Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Do You Know?

When we hear someone using the phrase in the title above, we’re witnessing epistemology in action. The Greek root of that word is knowledge-knowledge or knowledge-information, knowledge about knowledge, theory of knowledge. English is murkier; it is a Mississippi of a language so that its water is thick with the mud of other tongues. German lives closer to its roots and renders epistemology as knowledge-teaching (Erkenntnislehre); that word defines itself for the young German and doesn’t wear a haughty mask of impenetrability like Epistemology. But behind that Greek mask lurks some fellow asking: “How do you know?”

That is an interesting question, isn’t it? We ask it all the time. We ask it of the TV set, of books, and of our less trusted informants. The most authoritative answer to it is “I was there, I saw it” — or variants: “I had the operation. You want to see my scar?” It is equally fascinating to follow such a dialogue if the questioner isn’t immediately satisfied. If the answer points to a third party, for example, the questioner will next proceed to establish the third party’s competence, his state of knowledge, how he obtained it. We all do this. We are Everyman. When Everyman is trying to get an answer, he can be a ferocious epistemologist without a trace of Greek or philosophy anywhere in sight. Now if we listen carefully, it turns out that the questioner is seeking a two-fold set of facts: One, is the information based on direct experience and, Two, is the source of it a competent, mature, and honest observer. If there is a chain of informants, each must qualify, not least the last person actually responding to the How-do-you-know. Failing to get to this point, the questioner may wave off the answer and dismiss it saying: “Well, that’s just a rumor.”

I find it useful to examine epistemology, or what lies behind it, from this perspective, as understood in ordinary life. In that context there is never any talk of the Correspondence Theory of truth over against the Coherence Theory, no debate between epistemological monism and epistemological dualism. The questioner assumes correspondence to be true unless he has reasons to doubt it; he also demands coherence. Correspondence in this context simply means that what is observed is really there: the words refer to concrete realities. Coherence means that a presentation of data is logically structured. Our questioner ignores the dualism-monism issue as a brand of philosophical baloney. Dualists say that there is a difference between the sensory data reaching the mind and what is really out there—the phenomenon/noumenon pairing. Monists say the two are one and the same thing: “When I see an apple, an apple is what I see.” “Hairsplitting” says our questioner. “Get on with it. I just want to know what happened.”

The questioner’s dual interest, in direct experience and in the adequacy of the reporter, is of interest to me particularly in the context of the mind and related areas: paranormal experience and proof of a beyond. I note here especially that Everyman routinely assumes that people are reliable channels of information provided that we know something about them and their limitations. Indeed Everyman assumes that they are perhaps better sources than instruments. Everyman has reasonable doubts about instruments, jigs, tools, and the like and applies to them the same rules of competency. Some products work better than others. Brand XZ is junk, as he is likely to say. His approach to reality is integrated. He assumes the presence of mind in others and knows how to judge its qualities by various other indicators. But he is no fool; not everyone with arms and legs qualifies as a good informant. I stress this point because orthodox science, in contrast to Everyman, has a positive bias against human experience, never mind the competence of the reporter. It insists on physical measurements as the sole proof of anything. That is the reason why a peculiar form of psychology called behaviorism could get any traction at all: don’t believe what people say; only believe observable behavior.

I make these points at length because, in days to come I want to examine some of empirical evidence—meaning experiential evidence—for the transcendental nature of aspects of reality. In that context it is useful to have in mind how we can know. In virtually all matters that touch on paranormal phenomena, for instance—telepathy or precognition, let us say—good cases are based on the experience of people; the experience itself, however, is inaccessibly to anyone other than the experiencer. A telepathic message is perceived; it doesn’t come as a sound through the air that instruments can capture. Precognitions typically come in dreams. We never say: “Here! Let me run off a copy of my dream for you.” What we encounter in these cases are actual phenomena—but inaccessible except through a single mind. They are direct experiences. How do we know they really happened? We can only know by testimony. How can we trust the testimony? Can we ever do so without a Xerox of the dream? Everyman’s answer is that mind is competent to judge reality to a sufficient degree so that we can confidently speak of certainty. Not all will be believed. But then, to be sure, our physical tools also fail frequently enough so that absolute certainty is pretty much out of our reach.

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