What and How We Know
John Dann MacDonald on Belief said...
A Deadly Shade of Gold (G.K. Hall: 1987), p. 57.
I know just enough about myself to know I cannot settle for one of those simplifications which indignant people seize upon to make understandable a world too complex for their comprehension. Astrology, health food, flag waving, bible thumping, Zen, nudism, nihilism — all of these are grotesque simplifications which small dreary people adopt in the hope of thereby finding The Answer, because the very concept that maybe there is no answer, never has been, never will be, terrifies them.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Fraser (New York: Dover, 1959), IV, xx, 17, pp. 456-57.
Tradition keeps in ignorance or error more people than all the other [the other sources of error] together... I mean the giving up our assent to the common received opinions, either of our friends or party, neighborhood or country. How many men have no other ground for their tenets, than the supposed honesty, or learning, or number of those of the same profession?
John Locke on Disagreement said...
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Fraser (New York: Dover, 1959), vol. 1, p. 27.
The grounds of those persuasions which are to be found amongst men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted somewhere or other with such assurance and confidence, that he that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it.
John Owen on Human Finitude said...
Evenings with the Skeptics: Free Discussion on Free thinkers, Vol. II: Christian Skepticism (Longmans, Green & Co: 1881), p.13.
Although thinkers in the present day are taught to regard their minds as the products of that omnipotent evolution that has educed the whole of natural phenomena, metaphysical as well as physical, from primæval chaos, there seems still loft ... an ineradicable instinct to assign it ... an independence and autonomy of its own. Probably there never existed a race so rude as not to possess some power of discriminating between the subjective thought and objective being, between the 'ego' and the 'non-ego.' Thus in man's most rudimentary relation to the outer world there is postulated a dualism. No sooner does he begin to think than he recognises himself as an entity disparate from and even partially opposed to the environment in which he lives. ... He begins to find that just as he himself forms an infinitesimally small part of the universe, so his personal knowledge is utterly incommensurate with the sum-total of existence, which nevertheless it would fain fathom ... The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown. Moreover, this conviction of disparity tends to advance with the progress of knowledge. Every extension of the bounds of the universe, whether in space or time, enlarges the limits of human Nescience, and the philosopher is fain to confess, "What I know is a small part of what might be known" ... Gradually man acquires the conviction that the known can never be an adequate measure of the unknown. Indeed the assertion of an inevitable antinomy between man and the universe is no more than the involuntary homage we are compelled to render to the infinite possibilities by which we are surrounded, and so far 'twofold truth' might conceivably claim to be the erection of an altar to the unknown god. ~ An Excerpt
Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio by John Paul II, (14 September 1998).
This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread scepticism. Recent times have seen the rise to prominence of various doctrines which tend to devalue even the truths which had been judged certain. A legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today's most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth. Even certain conceptions of life coming from the East betray this lack of confidence, denying truth its exclusive character and assuming that truth reveals itself equally in different doctrines, even if they contradict one another. On this understanding, everything is reduced to opinion; and there is a sense of being adrift. While, on the one hand, philosophical thinking has succeeded in coming closer to the reality of human life and its forms of expression, it has also tended to pursue issues — existential, hermeneutical or linguistic — which ignore the radical question of the truth about personal existence, about being and about God. Hence we see among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers, attitudes of widespread distrust of the human being's great capacity for knowledge. With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence. In short, the hope that philosophy might be able to provide definitive answers to these questions has dwindled.
The Rediscovery of the Mind (MIT Press: 1992), p. 11.
[Speaking descriptively. This is not Searle's view.] Every fact in the universe is in principle knowable and understandably by human investigators. Because reality is physical, and because science concerns the investigation of physical reality, and because there are no limits on what we can know of physical reality, it follows that all of the facts in the universe are knowable and understandable by us.
On Liberty (Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer: 1863), pp. 36-43.
We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility...
On Liberty (Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer: 1863), pp. 65-6.
But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E. Crawford Flitch (Dover: 1954), orig. 1921, p. 15.
All knowledge has an ultimate object. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is, say what you will, nothing but a dismal begging of the question. We learn something either for an immediate practical end, or in order to complete the rest of our knowledge. Even the knowledge that appears to us to be most theoretical — that is to say, of least immediate application to the non-intellectual necessities of life — answers to a necessity which is no less real because it is intellectual, to a reason of economy in thinking, to a principle of unity and continuity of consciousness. But just as a scientific fact has its finality in the rest of knowledge, so the philosophy that we would make our own has also its extrinsic object — it refers to our whole destiny, to our attitude in face of life and the universe. And the most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and the will. For it is on this rock that every philosophy that pretends to resolve the eternal and tragic contradiction, the basis of our existence, breaks to pieces.