Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Knowing Part IV

The strictly empiricist-materialist (what I mean by this are those who only believe in the visible world and only believe that truth can be reached by observable research) start to snicker at this point. After all, their truth is based purely on observation of reality and processed through logic . . .  or is it? That, they think, puts them intellectually, if not morally, above those of faith. But even their world starts to soften if they are honest with themselves.

The problem with these empiricist-materialists is that their observations are completely dependent on their human sensory input and deductive processes of those senses.

At one point I thought that they had the safest position. But then as I matured and started seeing more of the world I met the paranoid schizophrenics, who—based on their observations of the world and deductive logic—concluded with absolute certainty, that they were radishes in Mr. McGregor’s garden.

Without going to that extreme of mental illness (schiz or split from reality), you start to find people who were almost normal, but paranoid. They function in society but believe that their scientific research was sabotaged by a competitor . . . when it just failed on its own. You will find others, such as us who suffer from social anxiety, who believe that we are un-liked by others when actually we are not. All of the above are examples of either defective senses or, more likely, defective processors in our brains.

Then to really play it safe, you try to avoid all dependency on either the senses or the brain’s logic. That is exactly what Descartes did when eventually reached the point where he made the most famous quote in philosophy, “Cogito ergo sum.” That, in some ways, was like the bumper-post on the very end of a railroad track. It represents the dead end of pure empiricism. He fortunately used that as a starting point rather than an end point.

If you push beyond empiricism where you have no trust in the senses or thoughts, you can enter the “Matrix” type of doubt of all perception. Are we in comas and what we perceive is being sent to our brains via a complex network of input cables? Taking the same idea into the more philosophical route you reach the thinking of the Chinese philosopher/writer Zhuangzi, who shared this story;

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.

My point is the act of knowing is not categorical, meaning a group A (faith only) vs a B (empirical), but is more of a continuum. On one end, say to the far right, you have the notion that knowledge is somewhat Gnostic. What I mean by that, is that the “knowing” is purely subjective. God is there because I feel Him and you can’t argue against that statement. They are the only ones who claim absolute certainty but that certainty is built on tissue-paper mâché. It is the same mentality that allows a Taliban to chop someone’s head off because they have absolute certainty that the person deserves to have their head chopped off and that is what God wants. This type of certainty is often touted as the Christian ideal . . . but is it?

If you keep going on this continuum you pass through the partial mixture of the empirical and gnostic. As you move further to the left, you move into pure empiricism, where you trust only your sensory (physical) perceptions. Then if you continue moving to the left, you seek an even greater certainty of knowledge, so you start to doubt even the empirical observations. Eventually you reach the Cogito ergo sum point. If you introduce even more doubt and you move on to the complete uncertainty and absurdity of the Zhuang Zhou position.

In a simpler labeling of the spectrum, you start on the right with certainty in all you know because it is Gnostic in nature. You end on the left with complete uncertainty in all things.

I think my point in this post is two-fold. First of all, it is to understand that in the process of knowing, we must reject the categorical model of some of the materialists (and some Christians), that you are either a strict empiricist or you are a complete anti-rational, Gnostic (or pick your terms; New Ager, Existentialist). 

Secondly, it is to point out that there are no safe places along this continuum. It is a farce to believe that we can reach certainty. I can say this, not because I'm not a good Christian, but because I do believe scriptures when they reveal the fallen nature of humanity. A fallen person can not have intellectual certainty . . . but that doesn't mean that all that is left on the table is the despair of uncertainty. You can have a choice in what you believe to be true and you can have hope . . . even in the absence of certainty.  The problem has been, we have required certainly of our kids' faith . . . thus we force them to the extreme right of the spectrum where the foundations are made of mâché.


trevor said...

there are no safe places along this continuum.

I think that's a key point. Whether we're gnostic, empiricist or somewhere in-between, our observations of the universe 'out there' are always filtered through our finite and fallible senses.

I'm now wondering whether a healthy approach should be similar to Bayesian Statistics; whereby you have some initial mental model of the world, that hopefully approximates to 'truth', and then continually update it as new information becomes available.

I think wherever you stand a degree of humility is always needed. The scientist may see his precious theory destroyed by new evidence; the believer may have his concept of God turned upside down by new revelation.

Maybe the important question is just 'how should we lead our lives in a world of imperfect understanding?'

Dana said...

Mike, have you ever heard of Michael Polanyi? I haven't read more of him than the occasional quote, and he was not a religious person, but he did some important work regarding knowledge and how we know. Hope it doesn't spoil him for you that some thinking Evangelicals admire him very much ;) Most Christians have never heard of him, though.


Dana said...

Whoops, should have said I don't know how religious Polanyi was. He was Roman Catholic, but born Jewish.


jmj said...

Dana, you are so resourceful. You seem to get around the thinking world much more than I do and I wish I could.