categoryEpistemology

Epistemology

Dr. Trevor on Rationality and Emotion

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Regarded merely as mental states, there is an enormous difference in the attitude of a man who is engaged in demonstrating a problem of Euclid, and of the same man offering up prayer for the life of a beloved child. The contrast is not merely between the intellectual object gained and the emotional object sought for, but extends itself more particularly to the subjective mood involved in either case. On the one hand there is a consciousness of certitude, on the other hand a painful feeling of incertitude. Nor is this difference between intellection and emotion greatly modified even when both become equal states of certitude. The conviction, e.g. of a geometrical truth, is of a totally different kind from the emotional assurance which the father feels when he knows that the fever crisis is past, and that in all human probability his child will be spared to him. Now it is the characteristic of most religious beliefs that they professedly belong to the regions both of feeling and intellectual conviction. First imparted by authority parental or otherwise, they are confirmed by long association, and are protected and enhanced by the various sacred and subtle influences that invest all religious beliefs. With this peculiar prestige they take their places among the numberless unanalyzed concepts and opinions that form the general stock of human convictions. Ordinarily they never advance beyond this elementary stage, at least in reality, though in many cases the emotional basis of religious beliefs may be supplemented by a superficial intellection which is hardly more than a predetermination to support foregone conclusions. But in all cases of genuine mental growth there is a progress from the stage of unverified emotion to that of critical ratiocination. Religious beliefs, in common with other contents of the mind, are subjected to a rigid scrutiny. The thinker feels compelled as a matter of intellectual honesty to give a reason for the hope that is in him. If tenets so treated are capable of sustaining the criticism directed to them, they reach their culminating stage of conviction. Frequently, however the contrary takes place — beliefs received into the mind recklessly or on insufficient authority are found on investigation to be unworthy of that position; but nevertheless, possessing from long association a strong hold on the affections, they continue to maintain their place as tenets or persuasions of the emotions. We must not, however, suppose that such a transfer is made readily or easily. Every noteworthy record of mental progress proves how difficult it is to undermine, not to say eliminate, beliefs once fully accepted by the feelings.

Dr. Trevor on the Certain Mind

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But in double-truth as in most other forms of mental eccentricity we must take some notice of ‘the personal equation,’ by which I mean the special differences and idiosyncrasies that exist between one man and another in respect of intellectual conformation. There are intellects, e.g. so intensely, I might say morbidly, synthetic, that they insist on acquiring demonstrated certitude at whatever cost. This type of mind must needs set itself to evolve unity from multiplicity, harmony from dissonance, light from a juxtaposition of shadows, without considering how far its self-imposed task is feasible or how far it is in agreement with the constitution of the universe. In the determination to acquire undoubted conviction, no labour is spared and no expense regarded. Subordinate convictions are ruthlessly thrust aside, objections are ignored, disingenuous methods resorted to, in order to obtain and definitively pronounce on certitude… [Dr. Newman’s] processes are irregular, inconsistent, self-contradictory, of impossible application to any other subject than that of mystical dogmatism. His conclusions, on the other hand, are brilliantly clear, vivid, unmistakable. His mental evolution stands forth like a mountain whose summit is lit up by a warm glow of sunshine, while the sides and base are enshrouded in darkness. Minds of this class appear to me dominated by a sort of religious or spiritual ambition which is just as selfish, audacious, unscrupulous, and unpitying as any other kind of ambition. A man who overturns all reasoning processes, who makes a chaos of human methods, who stultifies the lessons of history for the purpose of boasting a light which to his neighbours is only a deceptive ignis fatuus, is not unlike Napoleon, who forced his way through cruelty and bloodshed to attain a crown. Such men forget that the infallibility, the unity, and harmony they have achieved so recklessly suggest to the more cautious spectator division and dissonance. They forget that their shield has two sides, and if certainty is emblazoned on one, doubt is conspicuously legible on the other, and that the real Skepticism of their methods, the profound distrust of human reason which marks them, is only dimly veiled by the vaunted infallibility of their conclusions.

Alexander Leitch on Truthseeking as Threshing

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Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.

John Stuart Mill on Heretics and Freedom of Thought

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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.

The Man of Adamant

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Nathaniel Hawthorne tells a tale of a man whose “creed was like no man’s else” and who was “well pleased that Providence had entrusted him alone, of mortals, with the treasure of a true faith”. Richard Digby stands-in for all those who draw a rigid and ever-tightening circle around the true believers, until they are left all alone in their sanctimony and self-assuredness. To engage with and possibly learn from others is a threat. The end of such a man, and of so many splintered religionists and ideologues, is isolation. May the man of Adamant be the warning Hawthorne intended against letting the love of truth devolve into a narrow, insecure, and closed-minded certainty that’s good for nobody. ~ Nate

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

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!

