In my seemingly endless (perhaps only circular) search for knowledge about knowledge, I have come to realize that one question more than any other continues to present itself. I think the answer to this question may turn out to be the one key that will unlock the doors to a multitude of hitherto inaccessible mysteries that keep me up all night and have been the source of a nearly perpetual ache in my soul.

My question is this,

What are the foundational (and therefore unassailable) principles and criteria by which an individual may set forth to distinguish Truth from Error? How are these principles and criteria truly and justifiably known?

When I raise this question with friends, the answer I most often get has something to do with sensory experience and knowledge about the material world. It as though they were concerned I was on the verge of plummeting into a world of idealism, and thus never being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life–pleasures like sitting in a chair without being plagued with anxiety over whether or not it is real enough to support my very substantial weight.

Perhaps this answer is the necessary first step towards uncovering criteria which allow for knowledge about the more interesting and life-threatening issues that are found in an individual’s worldview. If so, please help me see the connection.

While questions about the existence of the material world are interesting in there own way, the sorts of questions that exacerbate the ever-present ache in my soul are concerned with more intangible things. Questions about the nature of man, the purpose of life, the essence and existence of beings other than myself, and both my current and the proper relationship to those other beings–questions that are supposed to be answered by my worldview. These issues are intensely personal because they boil down to questions about my identity, my purpose, the world I live in, and the moral responsibilities that may be incumbent on me. These issues are also universal (at least I imagine they would be) since they are intensely personal to beings other than myself.

My current dilemma is not so much with the details of my worldview, as much as with what justifies me in holding it and how to go about tweaking it. Once certain foundational principles and criteria are accepted, the rest more or less flows out of them as they are applied to various topics. Rather, I fail to see what allows individuals to accept certain principles and criteria as foundational in the first place; especially because it seems that different people can have very different criteria.

It seems that we don’t have the leisure of choosing our foundational principles at all. Rather, from the moment our feet hit the floor, we are off and running. We make decisions about what counts as evidence long before we examine if our decision-making process was sound. We can only come at the world through our particular lenses, our interpretive grid if you will, and never have the opportunity to stand outside of it and decide if it is adequate, effective, or more importantly, correct. Each individual has his own grid, and even if he wanted to change it, it could only be done within the context of the current grid, thereby limiting him from objectively knowing the merits of the new proposition.

In a way, this dilemma seems to be a problem of interpretation. Only instead of arguing about literary theories and the best way to understand Moby Dick, I’m looking for a larger theory that will get at the best way (the correct way) to understand God, myself, and the world. All the problems that show up in literary theory (authorial intent, separation of the audience and the author from the text, subconscious and/or unnoticed effects due to society, ethnicity or psychological make-up, locus of meaning, final authority, etc.), show up in an attempt to interpret the world and our selves. Worse, I don’t see how to separate myself from these problems in the way that I can separate myself from literature–the “God’s-eye view” seems currently unavailable.

The next-best-thing and its justification still flummox me. You?

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Posted by Tex

6 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this post… one quick question and suggestion to add to the dialogues (this written dialogue & your internal dialogue!): Your question sought the “principles and criteria” of knowledge; why assume the principles and criteria are plural? It might be a principle, a criterion.

    That’s all for now.

    Reply

  2. Tex,

    Although we have spend hours discussing this very issue, I will attempt to offer a response to your questions.

    I admit that I was a bit surprized to find, at the start of your post, that you seem to accept perception (and the other senses) as legitimate sources of knolwedge. If this is true, then given that we cannot reasonably doubt reason, and that we will not get very far if we reject memory, than it seems we have, at least, three foundational sources of knowledge from which to build our worldviews. Now it seems that these are not what you are getting at, correct me if I am wrong, but rather that you are looking for a criteria or set or principles somewhat different–could you give an example of one of these? If we have a foundation of reason, perception, and memory, then it seems that we do have the leisure of at least checking and correcting our assumptions about the world, even if it is true that we don’t choose them. While this examining and refining of our grid is difficult, it does not seem impossible given that it is not at the very bottom of our foundation of knowledge—reason, perception, and memory are. Assumptions about the world seem to be build upon these three foundations.

    In all this I fear that I have misunderstood you in some way. Perhaps you could clarify what the “larger theory” that you mention would contain and why it would have more power to justify than the foundation criteria I have mentioned. Thanks for bearing with my comments!

    Charity :)

    Reply

  3. Here I have the privilege of meriting a response from the amazing Charity, and it takes me almost a week to respond. My apologies–although I tend to only blog once a week thanks to my busy pilot training schedule.

    I think you are correct in offering reason, perception, and memory as the foundation of knowledge. That is, those three things are the main tools through which we interact with the world. Thus, if there is knowledge to be had, it is to be had through the operation of those faculties.

    However, I am concerned with something a little bit different (I think). I am interested in the use we make of those faculties. At best, those faculties seem to enable us to interact with raw data (i.e., they enable us to go out and “pick it up”), and there is something else that operates upon that data that gives rise to our opinions, beliefs, and knowledge about the cosmos. What is the something else?

