What is Epistemology?

Epistemology is synonymous with theories of knowledge. For a claim to be true the claim must have a foundation. Yet finding a firm foundation can be difficult. Epistemology is subdivided into rationalism andempiricism which are considered ways of acquiring knowledge. Yet these two concepts have limitations. Truth is essential for one to have knowledge; how can one know something if what they think is true is in fact false?

Problems with Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

Epistemology must be grounded on a firm foundation for otherwise how can ones claims to knowledge be supported? Arguments without foundations rely on circular reasoning or an infinite regress. When an claim is based on circular reasoning, the argument itself is supported based on a previous claim, but at the same time the claim provides support for itself farther around the circular chain.

Infinite regress is different. How can something provide support for something else if the claim that provides support is not founded by itself or something prior? If all claims must be supported, then each prior claim needs support as well. If the argument is not well founded then it relies on the previous claim, and so on, and so on, therefore one ends up in a infinite regress. There is no foundation.

Anti-Foundationalism argues to the contrary; some people claim truth is relative. To some it is not important if values differ. This can thrust one into a moral quandary. For example it is considered for certain areas in Asia and Africa that female genital mutilation is acceptable morally, but people in the West would reject this.

Problems With Rationalism and Empiricism

According to epistemology there are two ways to acquire knowledge. First is rationalism in which one possess’ rational principles independent of experience. These rational principles exist in the mind, which is immortal and immutable. That is because something which does not exist in space and time cannot be destroyed. Therefore rational principles exist independently of ones physical bodies, since ones body is spatial and temporal and therefore subject to destruction.

Descartes talks about the relationship, or lack thereof, between mind and body, how the two can interface if they are so dissimilar, and he is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of how a mind and body can interact.

There are problems with empiricism too. One is called the Veil of Perception, introduced by John Locke’s representationalism. How does one perceive anything? Does one see the thing in itself? To think this would be called naive realism. If one does see things as they are, then how does one see them? Does the matter itself fall into one’s eyes? One may counter that what one sees is reflected light. Believing what one sees is a representation of what is being viewed, is called representation realism. And if what one sees is not exactly as it exists in itself, how can one say that this thing even resembles what one sees, or even exists at all? If the lights are turned out might the object cease to exist? In other words if one does not perceive the thing in itself, how can one know they perceive the thing at all?

The Types of Truth

What is truth? In order to have knowledge one must know that certain opinions are true. While truth is essential to having knowledge, one must realize that there are different standards for truth. The types of truths include the following:

  • Correspondence Theory of Truth
  • Pragmatic Theory of Truth
  • Coherence Theory of Truth

First is the correspondence theory of truth. That means there is a correspondence between what one thinks and the world. For example to say the sky is blue would be true because the sky is in fact blue, (well the sky usually appear blue to human eyes).

Another theory of truth is the pragmatic theory of truth. This is the idea if it works then it is true. For example if one were to ask if the computer works properly, and one turns it on and all goes well, then this statement would in fact be true. It is true that it works properly.

Finally, there is the coherence theory of truth. That is what people find coherent is, in fact, true. When figuring out mathematical equations, if the derivations are coherent (hold together) then the final formula is in fact true.

Epistemology is a huge subject and this just scratches the surface. Epistemology includes issues surrounding foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, and it’s subdivisions are rationalism and empiricism. For something to be known as knowledge, it must in fact be true. There are three basic theories for truth, correspondence, pragmatic, and the coherence theories of truth. Searching for truth is a worthy pursuit.


Honderich, Ted. Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

The Veil of Perception

John Locke, from England, and Irishman Bishop Berkeley were famous 17th-18th century empiricists. Being that these philosophers examined how one can know things, they were epistemologists, while propounding different metaphysical systems to explain their positions.

Locke felt that observation via the senses constituted the primary way one acquires information about the external world. Berkeley, on the other hand, felt that what one knows comes about as a result of one’s own ideas, rather than knowledge being based on an external substance. While both being empiricists, Locke would be classified as a materialist, while Berkeley is an idealist.

Locke’s Blank Slate and the Veil of Perception

Locke believed that the object of perception was an external substance. Each person when beginning their life possess’ a mind that is a Tabula Rasa or blank slate. According to Locke, when one is born there are no innate ideas, and therefore the information perceived is not based on rational principles, although reason does play a role in formulating knowledge.

