Epistemological Therapy

Lately I have been listening to a series of talks by artist Makoto Fujimura on the subject of “Art, Love, and Beauty.” In those talks he has frequently used the phrase “epistemological therapy.” Epistemology is a subject that has long interested me. Hidden behind its long name is something very practical. It is the study of knowing and knowledge. How do we approach the world in order to understand it? For example, most of us, when asked, would say that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yet how many of us have actually made the astronomical observations that are necessary to come to this conclusion. Most of us believe that the Earth orbits the sun because we read it in a textbook or were told so by a teacher. However, textbooks and teachers sometimes make mistakes. Each of us probably have certain things taught to us by teachers or learned in textbooks that we have come to reject. What then makes most educated people so certain of heliocentrism? It can only be the result of some unconscious epistemological reasoning.

Fujimura’s concept of epistemological therapy is intriguing because it implies that our epistemology may be broken. Therapy is meant to correct and restore something that is broken or deficient. I see many people with flawed or inconsistent epistemologies. What makes us trust certain authority figures, like teachers and parents, and mistrust others, like politicians and sales people? Why does someone trust a conservative pundit simply because he or she is conservative and reject a liberal pundit simply because he or she is liberal? Why do we believe friends over experts or vice versa? Scientists over theologians? At the very least our epistemologies, and the assumptions that create them, are often left unexamined. It might be well to follow Socrates’ advice that an examine life is not worth living, or not. What does something that may or may not have been said by someone who lived over two-thousand have to do with life today?

The idea of epistemological therapy goes hand in hand with what I wrote at the end of a previous post. There I criticized an epistemology that sees the scientific method as the only way to discover truth. I also suggested that there other ways of knowing. Now I have nothing against the scientific method. It is a very powerful method of coming to know reality. However, our epistemology can either expand or contract our ability to know. For example, someone might consider the sense of sight the only valid channel for receiving information about the world. Hearing, taste, touch, and smell are rejected as untrustworthy. The knowledge acquired by this individual would be valid, but isolated and shallow.

I prefer a multifaceted epistemology, one that can correct a monocular vision of the world through the use of multiple ways of knowing. It is a little like a blind men feeling an elephant. One man touching the trunk may come to believe that an elephant is like a snake. If, however, he talks to the man touching the legs he will come to realize that his conclusion is premature. We need multiple points of contact with reality. What follows are a few possible points of contact.

Definition vs. Experience
Fujimura presents two ways of knowing that act as opposites. Say you want to know what Sodium Chloride is. A dictionary or Wikipedia will give you the definition for sodium chloride and inform you that it is the chemical formula for table salt. In that case, knowing by definition is good enough. But what if you want to know what love is? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines love as “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person: attraction that includes sexual desire: the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship: a person you love in a romantic way.” Anyone who reads this definition and then thinks they know what love is is an idiot. If you truly want to know what love is you must love someone.

Owen Barfield also talks about the difference between definition and the thing itself in his book Poetic Diction. For him, “The definition of a word, which we find in a Dictionary—inasmuch as it is not conveyed by synonym and metaphor, or illustrated by quotation—is its most abstract meaning.” Say I gave you a choice between the definition “gold: a shiny metallic substance that is easily malleable and does not tarnish, an element whose atomic weight is 196.69” and a piece of gold that I am holding in my hand before you. (I know this example is a little ridiculous but that is part of the point.) I wouldn’t even have to say the name of what I held in my hand. You would take the thing in my hand instead of the definition of gold. Definitions are useful for pointing to an object, but they are not the thing itself. This is even more true when the object is itself abstract or immaterial.

Fujimura’s arguments is that we need to learn how to move beyond definition. It is not enough to give the definition of something like art, beauty, or love; we must experience them. Only through experience, and repeated success and failure, can we come to an accurate knowledge of art, beauty, and love.

I love books, but I also know that there is much that I can’t learn from them. There is a great difference between reading a book on botany and growing a flower. Knowing by definition alone is much easier in the digital age. We can look up information without having to know it by experience, float down the Grand Canyon on Google maps without ever leaving the computer screen or discover a person’s likes and dislikes via Facebook without having to share the same physical space, but these are knowledge by definition, not experience.

