epis·te·mol·o·gy | \ i-ˌpi-stə-ˈmä-lə-jē \
: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity
Here’s my take on epistemology. Or, more specifically, a subset of epistemology; I’m not so much going to address how we know truth, or even what is truth, so much as I am what is the arena of truth?
I should preface this discussion by saying that I am a white, American, middle-class cis-hetero man; I have background in both STEM (as will probably become obvious) and theology, the latter as mediated through a Jesuit college.
Anyway, epistemology. Let’s start with the universe, because why not:
For now, we will say that the universe contains matter and energy in time and space. We will put on the mantelpiece the question of whether the universe contains anything else.
Statements we make about the universe have the property of truth. That is, they may be true or false. I can say, “This rock is in my hand,” and I may be telling the truth or I may be lying or I may be mistaken, but no matter what that statement will be true, or it will be false, or partly true and partly false. We can always ask, of a statement made about the universe, “Is that true?” (We may not always be able to find the answer, but we can always ask the question.)
Now, as residents of the universe, we want to understand it. One of the ways we want to understand it is to know what might happen in the future, or what happened in the past, or what might be happening far away.
Here’s how we go about doing that: we create two mental constructs. The first construct is a system:
Systems contain entities and rules for manipulating entities. Euclidean geometry is an example of a system; it contains entities such as points, lines, and planes, and rules such as, “The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180°.” Another example of a system would be Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; in this case the entities include the hero and the mentor, and an example of a rule is that the hero cannot ultimately refuse the call to adventure.
Whatever the system, it is a construct of abstractions. As such, statements made about the system cannot properly be true or false; rather, statements about a system have the property of consistency. A statement may be consistent with the rest of the system, or inconsistent with it. For example, in Euclidean geometry, the statement that the sides of a right triangle are related by the Pythagorean Theorem is consistent with the system; the statement that five points always lie on the same plane is not consistent.
This is important. While we can say true or false things about the universe, anything we say within the context of an abstract system like this can only be evaluated from within that same context; and therefore cannot be true or false in the same sense that, “This rock is in my hand” can be. We could just as well construct a system within which it is consistent to say that five points always lie on the same plane.
But a system by itself – whether geometric or mythical – is no more than mental exercise. It has no relationship to anything in the universe. To provide that relationship, we create our second mental construct, a mapping:
A mapping is simply a scheme for translating things in the universe to entities in the system and vice versa. Thus, a chunk of granite may become a point mass; a series of positions in time and space may become a velocity; and so on.
The mapping creates a relationship between the universe and the system. Together, the system and the mapping constitute a model, which is fundamentally a means for making predictions.
Making a prediction follows these steps:
- Map objects in the universe to entities in the system
- Manipulate the entities according to the rules of the system
- Map the entities back into objects
Thus, if I’m pondering the question, “What will happen if I throw this rock?” I can use the mapping to produce a point mass, a force vector, gravity, air resistance, and so on within the system of Newtonian physics; then I use the equations of motion within the system to manipulate those entities; then I map the resulting trajectory back into real-world objects, and I get my answer: “It should land next to that bush over there.”
Models have the property of utility. That is, the predictions that a model generates are more or less useful in knowing what will happen in the universe. Just as with systems, it is a category error to try to describe a model as true or false.
Thus, if I’m trying to predict the position of celestial bodies, I can use the model of Ptolemaic epicycles; or I can use the model of Newtonian mechanics; or I can use the model of Einsteinian relativistic corrections to Newtonian mechanics. All of these models will “work” in the sense that they will produce predictions, and in fact they will all produce predictions that are sufficiently accurate for many purposes when compared to the actual positions of actual celestial bodies. The Ptolemaic model is generally less accurate and harder to use than the Newtonian or Einsteinian models; but that doesn’t make it false, it just makes it less useful.
The insight which I consider important from this view of epistemology is precisely this distinction:
- Statements about the universe – and only statements about the universe – have the property of truth.
- Statements made within the context of a system have the property of consistency.
- Models – the combination of a system and a mapping – have the property of utility.
A great deal of philosophical confusion arises directly from making category errors about these different things.
For instance, if someone poses the question, “Is it true that the earth rotates around the sun?” most people would immediately answer, “Yes, that is true; everyone knows that.” But I have seen a cunning professor drive a class into serious confusion by pressing them on this point – how do you know that? What does it really mean that the earth “rotates around” the sun? Didn’t Galileo teach us that all motions are relative to each other?
In fact, the statement, “The earth rotates around the sun,” is neither true nor false, because while it sounds like a statement about the universe, it really isn’t. Although “the earth” and “the sun” are certainly things that are in the universe, “rotates around” is a statement that belongs to the system of Newtonian mechanics. (And even within that system, it’s more complicated than that.) In fact, “the earth rotates around the sun” is a model, and so the correct question to ask is, “Is it a useful model?” And the answer turns out to be that, if you’re plotting the motions of the planets, or planning a rocket trajectory, then yes, it is extremely useful to model the earth as rotating around the sun. On the other hand, if you’re standing on the surface of the earth enjoying a sunset, you can argue that it’s marginally more useful, or at least more convenient, to use the model that the sun is sinking below the horizon. Neither is true, nor false; just useful in different contexts.
So: remember to check what your statements are statements about, and avoid epistemological category errors.
Now, at this point, a reader could easily be forgiven for thinking that I’m using a very positivist definition of “truth,” restricted only to material or measurable things. That’s not actually what I’m doing, although the examples I’ve used so far do fit that mold.
What I’m trying to do is to draw a circle and say, “This is the circle within which true things live,” and then to invite the question of what belongs in that circle.
In fact, the reader may recall that way back at the very beginning we put a question up on the mantelpiece – namely, this very question of whether the universe, and by extension the arena of truth, can properly be said to contain anything besides matter and energy in time and space. Let’s take that question off the mantel and examine it a little bit.
The reason this is important becomes immediately apparent when we ask, “What about concepts like beauty, or goodness? Where do they live?” That is, is beauty a thing in the universe, or is it only an entity within a system?
In the former case, we can say things about beauty that are essentially true – however nuanced and complicated that truth may be. In the latter, we can only evaluate beauty in a way that is consistent with the rest of whatever system we’re using; and the person next to us may be using a completely different system.
This may not seem quite so fraught when we’re talking about beauty; most people are at least somewhat comfortable with the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the question becomes much more pointed when we start talking about goodness – or rightness, or ethics, or however you want to phrase that concept. Can an ethical statement be in any sense true? Or can it merely be consistent with other ethical statements within the context of a given system?
As one might expect, I have thoughts on that topic; but they are beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps we’ll return to that later. But I do think that it is helpful to realize that the question of whether there is anything in ethics that can be considered universal, or in any way not completely subjective, is tantamount to asking whether goodness is a thing that actually exists in the universe in the same way that a rock exists.