Locke’s philosophy holds that there is a sort of correspondencebetween external things and one’s ideas. This correspondence leads to the supposition that Locke was a representational realist. Representational realism is the concept that one’s sensations contain a representation of the things being sensed.

For Locke, to perceive something external to the senses implies representational realism; otherwise how else can one know external corporeal substances? This representational realism led to what is referred to in philosophical circles as the veil of perception, that is things are not seen as they are in themselves. This is because there is a “veil” which one cannot penetrate, because the thing perceived exists independent of sensation. This concept had dire implications.

Berkeley’s Idealism: To Be is To Be Perceived

Berkeley, and idealist, criticized Locke. He considered himself to be a harbinger of common sense. He felt that Lockean materialism was flawed and resulted in extreme skepticism. With representational realism matter is never known as it is in itself, and this fact led to skepticism, because the question became how can someone know anything about the world at all, (e.g., external substances), if what one perceives is not a perception of the thing in itself?

According to Berkeley, the only thing that one knows are ideas. Berkeley claimed that something only truly exists when it is perceived. This is referred to in his dictum “to be is to be perceived” (e.g., esse est percipi). He believed that without something being perceived, one cannot say anything about it existing, or even say it exists at all! After all, he thought, the way one understands a substance is that it is something that exists independent of the senses.

If it does exist independent of the senses, how can one know the substance as it exists in itself? This leads to extreme skepticism according to Berkeley because one cannot know if matter indeed exists, since one doesn’t perceive matter directly (e.g., the problem of the veil of perception). For if something exists independent of the senses, then one is saying that one really doesn’t know anything about the substance as it exists in itself, (e.g., independent of the senses).

Berkeley solution is that one’s thoughts are composed of ideas, that substance cannot be perceived. The veil becomes an impenetrable blanket. Locke is defeated by this supposition by Berkeley that what one knows about the world are only ideas, that is one’s own ideas. Ultimately this brings up the problem that if one isn’t there to perceive it, does it cease to exist, since ones perceptions are only one’s own ideas.

Many are familiar with this philosophical paradox where if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to perceive it, does it make a sound? If matter is simply reducible to ideas then when the ideas are not received one can’t say the event, in this case the tree, exists at all. Therefore there is no “falling” of the tree, and there can be no sound.

Berkeley’s Idealism and God

Berkeley ostensibly solves this quandary of whether things really exist by using his position on ideas as an argument for God. Berkeley was critical of Locke because God was not a necessary component of his philosophy.

For Locke, spirit is not necessary in the formulation of perception, where all that was important were external substances for perception. Berkeley replied to these perceived shortcomings of the veil of perception by saying that all things do exist at all times. They exist because God perceives everything in the world at all times, and therefore everything continues to exist always (e.g., as spirit). One philosophy professor of mine referred to this as “God putting ideas in our heads”.

In reference to Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Samuel Johnson once kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!” Yet ultimately this refutes nothing (e.g., it could just be the “idea” of pain in kicking the “rock”).


The Empiricists An Anchor Book – Doubleday: 1961.

Honderich, Ted, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995.

Paradigms of Evolution and Material Force

The nature of self determines not only ones attitude toward the world, but how one constructs such a world that aligns with ones imperatives. With physical change through evolution, comes functional change in morphology, social relations and individuality, all of which drives history. With evolutionary fitness the species survives to pass on its genetic endowment. Modern science has found strong evidence for evolution. When evolution occurs, the species change due to environmental pressures. When individuals do not become adaptive, fail to reproduce, they are eliminated from the gene pool. Through changes in the species’ genus, future species bears little resemblance to the original form. Not only is the physical structure effected by material pressure, but also changes come about in the dynamic of life of an individual species, or the telos driven individual life.

The Varieties of Evolutionary Change

Evolution is not particular to the physical change in the species. Any change in physical structure has a corresponding change in function of the species, be its historical path, or its individual life. All mutations that result in the ability of the species to be adaptive, results from environmental pressure on the physical aspect of the species. Whether this change is genetic-morphological, quasi-historical or personal,  this continuum all depends on the material pressures on the physical structure of the species, but is manifested in different ways.

These three approaches, our biological history, our socio-cultural history and our personal life journey are not incompatible. One can see them all as ones being reaching out, in some sort of telos, toward a better more fulfilled existence. Can one only take the materialist scientific view of evolution? To reduce change to simply the physical structure of the species, ignores the contribution of these material forces to society and personality. When one ignores the contribution of material forces on society and personality, one must also ignore the result of primary material effect on physical structure. All three, the genetic-morphological, the quasi-historical and the telos driven life, each in turn, begin with the material forces.

