Friday, March 2, 2012

1. Approach

Part of my Subjective Epistemicism series

Here I lay out the ground rules governing how to approach constructing a well-founded worldview, discuss the position from where I begin, and the methods by which I intend to proceed.

1a. Begin assuming nothing.

In general, this exercise begins from the same point as Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, attempting to discard all of my prior assumptions and start fresh from a position of knowing nothing. From there I'll try to figure out what I can figure out knowing nothing else, and hopefully base a more useful worldview upon that. I'll likely begin right in Descartes' very footprints, but from there, my path will diverge almost immediately - Descartes jumped directly to God via the ontological argument, from which point he was then able to "prove" to himself just about anything he wanted. More generally, his method of Rationalism admits the method of going directly from free creations to the mind to making claims about reality, something I've already criticized.

The difficulty in trying to make sure that I have truly discarded all of my assumptions is that so many past and even contemporary attempts insidiously allow assumptions (however reasonable they may seem to be in their place and time) to creep in well before they're established. The "assume nothing" approach must be vigilantly maintained, not only from the beginning, but throughout the exercise. And what is involved in "assuming nothing" must be elucidated before beginning.

At the beginning, I can't assume that I have any specific senses. I can't assume that I have memory, much less that it is reliable. I can't assume that space or time already exist. I can't assume that a physical universe exists. I can't even assume even that anything can be said to be true or false. I must assume nothing. Before I get to any such propositions, I have to ground each in place.

1b. I cannot speak from a perspective that does not exist.

To claim that there is some knowable truth that is "out there" which I have yet to discover, is to claim that there is some perspective from which truth can be known, i.e. an omniscient perspective.

Let's say there's something I don't know, such as the number of elementary particles that make up the ex-planet Pluto. If I assert that there is already a definite answer to that question (even though I don't know the answer yet), I am asserting that there is a truth which although presently undiscovered, definitely already exists. But I have no way of knowing that. Even if I do later discover a definite answer to my question, I cannot know that it had a definite answer prior to the moment of its discovery. If I claim that it did, then I'm making a statement of faith - belief beyond knowledge.

The only way to make such a claim would be to posit an entity that already had that knowledge: I must then posit the existence of an omniscient perspective. However, not being omniscient myself I have no basis upon which to assert that such a perspective may exist. Yet without such a perspective I have no basis upon which to assert that any absolute and independent form of truth exists. Therefore, I will not make such an assertion. I'll get around to dealing with truth values later on; but I can't fairly begin with the assumption that there is such a thing as external "truth" at all, for it too is an assumption.

It seems to me that many of the problems related to epistemology lie in assuming a perspective from which truth can be assumed; something omniscient relative to a given thought-experiment. Whenever we say "but it turns out that X is actually true (or false)" whether that matches or opposes the beliefs of the characters within a the thought-experiment, we violate its epistemic constraints by introducing a perspective that is omniscient relative to it. That is to say, if none of the characters within a thought-experiment get to claim knowledge that "X is actually true," then we don't get to claim it either; we are outside of it, and thus our epistemic pesition is not admissible within it.

For the purposes of this exercise, my own subjective position within reality is the epistemic thought-experiment that I'm working with. I cannot say that anything is "really true" until I have grounded it in my understanding, from my perspective, as the subject of the thought-experiment in question. I cannot assert that there is any truth beyond that which I can soundly claim that I know to be true. Therefore, I must admit that there is no such truth (to claim otherwise would be to make just such an assertion).

This, by the way, is the basic position of epistemic skepticism; that any proposition which has no reasonable basis must be discarded, presumed false unless or until supported to be otherwise. The only rationally consistent alternative would be to believe everything that human imagination has ever invented or could invent, a great deal of which is mutually contradictory, and to do so without any consistent basis of reasoning for choosing between them all.

1c. Epistemic causality

Although this phrase has been occasionally used in certain very specific applications, I would put forth the term "epistemic causality" to refer to a form of causality that is based on our chain of knowledge of events or formal laws, rather than a chain of events or formal laws. This would be distinct from the various causality type schemes proposed by Aristotle and others, and would stand alongside them.

