In a discussion in comments to “The Primacy of Thought” at Ron Murphy’s blog, I suggested that I might do a full post here on the title topic. A link in Ron’s blog took me to “The importance of evidence” which is a post by Mike D. There, Mike D discusses what he sees as the foundations of knowledge, where he says:
Empiricism requires us to make to two foundational assumptions:
- I exist
- My senses generally provide me with reliable information
For myself, I am not making those assumptions, and I want to discuss why and to indicate where I do begin.
The first of those assumptions seems to imply that we want only a subjective account of our own personal knowledge. For if my concern is with an objective account of how a biological organism other than myself can have knowledge, then my own existence would seem to have little relevance to that. Presumably, if I could give a satisfactory objective account, that would be just as valid after my death, so my existence is not a required assumption.
The second of those assumptions, that the senses provide reliable information, is the one that I find most troubling. For it seems to say that my head contains a magical black box that delivers facts, and that my knowledge is limited to the output from that magical black box. I see this as leading to solipsism or to Berkeley’s idealism. It depicts me as being separated from reality by that magical black box, with the implication that I cannot have any actual knowledge of reality.
Throughout my life, whenever I have been confronted with a magical black box, whether it be a clock, a radio, a television set or some other kind of black box, I have wanted to know what was inside the box, and have sought out what I could find about it, even if that required disassembling the black box.
When I consider the literature on empiricism, it seems to me Locke thought knowledge was conceptual, so he identified knowledge with part of the content and workings of that “magical black box.” From the time of Hume, this seems to have changed to considering only the output of that magical black box, and what can be inferred from that output.
This Humean shift to the output of a magical black box strikes me as perverse. For if there is such a magical black box, and assuming that it on on the up and up (i.e. it delivers facts about reality, rather than about a solipsistic or idealistic world), then there has to be a huge amount of knowledge that is implicit in the workings of that magical black box. In that case we ought to be rationalists, not empiricists. That is to say, we ought to be openly assuming innate knowledge. Empiricism, since Hume, appears to be rationalism in denial. That is, it is based on rationalist assumptions, but the practitioners of empiricism won’t admit to those assumptions.
My own starting assumptions
As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends on them finding ways of sustaining themselves in the world. They seem to have some cells that are sensitive to ambient conditions — call those sensory cells. And they seem to have some abilities to move around, to change their own orientation toward the world. It seems to me that, for such organisms, the problem that they face is one of using their abilities to move in ways that will allow them to wield their sensory cells so that they will deliver useful information. That is to say, they need to discover ways to gather information that will aid them in sustaining themselves in the world. In effect, the organism has to build and operate its own magical black box. But it won’t really be magical, for the organism itself will be operating that black box to support its continued survival.
The problem for epistemology, it seems to me, is to understand the underlying principles that can be used by the organism to build its own magical black box.