As the changes in the body are driven by the material forces, so too does ones psyche find the way to transmute these changes in physical form and the implication for changes in function. The increase in the mass of the frontal cortex of the human brain has enabled it to survive, but also it has made itself acutely aware of others.

If a species is to survive, then a social structure must be developed that enhances evolutionary fitness, for example through availability of resources to the favored, including food, shelter, and the ability to procreate. To enable this complexity in society necessitates the differentiation of individuals in different skills and skill levels. The success of the social organ, is dependent on the health and adaptiveness, where it results in a sort of gestalt. These dynamics drive how the world is organized, and how the virtues of the individuals are driven by material forces.

Hegels Quasi-Historical Evolution

In the quasi-historical approach, Hegels book, The Phenomenology of Spirit addresses the problem of how spirit evolves as a result of changes in social structure. When the individual encounters another, only then can the individual become self-conscious. This interaction builds into a sort of social genealogy of history, which eventually leads to the highest achievements in human history, according to Hegel; religion, philosophy and art.

This unfolding of history relies on certain logic, where there is a stasis, conflict, and then through resolution another period of stasis. This logic of Hegels history, results in different successive social moments where one finds themselves, as well as providing a quasi-historical view of how change comes about socially.

It might be asked how logic can transmute history into progressive phases, resulting in newly unique positions in history. While Hegels in his logic may not address how logic formalizes history, the transitions that Hegel talks about, like his history as a whole, comes about through a harmonious state, followed by a creative tension, which result in a new harmonious state. Such is the nature of change where successive moments resolve into new ones. Historically, moments respond to change in the environment, whether it be the primary effect of the material forces on the genetic-morphology of the species, or the social groupings, which enable and disable genetic fitness of a people.

While Hegels phenomenology of spirit spans human history, the change in physical functioning is minimal over the course of human history, so in speciation the changes are minimal. But the social sphere where the spirit acts, function is defined in the unfolding of history, manifests itself nominally as the result of environmental pressure that are driven by material forces.

Freud and Functionalism

Freud writes about the Id, the Ego and the Superego (Internet, 2010). As the social inclination of a species can be driven by the superego, so can the function of the species, sometimes referred to as the spiritual aspect,  be driven by the material demands, where environmental pressures can change function. Freud talks about the id, which is the most primal impulse, which is moderated by the ego where the superego acts socially. The id drives or is driven by the impulses, including the sexual impulse, which results in procreation and the passing on of the genetic endowment. Also of primary importance is the death instinct or thanatos, which can prevent another from passing on their genetic endowment. These impulses are driven by material forces. The sex impulse is the most primal of the individual drives according to Freud. Without the drive to procreate, a species would cease to exist. The force of the instinct for procreation is the most fundamental of the genetic behaviors that drive fitness.

While often in the occidental tradition when one speaks of spirit, one thinks of a ghostly existence or an immaterial structure that drives behavior. But if the basis for spirit is the result of material forces where form drives function, then the way of behavior, personality and social structure can become that which is adaptive.

Aurobindos Gnosticism and Individual Telos

Similar to Hegel, but an evolution, which takes place in a lifetime, is Aurobindos Gnosticism (Sourcebook, 1957) . This telos driven life unlike Hegel, which is descriptive of the unfolding of human spirit, Aurobindos evolution results in a freeing of consciousness, which too has an impact on social relations, and social relations can help a species survive. While Hegel is descriptive, Aurobindo is proscriptive as the divine life, where a fully actualized existence is possible in ones lifetime. A gnostic life brings about personal accountability and benefits the species through altruism.

Aurobindo asserts that there is an evolution of spirit. In his work The Life Divine it is possible for one to become enlightened in ones lifetime. One does not need to wait to achieve the divine in another transcendental realm. As the individual changes so does the spiritual consciousness. When one is fully realized, then one becomes fully free to act, can therefore make positive adaptive change, which improves adaptive fitness. When action is based on altruism, this increases the fitness of the species as a whole and ensures the species survival.

Whether talking about the evolution of speciation and morphology in the science of evolution, the evolution where form determines function, or the social relations of the history is spirit, all depend on the environmental pressure brought to bear by the material forces. There is no need to exclude one from the other, but rather when evaluating them individually, realize that the span of time, which they act, vary.

