Epistemology and the Principles and Sources of UUism October 23, 2005

In this homily I will attempt to define epistemology and link that branch of philosophy to your own exploration of belief, knowledge and faith. As that is a tall order for 15 minutes, I’ll get going.

When I first went to the dictionary for definitions of epistemology, I became apprehensive. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make epistemology funny, and I was hard pressed to come up with a story to link it to our own lives. As Rev Katie has said, and I’m paraphrasing here, people don’t come to church for a lecture, they come for stories.

So I became very discontented with the definitions. The best one I found was “Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, origin and scope of knowledge.” Or, what is knowledge, where does it come from, and how do we agree on where to set the boundaries for the discussion.

I became so discontented with the definitions, that I fired them all and hired my own. “Epistemology is the process whereby human beings organize their thinking about knowledge.” This makes epistemology everybody’s business; and while epistemology has specialists called philosophers, it also has everyday day practitioners, who would be you and me. We humans have common beliefs about knowledge, a point which I will illustrate in a moment.

This morning I will not be talking that much about the details of contemporary epistemology, rather I will be talking about the folkways of the knowledge gathering process especially as they relate to UUism.

Of course, you can’t define epistemology without tackling knowledge. Knowledge, according to Plato, is justified true belief. This definition stood up well for over two millennia, until the nineteen sixties, and has since been adjusted to say, Knowledge is true beliefs which have someother quality which we are still arguing about. The specialists agree that true belief is necessary for knowledge to be knowledge, but they are still wrestling over justification.

If there is anyone in the congregation who is a professionally trained philosopher, I am sure you are scandalized by my compressions and omissions, but this is the fifty cent tour.

I said I was going to illustrate common beliefs about knowledge. I went to a skeptical website some years ago, and was much struck when the author said, “Almost everybody argues about God, and hardly anybody argues about gravity.” If I pushed my lecture notes from the pulpit and they flew up to the ceiling, there would not be a single witness who believed that gravity had been suspended. They would suspect a trick, or a rational explanation. The most mystical person in the room would assume this. In fact, most of the people in this room would say I know that was a trick. And they’d be right.

What I just did was a rhetorical trick. If you are one of those people who would immediately assume a trick when my papers flew up, you are (drum roll please) a foundationalist! A foundationalist is somebody who believes that there is knowledge which is foundational, and that means it’s integral to other knowledge. Everyone is subject to gravity. It is a justified true belief, and it’s a foundational one. We can argue very well the finer points of gravity, but its influence on human affairs is not a matter of much debate.

The great thing about being a foundationalist, and I recommend it as a strategy, is that you can say, I gather information through my senses and then use my reason to discern which information is true and which is false. If it’s true it goes onto the storehouse of knowledge. If you’re not a foundationalist, you have to prove that something is a piece of knowledge from scratch, establishing a chain of logic from the start to the finish. That’s definitely work you want to leave with the professionals.

I will provide another example, this one deceptively simple. What is the first game that a baby learns to play? Why, it’s peek-a-boo. Peek-a-boo is a very interesting game, and it becomes more interesting the longer you look at it. It may not be very clear what peek-a-boo has to do with the branch of philosophy concerning knowledge, but bear with me.

Peek-a-boo can be played with a very young child, six months or less sometimes, and, prior to speech and prior to much socialization, the child can play cooperatively with any other human being whom the child is interested in looking at. Language and culture are unimportant.

Peek-a-boo is a game which illustrates the expression “common knowledge”, and suggests that there is a lot more common knowledge than we are consciously aware of.

Peek-a-boo is a game which illustrates that even at an extremely early age, human beings can handle the notion that something can be there and not there at the same time. This ability is foundational…. Without it, human beings couldn’t know anything about anything, because once the source of their knowledge disappeared from view they wouldn’t have the knowledge any more. As an aside, this ability is what distinguishes the smarter, more social animals which human beings hang out with, like dogs, horses, cats, pigs, dolphins and elephants, from other animals. Smart animals have a good idea that even if they can’t see something, it’s still there, and their idea can be shown not to have a basis in habit.

So the next time you’re playing peek-a-boo, you can loftily announce that you are teaching the child about epistemology, and you won’t be wrong. It’s foundational to the human ability to acquire knowledge that we know thatsomething can exist which is no longer in view.

I believe that every time a person acquires knowledge, it is because that person has learned to keep more than one piece of knowledge in mental view, and the link between those two disparate pieces of knowledge is now obvious and repeatable, at least to the person who knows it.

I said earlier this morning that the current working definition of knowledge is that it’s true belief with optional, arguable, extras. My definition of knowledge reflects my prejudices. Although the acquisition of knowledge as an internal mental and physical process taking place in individuals is not clearly understood, I believe that knowledge has a quality that implies sociability. If information wants to be free, then knowledge wants to be where the people are.

