February 1, 2009

I have a very loose familiarity with philosophy. Most of my experience comes from personal thought and casual conversation (and Wikipedia), so please don’t assume I’m authoritative on the subject. But I have done some thinking, and come up with, I suppose, a theory: knowledge must be inherently a subjective concept. Close corollaries are: true objective certainty is impossible, and so everybody really does just have to ‘make it up as they go’. I guess this is nothing really new, intellectually, but I do think it’s highly relevant to contemporary, cosmopolitan life, and is integral to any basis for comprehension.

Assume for a moment, as most of us do, that an external, objective reality exists, regardless of whether any subject does. Objective knowledge I would have defined as logical statements, or information about this objective reality which is true. Enter a subject: an awareness, a conscious entity. Any knowledge of the external reality would have to result from a flow of information from external reality to subjective entity; from object to subject. I liken this process to the human process of “sensing”, and the details are unimportant here. Now basically my problem is: all that the subject can know is limited by the information that is input. Whether that information inflow is all there is to know, is filtered by something, is pure fiction fed to it by another entity (or even by itself! – think dreams), or is simply the product of random chaos, is unknowable to that subject. So again, all knowledge must be subjective. All that any subject can know is the stream of information it is being fed. Hence, all knowledge is relative to a subject; subjective. Confining oneself to complete uncertainty, however, can be a little uncomfortable, destabilizing, even debilitating. It certainly doesn’t provide one with a solid grounding to make decisions from. The scientific step is to start guessing, theorizing, testing observations for consistency, postulating explanations for observations. This is a really great development, which has really only been popular in the last few hundred years, and is responsible for massive social, technological, and philosophical reform, literally single-handedly responsible for much of the modern world as we know it, but again produces only strong guesswork.

Belief, then, is that final assertion; assertion that a theory really does line up with reality. Belief is a somewhat ambiguous idea, but in its traditional sense, it’s generally defined as the functional assumption of truth, or basically, an assertion that a thing is true, regardless of how it stacks up (well or poorly) against truth (could it be so compared), or any justification thereof. Basically, I conclude that any belief system – i.e. religion,  or worldview – is simply just such an assertion (with maybe the exception of agnosticism, since I think I just extolled it’s virtue as being outside such  arbitration). Further, I would be so bold as to suggest that a basic understanding of this idea – assuming I have half a clue what I’m talking about – would go a long way in the promotion of tolerance and inter-cultural understanding. However, I am not so naïve as to think that just everyone will up and abandon the central tenet of their existence over my paltry page of text.

For those interested, I suppose on the grand epistemological scale, I’d probably fall down on fallibilism. According to Wikipedia: “the philosophical doctrine that all claims of knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken”, yet which does not deny the usefulness of said claims in lieu of a better solution.