Rather than say "A exists/occurred because B; B exists/occured because C," epistemic causality would trace the chain of "I know A because of B; I know B because of C." Thus according to this causal type, the basis for asserting any proposition follows a causal chain of knowledge of the propositions, rather than relationships between multiple propositions themselves. To claim that any such propositions had independent truth or existence of their own would violate the principle described above in point 1b. However, I can talk about the basis of my supporting knowledge of a proposition (provided that I have any) without violating that precept.

Using epistemic causality instead of the more popular categories thereof will allow me to align what I maintain to be true with a careful causal chain from the a priori ontological and empirical conditions, up to more specific theory. The benefit of this approach is that any theory I produce will be grounded rather than assumed. Other forms of causality already assume at least some degree of theory, and therefore can only be products of (rather than participants in) such an exercise.

1d. The difficulty of description

A significant dilemma in doing this sort of thing lies in the difficulty of using language at all to describe it, at least at the earliest stages. By its very nature, language is made of concepts, and each term used brings a wealth of definitive assumptions into every proposition which employs it. Thus, I can do only one of the following:

  1. say nothing at all
  2. build and use a structure of pre-defined defined axioms and theorems, or
  3. blunder ahead using natural language, speaking in analogies and approaching concepts in inwardly spiraling circles.

The first of these options is that taken by Zen Buddhism, and one can achieve exactly the same effect by merely stopping right here.

The second option involves not only making assumptions, but also insisting that those assumptions are already absolutely true (aka. assumed), which in turn violates the principle described above in point 1a. Discarding this second method is significant relative to much contemporary philosophy, most of which follows the tack of logical positivism, requiring empirically grounded terms forming specific propisitions put together into valid deductive structures. Unfortunately, I cannot precisely construct any formal deductive logical argument from the start, as formal deductive logic itself does not appear in my construction until point much later in the series. To require of myself that I adhere to such a method from the start would thus constitute a circular argument.

Therefore, I am forced use the third of these methods. In doing so, I might restate myself multiple times using different terminology, or I might even be forced to backtrack: taking something back once explained one way, in order to support an entirely different concept from a broader basis. I'll try to be as direct as I can, but purely natural-language explanations of certain concepts may seem to dance around the specific point rather than getting directly to it. This is the best I possibly hope to do, since method 1 amounts to merely giving up and method 2 is (by its own logic) completely useless for any attempt to fully ground belief rather than start from an assumed halfway-point.

It is my hope that I can adequately communicate the chain of concepts involved using the language that I employ. However, I am aware that different language might work better, or that multiple parallel descriptions might be best. Without the "method 2" approach, how one approaches or describes a concept is ultimately arbitrary; it is safe to imagine that there are a billion never-written poems, novels and essays that could explain these concepts better than I ever could. Therefore, I beg of the reader not to get hung up on the terminology that I may use, but if necessary to rather rephrase the arguments presented in your own terms and see if it doesn't then make more sense to you. All I can do is to provide some (probably inadequate) description in natural language regarding the ideas involved. If you find such verbiage lacking, then I can only point out that the failure of the explanations do not necessitate the failure of the underlying ideas. I also appeal to future writers (if they understand these concepts) to elucidate these ideas better than I have, in whichever means of communication works best for them.

The clever skeptic will by now have noticed that I have technically already made a great number of confident assertions above, as well as used language that implies even more implications, while generally claiming that I wish to avoid asserting or implying anything. However, this is an inevitable result of saying anything about anything that can be said. Ultimately, I can only point out that I've so far only spoken of what I should not do rather than assert what is. Even if some of what I've said so far may seem currently controversial (such as denying the assumption of truth), that does not mean that I have made a strong statement about the existence of any state of affairs, or have asserted the truth of any positive proposition. I have merely been discussing what's required to truly assume nothing.

Finally - when asserting the existence or anything going forward, I'll try to be considerably more careful than I have been about my claims regarding what I should not assert. My intent in presenting the above restrictions is to help ensure such care.

Next up: I approach that which exists, addressing ontological concerns, the grounds of all further assertions that I might make.


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