    In the operation of our reason, memory, and perception, there seems to be an assumption (at least among foundationalists who are also realists) that those faculties are trustworthy means of knowing things as they really are, and are not being filtered through a particular human grid. The great modernist hope was that pure reason would be enough to lead us to Truth (I’d say that adding memory and perception along with reason don’t change that modernist position too greatly). However, we run into people all the time with well-reasoned theories about the world that are in conflict with each other. In dealing with these differences, there must come a point when saying, “Well, he’d agree with me if he were more rational,” doesn’t seem to quite cut it anymore. There seems to be something operating beside reason, perception, and memory that is guiding men in their thoughts and bringing them to certain arguably reasonable, though contrary, conclusions.

    It is this something that I label the interpretive grid. This grid seems to be the larger theory that underlies our use of reason, perception, and memory. What criteria (or criterion, Keith; I’m impartial) can be used to guarantee that our grid is actually mapped onto reality? What pre-worldview principles (or principle) must be in place to enable an individual to rightly discern Truth from Error?

    If there are no such things, or if they cannot be discovered or changed, what do we do? Are we forever limited by our perspective and barred from objectively knowing Truth?

    Reply

  4. Hi everybody,
    How great to see all of you having this discussion! This is my first time blogging so apologies in advance if I do it wrong. Here are a few questions that might make for fruitful discussion:

    1. What is the relationship between being foundational and being unassailable? What would be the consequences if (pace Descartes, et. al.) the foundations turned out to be assailable after all?

    2. What is the significance of disagreement (among thoughtful, sincere, intelligent, well-informed people) about some issue? What should one conclude upon having discovered such disagreement? Is there an answer to this question that is likely to win universal (or close to universal) consent (among thoughtful, sincere, intelligent, well-informed people)?

    3. What is the relationship between being limitted to (stuck “in”) one’s own perspective and having (or not having) access to objective truth? If having a perspective which is different from the perspecitves of others is the problem, then is the God’s-eye perspective really any better? Is God stuck with the God’s-eye perspective? Or can he choose another one?

    4. What is an interpretive grid and what does it do to the raw data? Is there a non-metaphorical way of talking about the “cooking” of the raw data? Perhaps more importantly, if there is “cooking” going on, what is the nature of our access to IT (the cooking)? Do we watch it happening? Infer that it is happening? If we watch it, what does it “look” like? If we infer it, from what premises?

    5. Is our epistemological access to persons (ourselves, others, God, angels, demons, saints) any different than our access to ordinary objects of perception/reason/memory? Assume that ordinary objects (tables, chairs, etc.) can be present for observation under certain conditions. Are the conditions for the presentation of a person different? Can persons choose NOT to be availble for cognitive presentation?

    Ok. I hope this works (gets posted). Here goes…
    Cheers!
    GT

    Reply

  5. Hi everybody,
    How great to see all of you having this discussion! This is my first time blogging so apologies in advance if I do it wrong. Here are a few questions that might make for fruitful discussion:

    1. What is the relationship between being foundational and being unassailable? What would be the consequences if (pace Descartes, et. al.) the foundations turned out to be assailable after all?

    2. What is the significance of disagreement (among thoughtful, sincere, intelligent, well-informed people) about some issue? What should one conclude upon having discovered such disagreement? Is there an answer to this question that is likely to win universal (or close to universal) consent (among thoughtful, sincere, intelligent, well-informed people)?

    3. What is the relationship between being limitted to (stuck “in”) one’s own perspective and having (or not having) access to objective truth? If having a perspective which is different from the perspecitves of others is the problem, then is the God’s-eye perspective really any better? Is God stuck with the God’s-eye perspective? Or can he choose another one?

    4. What is an interpretive grid and what does it do to the raw data? Is there a non-metaphorical way of talking about the “cooking” of the raw data? Perhaps more importantly, if there is “cooking” going on, what is the nature of our access to IT (the cooking)? Do we watch it happening? Infer that it is happening? If we watch it, what does it “look” like? If we infer it, from what premises?

    5. Is our epistemological access to persons (ourselves, others, God, angels, demons, saints) any different than our access to ordinary objects of perception/reason/memory? Assume that ordinary objects (tables, chairs, etc.) can be present for observation under certain conditions. Are the conditions for the presentation of a person different? Can persons choose NOT to be availble for cognitive presentation?

    Ok. I hope this works (gets posted). Here goes…
    Cheers!
    GT

    Reply

  6. […] After a long break for the Christmas holiday, a lingering sinus infection, and the business of learning to fly a new aircraft, I have been too long absent from this blog and from my own questions and thoughts.  However, life has taken a slightly slower turn now that I have my first checkride behind me, and so I once again will take up the task I set myself of addressing the questions raised by a friend regarding my discussion of the nature of the foundations of epistemology.  You can read the original post here, and links to the rest of the series are at the end of this post. 5. Is our epistemological access to persons (ourselves, others, God, angels, demons, saints) any different than our access to ordinary objects of perception/reason/memory? Assume that ordinary objects (tables, chairs, etc.) can be present for observation under certain conditions. Are the conditions for the presentation of a person different? Can persons choose NOT to be availble for cognitive presentation? […]

    Reply

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