Friday, June 11, 2004

The Grounding of Human Knowledge

In parallel with the ancient debates over the mind/body dilemma I discussed in my post on consciousness, philosophers have dwelled over the centuries on problems related to what we humans can know about the world (epistemology). For instance, when we see an object in the world, do we know the thing itself, or do we only experience a sense perception (an “appearance”) which falls short of direct knowledge? And if this sense perception is really a phenomenon of our own mind, can we know anything at all outside our minds? Are we cut off from knowing the world as it is truly is in itself? Can we ever know Truth (with a capital “T”)?

Many think our ability to know about the world is so compromised -- both by the limitations of our senses as well as by our many cultural biases and other subjective distortions -- that at the end of the day there is no access to “real” truth. I think these sort of views are a result of a misguided notion about what constitutes truth. My argument tracks the path of my last two posts about consciousness in the universe and its evolutionary development in us. Of course it is true that we cannot know the world from a god-like perspective originating outside the world. We experience the world from within the world. Furthermore we do experience things in a particular way grounded in our evolutionary heritage. But the knowledge gained from this perspective is authentic. Since we are ultimately grounded in the most fundamental stuff of the universe, our perspective is as legitimate as it gets.

Now it is the case that we have a fairly idiosyncratic view of the universe – handed down to us through evolution. For instance we only can see the electro-magnetic spectrum in certain wavelengths. This follows from the fact that, given the kind of light that comes from our sun, seeing those wavelengths gave us a good practical ability to survive and reproduce. All of the details of human capabilities are a product of natural selection, and as such can be considered at least partly arbitrary in how they turned out. But the knowledge we gain as we move through our lives is true knowledge.

Taking evolution very seriously again is an important part of this argument. I think philosophers sometimes got off track both on the mind/body and knowledge problems by stressing insights gained from contemplative or meditative thinking. Our heritage is one of doing, acting, and surviving. These modes of being have been around a lot longer than reflective self-consciousness. Post-modernist thinking seems to miss this point. An undue focus on language can also lead one astray. As important as language is to human cognition today, the roots of our knowledge and our consciousness pre-date language. Stressing the conception of ourselves as a seamless part of the natural world rather focusing on what separates us from nature is a perspective that helps overcome much confusion.


Unknown said...

I find it interesting that you rule out our ability to take on a god perspective that is independent of the system in which we are "embedded" as you put it. We are participants in the world, not outside observers, and therefore we are "grounded" in our surroundings. The problem with this view that I have always struggled with is whether our knowledge has any real consequence for how things are independent of us. We have a human perspective, limited by our peculiar abilities and senses, our peculiar intelligence and desires. If you accept this proposition, what is the consequence of the knowledge that we gain? Even if statements are true for us according to our perspective, what about for other organisms? Should we worry about this?

Steve said...

(I also took a shot at this subject in this post, fyi.)

I think humans are homogeneous enough that the lack of Truly Objective knowledge has little practical consequence -- so I don't take seriously the idea that languange and culture differences matter when it comes to the serious quest for knowledge. Now when you bring up other organisms, this makes things more difficult. The greater the difference from us, the greater the potential problem. (Although I still think the kind of knowledge we get through a disciplined application of scientific method would probably be replicated by aliens, for instance).