Monday, March 05, 2012

Epistemology

As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s I took a course in epistemology, the study of knowledge as knowledge: How do we know what we know? To what extent can we be confident in what we know? I can't say that I remember the details of the course, but by the time I graduated I had been exposed to knowledge derived in at least five ways -- intuition, pure reason, empiricism, tradition, and revelation -- offering, purportedly, varying degrees of certainty. The rest of my life has been a matter of testing these instruments against the light of experience.

Each of us will no doubt value these five ways to knowledge with differing degrees of confidence. Some hold most firmly to what they take to be direct revelation from a divinely infallible source. Some will value the traditional knowledge inherited from our ancestors. In the hands of certain geniuses like Einstein pure reason carries the day -- although in science reason must ultimately bow to empirical evidence. Intuition is manifestly unreliable, but all of us use it.

Personally, I've dispensed with revelation; I've seen too much mischief follow from that kind of certainty. Tradition, too, except in very practical matters (hot stoves burn), strikes me as notoriously susceptible to accidents of birth. I value my intuitions, but wouldn't stake my life on them, or seek to impose them on anyone else. Reason and empiricism measure up best, especially when linked in the communal, consensus-building activity we call science.

In general, at age 75, I stand on the shore between knowledge and mystery with one foot on the sand and one foot in the water. Ask me what I think of X and I'll answer with one of four responses, depending on the question:

I don't know.

Maybe.

Probably.

Exceedingly likely.