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 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.

Oliver Cromwell on Possibly Being Wrong

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SIRS,
Your Answer to the Declaration of the Army we have seen. Some godly Ministers with us did, at Berwick, compose this Reply; which I thought fit to send you.

That you or we, in these great Transactions, answer the will and mind of God, it is only from His grace and mercy to us. And therefore, having said as in our Papers, we commit the issue thereof to Him who disposeth all things, assuring you that we have light and comfort increasing upon us, day by day; and are
persuaded that, before it be long, the Lord will manifest His good pleasure so that all shall see Him; and His People shall say, This is the Lord’s work, and it is marvelous in our eyes: this is the day that the Lord hath made; we will be glad and rejoice therein. –

Only give me leave to say, in a word, ‘thus much:’ You take upon you to judge us in the things of our God, though you know us not, — though in the things we have said unto you, in that which is entitled the Army’s Declaration, we have spoken our hearts as in the sight of the Lord who hath tried us. And by your hard and subtle words you have begotten prejudice in those who do too much, in matters of conscience, — wherein every soul is to answer for itself to God, — depend upon you. So that some have already followed you, to the breathing-out of their souls: ‘and’ others continue still in the way wherein they are led by you,-we fear, to their own ruin. And no marvel if you deal thus with us, when indeed you can find in your hearts to conceal from your own people the Papers we have sent you; who might thereby see and understand the bowels of our affections to them, especially to such among them as fear the Lord. Send as many of your Papers as you please amongst ours; they have a free passage. I fear them not. What is of God in them, would it might be embraced and received!-

One of them lately sent, directed To the Under-officers and Soldiers in the English Army, hath begotten from them this enclosed Answer; which they desired me to send to you: not a crafty politic one, but a plain simple spiritual one; — what kind of one it is God knoweth, and God also will in due time make manifest. And do we multiply these things, as men; or do we them for the Lord Christ and His People’s sake?

Indeed we are not, through the grace of God, afraid of your numbers, nor confident in ourselves. We could, — I pray God you do not think we boast, — meet your Army, or what you have to bring against us. We have given, — humbly we speak it before our God, in whom all our hope is, — some proof that thoughts of that kind prevail not upon us. The Lord hath not hid His face from us since our approach so near unto you.

Your own guilt is too much for you to bear: bring not therefore upon yourselves the blood of innocent men, — deceived with pretences of King and Covenant; from whose eyes you hid a better knowledge! I am persuaded that divers of you, who lead the People, have laboured to build yourselves in these things; wherein you have censured others, and established yourselves “upon the Word of God.” Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say?

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. Precept may be upon precept, line may be upon line, and yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a Word of Judgment; that they may fall backward and be broken, and be snared and be taken!

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. Precept may be upon precept, line may be upon line, and yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a Word of Judgment; that they may fall backward and be broken, and be snared and be taken! There may be a spiritual fulness, which the World may call drunkenness; as in the second Chapter of the Acts. There may be, as well, a carnal confidence upon misunderstood and misapplied precepts, which may be called spiritual drunkenness. There may be a Covenant made with Death and Hell! I will not say yours was so. But judge if such things have a politic aim: To avoid the overflowing scourge; or, To accomplish worldly interests? And if therein we have confederated with wicked and carnal men, and have respect for them, or otherwise ‘have drawn them in to associate with us, Whether this be a Covenant of God, and spiritual? Bethink yourselves; we hope we do.

I pray you read the 28th of Isaiah, from the fifth to the fifteenth verse. And do not scorn to know that it is the Spirit that quickens and giveth life. The Lord give you and us understanding to do that which is well-pleasing in His sight. Committing you to the grace of God, I rest,

Your humble servant,
Oliver Cromwell


Isaiah 28:5-15

In that day the Lord Almighty
will be a glorious crown,
a beautiful wreath
for the remnant of his people.
6He will be a spirit of justice
to the one who sits in judgment,
a source of strength
to those who turn back the battle at the gate.
7And these also stagger from wine
and reel from beer:
Priests and prophets stagger from beer
and are befuddled with wine;
they reel from beer,
they stagger when seeing visions,
they stumble when rendering decisions.
8All the tables are covered with vomit
and there is not a spot without filth.
9“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
to those just taken from the breast?
10For it is:
Do this, do that,
a rule for this, a rule for that;
a little here, a little there.”
11Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
12to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.
13So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
Do this, do that,
a rule for this, a rule for that;
a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
they will be injured and snared and captured.
14Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.
15You boast, “We have entered into a covenant with death,
with the realm of the dead we have made an agreement.
When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by,
it cannot touch us,
for we have made a lie our refuge
and falsehood our hiding place.”