Sunday, March 03, 2013

An analytical meditation on epistemology

Epistemology is that branch of Philosophy that, in a nutshell, deals with two questions, as the Catholic theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan succinctly put it (and as my college professor Eugene Webb helpfully clarified):

How do we know what we know?

And what are we doing when we know it?

As for the second question, what we are doing when we are knowing Lonergan termed more scientifically as operations of consciousness.

The operations of consciousness which Lonergan adumbrated are:

1. Noticing

2. Interpreting

3. Judging

4. Acting

What is the object of each of those operations of consciousness?  I.e., what are we noticing, interpreting, judging, and acting upon?

1. What we notice is data. Initially, data presents itself to human consciousness as what William James called the "great buzzing and blooming confusion" -- i.e., as chaos (from The Principles of Psychology, p. 488, vol. 1. New York: Dover 1890/1950). More specifically, it is the chaos that is the ever-present substratum of Creation, or reality. For most humans, though, this level of reality is not perceived as such, but is already experienced as fairly orderly -- pre-packaged, as it were, through the medium of our culture as we become enculturated from an early age after infancy, into a vast and complex web of interlocking meanings and associations.

2. What we interpret, then, is not, so to speak, raw data -- or surely not data in its rawest form -- but rather data that has already been interpreted by others, or that at least has attached to it interpretive frameworks which it would be naive to think can be detached without extraordinary and complicated effort.  This pre-interpreted data we apply our operation of interpretation to subsists in various stages of adequate interpretation and inadequate interpretation.  Adequacy is measured by fidelity to the meaning of the data -- though that is a deceptively simple phrase to describe something of exceeding complexity.

3. What we judge are interpretations -- both our own, and the interpretations of others, from our surrounding culture.  Part of our judging process involves not so much cleanly detaching our interpretations from those that have come, from our surrounding culture, bound with the data we are interpreting; but at least to make the attempt to discern some distinction.  That is, if we are not merely content to swallow passively the interpretations others have given to us concerning the data we are trying to make sense of.

4. What we act upon, or act out, are judgments.  The arrival at judgment about a particular interpretation leads inexorably to action.  The only way to remain inactive at the point of judgment is to deceive ourselves, or to drug ourselves.  (And by "action" we could also include sometimes not doing something, if that is judged to be the right course.)

Now, when we engage in these four operations, what are we doing, more precisely?

1. When we notice data, we are noticing facts -- facts mediated by our physical senses, as well as facts mediated by our culture. These two mediations are not cleanly distinct in our experience, even though many of us think they are. We may thoughtlessly think that when we feel a rock, or smell a flower, or taste a spice, or see a reflection in water, we are directly experiencing physical data -- but in fact we cannot escape our portable culture inside our head that acts as a complex filter for any and every physical sensation and experience we have. Every time we find ourselves experiencing something physically, a complex web of associations and meanings is triggered in our brain. This psycho-cultural phenomenon is not necessarily uniform all the time: it may wax and wane, and it may vary in a million different ways from from culture to culture, from subculture to subculture, from individual to individual, or even within one and the same individual from time to time or context to context. But it is always there to one extent or another. Only the rare zen savant or perhaps someone afflicted with a peculiar form of psychosis would be able to pierce through or transcend this portable psycho-cultural filter we as humans all have, and thus achieve a perfectly raw experience of a datum in and of itself immediately, without mediation.

2. When we interpret those facts, we are putting them through the process of understanding what they mean, and how they fit into the truth of any given matter that is important to us at the time. What they mean is usually, if not always, inextricable from their inter-relationship with other facts and interpretations in a complex interlocking jigsaw puzzle that radiates outward in ever-increasing complexity, ultimately contiguous with not only our subculture and our culture, but also our cosmos as that cosmos has been woven by interacting cultures in history into our present. Many of the interlocking radiations of facts and other interpretations that inform any given interpretation we make may often remain unknown to us, or we may be sometimes only dimly or imperfectly aware of them, or we may choose to ignore them at any given moment -- or any combination of the above.

3. When we judge the interpretations, we are determining whether they are true, and their truth in turn will form the structure of one or more parts of reality. Much, if not most, of reality for any given person is not the result of conscious judgment of truth that has illuminated its structure, both in a multitude of interlocking parts and as a whole: Rather, much, if not most, of reality for any given person is the result of simply accepting pre-packaged judgments of truth from others, often combined with a willful ignorance -- whether out of laziness, or out of frustration at not being able to come to certitude, or out of a more or less coherently held belief in skepticism.

