Epistemology: Reasoning About Knowing



If philosophy is defined as the rational inquiry into truth, then it is primarily a phenomenon of the western world. Though today it is quite common to speak of "eastern philosophy," until modern times such a designation would have been considered inaccurate. That which is commonly labeled "eastern philosophy" consists predominately of mysticism. Mysticism is an inquiry after truth relying upon intuition or meditation without the involvement of the rational faculties.

To be sure, rational inquiry is not the only means of epistemology (the matter of how knowledge is acquired). Much knowledge, for example, is simply "handed down" from one generation to the next. Parents teach their children the basic rules of survival and living. And while that  kind of knowledge, some of which may be mere opinion, needs to be evaluated by maturing rational reflection, it is not to be despised simply on the grounds that it is designated tradition.

From John Locke's perspective, man's knowledge is transmitted through the physical sense impressions made upon the mind, e.g., the learning of the meaning of the word "hot." Immanuel Kant insisted, however, that there was a moral knowledge of a categorical kind, that is, it is a "given," rather than acquired through learning. If Kant is right, each man does not start out as a tabula rasa, or a blank sheet, as John Locke claimed.

There does appear to be within every human being an innate imperative or sense of moral "oughtness." Some things ought to be done. Other things ought not to be done. While the specifics of societal norms may vary from culture to culture, man's universal tendency to condemn the actions of others, and to rationalize his own behavior, betrays his innate sense of justice however he might argue against the existence of a universal law.  This phenomenon may be observed between nations whether those nations are of a civilized nature or barbaric, religious or materialistic. All rational attempts to deny this fact are exposed as falsehoods before the reality of interpersonal and international encounters.

There is another sense in which rational inquiry comes up short, and that is in respect to its role in ethical decision-making. A person's will, or the inclination of his heart, as distinct from his rational reflection, determines his moral decisions. Men basically seek their own happiness, i.e., the affections of their heart--their "likes" and "dislikes" rather than abstract, rational reflection--determine their decisions.  Voluntarism, the theory of human behavior which gives prominence to the will, was essential to the thinking of Augustine, as well as America's first philosopher, Jonathan Edwards.

Philosophy, as a rational inquiry into the truth, may be seen to come up short, from a mere pragmatic standpoint, in that it so typically results in a "dead heat" of competing positions whether in ancient Athens or the congressional rule of modern democratic society. Morality in law sinks to the lowest common denominator as the result of such a stalemate, commonly known as a compromise.  Even that moral virtue which the ancients demonstrated by human reason to be of a universal nature seems powerless to perpetuate itself in human society.  For this reason,  Plato insisted that religion, including belief in God and a judgment in the hereafter, be an essential part of his Republic. Otherwise, the greed of the industrial class would burst all restraints, or the men of the military, appointed to keep the industrial class from rising up against the philosopher kings, would have no fear of any power greater than their own. Without such a fear of Deity, they would be prone to abuse their military strength and overthrow the philosopher kings.

Several hundred years after Plato put the finishing touch on his Republic, the men of Athens were still engaged in rational inquiry into the truth, debating and delighting in every new idea which came their way.  On Mars Hill, where they were to encounter some ideas new and strange to their ears, stood an image bearing the inscription "To the unknown god."  A New Testament apostle, making reference to that inscription, brought clarity concerning the nature of Deity calling the men of Athens to look beyond their own ignorance to the man whom God had raised from the dead (Acts 17:16-31).  Later, no doubt reflecting on his experience in Athens, Paul rhetorically queried, "Where is the debater of this age?" (1 Cor. 1:20).

Of course, if there is such a thing as revealed truth, we would expect such a thing to transcend rational human inquiry or argument, though reason would play an essential role for evaluating the competing claims to revealed truth, and more especially to the degree that reason were to become informed by the truth itself. 

There appears to be a decrease in philosophical unanimity the further rational beings move from pure mathematics through the physical sciences, into the social sciences, and ultimately toward speculation about the nature of Deity.  This phenomenon, coupled with man's   inability to move beyond his own self interest with respect to his ethical decisions, makes C. S. Lewis's notion of a fatal flaw in the human species quite plausible.  The need for reason to become informed, indeed transformed, by such a revelation, to remove this bias of the mind can hardly be questioned. 

If such a Deity exists so as to be the foundation of all form in living beings, indeed pure Form itself without which matter equals non-existence, as Aristotle postulated, then it follows that these lesser beings have an obligation, not only to exercise rational inquiry, but to yield the ultimate consent of all their faculties to such a Deity.