Epistemology Lesson

February 13, 2006 § 40 Comments

The pull of the red curve is very strong, and it captures all of us at one time or another, me perhaps moreso than most. (Which is another way of saying that we all intellectually act like teenagers now and then, I guess. Though I should probably just speak for myself). I suppose the reason why is that reality doesn’t allow us to be God, not even in a carefully circumscribed particular area. To paraphrase the Disputations blog, God is not only the God of the gaps but the God of the non-gaps too. The whole premise of the gaps/non-gaps epistemology is that we do get to be God, at least in the places where the gaps putatively close. We may not get to be universally omniscient, but we can become omniscient little demi-Gods in particular areas of knowledge, or with respect to particular facts.

But that doesn’t cohere with reality. We are not God, and when we start thinking that we know all that there is to know about a particular thing we don’t become the God of that non-gap: we just become the Fool.

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§ 40 Responses to Epistemology Lesson

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Omniscience is divisible? “Universally omniscient” isn’t redundant?Curiouser and curiouser.

  • zippy says:

    I think the point is that omniscience is <>not<> divisible, and thus cannot be possessed even when one attempts to possess it only in limited form by limiting its scope. Of course it is always difficult to talk about perspectives which are irrational, because, well, they are irrational. But just because they are irrational that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about them, heh.

  • Rob says:

    Omniscience would include such information as whether Zippy will decide to go left, or to go right, at 3:01 PM on July 2, 2007, or if, in fact, he will instead sit down.A gapless science, however, would only need to be able to explain, on the basis of repeatable observation/experimentation, how everything in the material universe fits together. Outside of that set of data, if there remained things that can’t be measured, etc., having learned that much about such things, their non-susceptibility to measurement would leave no gap in knowledge. That would *be* the knowledge about those things.There is a difference between omniscience and complete acquisition of fundamental (not ephemeral) knowledge.

  • zippy says:

    <>…would leave no gap in knowledge.<>I understand that you think that, and it isn’t a <>dumb<> thing to think: any number of geniuses (e.g. Laplace) have thought so too. But it is wrong. Positivism is dead.<>There is a difference between omniscience and complete acquisition of fundamental (not ephemeral) knowledge.<>Be that as it may (I don’t pretend to know what your “ephemeral knowledge” category means) the latter – that is, the idea that there can in principle be a complete acquisition of all possible scientific knowledge – is false. Positivism is dead.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Doesn’t the word “science” contain the concept “all things that it is possible (for man) to know”?

  • zippy says:

    <>Doesn’t the word “science” contain the concept “all things that it is possible (for man) to know”? <>No.One way to recognize positivism is as the concept “body of knowledge X, the complete and consistent set of knowledge in category Y”. Another way is as the concept “body of knowledge X, the complete and consistent body of knowledge accessed by method Z”. Still another is as the concept “body of knowledge X with all mystery banished”. And still yet another (I am running out of stills and yets) is as “complete body of knowledge X as verified in canonical text B”.Most modern people are positivists, or at least harbor positivist assumptions, usually of which they are unaware. Postmoderns tend to be the sort of people who have some awareness of the positivist catastrophe, but because they refuse to give up its premeses (which would entail acknowledging the truth in the medieval concept of metaphysics) they basically give up on knowledge as something independent of petty human power relations. In other words, positivism is a form of cultural-intellectual adolsecence and postmodernism is the cultural-intellectual equivalent of the thirty-something who lives jobless at home with his parents, smokes dope all the time, and refuses to grow up because he can’t be God.

  • zippy says:

    Ironically, positivism seems to refuse to grow up intellectually precisely because of the fear of becoming a postmodern doper. Fear of becoming postmodern, from the perspective of positivism, is (ironically) a significant risk factor in actually becoming postmodern because it is the refusal to relenquish underlying positivist assumptions that leads to postmodernism. Fear of becoming the pathetic uncool thirty-something doper is precisely what leads to becoming the pathetic uncool thirty-something doper, to continue pushing the metaphor. Positivism is somewhat endearing (while at times exasperating) as long as we don’t put it in charge of making adult decisions; while postmodernism is simply pathetic.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Ah, well. Yet when I insist that the fundamental source of Truth is divine revelation, I am told that I can find God in a blade of grass.

  • zippy says:

    I really have no idea what that has to do with positivism, Rob, though I am sure there is an enigmatic implication in there somewhere.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Over on Disputations, this whole topic began with the assertion that knowledge of God could be acquired through the study of the material universe, i.e., gathered through the senses and analyzed rationally. I claim that Truth is accessed only irrationally, i.e., via revelation of the Divine Will. Any “affirmation” of that revelation by human reason is superfluous, vain, and finally hubristic, in that it tends to engender reverse conversion. Knowledge of the Divine resides in faith, inspired by revelation.