The material forces drives history from the explosion of the stars to the birth of life and evolution of species. The existence of human history and individual development forms an ever spiraling up of the human potential in a sort of telos. All are driven by the material forces. All enhance the adaptation of the species to the environmental forces and therefore are part and parcel of adaptive change.

Weltanschauung and Social Darwinism

As scientism permeates Occidental societies, scientific explanation for social behavior have been reduced to Social Darwinism. Spencer took a different tack when describing evolution. Spencer asserted that not only was competition natural interspecies, but that evolution operated as well at the intraspecies level. Survival of the fittest was adapted to explain competition and fitness in Occidental culture (Internet, 2004).

Only when a species, or a segment of the species maintains fitness, can the species survive. There are different worldviews that serve to be adaptive, either cooperative or competitive. In order for a species to survive, it must be more adaptive than other species. While societies that are most cooperative are the most stable, the pressures of the aggressiveness of competitive societies most often result in the destruction of the cooperative cultures.

Sometimes fitness is defined by the power elite as survival of the fittest where the assertion is made that those who are most fit are the power elite. In bastardization of Darwins evolution, competitive attitudes between species are subverted to mean intraspecies competition for survival. This hoarding of the material wealth by the power elite results in greater fitness for the power elite and less so for those who lack adequate access to resources.

In order for the power elite to maintain its grasp on material wealth, the ideas of the ruling class are inculcated by all classes, and this adoption insures that the ruling class maintains its prerogatives. It may be maintained by the power elite that those that constitute this advantaged class, are somehow superior than the lower classes. Ostensibly this intraspecies evolution can weed out those members of society who lack fitness, thus strengthening the social organs as a whole. Unfortunately, such a society often ends up consuming itself, because of its own ideology.

The worldview in such a society adopts the prerogatives of the power elite as their own, and therefore the worldview that is adopted may serve it well in a developing industrial age; but when society shifts into a post-industrial stage, the asserted prerogatives of the power elite become little more than self-serving platitudes. The invisible hand of capitalism, which benefits all (Smith, 2008), becomes the closed fist.

The dynamic of history laid out by Hegel, illustrates the changes that come about in social relations, which determine the birth, growth and death of a moment of historical change, where a decaying society often finds itself either prone to collapse or in revolution as Marx asserts. The particular channeling of the material forces that drive the social relations, determine the Weltanschauung of its citizens and of a culture and the world. At the fall of an empire; through the leadership of the individual, as a savior or destroyer, depends on the culture that preceded it, and what ideology that was embraced. Only then, through transformation in the social relations, adapted in response to the demands of the material forces, can the species maintain fitness and avoid extinction.

Randomness in the Paradigms of Evolution

The question may come up when examining this formulation of change and adaptation, that is physical change, socio-historical change, and an individuals life legacy, one might ask if there can be free consciousness. While the universe seems to depend on constant physical laws, the unfolding of change seems to be of a potential of infinite variety. This becomes possible because of the random nature of change, which can manifest itself in a multivariate number of ways.

With the determinate nature of the laws that drive the universe, the randomness of the outcome of these material pressures result in every new and unique species with different functions, quasi-historical characteristics and distinctive individual functioning within the life community. Just as we cannot find a common thread in determining the coming physical change in the species, neither can one determine where the social construct of history or the individual consciousness and leadership will lead.

Works cited

A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (1957) Aurobindo. edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Charles A. Moore Princeton University Press: Princeton.  Pages 599-609

 Darwin, Charles. (2002)  The Origin of the Species Retrieved on January 14, 2013 from  http://darwin-online.org.uk/contents.html#origin

 Hegel, G.W.F. (1997) The Phenomenology of Spirit Translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford University Press

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) Sigmund Freud. Retrieved on January 14. 2013 from  http://www.iep.utm.edu/freud/

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008) Adam Smith. Retrieved on January 22, 2013 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/smith/

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004) Herbert Spencer. Retrieved on January 22, 2013 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/spencer/

Descartes’ Dualism and the Mind/Body Problem

Descartes formulated the cogito, the idea that because one thinks, they must necessarily exist (“I think therefore I am”). This assertion forms the foundation for his system proving that our sensory perceptions are reliable. This fact is essential for science. Nevertheless there are problems with his system, and there are serious consequences that follow from his propositions.

