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Epistemology

Epistemology

On Truth

Go Frayssinous, a French academic and preacher of the highest stature under Louis XVIII, begins his defense of Christianity with an ode to truth. Along with happiness, it is our greatest need and longing. But not only are we "made for truth", we are, accordingly, equipped with faculties to discover it. Against skepticism, Frayssinous advances a particularist epistemology, arguing that some beliefs arise in us in such a way that they serve as anchor points by which we can considerably extend our knowledge. These moorings are marked by several qualities, namely: "perspicuity, antiquity, universality, and immutability". For example, propositions that are immutable "resist ignorance, prejudice, and passion". We can no more make it so that "there should be effects without causes, than to appoint that for the future men should live without food". Our abilities to discern these basic truths "serve us as guides and torches". "We are compelled to admit the existence of primary truths, felt and perceived as soon as announced, incapable of proof, because they themselves are the proof of every thing, primary in their existence, they precede the experienced use of reason, as the seed precedes the plant." Conceding that his principles for establishing such truths avails only a meager handful of knowledge, Fraysinnous argues that by these lights much can be inferred. "If then the chain of our reasonings are suspended on any one of these primary and immutable principles; if they are united together like the links of that chain, the last held by the one preceding, until they reach the fixed point which sustains the whole, then will the very last consequence be inseparably united to its principle." Finally, Frayssinous addresses the inevitable objection that, if these faculties are so wonderfully veracious, why then the persistence of such disagreement and so many erroneous beliefs. He continues his abbreviated response here in his second discourse, "On the Causes of Our Errors". Disposed as I am to well-qualified particularism, Frayssinous' brief but artful defense is a welcome alternative to his less epistemically sanguine countrymen, such as Foucalt and Derrida. ~ Afterall

John Stuart Mill on Teachability and a Slowness to Condemn

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We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirt cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men especially, is apt to be wanting — a slowness to condemn. A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth…

Samuel Drew on Thomas Paine’s Rhetoric

Go Upon what peculiar excellency, the popularity of your book is founded, I will not presume to determine; but, in the perusal of its pages, I could plainly discover, that, in many places, you had substituted ridicule in the room of argument; while epithets of abuse were introduced, to dazzle the mind with their superficial glare; as though your design were rather to excite contempt than to produce conviction. Instead of meeting with demonstrative evidence, I have seen idle declamation, calculated rather to delude than to inform; I have met with premises of your own creation, which you have assumed, and from which you have argued conclusively: while in many places, from premises which would not be disputed, your reasonings are inconclusive, and your inferences unjust. You have blended together, in one common mass, the Heathen mythology, Mahometanisrn, Christianity, Popery, and Priestcraft, with all the errors, and all the vices, all the dissensions, and all the cruelties, which, by a departure from the pure principles ot Christianity, have disgraced the human character; and, with an effrontery hardly to be paralleled, have thrown the whole on Revelation. Is this fair? You have made comparisons, which are as invidious as they are unjust; but it will be only in those, who are disposed to place in the scurrility of your language, that confidence, which nothing but legitimate proof has a right to claim, that those effects will be produced, for which your book seems calculated. To yourself you seem to have arrogated the exclusive appropriation of rationality; and, in the excess of triumph, you appear to tell the world, that the barbarism and mental shackles, in which it had been held for ages, have been reserved, to be torn away by the superior genius of Thomas Paine. From this mode of procedure, it is easy to infer, in what estimation you hold the intellectual discernment, and the reasoning powers of others.

Samuel Drew on History as Trusting Testimony

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Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. … You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.

Alexander Pope on the Paradox of Man

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Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, ¶ The proper study of mankind is Man. ¶ Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, ¶ A being darkly wise, and rudely great: ¶ With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, ¶ With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; ¶ In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; ¶ In doubt his mind or body to prefer; ¶ Born but to die; and reas’ning but to err: ¶ Alike in ignorance, his reason such, ¶ Whether he thinks too little or too much; ¶ Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; ¶ Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d; ¶ Created half to rise and half to fall; ¶ Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; ¶ Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; ¶ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Thomas Paine on Revelation and Redemption

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The dogma of the redemption is the fable of priest-craft invented since the time the New Testament was compiled, and the agreeable delusion of it suited with the depravity of immoral livers. When men are taught to ascribe all their crimes and vices to the temptations of the Devil, and to believe that Jesus by his death rubs all off, and pays their passage to heaven gratis, they become as careless in morals as a spendthrift would be of money, were he told that his father had engaged to pay off all his scores. It is a doctrine not only dangerous to morals in this world, but to our happiness in the next world, because it holds out such a cheap, easy, and lazy way of getting to heaven, as has a tendency to induce men to hug the delusion of it to their own injury. ¶ But there are times when men have serious thoughts, and it is at such times, when they begin to think, that they begin to doubt the truth of the Christian Religion; and well they may, for it is too fanciful and too full of conjecture, inconsistency, improbability, and irrationality, to afford consolation to the thoughtful man. His reason revolts against his creed. He sees that none of its articles are proved, or can be proved. He may believe that such a person as is called Jesus (for Christ was not his name) was born and grew to be a man, because it is no more than a natural and probable case. But who is to prove he is the son of God, that he was  begotten by the Holy Ghost? Of these things there can be no proof; and that which admits not of proof, and is against the laws of probability and the order of nature, which God himself has established, is not an object for belief. God has not given man reason to embarrass him, but to prevent his being imposed upon.

Thomas Reid on Conjecture and Empirical Science

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There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.

