Category: Epistemology

Philosophy in a Crisis

As we’re all slowly coming to grips with the craziness that is COVID-19, one of the things that will likely be on our minds is the question “What really matters?”

Personally, I’ve been thinking through the particular problem of whether the abstract subjects of philosophy and theology have much to offer in a time like this. When there are people being infected by and dying from a new virus, states and countries are locking down and issuing shelter-in-place orders, and people are hoarding supplies like it’s the end of the world, what can an obscure branch of philosophy called epistemology provide us? On first glance, it’s easy to think the answer to that is simply “Nothing.” People are fighting for their lives in hospitals, losing their freedoms, or anxious that our day of reckoning has come. Asking the questions “What is knowledge?” and “How is knowledge possible?” seems a little silly.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

Let’s take the problem of what we know about SARS-CoV2. Now, I can’t personally say that I know all that much. Maybe *slightly* more than the average person, assuming the information sources I have are accurately reporting research, and the research being done is abiding by the appropriate scientific standards. But let’s talk about data for a second. If you’re anything like me, you’re seeing many different datasets, graphs, or other visualizations every day. (I’m starting to limit myself now due to a rising sense of anxiety about my lack of control over the whole situation, but I digress.) The problem with all of this data, simply stated, is two-fold:

  1. Our data collection methods are probably not built to accurately get all the information we’re trying to get. Testing in the United States is only just now ramping up. Which means that all the information we had up to this point was likely TERRIBLY inaccurate. There weren’t only 14,000 COVID-19 cases a couple days ago. That was just confirmed tests, and lots of people who showed the right symptoms were being told to go home and take care of themselves because no tests were available! That’s a problem, because we all think we have some kind of knowledge about reality (the number of cases), but the available data told us almost nothing except that 14,000 people (41,000 as of today) got tested positive. Examining the data further may tell us things like where testing is happening the most, but will tell us almost nothing about what we actually want to know.
  2. “Data” is never just data. For data to be meaningful, it must be interpreted. This is why we have graphs, charts, and whole industries built around data visualization. Because humans are really bad at looking at a million single pieces of information and compiling them together for meaningful analysis. And every time you look at a chart or a graph, you know what’s really happening? You’re looking at that information through the lens of the person + computer that compiled the data. You’re seeing information that has been filtered. You’re seeing charts that have intentionally removed bad pieces of information. And you know how got that data? See #1 above. That data was collected with data collection methods that were inherently flawed somehow.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love looking at data. My favorite math class I ever took was statistics, and in my previous job, I tried to use data frequently to help make better decisions for my team. But we were working with a set of 2000+ students and a relatively small set of variables — most of which had values that had been determined for months or years. When it comes to this pandemic, we are right in the middle of it. Things are changing every day, and we don’t even know all of the right questions to ask yet that will help us see things a little more clearly. We’ll never know how many people were really infected, and we’ll also never know how much our current efforts of social distancing and shutting down the economy were. That’s the nature of the finite human condition.

So again, we might ask, what use is philosophy in a crisis? It’s quite useful — just maybe not in the way we would like it to be. When we ask how we “know” things, it helps us to see through shoddy claims just a tiny bit better. It allows us to think through our own systems for what we accept as verifiable fact, logical claims, warranted claims, and unwarranted assumptions.

This is why Kierkegaard is my philosophical hero. He had a clear, systematized understanding of what constituted objective and subjective knowledge, and why those distinctions were important. Maybe reading long philosophical tomes is boring. But it can help us to learn how to think with clarity, both in a crisis and when things feel “normal.”

Subjectivity is Bad When Technology Reigns

We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge but that in any case Technopoly wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, 158

It’s interesting that he claims that subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Postman  doesn’t seem to be claiming that we don’t engage in subjectivity. In fact, the opposite may be true in 21st-century America. Rather, it is the truth within subjective claims which become unacceptable. In other words, we don’t like that our claims about truth have no objective backing, so we co-opt scientific language to make it seem like we do. This is a common problem in sociological and psychological claims.

Twitter and the Shape of Our Knowledge

From Yascha Mounk’s piece at The Atlantic, “The Problem Isn’t Twitter. It’s That You Care About Twitter.”:

Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people in the country. Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of national newspapers and the chyrons of cable-news shows.

Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users I know check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now. My posts still go to a Twitter account, @cdbaca, but I do not have access to the username and password, because I know the dangers of Twitter for my own personal well-being. But I’m not here to toot my own horn about my digital habits. I have enough other bad habits that prove I am no internet saint.

