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My Preferred Epistemology

Sam Taylor

Posted on March 29, 2021 15:11

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Most can agree: a healthy dose of skepticism is good. But how much is healthy?

Knowledge is an abused concept. While we profess to know many things (e.g. scientific facts, moral principles, mathematical axioms, etc.), our beliefs inevitably lack certainty, regardless of their strength. 

Epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, boasts vast literature packed with diverse analyses. Despite its expansivity, a through-line exists between every piece of epistemic writing. The fundamental end of epistemology, and the undeniable truth of reasoning, is that all beliefs are reducible to faith in human perception—including the belief that all beliefs are reducible to faith in human perception. 

You might think about it this way: It’s always imaginable, and therefore theoretically possible, that some conviction is founded on illusion. This applies to personal convictions (e.g. that your weird mailman is probably a cultist) and universal axioms (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4)—both of which could, imaginably, be the result of delusion in our mental faculties. You may be tempted to respond in positing that there’s no evidence our faculties are deluded, and therefore no reason to entertain the ridiculous notion that 2 + 2 ≠ 4. But this simply pushes the problem back. The rational value of evidence is based on our understanding of the relationship between evidential status and reality: between what is supported by reasoning and what is true. But this understanding may itself be deluded, a result of dysfunctional cognition or whatever else. To employ reason, we must assume that our powers of perception are valid indicators of reality—an assumption we make for nothing but the sake of efficiency. 

Of course, the problem persists. Even the above analysis, the notion that reasoning must be based on baseless assumption, is a belief structure with the conceivable potential for fallibility (as is, by the way, everything mentioned in this paragraph).  

The insanity of this regress requires that we shun it. We simply couldn’t question everything in an infinite trap of cyclical skepticism, attempting to grapple with the arbitrary basis upon which every belief rests. (Or, at least, it seems like we can’t.) Instead, we’re content to constrain our reasoning to the presumed framework of logic, founded upon our inexplicable apprehension of the rational. After all, that’s exactly what I’ve done in this TLT; I’ve presented a reasoned analysis as to why reasoning is virtually baseless, which analysis is itself virtually baseless—a fact I’ve ignored to circumvent an ineluctable contradiction. 

Now, why discuss this aspect of philosophy? Because accepting the impossibility of certain knowledge frees one from the constraint of blind conviction. If we’re cognizant of the fragility of human reason, we’re more critical of our preconceived notions, whether philosophical or social. Even if we ignore the incomprehensible regressions of epistemology, mere awareness of its existence moves us to reevaluate our most baseline beliefs and everything they uphold. 

Some may think this fodder for an existential crisis, others a tool for critical thinking. Either way, it provides a healthy shock to dogmatic belief: something our society, burdened by ideological polarization and avid surety, needs.

Sam Taylor

Posted on March 29, 2021 15:11

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