In the history of epistemology one finds battles fought over two different considerations, and sometimes which consideration is being fought over is itself confused.
The all important epistemological question is a question about justification. What is the inferential relation between some propositional content (a conclusion) and some others (premises). Such justificatory relations between propositional content are divided between necessary (deductive) and probabilistic (inductive).
Without getting lost down a rabbit trail, post-scientific and the ensuing industrial revolution there has been a tendency to think that all knowledge of the world is inductive, eternally open to falsification, and so at best uncertain. This mistake has made possible a rhetorical setting where social engineers with power over the rest of us lab-rats have felt emboldened to defend their infinite “trying” with excuses like, “Well, we can’t be sure we can’t do it because nothing is for certain.”
Another question often found in historical epistemological writing, but different from the justification question, is the question of location or psychological source. There has been debate the innate status of some knowledge which is separated from that which has not been learned from experience.
The truth is that both apriori (necessary) knowledge through deduction and aposteriori (probabilistic) knowledge through experience are psychologically gathered in time. That Plato argues in the Meno all knowledge is recollection (from the mind instead of learned from outside the mind) or that Descartes called some insights intuitive (obvious without reasoning) has invited those interested in the psychological question to interpret them psychologically and then say how silly it is to think that babies know timeless truths.
Those interested in justification then respond with the eternal falsifiability of experience and ask how it can be that we know for certain that the angles of a triangle at to one-hundred and eighty degrees if we haven’t checked all the triangles in experience. And so the battle rages.
No real disagreement can take place between those who are not talking about the same thing. We can talk about the psychological activity of acquiring knowledge which is always an event in time, or we can talk about what makes it knowledge which is a question of the justification of the propositional content.
By being sensitive to this distinction much in historical epistemology can be made sense of. That Locke and Hume are empiricist comes from their psychological orientation. That Descartes is a rationalist comes from his sensitivity to the question of justification. But boy does he speak in psychological terms.
In the next post I will treat a common assumption made by those who are in these different camps and criticize empiricism. Rationalists have argued that some of our knowledge of reality is necessary. Empiricists have argued that all of our knowledge of reality is probabilistic, open to future experience.
What I detest about the latter position is the “maybe it will work” move made by the social progressive who wants to continue to tinker with the lab rats (us) under the assumption that nothing is necessarily true about the way reality is. It turns out the move is unavailable and the tinkering not warranted because it breaches what we can know necessarily about reality.