely notes, once Ockham’s thought took root in the universities of Europe, medieval philosophy was on, ‘the straight road to skepticism’. (p. 72)

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Emotional Ethics

– Let’s define ’emotion’ in line with current neuroscience/psychology: as the ‘process by which the brain determines the value of an event’. (Ledoux 1998)  Emotion, not to be confused with feeling, is largely unconscious, while feeling is conscious.

– Meaning, on this definition, is closely tied to emotion. Indeed, emotion is key to meaning – if, for example, the ventromedial/subgenual cortex is damaged, then there is a serious loss of meaning.

– In order to ‘move ethically’ in the world, we have to evaluate and judge situations/events as well as prefer some things to others. In order to do this, we have to assign meaning to things/situations/events so that we can assign them value. This can only be done on the basis of emotion, thus: emotion—->meaning—->value—->ethics.

– Lurking in the background here is the fact/value distinction. Are there facts without value – ‘raw facts’, as it were? To ‘see’ a fact as a fact is to to already value the fact as a fact. Thus, the as a aspect = a value statement. This leads me to think that there are no value-free facts

Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. V: Final Things

Previous installments here, here, here and here.

I was going to write on Sonderegger’s treatment of the love of God, but that’s already been covered quite nicely here, so consider this a wrapping-up reflection.

Sonderegger’s work has left me feeling, for the most part, pretty good. Her ‘metaphysical’ reading of Scripture is solid and her grasp of the philosophical issues such a reading raises is equally solid. She is a truly charitable reader and critique-er, spending pages drawing out what a given thinker has to say before gently (perhaps too gently) saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’. Perhaps my favourite part of her conversation with theologians past and present is the simple fact that she’s willing to say ‘no’ to ideas that are considered mere orthodoxy today (Barth, Rahner and Kant seem to be her primary targets when she does this). This was delightful for me to read, partially because I agree with her (in the case of Kant, there’s little reason to make his thought any kind of court to which theology must appeal) and partially because I love it when someone is a bit of a troublemaker. Those who take Barth/Rahner to be the standard of orthodoxy today will no doubt subject Sonderegger to heavy criticism – her refusal to begin with christology and her decision to reject a ‘christomorphic’ or ‘christocentric’ theology is another example of her theological troublemaking (much needed troublemaking, of course).

Perhaps the greatest strength here is Sonderegger’s keen eye for reading Scripture – in particular, her reading of the relationship between David and Johnathan as a type of the Love of God in the covenant history of Israel (pp. 497-502). I’d say that this reading is the highlight of the book, in fact. While her readings and exegesis of Scripture are all outstanding (her exegesis of the concept of divine hiddeness in both the New and Old Testament, pp. 66-76, and of course the opening exegesis of the concept of divine one-ness from p. 10-21 are two more examples of rigourous and attentive biblical reading), this particular example is the cream of the crop.

There is occasion for critique here, however. Sonderegger is sometimes to prone to assert more than argue that something is the case, an example being her treatment of analogy, univocity and actualism when speaking of God. One is left with the feeling that we don’t need analogy, can’t have univocity and don’t need actualism – but at the same time, it is affirmed that every doctrine of God must in fact have some kind of analogy! Exactly how all this works out is less than clear, especially given Sonderegger’s own ‘compatibilism’ with regard to speaking/knowledge of God – it feels as though these issues are simply brushed away at times. Perhaps a lengthier discussion would have benefited this topic. In general, the weaknesses of Sonderegger’s work are along this line: not poor engagement, but not length enough engagement.

Having said that, however, Sonderegger has given us a brilliant, challenging and provocative work full of sound exegesis, theological awareness and academic rigour. Reading it will only make you a better person, so go out, get it, and dig in.

Notes on Absent Qualia

– Ned Block, in ‘Troubles with Functionalism’ ties his absent qualia argument against functionalism, more or less, to Kripke-esque identity theory. The basic outline is this: if S is a functional state, and Q is a mental state, then functionalism holds that Q=S. Block argues that it is nomologically possible that such a system could in fact be in S without Q – or, at least, its possession of Q can be doubted. Thus, on the Kripkean scheme, if Q=S, then it is necessary that Q=S. However, Block argues that the identity relation can be doubted, since it is nomologically possible that a system can be in S without having Q. We can see, then, the trouble for the functionalist claim if there are absent qualia.

– Chalmers, in ‘Absent Qualia, Fading Qualia, Dancing Qualia’ argues for the impossibility of absent qualia by showing that if absent qualia are possible, then fading qualia are possible – but we have good reason to suppose that fading qualia are impossible. To make a long argument short, Chalmers ends up with the idea that if fading qualia are possible, then a subject with fading qualia whose rational processes are functioning and is fully conscious would be completely wrong about his conscious expereince – and this, Chalmers says, is just implausible, given his own presupposition of ‘functional invariance’.

– John Searle, in ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’, notes the following about the fading qualia argument (which, to my mind, seems a rather sound criticism):

‘The basic idea of the argument is to show that there could not be a mismatch between functional organization and consciousness, because if there were it would be possible to imagine a system’s conscious states fading out (“fading qualia”) even though its functional orginization and hence its behaviour remained constant. And it would also be possible to imagine a system’s conscious states changing in a way that was not systematically related to its behavior (“dancing qualia”). But these, he (Chalmers) says, are impossible because any change in mental content must be “mirrored in functional organization” and therefore be in behavior. But this argument just begs the question by repeating the point at issue and does not establish it.’ (p 151)