Thursday, July 9, 2009

Epistemolgical Nihilism: A Discussion

The following are some excerpts from a discussion on a message board that I frequent regarding the concept of epistemological nihilism:

Ulcer: For me, nihilism means that virtually nothing can be 'known' with absolute certainty. Even 'knowledge' as a concept, itself, is false. What is 'knowing'? Do we truly 'know' anything? I would say we don't. What is science but mere assumptions based on a consistent record of experiences and observations made of the universe we live in? Based upon such records, we make predictions of how things will turn out, and as long as our predictions coincide with what actually transpires, we humans will mistakenly call this "knowledge" when all we are really doing is assuming. What if the experience changes? Do we truly truly know how things work, why they work, and what is going to happen, or are we just operating off of the interim utility and coincidence of our assumptions?

Nothing is true or false. Everything just is what it is. Even the very ideas of truth and falsehood are, themselves, f-- uh,...*ahem*...well, they are what they are. If certain assumptions yield dividends, then roll with them until they no longer do.

By never believing that finally we 'know' something; finally we've got it all figured out, we are free to abandon any ideas - scientific, social, moral, spiritual - once they've lost their utility, instead of allowing our intellects to become inert.

Paragon: But to say that doing or thinking something gives us consistent results (or that it doesn't) is to say that you know what you've said and done and what the results of those things are and were and whether or not you prefer those results to other ones and et cetera.

You can, in fact, know a lot of things.

Ulcer: No, I would be assuming that the things I remember that I did and the results I remember that they yielded are, in fact, memories of things that actually happened (whatever that means) instead of just conjurations of my imagination. Indeed memories become indistinguishable from dreams, over time.

TheoConfidor: Regardless of whether you admit that you make such assumptions, the way you practically live suggests that on some level you accept them to be true. Otherwise you wouldn't even mention the distinction between memories and dreams. You clearly believe that there is a difference, and use different words.

Ulcer: No, I accept them to be useful. I can distinguish the concepts, but of the actual things that those concepts refer to, I do not know which is which.

Paragon: In the context that we are talking about, how can they be useful unless they are true? An assumption that informs your actions can only be useful (i.e. resulting in the results you want) if it turned out to be true.

It sounds not so much that you're assuming as you're applying arbitrary doubt to your knowledge.

TheoConfidor: Even if you aren't 100% sure that you actually act or have any knowledge of your own past or present actions, you certainly act as if you believe them to be true and real.

Ulcer: Yes, exactly. I don't have much choice. No action, no experience.

TheoConfidor: Bingo! There is no practical difference between acting as if something is real and believing it is real. It is merely a semantic difference.

Ulcer: Fine, but my philosophy still stands (in this case) because believing isn't the same thing as knowing. Its much more like assuming. You can't know that God exists the same way you know that you exist. "I do not exist," is intrinsically self-contradictory. You can't deny your own existence because doing so proves that you exist. Denying that God exists does not automatically prove God's existence in a similar fashion. "Yahweh does not exist" is not intrinsically self-contradictory.

TheoConfidor: Though you use different words, your philosophy is no different than that of an ordinary person with humility. Though he is convinced that what he knows is true, he also is open to the possibility that he could be wrong or have flawed knowledge.

Ulcer: No, my philosphy is different, and I'm not going to repeat myself.

TheoConfidor: I readily admit the fact that I can't really know anything with 100% certainty. However, in the words of Paragon, rather than applying arbitrary doubt to my knowledge, I accept what I know to be true until presented with evidence to the contrary.

Ulcer: And at that point you would realize that it was never true to begin with, right? And how do you know that this will never happen to what you "know to be true?"

TheoConfidor: This is similar to the optimist/pessimist dichotomy. They both look at the same glass and the optimist says the glass is half full (true) while the pessimist says the glass is half empty (also true). Regarding knowledge, I say that since we do have a large degree of evidence and experience-based certainty about some things we should say that we do know something, even if we aren't completely convinced. You are suggesting that since we don't know something completely, we should say that we know hardly anything at all.

Ulcer: From this I can see that we have different ideas of what 'knowledge' is. For me its an absolute, for you its a range of values.

TheoConfidor: You are an self-proclaimed epistemological pessimist, though your actions are that of someone who accepts what he knows as useful/functional/real/true. To me, that smacks of confusion and/or intellectual dishonesty.

Ulcer: There is a difference my friend. This philosophy is consistent with acting in everyday life. I'm afraid you are the one who is confused.

TheoConfidor: Again, I repeat that it is not your philosophy that is different, but merely the meaning of your words. If by "knowledge" you mean that something has to a 100% certain absolute then knowledge is an illusory concept that has no more real meaning in our world than the flying spaghetti monster. Wait, I take that back. The flying-spaghetti monster has more usefulness as a concept because it is actually useful to demonstrate important truths, whereas the artificial concept of knowledge is simply a utopian idea that sounds nice but is utterly unachievable.

Also, I would like to mention that your use of the word knowledge is not the ordinary, English use of the word knowledge, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: "expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject." Therefore, it would be reasonable to suggest that the average person considers knowledge to be whatever a person thinks he knows, instead of resorting to some Ivory-Tower philosophical definition involving the endless epistemological debate that still finds itself unable to reach a sound conclusion.

If I agreed with your odd use of the word knowledge, it would be quite impossible to assert that anything which is not true by definition or rationally absurd can be known. Likewise, I would suggest that if you agreed with my definition of knowledge, then you would agree that humans indeed possess vast arrays of knowledge, though not all of it is completely correct. On this basis I repostulate that we do not hold differing philosophies but merely differ over the semantics used to express the philosophies.

I find it odd that people claim you can believe one thing or hold a particular philosophy and yet act in a different manner. There are many people who claim to be Christ-followers and yet rarely bother to live in the manner of a true Christ follower. There are numerous people who claim to believe certain moral codes and yet are soon caught in the the very acts that they so vehemently decry. Here we have the example of someone who claims to know nothing and that knowledge is a false concept, and yet who admits to acting on a practical basis as if he does actually possess knowledge. You really can't have it both ways.

Actions are inseparable from beliefs. If one truly believes something, he will act in accordance with such belief. Likewise, if there is someone whose actions clash with their proclaimed beliefs, the actions are the clearest indicators of what such a person truly believes. Though many say that there is a divide between thoughts and actions, such a rationalization is little more than an excuse for intellectually-inconsistent and hypocritcal living.

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