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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Epistemology, Part II

By David Grzybowski

In my last post, I discussed the failures of logical positivist epistemology.  In this post, I will finish off logical positivism and explain how we actually can know at least some things.

Michael made an interesting observation that allows us to segue nicely from positivism to rationalism: can someone know that they think without first experiencing thought?  There are a couple ways to answer this.  Firstly, what does it mean to experience thought?  What can it mean other than simply to think?  Of course, one might simply object that this is a limitation of our language, but surely if such a concept as "experiencing thought" exists distinct from "thinking", there is at least one human language with a word for this concept.  While those who think so look it up, I will move on to the next point.  Supposing that it is possible to experience thought without thinking, is it conceivable that I can experience without existing?  The answer is as before, "No", and so instead of saying "I think, therefore I am", we can say "I experience, therefore I am."  This statement has the same result--I know something about the world (that I exist), that is not empirically determined and that cannot be refuted by any kind of experience (since even if I cease to experience, I may not cease to exist).  Thus, no matter how you look at it, there are truths that logical positivism does not account for.

The central flaw of logical positivism is that it allows for only two kind of statements: analytic a priori (tautologies) and synthetic a posteriori (empirically verifiable statements).  But there is a third category: synthetic a priori statements, claims that we can know to be true without measuring them against the yardstick of experience.  An example is "I think, therefore I am," but it is not the only such statement.  Other synthetic a priori claims are "man acts" and "men can argue."  These statements are indubitably, in fact indisputably, true; that is, in order to deny them, one must first assume them.  In order to claim that man does not use specific means to achieve definite ends, one must do so, calling upon one's physical body and the space it inhabits and the time required to make a statement to achieve the intended goal of denying a statement.

The claim "men can argue" is a bit more complicated.  The most straightforward way of demonstrating it is simply to point out that if someone truly believed that they could not argue, they would not be arguing.  This is not very satisfying, but fortunately, there is a superior demonstration.  First, can one deny that one can make a claim?  No; the very statement, "I cannot make a claim", is itself a claim, so it must be false.  Second, is it possible to deny that one can make a counter-claim?  Or, if I claim that you can make a counter-claim, can you deny this?  Again, No; the very act of denying that you can make a counter-claim constitutes making a counter-claim.  We know that you can make a claim and that I can make a counter-claim mutatis mutandis.  Thus, we have two people who are indisputably able to make claims and make counter-claims, in other words, to argue.  One might legitimately object that this presupposes that there exists a physical reality and that there exist other people, but I will deal with solipsism and philosophical zombie-ism later.

The statements "man acts" and "men can argue" are the starting points praxeology and ethics respectively.  Further axioms can, of course, be proven--in fact, praxeology and ethics consist solely of these indisputably true claims--but I will leave that for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, as well as previous on this subject, I will now search and hopefully find the next in the series.

    I became interested in Solipsism and how to get out of it (other than to just assume the universe which I do)