Knowing The Unknowable (Part 1): Introduction

Being the Chosen People makes epistemology surprisingly relevant. How do we know what the truth is? How do we know what to do? What is emunah anyway? Since this is a gigantic topic, I want to provide here but a digest of the questions involved and then offer a perspective I hope will be true (no pun intended).

In philosophy, there tend to be a few branches of conviction as to what constitutes the acquisition of true knowledge:

  • Idealism believes that knowledge comes from inborn intuition of “ideals”, thus giving intrinsic legitimacy to the human mind. There are some kind of ideal forms or concepts that are embedded in human consciousness — whether from within or without — that are true by virtue of themselves.
  • Rationalism posits that logic and reason have primary significance in determining truth, thus limiting knowledge to abstract analysis. Human logic is fundamentally true, so it reflects reality.
  • Empiricism says that perceptive experience, especially via the senses, provides knowledge, thus limiting knowledge to physicality. Only that which is observable and scientifically provable can be considered to exist.
  • Constructivism views knowledge as built on subjective human constructs of reality, thus focusing entirely on pragmatic usefulness instead of truth. It does not matter what is really true beyond the human imagination; whatever works best for the advancement of civilization is important.

In any case, how do we know that we know? No matter what argument we make to prove something, we rely on the epistemological bases of our proof systems. Every theory of knowledge inevitably becomes circular (if not completely dismissive of the problem or denying the existence of objectivity altogether). Therefore, to determine truth-value, either the underlying propositions (statements, truths) are fundamentally true (as theorized by Foundationalism), the truths are coherent with each other and may correspond to some greater truth (as in Coherentism/Correspondence Theory), or the truths are justified by an infinite chain of non-circular proofs (as in Infinitism). For example, why should a rationalist believe that reason is objective if not because of some other reason or due to his blind-faith acceptance of it? Even so, the question persists: How do we know that any of that is true; can we even know that we don’t know? The theories that try to define what makes something true end up playing with equations and symbols that become unimpressive fantasy (see the “Many Worlds Theory”). We approach an annoying triad of arguments: “I just know”, “I dunno”, and “Feh” (terms my own). There are obviously nuances and subcategories and philosophical branches within all of this, but honestly, what do we do with all this fluffy stuff?

Come back for Part 2!

Parshas Tazria: Understanding Bris Milah

Prophetic Formulas (Part 1): Yeshaya & The Assyrian Sequence