At one time revelation was a important way of knowing, but lately it has fallen out of fashion. When we accept something learned through revelation as true we are accepting something on authority. Generally it is the authority of the divine being which gave the revelation and the religious institution which has maintained it. Anyone who rejects the supernatural or any existence outside of the material world will reject the authority of revelation. This is of course an epistemological decision. They have declared a certain manner of knowing invalid. In my opinion, this is like rejecting the truthfulness of everything you hear simply because it enters through the ear. Our ears may deceive us, but I would not then rejected everything that reaches us by means of them. Since a defense of revelation would be long, I will present a few arguments in brief.

First is the circularity of the argument against miracles. Religious texts are often rejected because they contain miracles. The contention is that miracles are impossible so accounts which contain them are fabricated or legend. Now the argument for the impossibility of miracles comes from the fact that opponents of miracles can find no credible account of a miracle taking place. What is the prime reason for discounting those accounts? That they contain miracles which everyone knows are impossible. Why are they impossible? Because there are no reliable accounts of miracles. The argument is as circular as a dog chasing his tail. In my opinion, it is dangerous to reject miracles a priori.

Revelation is sometimes rejected because of contradiction. Christians claim the Bible as God’s revelation, Muslims the Quran, and Hindus the Bhagavad Gita. Yet these texts contain statements that contradict each other. The Quran proclaims that God is perfectly one while the Bible claims that God has a Son. Supernatural revelation is rejected because various revelations contradict each other. However, this is like saying that when multiple people in a trial disagree about an event, they are all wrong. Contradiction simply means that at least one person is wrong. It is far better to let a piece of revelation stand on its own, considering whether it is self-consistent and whether is corresponds to reality.

Lastly, revelation is often rejected for being old. Why trust something written 2,000 years ago over something written today? First, everything written today will eventually be 2,000 years old. Second, such a statement assumes that knowledge has progressed in the last 2,000 years. We certainly have progressed technologically since the past, but are we any better intellectually or ethically? The population of the world grew more in the twentieth century than any other century in the history of the world, in large thanks to technological innovation. However, the twentieth century was also the deadliest in human history, thanks also to technology. Atomic bombs, chemical and biological weapons, and pollution brought us closer than any past century to destroying humanity. Technology and culture change, but the fundamentals of human existence remain the same. Everything from greed to love stick with us.

Another important avenue for knowledge is introspection. Introspection is the art of self-knowledge. If we seek to know the world around us, I think it is only logical to start with ourselves. Some of us have had the experience of knowing someone with a vast knowledge of the world, but little understanding of the thing that is closest to him, himself. Such situations are always ironic and occasionally tragic. Introspection can be done systematically, but it is difficult to square with the scientific method. We are at once the control and variable, the subject and observer. Interestingly, introspection is often the starting point for mysticism, itself a unique way of knowing.

Imagination is an important, though often overlooked, means of knowing. Imagination is often associated with fantasy and the unreal, but it is actually at the very core of how we come to know about the world. The human mind does not apprehend reality directly. Rather it comes to us in a mediated form. When someone sees a mountain range they do so because light from a source, in this case the sun, is reflected off the mountain and enters each eye. The light strikes the retina and is converted into electric impulses which are relayed to the brain. The brain combines the electric impulses from each eye into a single imagine in the brain. What we see is not the thing itself but an image of the thing and then it is only a collection of colors and lines. It takes an act of imagination to combine the colors and lines into a single object which conforms to the mental category “mountain.”

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Imagination is an important way that we construct meaning and thereby knowledge. The image of the mountain range that our brain just saw may reminds us of the image of a saw blade and so we call them the Sawtooth Mountains. When the ancient Greek saw Mount Olympus something occurred in their imagination to designate it as the place where the gods lived. Their imagination gave the mountain significance.
Even science relies on imagination. Albert Einstein was famous for his thought experiments in which he formed mental pictures of light and observed how it behaved. Before the first man landed on the moon, someone had to imagine it. Indeed many things need to be imagined before they are done or understood. Thus our imagination becomes a potent force for exploring and knowing the world around us.


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