  • zippy says:

    I understand that with Martin Luther and as a non-Catholic you believe that reason is a whore. But my posting is about the God of the Gaps construct and the positivism upon which it rests, not your endearing if exasperating fideist hobby horse.I mean, if reason is a whore then the pfuufnargles withtrent uponfeld youn stupengorskitort, so furrenfelt wan sneggelt vorf fluffeldorgen.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Tell me one fundamental thing about God that did not come to human knowledge through revelation.

  • John Farrell says:

    <>Tell me one fundamental thing about God that did not come to human knowledge through revelation.<>If I may suggest: That He is rational.

  • Rob says:

    John Farrell–And what is your evidence that God is rational?

  • zippy says:

    <>And what is your evidence that God is rational?<>Pfoof fligg van sneek torp lorrf flurgenhausen.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy is speaking in tongues! Quick, somebody take this down! I knew I was right! Hallelujah!

  • John Farrell says:

    <>And what is your evidence that God is rational?<>The world is rational. It operates according to rational laws that we can investigate and trust–as everyone who’s ever hopped on a 747 knows.(Zippy, stop. You’re making me laugh so hard I can barely type…)

  • zippy says:

    Despite the relative comedic humidity, amusement is one of our goals here at ZC. (We are named after an unshaven clown, I must point out).

  • Rob says:

    John Farrell–The fact that our brains are capable of problem solving and pattern recognition implies Intelligent Design, perhaps. It does not exclude many different and differing conceptions of the Mind of the Designer, however.It could have been a powerful, but imperfect, demiurge. It could have been highly advanced “space aliens”. It could have been a “Clockmaker” deity who set things up and then permanently absconded. There are also, of course, totally materialist explanations that one can follow all the way back to “Why is there something, rather than nothing.”The order of the universe does not really *prove* anything about the God that we worship. Revelation does.

  • Darwin says:

    Farther up and further in, Rob.The point is not so much that the human mind is capable of problem solving and pattern recognition, but rather the wider point that the universe is such that searching for patterns returns meaningful data: Causality works, physical laws remain the same, objects do not wink in and out of existence for no apparent reason. To my knowledge, pretty much the only way of accounting for this in a purely materialist fashion is a varient on the multiple worlds hypothesis: holding that there are in fact an infinite number of universes most of which do not operate upon rational principles, but that we happen to observe the world that we are in because only such a world could continue in existence and produce life. A ‘rational principle’ layered on top of the ‘anthropic principle’ if you will.I believe this is one of the points that Steven Barr draws upon in his book “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” in arguing that while it is possible to believe that the universe is structured as it is believed to be by modern physics for wholly material reasons, it actually takes a great leap of faith to hold to materialist principles than to believe in a rational and eternal creator.Speaking of which, an even more basic attribute of God which can be discerned from creation without revelation is that he is eternal and unchanging.

  • Rob says:

    darwin–Since the universe is demonstrably *not* eternal and unchanging, how in the world does one see an eternal and unchanging Creator by observing it?

  • John Farrell says:

    <>Since the universe is demonstrably *not* eternal…<>Beyond the shadow of a doubt, huh?<>The order of the universe does not really *prove* anything about the God that we worship. Revelation does.<>Revelation does not prove anything, in even the weakest sense of the term as you have used it here.

  • Rob says:

    John Farrell–Quite true that revelation does not prove anything: that’s why they call it “faith”. But revelation *has* told us everything that we know about God and God’s will, in a way that has so convinced men that God had spoken to them that they were able to convince other men that the Truth had been imparted to them. Actually, God proves His existence to man not through the laws of nature, but by breaking in a series of signs and miracles.

  • John Farrell says:

    Revelation by itself, meaning without a Church to interpret it, is basically a large compendium of inconsistent fairy tales, the main body of which, as Woody Allen once wrote in one of his better scripts, has a completely unbelievable sense of character.In other words, Zippy is right, fideism forces you to conclude that reason is a whore.

  • Rob says:

    John Farrell:Do you deny the ability of every Old Testament prophet who ever received a divine revelation to interpret it to others himself?Was John the Baptist incomprehensible? In the context of this string, reason is not a whore, she is merely Catholic. Cut her some slack.

