Thursday, April 06, 2006

Empiricism and Death

Ok, I'm going to continue on a topic that I first commented on last August. Epistemology: theories about knowledge. How we gain it, how we verify it, how we use it. This is part one, and is only an intro.

How we gain knowledge is perhaps the logic starting point; how do we gather information? How do our brains (and whatever other part of us that use information, ie a hypothetical soul) interact and organize the input received from our senses? Do we have innate characteristics that organize this information for us, or are we completely blank slates?

I can't help but think one would partly need a heavy background in neurology to deal with those questions. Answering the question of how we gather and process information must be at least in part biological, quite apart from any metaphysical or religious concerns. So in this regard, I'm as handicapped as Kant ever was.

But then, perhaps the acquisition of pure information is not the necessary starting point. Perhaps we need to know how to verify and use information before we can even talk about how we gather it in the first place. After all, how can we discuss the acquisition of information without first learning the language that allows us to discuss it? We can all agree we acquire information; the mechanics of this can be left for later, more theoretical discussions.

So that leaves two topics. How do we verify our information, and what do we use this information for. In other words, how do we test for truth, and what do we use this purported truth for?

The verification of statements is a tricky thing. It's so tricky that it is common to conclude that we can't really know anything for sure. Or even worse, there is the conclusion that all human knowledge ultimately rests on something called "faith."

The so-called "conclusion" of extreme skepticism isn't really a conclusion at all, and I doubt anyone other than over eager first year philosophy students would actually attempt to defend it. Holding to an extreme form of skepticism will simply get you killed on a highway when the truck whose existence you are questioning smashes into your puny body.

While we may not be able to articulate exactly how gather information about the physical world, we know that we can indeed gather accurate information. I would argue that this information - aka empirical data - is the primarily, privileged source of information for us. My argument: empirical data is the only information with which we can form conclusions that can either kill us or keep us alive.

To get a feel of how this argument goes, cast your eyes back to this post about suicide. I said that there is a wide range of ideas about the good life, but that there is no real way to choose between them. The only real indicator of one's quality of life is whether or not one wishes to end it. In other words, a life style that leads to suicidal tendencies can't be considered a good life.

In questions of life style, our lives are literally on the line; it is the same with knowledge. If we act by the light of false statements, we'll walk off a cliff or drink poison or get hit by a truck.

Our lives aren't on the line when it comes to other kinds of conclusions. Other statements - moral, theoretical, political, religious - can be pursued and lived by, even if they are false, and you won't necessarily die because of your errors.

We can gather empirical data and form empirical conclusions, and we can all live by these conclusions. What exactly is empirical data, aka facts? Facts are the entities that make up the physical world. We observe connections between these empirical facts - ie causation - and form empirical conclusions. Conclusions which we can then risk our lives by.

(Aside: "Facts" are not synonomous with "truth." Truth is a property of statements, not objects or events. Linguistic expression + empirical facts = "truth." That's another post, though.)

We'll all fly in planes; big hunks of metal 4-5 kilometers above the Earth. We hold the empirical conclusion that the principles between flight are accurate because the empirical facts will support or be easily explained by any other conclusion. We'll do it, because we all trust empirical conclusions. If empirical conclusions were truely wishy washy and worthy of the extreme skepticism offered by some, then a lot more planes would be inexplicably dropping out of the sky.

There's a phrase that must always be remembered when talking about our knowledge of the physical world, and it really is a fundemental axiom: the object objects. The physical world places limits on the truthful statements we can make about it.

I can hear the presuppers now; accepting the regularity of the world must be taken on faith. You can't really know that the sun will come up tommorow, and saying that it will is a statement backed by faith. As if there was an element of uncertainty that can never be exorcized from human life. Presuppers are haunted by their own latent philosophical nihilism; they're the other side of the extreme skeptic coin.

Well, I would point them in the direction of the concept of reasonable doubt. It is indeed possible to doubt anything and everything. Every statement can be doubted.

Some statements can be rejected in life, though. There may be theoretical room to doubt the regularity of the natural world and the safety of my flight, but I can easily lay my life on the line and live by the expectation of regularity. What other definition of "certainty" can anyone wish except that you can calmly put your life in the hands of a particular conclusion?

All this stuff I've basically said before. The new stuff will be in upcoming posts. One will be about truth as a property of statements, Another will be about the role of theory in a rigidly empirical epistemology. Then I'll talk about how historians, scientists, homocide investigators and philosophers can all use the same principles.

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