Epistemology 101 (Updated)

We’re tired.  And this is tedious for us, but then again the occasional review of well worn territory has some value.  If only for nostalgia.  So on to it.

We refer the reader to the last post, not our best effort but it puts a name to the face so to speak.  The real issue, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, is this:

How do we “know” anything at all?

Parmenides says we know what our “reason” tells us and nothing else, certainly not what we see.  Heraclitus says we know only what we see, and what we see is unintelligible chaos, change, motion and “flux”, ultimately indecipherable to reason.  Or “the Reason”, as we hereinafter refer to it.

Adhering strictly – logically – to either of these bookends of the epistemological shelf is incompatible with life as we “know” it (forgive the loose use of the term here).  With Parmenides you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and light a cigarette.  With Heraclitus you lurch from experience to experience but none of it means anything.

But as between the two alternatives, is one better?  Yes.  Parmenides.  Because at least it makes some sense.  Heraclitus would deny even the value of that, but of course he’s on a loop he can’t escape, because his denial would stand only to the extent that it makes more sense.  “the Reason” – or, as we like to call it over here at LoS, “natural reason” – is the one absolute, inescapable given of our existence.

So centuries later DesCartes embodies this thought in his famous “Cogito ergo sum”; but then this is subject to ridicule both by Kierkegaard (our hero)(“If I am thinking, what wonder, then, that I am”.) and Nietzsche (our antagonist).  And why is that?

Reason is how we understand whatever it is we understand, but we can never understand reason itself.  It just is, and we just submit to it every waking moment because practically speaking, or epistemologically speaking for that matter, there is no alternative.

Except to go insane.  Which is what Nietzsche did, and it’s not a coincidence.

So why does anyone go down that particular road?

Because the Reason, since we must submit to it even though it can’t explain itself, is just like the idea of the God, and in just that same way:  the Reason is accepted as binding not as a matter of the Reason itself (as the Reason can’t explain or justify itself) but as a matter of faith.  We submit to the Reason because we have faith in it, and that is the only possible basis for our submission to it.  And once we acknowledge that no matter how much we pretend otherwise we are governed ultimately by faith (for that’s what all this means) and not by the Reason – and certainly not by what we empirically observe – then faith in the God becomes reasonable (apologies!), so reasonable in fact that the opposite – atheism – becomes unreasonable, unsustainable and unjustifiable.  Arguably, on the level of the Reason faith in the God becomes mandatory, or at least as mandatory as faith in the Reason is.

But can one still be an atheist?  Of course.  But only on this condition:  I am an atheist not on account of the Reason, which I submit to in all other matters of every waking moment of my existence (because I must) and which rejects atheism; rather, I am an atheist because that is my will, the God and the Reason both be damned.

One danger in this  (and it is a profound and very real – that is, a practical and present  danger) and one that has affected us and our life, and our clients and their lives, is that naturally enough once one has rejected faith in the God one is liable to reject faith in the Reason as well, since the Reason leads inexorably to faith, and faith leads inexorably to the God.  And vice-versa.

Thus we see that:  “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” is where any atheist is sure to end up, not just David Hume.  And the American legal profession became, as the 20th century wore on, rigidly and dogmatically David Hume’s intellectual heirs.  Often by way of Jeremy Bentham and Oliver Wendell Holmes.  And of course Friedrich Nietzsche.  And the term “intellectual” is of course advanced advisedly.  Anti-intellectual would be more accurate.

Re-read if you don’t understand.

And so here is one “real world” consequence of this otherwise arcane subject matter.  And another.  We could go on.

But here’s another important point.  We have described Nietzsche as our antagonist, which indeed he is, but we should also acknowledge our indebtedness to him:  he shows us the horror of atheism.  As we said earlier, it’s not a coincidence that Nietzsche went insane.  It is also not a coincidence that he became an icon of murderous 20th century ideologies like Nazism.  The absence of the God leads to the absence of the Reason and all that’s left is who or what is to be master, and that’s all.  Thy will or my will.  Reason, truth or justice have nothing to do with it.  Power is all there is.

It is a prescription for hell on earth, of course.  But perhaps worse than that, or maybe more part and parcel of it, is that the idea is (as we implied at the beginning of this morning’s discourse) ….tedious.  A colossal boreMilton had exhausted the idea two centuries before Nietzsche.

And so what happens to the schools of western thought that embrace Nietzsche, which at this point is most of them?  As you might imagine, they become less and less interesting.  Read Wittgenstein and stay awake, if you can.

And so we come back to the beginning, and again Kierkegaard says it so much better than we can:

Starting from a principle is affirmed by people of experience to be a very reasonable procedure; I am willing to humor them, and so begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself to be so great a bore as to contradict me in this….Boredom is the root of all evil.

We can only add this:  the reverse is also true.  Evil is the root of all boredom.  Intellectually, that is.  In practice, of course, evil can become very interesting indeed, at least short term.

Although we do not mean “interesting” in a good way, because it is most assuredly not a Good Thing.

Update:  A little ironic that we published this post, which we had composed over some days, on the same day that Stephen Hawking died, for his views on things are quite topical, notably these.

We swear, we had no notice of the event.  Hawking dying, that is.

Of course Hawking saying that “science” has superseded – indeed buried – philosophy is another way of saying that the truths of the Reason are subject to empirical confirmation, in the absence of which they are not truths at all, and accordingly philosophy is indeed dead.  As is God, of course, but then Hawking was hardly a trail-blazer on that score since Nietzsche said as much a century and a half ago.

A dubious proposition does not acquire more weight just because Hawking said it.  And we would note, empirically, that while the evidence of Hawking’s oft attributed “brilliance” is surprisingly sparse – he apparently had trouble learning to read, for example – the evidence of his overt politicization and ideological inclination is abundant:  he was a reliable apologist for every mainstream-liberal – and often flamboyantly “scientific” – bugaboo.

But perhaps most importantly, and like almost all other media-anointed-scientists such as Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Bill Nye, he was frankly and candidly atheist if not openly hostile to “religion”.

Almost as if that is a prerequisite for being a media-anointed-scientist in the first place.

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