You don't know, Jack

Ambrose Bierce, I think, said that “It ain’t what ya don’t know that gets ya into trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.” That is one way to look at epistemology. What do I know that ain’t so? Do my beliefs about the world or reality actually match it? Reality! The physis sought so ardently in Greece and Asia Minor by the Pre-Socratics exists. Things are. Reality Is. And my mind tries to grasp it. But does it succeed? Being human, I do not know reality as a god would know it. And yet, as a human, I have a mind that animals lack, and I can grasp something beyond the mere sensations of the body.

But if my beliefs about reality are false, is it possible to arrive at true beliefs about reality? Can I find the truth about things? Or, as the sophists claim, is there really nothing but opinion? If so, I should give up the philosophic search for truth and instead search for influence, as the sophists argue. I should learn how to use words to influence people. Learn from the sophists, for a steep fee, how to make “the weaker case seem the stronger and the stronger case seem the weaker.” Learn to manipulate the jury, the public, the democracy. Instead of the open search for truth through rational discussion and argument as Socrates taught it, I should learn to make arguments fit my personal preferences and interests. But I will not be dishonest if I am searching for reality, which, after all, may be knowable.

Then again, are intangibles like justice, wisdom, beauty and goodness also knowable? That is, besides knowing a good horse or a good chariot or a good anything else, can I come to know goodness itself? (This is the problem of the one and the many, the many a good thing versus goodness itself.)

It gets so abstract, so quickly. But the basic point is Bierce’s. There are people who know what God wants and how the world should and will be organized. The know what sort of killing is permitted. They know that they will win. And if you ask them how they can be so sure, they will tell you that they read it in a holy book that does not lie. If they were students of epistemology, if they listened carefully to Descartes and Hume and Locke and that strange bird Bishop George Berkeley they might not be so sure that what they know is actually so. At least, that is the main practical value I see in the study of epistemology.

I wasn’t really kidding when I wrote in an email today that the more I teach this course, the less I know...