  • Darwin says:

    <>darwin–Since the universe is demonstrably *not* eternal and unchanging, how in the world does one see an eternal and unchanging Creator by observing it? <>We know that the creator of the universe must be eternal and unchanging precisely because the world is <>not<> either one of those things.Within the universe, things change. And we know from experience that for each change, we can expect to find a cause. At the same time, we know that the universe itself is not eternal.Now, since the physical universe is not eternal, and yet everything within it can be seen as a great string of cause and effect, we must conclude that there is something outside the physical universe that must have been the first cause. And this first cause must itself be eternal, because if it were not eternal, it would itself have had to come into being at some point in time, and we would have to inquire as to its cause.This eternal thing, which is the first cause of the material universe, is that which we call ‘God’.Once you get to God being eternal, getting to him being unchanging is but a few steps away…

  • Rob says:

    Darwin–I personally like that explanation myself. But I have not had much luck with convincing atheists by using it. They say that if God “was just always there”, then matter could have just always been there as well–or at least the singularity which preceded the Big Bang could have been.So, what caused the “bang”? you ask them So where did God come from? they reply.

  • Rob says:

    In the end, it is the prevalence of atheists that is the strongest argument against the possibility of knowing God from contemplation of the material universe alone. The best explanation for that may be that God has closed their minds so that they will not have faith and be saved–double predestination.

  • Rob,Romans 1:20… “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (NAB). Let’s stop calling other people whores, this isn’t a Catholic Tradition vs. <>Sola scriptora<> thing…And in all these prevelance of athiests… are they really athiests, or are they anti-Christian or anti-religous? I’m not sure that there are really too many authentic athiests around. Perhaps a few dozen total.peace,brandon.

  • Darwin says:

    I’d tend to say that the fact that it is possible doesn’t mean that everyone will. After all, it’s possible to discern the accuracy of quantum theory by contemplating the universe, but that doesn’t mean that most people are up to doing it. (By that argument, the existence of flat-earthers would mean that it was not definatively possible to discern the curvature of the earth.)I certainly don’t think that God existence and attributes such as can be discerned from the world are so obvious that no one could doubt it. But it does seem to me important that it is possible, however difficult.And, we do have the testimony of pre-Christian philosophers, such as Plato, who discerned a God bearing some resemblence to the Judeo-Christian God without the benefit of revelation.

  • Rob says:

    Um…okay, guys, I think that this has gone on about long enough. But Plato, FWIW, did have Socrates, and I believe that Socrates did receive revelations of a sort.One only needs to look at Western Europe to see the effect of hyper-rationality on organized religion.If positivism is dead, what has replaced it in the “old countries”?

  • zippy says:

    <>If positivism is dead, what has replaced it in the “old countries”?<>Postmodernism. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Do you think that postmodernism is a reflection of 20th century developments in physics?

  • zippy says:

    <>Do you think that postmodernism is a reflection of 20th century developments in physics?<>No. It may be peripherally related, I suppose. I think the triumph of modern science has helped the longevity of positivism because many people (with more than a little irony, from my perspective) see positivism as synonymous with modern science. Postmodernism is just a reflection of positivism doing what all errors eventually do: eating itself from the inside out. But because postmodernism is just so obviously ridiculous – even though it is the legitimate end-state of positivism – it holds back the tide with a massive dike of implausibility.This pattern isn’t limited to positivism/postmodernism, by the way. With any erroneous ideology there will always be progressives who see its rational implications and take it to the next stage of ridiculousness, and conservatives who see the ridiculousness and so refuse to accept that the next phase is the legitimate progression of the idea. This is true whether the erroneous idea in question is positivism, political liberalism, or whatever.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–I don’t know… It would seem that postmodernism has consciously entered pop culture in a way that positivism never really did. Positivism pretty much remained an academic concern. A.J. Ayers didn’t appear on many T-shirts and wall posters.I really think that Einstein, et al., had quite a bit to do with this with the development of the postmodern “mode”.

  • zippy says:

    <>I really think that Einstein, et al., had quite a bit to do with this with the development of the postmodern “mode”.<>It isn’t unreasonable to say so, but it piles on more irony: Einstein and his friend Kurt Godel were committed anti-positivists, but doubtless would have been even more horrified by postmodernism. It is possible (I am wildly speculating here) that attempting to avoid giving aid and comfort to positivistm is why Einstein named his theories <>relativity<> theories rather than <>invariant<> theories, which was his other expressed option.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–I think there must be a link between modern physics and the thought of guys like Michel Foucault.

  • Rob says:

    Note: that’s “guys” like Foucault, not “gays” like Foucault.

  • zippy says:

    I don’t know Rob, I am way more familiar with modern physics than I am with Foucalt, but from his stuff that I <>have<> read I got the impression he was saying “we can’t know everything, therefore we don’t really know anything, everything is about power relations between oppressor and oppressed and the oppressor gets to write the story of reality”. Or something like that.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Yeah, I don’t know much about him either, but what I do know jibes with what you said. I don’t know why, exactly, but somehow this just suggests Einstein’s preoccupations and theories in physics to me.

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