4. When we act upon our judgments, we are acting in response to the reality we have judged to be true relative to a particular circumstance and context.

A Note on Transcendence and Tension:

Continuing with #4 above, me may say that any given particular circumstance or context is inextricably enmeshed in other circumstances and contexts, radiating outward in space and backward in time indefinitely, with ultimate contiguity to the area of questioning that points or leads beyond all circumstances and contexts to transcendence.  And even if we never arrive there -- to transcendence -- in any kind of transportation of ourselves from wherever we are, to there, we can come to cultivate an awareness of the sensation or disposition of our questioning, and of the desires which impel our questions, as a tending towards: a tending towards, or a "tension towards" (as the philosopher Eric Voegelin put it), transcendence.  This tending or tension we experience not as a perfect place arrived at, but as an orientation consisting of a paradoxical sense of unfulfilled longing, combined with a forestaste of that longing fulfilled.  This vague description may pertain to a thousand different questions and desires, particularly and distinctly, and may also pertain to some sort of commonality they all share with each other, unifying them so to speak, as a thousand different streams may eventually merge into one common Ocean.  This aspect of epistomology our discursus has wandered into as a sort of cul-de-sac indicates the way to the realms of Philosophy and Religion.

Complications to the four operations:

One complication that affects each one of the operations is that each one overlaps the other -- such that the distinction of four types of operation is almost (but not quite) a rhetorical over-simplification.  We must not err, however, on the opposite side and assume there is only one mass operation; nor should we too promiscuously allow the line between each of the operations become so fine it no longer prevents us from confusing one for another.


The level of data, for example, as we noted above, rarely if ever involves sheer, raw data. Most, if not all, of the time, when we experience data, we are experiencing either

a) data ensconced in a web of interlocking relations with other data and with interpretations

b) data that is really in the form of pre-packaged interpretations.

Sense data is closer to being simplex than other data is. It is invariably complicated, however, by factor (a) above. Any given sense datum we experience we do not experience in its isolation: immediately, its meaning becomes informed by interlocking relations with other data and with other interpretations (as well as other judgments). Perhaps an infant has that pure experience of raw data; but the process of education and enculturation precisely "clears" that up for each individual, such that they can make sense of their surroundings and the personal, physical and social meanings that adhere to and organize the multiplicity of trillions and trillions of data we swim in and bump into at every turn of every minute of the day.

One can meditatively attempt to isolate data, but this requires enormous patience and skill developed over time (cf. zen meditation) -- and even then, it's probably far from pure or perfect (even if some may claim otherwise). The alternative, just "mellowing out" and "trying not to think" whilst experiencing data may sometimes achieve the same end, but most of the time only results in the illusion of it, not the real thing -- facilitated by semi-consciously selective ignorance (perhaps facilitated by self-medication of one kind or another) combined with a passive acceptance of other people's interpretative frameworks.

[To read Part 2....(click on "Part 2")]


gravenimage said...

Interesting essay, Hesperado.

Of course, we do receive much of our interpretations from our culture--indeed, if every human had to completely "reinvent the wheel" and interpret every aspect of data from scratch, we would be well into middle age--assuming we lived that long--before we would be able to grapple with anything much beyond the mechanics of everyday survival.

That being said, we are equipped with reason and free will--meaning that we are free to reinterpret the data, and to come to possibly different conclusions as to the actions warranted by our judgement on the meaning of said data.

This is, of course, easier the freer the society lives in, and the understanding that there can be varying interpretations of data to begin with--and that one has the freedom to explore interpretations, and the freedom to voice one's conclusions.

That being said, if one is rational, the interpretation of facts is not capricious, and is firmly based on those facts, and not on conventional tropes or wishful thinking.

Hesperado, I'm glad you're broaching the subject of epistemology to begin with--a topic many consider either too abstruse or without real world application--whereas, it forms the very basis of how we know what we know, and on what basis to act in the world.

I look forward to the next part of your essay.

Hesperado said...