This piece at The Atlantic made me think of Neil Postman’s claim that new technologies bear new epistemologies. In other words, the technology that we use make us all think differently about two things: (1) what we can know and (2) how we know those things. In Technopoly, he writes,

new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (20)

Postman was no technophobe — he’s just relatively hesitant about the uncritical use of new technology that’s so prevalent in our society. We should be wary, in other words, of uncritical engagement with technology, because the use of technology often (always?) comes with its own way of framing how we picture the world. The same is true for language, which is maybe the postmodern insight.

Twitter is really interesting in this regard, and I think — I hope — that some of us are coming to our senses about the way that heavy Twitter use forms our sense of what we can know and how we know it. Limiting ourselves to short, pithy sentences that attempt to convey religious, political, philosophical, or existential meaning will absolutely have an effect on how we view those spheres of human life.

And ultimately, I wonder if that means that we ought to extend Postman’s thought about the effects of new technology. New technologies don’t just bear new epistemologies; after we accept that new epistemology (or framework of knowledge), we are led towards a new metaphysics (what reality really is), and ultimately a new way of understanding values (aesthetics and ethics).

Knowledge is Not Equal to Possession

To know what a human soul is, what this means, is still a long way from beginning to gain one’s soul in patience, and it is a knowledge that exhibits its difference from that gaining inasmuch as it does indeed grow in impatience. And even though this knowledge may have its significance, it often deceived a person the very same way the world does, in that he thought he possessed it, whereas it was his knowledge that possessed him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, “To Gain One’s Soul in Patience”

SK here is reflecting on Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” (Side note: this is the weird Scripture reference in That Thing You Do! when Guy asks his uncle when the records they just recorded will be made. He responds “Luke 21:19,” and the bass player simply responds by quoting the verse (in what I think is KJV) — “In your patience possess ye your souls”)

Whether Kierkegaard and I seem to have the same concerns about knowledge, or whether reading him has formed how I personally think about knowledge and its temptations, I do not know. This particular discourse was difficult to read, but the gist of it was simple. He reflects on the fact that we gain our souls in patience. For SK, it is the act of being patient itself that is the way in which we gain our souls. The “in” here is key for him — he doesn’t think it is “through” or “by” patience, for that would indicate that we can practice patience, gain our soul, and then be done with patience. No, quite the opposite. It is, in some ways, the act of patience wherein our souls are gained.

Near the end of the discourse, he flips over to those who come at this discussion by asking what a soul is in the first place (which is where the quote above comes from). The question of knowledge is simply another way of being impatient for SK. And, in some ways, it’s an even more devious form of impatience, because it covers itself up by being distanced and seeming wise by asking the question. Those who ask such questions are simply delaying the requirement of the verse itself. It’s another way of attempting to turn what should be subjective knowledge into objective knowledge.

This is probably the ultimate temptation for academics like myself. I want knowledge, and as much of it as possible, before making a decision about how I ought to live. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in some cases, the doing is the knowing.

Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

The Enlightenment Has Its Own Narrative Too

James K.A. Smith, in clarifying the difference between “Christian dominionists” and Kuyperians, writes on Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, especially post-Enlightenment:

To say that everyone works from a ‘worldview’ is to point out that everyone’s take on the world—how we understand the good life or human flourishing or the ideals for a society—are rooted and grounded in some story we believe about ourselves. There are many, competing stories about that, and the Enlightenment narrative is one worldview among others (which usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are’). These orientating narratives and governing myths are the source of norms for what we think is the goal and good of society. There are differing worldviews, but there is no standpoint outside of a worldview.

Two important notes here. First, the Enlightenment narrative “usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are.’ What is the Enlightenment narrative? It’s the one that (1) tells us that humans are capable of autonomous, rational thought, and (2) evidence-based knowledge is all we need to understand reality as-it-is. It is further a narrative about authority (something I mentioned in a previous post) — that ultimately, reason and evidence trump experience and tradition when determining what is true about the world. The point being made by Smith though, is that this is more than just a claim about authority and knowledge — the Enlightenment narrative is often presented as though it is not a narrative at all; it’s just simply how the world works. Everyone else might have a narrative, or reasons for subjecting themselves to a belief system, but Enlightenment thinking? That’s just good sense, the best way to be human.

Second, Kuyper’s sense of the term ‘worldview’ (that there is “no standpoint outside of a worldview”) is a precursor to some of the original claims of postmodernism. Smith says as much in his article. This is something else that is a part of the Enlightenment narrative that its proponents will not often admit. Enlightenment thinking often assumes that, given its trust in reason and evidence, its stance is inherently a stance “outside of any particular worldview.”