I have a mystical streak a mile wide, and this is forcing me to make another aside. I believe that the knowledge that we trade words about it is amazing, and our ability to communicate nothing short of miraculous. But I also believe that every cell in my body is more knowledgeable than I am because it has knowledge that I do not. I have no clue how to transport oxygen or repair cell walls or grow hair. My body knows, though. The definitions I provided of knowledge at the beginning essentially shut this way of knowing out.

Technically, the cell contains information and automated processes, not knowledge; knowledge is something that belongs to people alone. However, if I’m going to stick to the party line about knowledge, in this instance a human being can know what the chemistry or physics of a cellular process is well enough to describe it. This description can then be shown to be true or false. That makes it knowledge in the philosophical sense. I think most of us have had the experience that our bodies can distinguish true from false and act on the results, but without belief, it isn’t knowledge.

The mystic in me objects to this, but I am also, most of the time, quite committed to rationality. It is this constant tension between the ways of knowing that are closed to human beings, and the ways that are open, that led me to Unitarianism in the first place.

Epistemology distinguishes between knowing how to do something, and knowing that something can be proved true or false. Gilbert Ryle said that “Efficient practice precedes the theory of it”. Maybe Unitarians are so interested in doing church that they don’t want to get into theory. It’s like that little poem:

*A centipede was happy quite, Until a frog in fun, Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”*

* This raised her mind to such a pitch, She lay distracted in the ditch Considering how to run.*

By this I mean to say that if you come to church, you may need to come to church for a while and practice before the theory behind what you’re doing becomes clear to you; I think this is a great idea, as it fits in perfectly with the UU attitude towards the individual. Also, you will have noticed from your own life that sometimes thinking about what you’re doing doesn’t help.

Our common faith is a safe place to let the boundaries made of words dissolve, so that we may approach matters of knowledge, faith, truth and falsity, and our beliefs, with our quest and our humanity intact. Church allows you time to disentangle yourself from the struggle to put one foot in front of the other.

On Sunday mornings, we know how to “do church”; we dress and move and speak in an orderly way. But the reason that we “do church” is so that we can “be church”; we know from hundreds of years of common experience that worship is a folkway — informal knowledge – that is as durable and fragile as humankind itself. We also know that the practice precedes the theory, so we may not always be able to articulate the theory. What happens in church cannot be defined as knowledge, although church exists in part to help us discern the true from the false.

Epistemology uses words to address questions of knowledge. We have no other common mode of understanding these things, which is why epistemologists spend an excruciating amount of time defining things. Worship is an acknowledgement that words may not suffice; that definitions, rationality and logic may not be enough to get you through your everyday life.

I invite you to re-read the principles and sources of Unitarian Universalism with the word knowledge in your mind, because the word knowledge is nowhere mentioned. This is because the worship experience, as conceived by most UU’s, is not something you can apply the word knowledge to. I am going to paraphrase our principles with the philosophical definition of knowledge in mind.

Our lives mostly happen outside church; the puzzle then becomes how we behave when we’re not at church. We live, or try to live, in testimony to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, applying justice, equity and compassion to human relations, accepting each others spiritual growth and taking care as we search for our own truth and meaning, and the truth and meaning which we find in community.

We try to be principled and loving in our exercise of power, however it may be bestowed upon us; and we try to stay aware of our obligations even when we’re having fun or creating beauty. We imagine a world where no one is subject to violence, and tears come to our eyes. We imagine a better world and a world where have we ceased our feeble attempt to tyrannize nature. None of this is knowledge; but how can the world be better without imagination and awareness?

In the process of imagining that which we cannot know, we are wise to acknowledge our ancestors, both of our bodies and our minds. We point toward transcendent wonder, which is not knowledge, but is something precious nevertheless. We learn the words and deeds of the brave and the eloquent, and are we moved to be like them. Love is not knowledge; it is more like a motive source, and it finds its face reflected in many scriptures. Our spiritual forebears are Jewish and Christian but we have turned aside from much of the violence our forebears upheld; toward the bodies of women and children and slaves, and toward the followers of other religions. The humanists, God bless them, prevent us from becoming clogged with spooky rituals and idolatry, and the elders of the first peoples remind us that nature is not something we can pretend to be outside.

We have principles and sources which are not, technically, knowledge. They are folkways. UU’s believe that we must heed science and rationality in our quest for spiritual truth. We are participants in a stubborn and ongoing effort to be the living link between faith and knowledge. For we are not so foolish as to think that everything we believe is true; but we are not so cynical as to think that everything we believe is false, even if we are not allowed to call it knowledge. The wisest among us can only stake a small claim upon knowledge.

I return to the definition I made of epistemology, that it is the process whereby humans organize their thinking about knowledge. Maybe, when you are confronted with a new situation, this definition will be of use, because sometimes it is not knowledge, but awareness of the many ways of knowing, that is most useful as we confront the challenges of our lives.

Leave a Reply