There are three epistemological veins that dominate present discourse: rationalism, empiricism, and religion, or a combination of the three. If you are not in one camp, you are in the other, and all too often they raise banners and go to war.
Rationalists and empiricists, what I will call the Scientific approach, is prominent among secularists and atheists. The devotion to knowledge derived strictly from evidence, experimentation, and so forth. The supreme dislike or dismissal of that which cannot be empirically verified. The religious, needless to say, derive their knowledge from both faith and reason, though their axioms are of a religious nature. It is inaccurate to depict the whole of religion as being anti-science, if any critique is fairly made it is that they are overly cautious with social and technological advances. People tend to easily be categorized into one of these two, either scientific method or religion, sometimes both. What was once a marriage between the two has devolved into a clash within culture and politics. This has been a fine show thus far, but has become terribly exhausting and trite.
These days when one touts “I am a skeptic”, what they are really saying is they are devoted strictly to facts or beliefs verified by the scientific method, or rather, empirical evidence more or less. A vulgar common definition would be, “I believe whatever X scientific authority figure says, not silly superstition or religion.” Of course there is amusing irony in a person calling themselves a skeptic and immediately pledging allegiance to empiricism or ‘scientific authority’. I do not mean to say the scientific approach is without value, that would indeed be absurd! It has become an invaluable instrument in understanding the world around us, to a degree, and one can only speculate what paradigm shifts will occur in the future. Nonetheless man’s reason and scientific understanding is limited. Humans are finite in mind, in ability, and there will always be a vast ‘reality’ beyond our comprehension. It takes supreme arrogance to deny our own primate limitations.
For this entry, by skeptic I mean the Greek skeptics such as Pyrrho and Empiricus, or the Scottish philosopher Hume and French philosopher Descartes. One may immediately scoff, ‘we could be a brain in a jar….’ and give a spiel about the futility of radical skepticism. While the skeptics listed vary in positions, there is an aversion or hesitation regarding certainty. Science claims there is certainty until there is sufficient evidence to state otherwise. Theories are never actually confirmed, only proven to be highly useful in explaining a particular observation. Religious dogmas are devoted to the dogma no matter the evidence or contrary experience. What I question is the certainty within either approach. The certainty in empiricism itself. The certainty in religious faith or narrative. These certainties I question, if not uproot where possible. Can we truly be certain of anything? Is the Popper position preferable or sufficiently skeptical? Personally I believe there is a third way, neither wholly religious nor wholly scientific or rational, that allows a more vast possibility to what may exist.
From the religious position, the universe and existence is quite defined and packaged. It is a fenced yard with proper rules. The sacred texts and institution has dictated what is true and what is not. Same goes for Popper’s statement, ‘a theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable’. What a severe limitation to restrict oneself to only what has and can be empirically verified, and anything that cannot be falsified should be tossed aside. This is a decisively conservative approach to existence or reality. This plays its role and has its value. That is a given. Nevertheless it is still restricting for the mind and to what is possible. What can be verified empirically, scientifically, is of value, but we must not so easily dismiss what cannot be falsified empirically, similar to how one cannot state the absolute confirmation of a theory. Dare I say it but I do not believe empiricism is the alpha and omega of epistemology. It is well and good as a boundary marker, but we should not limit ourselves to that boundary. Falsifiable or not, feel free to go past that limit.
A mind is neutered if it does not wonder past the fence posts of religion or science, rationalism or empiricism. William James put forth the question, ‘what is truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?’ This opens the discourse to the vastness beyond the fence posts. A simple example is the use of prayer, perhaps in reality there is no God that answers prayers, no supernatural effect to it, but this does not negate the experiential results that prayer may give the individual. Does the act of prayer give them comfort, confidence, hope, or empower them to act? One may say the prayer of religious zealots is an empty act to a nonexistent God, but one cannot deny the influence and resolve prayer gives them. It can be argued human rights do not exist, but when society acts as if they do, then do we not reap the benefits by having a civil society as a result? Plato spoke of a ‘noble lie’; a myth taught to the people for the sake of maintaining social harmony, not because it is actually true but for the experiential results it gives. Examples like these permeate ourselves and society endlessly. One must ask, if X is treated as true and produces results because it is considered true, even if X is not rationally or empirically true, does this make X any less powerful or valid? Again the example of religion, we can argue it is irrational or cannot be proven or falsified empirically, but we must admit it has tremendous power in the world and in the life of an individual. The same can be said of radical political ideologies, and a multitude of other beliefs. One can shrug these off as being mere placebo mind tricks, self-fulfilling prophecies, confirmation bias, and so forth. One can shout fallacy all day and still be burned at the stake by sundown.
On the individual level, in the subjective, experiments can be performed using belief as a tool, or rather looking at truths in regard to their experiential effects rather than the fixation on the falsifiable and verifiable. Furthermore, in the fashion of David Hume one can apply a fierce skepticism concerning the most rudimentary and basic facts taken for granted. If we acknowledge our limits, our finite ability, and acknowledge the uncertainty involved in any issue or phenomena we face then our perception is radically changed. This may even drift into outright irrationalism or absurdity. In response to the Enlightenment there came the Romantics, and in response to those two came the ominous horror of Lovecraft. As an example, Lovecraft does not flood the reader with exaggerated ghouls, rather he paints the environment in such a way that the protagonist questions their own perception of reality, their own steadfast certainties about the world around them. This is echoed in psychedelic influenced fiction, music, and other arts. In an extreme and famous example, David Hume challenges our certainty about causation. We mentally create this certainty after watching X cause Y, and our certainty is then intuitive rather than reasoned. Of course this leads into the ocean that is epistemology, and what I am attempting to convey is that epistemology should not be ascetically fenced into a small yard. Emotions, desires, the irrational, the intangible, the unfalsifiable…these are as much a part of existence, of the whole, of the individual, as the ascetically empirical. Indeed, it is ascetic and barren to approach existence with such stringency. Perhaps it is fear of being wrong, or the comfort of certainty, or the fear of being duped that one clings to what is safe. There is a thin line between prudent conservatism and insecurely clinging to what is safe.
The third alternative acknowledges the value of empiricism and the value of a priori religious truths, but it is not restricted by either. Uncertainty permeates every detail, there could be a priori truths, and what can or cannot be verified or falsified is contingent on our present capability. There is vastness beyond what we have discovered and verified thus far. There could be aspects of reality beyond the scope of rationalism or empiricism. We are finite in a potentially infinite reality or multiple realities. I am not speculating or offering new age hogwash, what I am saying is there is vastness beyond our present comprehension. We should not be so arrogant as to think we have perfectly mastered epistemology or reached its pinnacle. As soon as one claims they know the truth you can be sure that they do not. And if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.