Updated: Sep 1
Truth and reality exist, we're pretty sure. From there things get complicated. Reality has to pass through our imperfect senses on its way to our imperfect intellect. Who's to say it arrives intact? That's the pickle we're in.
Our species' ability to be spectacularly wrong means we can never say, "I know, therefore you must believe me." We can only present argument and evidence and hope to persuade others to believe as we do.
On a positive note, we can be optimistic about being wrong. In Being Wrong, author Karen Schultz encouraged, "embracing our fallibility simply acknowledges what philosopher Richard Rorty called 'the permanent possibility of someone having a better idea.'" Hooray for that!
Yet, we must live in the world, believing a great many things to be true that arguably we cannot know to be true, because of the fallibility of senses - ours and others. The scaffolding of life that we walk on consists of lots of "I hope", "I believe", and "I'm pretty darn sure", that each person and each generation has to come to accept for itself and pin its hopes on. Individuals and generations may go on for entire lives and centuries building on complete error, then half-truths, then mostly-truths, and so on. Little by little civilization has gotten closer and closer to the truth and how to harness it, improving living conditions, lengthening lifespans, decreasing disease and poverty. Truth is indeed "the antidote to suffering" (Jordan Peterson). This gradual process of improvement affects every part of our culture stack.
So how do we get as close to truth as possible and avoid error as much as possible? And how do we perpetuate the seeking and acceptance of truth from generation to generation so we don't go backwards?
Epistemology is the study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. Presented here are three different methods, each with its own standards of evidence (proper use) and malpractice (improper use):
There are others: pragmatism, historicism, aestheticism, and asceticism, for example.
The different methods are like tools in a truth-finding toolbox. The more of them we have and the more familiar we are with their proper and improper uses, the more likely we are to correctly discern between truth and error. That said, a great deal of effort is required to master one, let alone two or three. Most of us have a favorite and may discount or entirely reject others.
Each method has its own domain or proper use. They do not (or need not) compete with one another. Evidence from one should complement or confirm evidence from another. If not, malpractice has occurred in either or both. Being "multilingual" or fluent in multiple methods gives us a broader understanding of the world and the people and problems in it. Each method is powerful and practical and should expand our mind, our comprehension, and our gratitude. They allow us to approach the same destination, truth, from different routes.
The positive impact of science is enormous, wonderful, and indisputable. Rational and critical thought are imperatives in human life. Though fewer modern readers may relate to revelation than empiricism or reason, I include it because millions around the world employ it (prayer, seeking guidance and inspiration, etc.) and it arguably forms the basis of our judicial and political systems. The idea expressed in Genesis that man and woman are created in the image of God gives western civilization its conception of universal human rights. Zeno and Cicero derived similar ideas from their pagan religions. Even Salon, the great Athenian philosopher, political theorist, and founder of western democracy who 2,600 years ago conceived of equal rights, constitutional government, the right and duty to bear arms, private property, majority rule, separation of powers, etc. "was a man of vision, a seer: [who] implied that truths were imparted to him from a source beyond his private rationality." (Kirk & McDonald, 2003a, p. 61). Certainly, these ideas have their critics. But that's what debate and rational argument are for.
Yet, as invaluable as each method may be, they are also fraught with the potential for malpractice; accidental or intentional, petty or gross.
In the April 11, 2015 edition of The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, editor in chief Richard Horton famously bemoaned the prevalence of questionable research behavior, data sculpting, and other instances of empirical malpractices, stating "the case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue." (emphasis added)
Our political discourse (all discourse really) is infested with fallacious arguments intended to get the masses and our representatives to feel, believe, and act a particular way. The University of Texas, Stanford, Purdue, and the University of North Carolina have compiled helpful lists of fallacies and common applications in everyday life.
Untold atrocities have been committed in the name of religion (the institution typically associated with revelation). David Koresh, Jim Jones, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Charles Manson, and Marshall Herff Applewhite all committed horrible acts, convincing thousands that they were under divine direction (revelation). And then there are the innumerable denominations and splinter groups from dozens if not hundreds of religions. It seems unlikely that they are all entirely wrong, but they can't all be entirely correct.
Hence the pickle. Truth is the antidote to suffering, but seeking it out can seem like the proverbial needle in the malpractice haystack. Our search requires sophisticated tools and sophisticated understanding. In a society where every adult votes, epistemological literacy is an imperative. How do you think we're doing?
What's your primary epistemology? Secondary?
Are you well-versed in their proper practice, limitations (scope), and types of malpractice?
Is there one or more epistemologies you have ignored or are underdeveloped in? What domains of truth are you missing out on as a result? Who are you less able to converse with?
What epistemologies are the various levels of your culture stack based on?
How well do you feel your education and upbringing prepared you to be a truth-seeker? To enjoy truth-seeking?
If there is a difference between truth-seeking, sustenance-seeking, and pleasure-seeking, what mixture characterizes your life? Are they in proper balance? Is there a proper balance?
Kirk, R., & McDonald, F. (2003a). Roots Of American Order (4th ed.). Intercollegiate Studies Institute.