Thanks gravenimage. You pretty well grasped the essence of my essay here. I would only add two nuances -- two sides of the same coin, as it were: 1) that much of what we think is the activity and product of our free will in the present moment ratiocinating is actually more or less pre-fab "pre-packaged" interpretations we often don't fully realize we are ingesting, digesting and regurgitating; and that 2) not all of these pre-fab interpretations (what used to be called, approvingly, "dogma") are bad, but some are beneficial on a variety of levels, from the pragmatic to the spiritual.

Part 2 will be coming down the pike, and I may have other intervening essays in the meantime. Thanks for reading!

gravenimage said...

Hesperado wrote:

I would only add two nuances -- two sides of the same coin, as it were: 1) that much of what we think is the activity and product of our free will in the present moment ratiocinating is actually more or less pre-fab "pre-packaged" interpretations we often don't fully realize we are ingesting, digesting and regurgitating; and that 2) not all of these pre-fab interpretations (what used to be called, approvingly, "dogma") are bad, but some are beneficial on a variety of levels, from the pragmatic to the spiritual.

Thanks for your reply, Hsperado.

Interesting insight--I also believe it hinges greatly on whether one lives in a largely decent and rational society or not.

If one lives in the free West, what you posit is largely true. If, however, one grew up in, say, Hitler's Germany, Pol Pot's Kampuchea, China during the "Cultural Revolution", or under the Taliban or Al-Shebaab, one would have to revisit almost all accepted attitudes in order to become an even generally rational and decent human being.

In support of your point, one summer when I was at university I decided to do a thorough reexamination of the "Founding Fathers"--and, rather to my surprise at the time, came away *even more impressed* with their ideas than I had been previously.

The greatness of the "Founding Fathers" was "dogma" that, for me, well stood close examination.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that even clearly irrational ideas tend to be overall less destructive and more benign in largely decent societies--for instance, the idea that "everything happens for a reason" or ideas about 'how to attract luck' are clearly irrational--but are much less harmful and less indicative of a malevolent world view than, say, the conviction that there are evil genii stymying all one's efforts, or that the maid or one's new wife is practicing 'witchcraft'.

I'll be looking forward to reading Part 2 in the series.

Hesperado said...


Interesting you bring up the Founding Fathers. The whole experience of the Founding Fathers, spanning a couple of decades, I'd say is a great example of the process of epistemology as Lonergan lays it out. When I noted that many, if not most, interpretations we develop are really pre-packaged (and that even what we think is "data" is really pre-packaged interpretations), this doesn't mean we also don't go through, or aren't challenged by, real data in the present which we can respond to, at least in part, with freely developed interpretations based on reason. The epistemological process basically is repeated over and over in our daily lives, though most often it results in just a repetition of behavior, not a change. Data has to be egregiously annoying or frustrating or painful or unethical to arouse us enough to notice it such that we are moved to interpret it in a new way, leading to the judgements that would then lead to a new action rather than the repeated actions we would rather continue.

So the Founding Fathers went through that process leading to the most remarkable kind of stage 4 action: Revolution. And even more remarkable than usual, their Revolution was beneficent and rational, not demagogic and deleterious.

gravenimage said...

Hesperado wrote:

So the Founding Fathers went through that process leading to the most remarkable kind of stage 4 action: Revolution. And even more remarkable than usual, their Revolution was beneficent and rational, not demagogic and deleterious.

Quite so, Hesperado--the American Revolution is largely unique.

The most common form of revolution in modern times is where an oppressive and authoritarian regime is overthrown and replaced with something much, much worse.

We've seen that in Russia, in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam, in Iran--and now, in the countries of the "Arab Spring".

In fact, the *only* real negative legacy of the overwhelmingly beneficent American Revolution is that so many Americans regard that event as applicable to *all* revolutions, with sometimes fatal results.

Thomas Paine was almost killed by the madness of the French Revolution, which he rushed to Europe to support. It was only through the mistake of a dyslexic jailer that he escaped execution.

And we saw this same foolishness just recently, with the American ambassador to Libya--a starry-eyed supporter of the "Arab Spring"--slaughtered by the very Jihadists he had unwisely been aiding.

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, who was initially thrilled to hear about the French Revolution, sobered up quickly and was much more cautious in his evaluations once the tumbrils started rolling. Would that all Americans were so clear-eyed.

One might argue that the French Revolution—eventually and at hideous cost—did finally result in some positive changes.

One cannot even make that claim for most world revolutions, which have resulted in *nothing* but tyranny and mass death.