Thomas Jefferson on Reason, Tribunal and Oracle

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Shake off all fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are severely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible then as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example in the Book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you will be a vast additional incitement: if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.

George Herne on the Ease of Objections

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Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question — Be it so.

Thomas Reid on Rational Induction and Empiricism

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Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man. The wisdom of God exceeds that of the wisest man, more than that of the wisest man exceeds the wisdom of a child. If a child were to conjecture how an army is to be formed in the day of battle, how a city is to be fortified, or a state governed, what chance has he to guess right? As little chance has the wisest man, when he pretends to conjecture how the planets move in their courses, how the sea ebbs and flows, and how our minds act upon our bodies …

Immanuel Kant on Unanswerable Questions

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Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

David Hume on Human Conceptions of God

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The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind, than to be thus selected from all other parts of the creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator. But consult this image, as it appears in the popular religions of the world. How is the deity disfigured in our representations of him! What caprice, absurdity, and immorality are attributed to him! How much is he degraded even below the character, which we should naturally, in common life, ascribe to a man of sense and virtue!

David Hume on Hard Reality vs. Faith

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We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

David Hume on the Greater Miracle

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When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

David Hume on Esoteric Philosophy

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Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

David Hume on the Limits of Reason

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Though the chain of arguments … were ever so logical, there must arise a strong suspicion, if not an absolute assurance, that it has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land, long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory; and there we have no reason to trust our common methods of argument, or to think that our usual analogies and probabilities have any authority. Our line is too short to fathom such abysses.

David Hume on Empathy and the Bandwagon Effect

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No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions. To this principle we ought to ascribe the great uniformity we may observe in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation; and ’tis much more probable, that this resemblance arises from sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate, which, tho’ they continue invariably the same, are not able to preserve the character of a nation the same for a century together. A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintance. A chearful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden dump upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition. So remarkable a phaenomenon merits our attention, and must be trac’d up to its first principles.

David Hume on Cause and Effect

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This deficiency in our ideas is not, indeed, perceived in common life, nor are we sensible, that in the most usual conjunctions of cause and effect we are as ignorant of the ultimate principle, which binds them together, as in the most unusual and extraordinary. But this proceeds merely from an illusion of the imagination; and the question is, how far we ought to yield to these illusions. This question is very difficult, and reduces us to a very dangerous dilemma, whichever way we answer it. For if we assent to every trivial suggestion of the fancy; beside that these suggestions are often contrary to each other; they lead us into such errors, absurdities, and obscurities, that we must at last become asham’d of our credulity. Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers. Men of bright fancies may in this respect be compar’d to those angels, whom the scripture represents as covering their eyes with their wings. This has already appear’d in so many instances, that we may spare ourselves the trouble of enlarging upon it any farther.

David Hume on the Incomprehensibility of God

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All the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy, have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence, and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems therefore unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them ; and the phenomena, besides, of the universe will not support us in such a theory. All our ideas, derived from the senses’ are confusedly false and illusive ; and cannot, therefore, be supposed to have place in a supreme intelligence: And as the ideas of internal sentiment, added to those of the external senses, compose the whole furniture of human understanding, we may conclude, that none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human and in the divine intelligence. Now, as to the manner of thinking; how can we make any comparison between them, or suppose them anywise resembling? Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded; and were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would, in such a case, be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least, if it appear more pious and respectful (as it really is) still to retain these terms, when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in that case, is totally incomprehensible; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas, which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the divine attributes.

David Hume on the Difficulty of Ethical Reflection

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There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning, that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.

David Hume on Criticism of Rival Views

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Nothing is more usual and more natural for those who pretend to discover any thing new to the world in philosophy and the sciences, than to insinuate the praises of their own systems by decrying all those which have been advanced before them. And indeed were they content with lamenting that ignorance, which we still lie under in the most important questions that can come before the tribunal of human reason, there are few who have an acquaintance with the sciences that would not readily agree with them. ‘Tis easy for one of judgment and learning to perceive the weak foundation even of those systems which have obtained the greatest credit, and have carried their pretensions highest to accurate and profound reasoning. Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are every where to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself.

Hume (as Philo) on Mind, Matter, and Order

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Were a man to abstract from every thing which he knows or has seen, he would be altogether incapable, merely from his own ideas, to determine what kind of scene the universe must be, or to give the preference to one state or situation of things above another. For as nothing which he clearly conceives, could be esteemed impossible or implying a contradiction, every chimera of his fancy would be upon an equal footing; nor could he assign any just reason, why he adheres to one idea or system, and rejects the others, which are equally possible.
Again; after he opens his eyes, and contemplates the world, as it really is, it would be impossible for him, at first, to assign the cause of any one event; much less, of the whole of things or of the universe. He might set his Fancy a rambling; and she might bring him in an infinite variety of reports and representations. These would all be possible; but being all equally possible, he would never, of himself, give a satisfactory account for his preferring one of them to the rest. Experience alone can point out to him the true cause of any phenomenon.

Jonathan Edwards on Knowledge of God by Acquaintance

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Thus there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that is excellent.

John Locke on Tradition

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The great obstinacy that is to be found in men firmly believing quite contrary opinions, though many times equally absurd, in the various religions of mankind, are as evident a proof as they are an unavoidable consequence of this way of reasoning from received traditional principles. So that men will disbelieve their own eyes, renounce the
evidence of their senses, and give their own experience the lie, rather than admit of anything disagreeing with these sacred tenets.

John Locke on Suspecting There Is No Truth

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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.