Kierkegaard, through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was among the first of the modern philosophers (following Kant) to doubt the Enlightenment claims towards pure objectivity:

Pure thinking is — what shall I say — piously or thoughtlessly unawaare of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts… pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. (CUP, 312)

On this point, C. Stephen Evans expands:

Human beings think as whole persons. It is human beings who reflect, not brains or minds detached from concrete human persons. Their thinking therefore necessarily reflects the shape of tehir human interestes and habits. (Faith Beyond Reason, 98)

Kierkegaard was, perhaps, a postmodern thinker even before Kuyper (not in the sense of worldviews and globalism and religious pluralism — those would come later). Kierkegaard was interested in critiquing the ability of rationality to transcend our finiteness, and laid the groundwork for theologians like Kuyper to question the haughtiness of rationality in the post-Enlightenment era.

Objective Knowledge, Reversed

Kierkegaard’s only valid form of certain, objective knowledge is in the realm of logic (or its extension of mathematics). Theoretically, approximate objective knowledge can be gained in the realm of history and science, but it’s only ever approximate, so it can’t be said to be “certain,” and is always subject to revision. M.G. Piety details SK’s distinct categories of knowledge in her book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology, and those are the only two realms of objective knowledge she can distinctly identify.

Interestingly, McCombs addresses how this situation has reversed in contemporary culture in The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard:

Although the Hegelian System is now dead and gone [what Kierkegaard spent much of his time lambasting], systematizing is still alive and well. For example, scientific naturalists claim to know that all reality is material reality, or that all reality is to be known, to the extent that it can be known, not in diverse ways but exclusively by the public methods of mathematical and empirical sciences. (70)

This is an inversion of SK’s notion of what counts as truly objective knowledge — math and logic provide objective knowledge according to Kierkegaard, but they are not the limit of what is knowable. This, in my opinion, is a large reason why we experience a large amount of doubt about any religious or ethical truth claims. We have accepted the cultural claim re: immanence — that we can only know what is provable empirically or logically because we cannot empirically or logically prove anything exists outside of the material world.

Kierkegaard on Disengagement

Kierkegaard, despite many claims to the contrary, was not an irrationalist. He did not think that one can believe whatever one wants to believe, and his famous claim that ‘subjectivity is truth’ was never meant to convey that truth is simply relative. In fact, Kierkegaard clearly indicates in both Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript that objective knowledge (in certain areas) is entirely attainable. In particular, he references the spheres of mathematics and logic, where absolute (ideal) knowledge can be attained. He also affirms at least approximate knowledge in the case of empirical observation and, to some extent, historical knowledge where evidence is available.

When Kierkegaard claims that subjectivity is truth, his main goal seems to be to claim that objective knowledge in the ethico-religious sphere is impossible. But this is not necessarily because ethical or religious truths are not objectively (in themselves, without reference to anything else) true. Rather, those kinds of truth can only be known subjectively. Human beings cannot know those truths objectively because knowing those truths objectively requires a disengagedabstracted stance. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible for humans to hold such a stance while also living in the truth of the ethico-religious claim. Let’s take an example from SK (through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) directly:

If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 179-180)

This understandably makes contemporary Christians squeamish, because most of us have been taught that our faith is built around having a right, true, objective conception of God. We must objectively know that the God we worship is the true God, otherwise our worship is meaningless. This stance fundamentally misses at least a few points. First, can our conception of God ever be accurate? We may find some way of approximating something about God, but in the long history of human attempts at understanding God, the best we can come up with is that God is infinite (a relatively meaningless concept in everyday life), God is love, etc. If we were required to objectively know the God we are attempting to worship for our worship to be valid, wouldn’t all of our worship necessarily be invalid?

Second, Kierkegaard is not denying the objective existence of God (or anything else for that matter). He specifically mentions in the passage above that the one living in Christendom has a “true conception of God.” His project, at least through the Climacus writings, were an attempt at making hard distinctions within the spheres of human knowledge. There are things that are knowable by humans objectively, but there is also a hard limit on what can be knowable that way. When we attempt to know ethical or religious truth objectively (i.e., cross the knowledge boundary), we make a category error. Further, humans do not have the ability of holding on to knowledge objectively without being dispassionate and disengaged, and this is exactly the wrong stance within ethical and religious truth. Therefore, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny objective truth directly, but the function of holding on to knowledge objectively. Function and existential application were his primary concern.

Defending Fideism

As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.

Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.

Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.

The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.

Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.

The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question.  This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.

Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.