Descartes is one of the most influential thinkers of modern time. He lived from March 31,1596 – February 11, 1650, and was not only an innovator in philosophy, but also made important contributions to mathematics and physics.

Descartes Rationalism

Descartes was a rationalist. Rationalism is the idea that real knowledge can only be known through reason. This position is not as popular today as empiricism (e.g., the idea that things can only be known through experience). Yet even today there is a tension in science between the rationalist and the empiricist positions. For example it is not known how much of human behavior is innate (e.g., based on rational principles), or is learned (e.g., empirical).

According to Descartes reason exists in the mind independent of the body. The mind according to the rationalist lives on after the body perishes. The body is corporeal and is therefore temporal and spatial. On the other hand the mind is atemporal and aspatial.

According to Descartes knowledge is only reliable if it can be understood through reason by the mind. Knowledge that is known through the body, the five senses, cannot be relied on at all. Examples might be the illusion of water in a desert, or as Descartes states, how do one know that what is perceived is in fact reliable since one may be in fact sleeping? The movie, The Matrix, borrows from this idea of the senses being unreliable. The worldly action in the movie is actually the result of ideas being pumped into the protagonists brain by machines.

The Importance of Descartes Cogito

Descartes wanted to find a way where one can know the sensations of the world are not misleading. Previous to Descartes were the medieval philosophers known as the scholastics. Descartes did not agree with this philosophy; he believed it was the result of unbridled speculative reason, and as a result, he believed that it was unnecessarily complex. So not only could experience be misleading, but unbridled rational speculation was a threat too.

Descartes was a skeptic, and his system set out to reject anything that can’t be determined necessarily veritable. Under this maxim, everything that could possibly be denied as being veritable would in fact be discarded. Descartes thought that this would address the problem of the scholastics, who came to conclusions that did not inerrantly follow from their propositions, as well as the empiricists, who were subject to being mislead by the senses.

The thing that one is most certain of is that one exists. How do people know they exist? People know they exist because they think. Therefore, one has the Cartesian Cogito – “I think therefore I am.” It is impossible to think without existing, that is that which exists necessarily follows from the premise of thought. This is the foundation of Descartes’ system.

He further explains by asserting that one has an idea of perfection for those whom are flawed. How can something flawed conceive of something perfect? The only answer is that which is known through reason is in fact perfect. And how could anything that exists that is perfect be other than God? This is referred to as the Cosmological Argument and serves as what has historically been an effective proof for the existence of God.

If God exists and God is perfect then God would not deceive, so one can know that what one perceives is, at least in some instances, reliable, that is God does not practice deception. Descartes goes on later in his Meditations to buttress his position that what is perceived is reliable.

Cartesian Theory and the Mind/Body Problem

The mind/body problem is also called the problem of dualism. Descartes believed that since the mind is atemporal and aspatial, it is indestructible. Only that which exists in time and is extended in space is destructible. This is why, according to rationalists, reason is innate and everlasting, while knowledge according to the empiricists, is learned over time. Descartes’ position on rationalism formed the foundation for the reliability of science. The emphasis became the scientific rational mind acting on the inert substances of the world. This formed the basis for experimentation.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that Descartes position was epistemological (e.g., based on a theory of knowledge). While his theory was useful, the question becomes apparent that does this idea, the cogito which is useful, really describe reality (e.g., Metaphysics)? This then is the fatal flaw in Descartes’ system. While the cogito is useful epistemologically, is it warranted metaphysically? And if not, then how can one say his system is reasonable at all?

The metaphysical problem with Descartes’ position is known as “The Mind/Body Problem.” How can an aspatial and atemporal mind interface with a spatial and temporal body? To this day, an adequate explanation has not be found to explain this relationship. Descartes himself claimed that the mind interfaces with the body through the Pineal Gland, but he never adequately explained how they interact.

Cartesian Theory and Environmental Degradation

Objectification in science has led to many scientific proofs, but has divorced one from a integral relationship with the world. In considering the foreign inert bodies of the world (including animals) as unimportant and only useful, many of the excesses of technology have resulted in environmental degradation. It is hard to find value in something that does not have a mind and thus cannot think, and is not able to make moral judgments, and therefore cannot be a moral entity worthy of protection.


The Rationalists, Discourse on Great Thinkers. Doubleday 1974.

Honderich, Ted. Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.