Epistemology is one of those words in philosophy that confuses a lot of people, but it means how do you get your knowledge. The word comes from the Greek logos which means “a kind of study or science” and the episteme which means “knowledge” so it is a reflection about the sources and the process of knowledge. Among the ancient Greeks there were different views.* Which one are you?
In ancient pagan Greece there were the materialists, the Stoics and Epicureans. According to the materialist all of our knowledge comes from our senses, from what we can see, touch, taste, smell, and feel. We process it in our brain and all truth is in terms of matter and energy. The materialist eventually says, “Truth is a process in the brain.” This is the atheist epistemology, and it was the epistemology of Karl Marx.
Karl Marx was a philosopher who concluded that there was nothing but the material, and thus the way to freedom comes from a better understanding of the laws of matter. He extended his materialism to the community. He believed that the way that we make our living, i.e. get our food, clothing, shelter, the material things that we need, determines our life and course of history — our communism.
Modern science has also shown us that we can explain much about our world in terms of matter and energy. Our brain is a material organ that operates according to natural scientific laws like a computer. If we want valid knowledge, then the brain must function properly; it can yield good results or it can crash, but by functioning properly, the brain will lead us to all the truth that is possible for the human mind, according to the materialist.
Then there were the spiritualists, like Plato whose philosophy was one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Plato believed that world around us, the world of the senses, is only a shadow of reality, not reality itself, a sort of reflection in the mirror of the real world. The real world cannot be known by the senses, he taught, but can only be known by a spiritual intelligence where innate ideas of truth reside. Truth is within us, and we have to become conscious of it again.
For the strict spiritualist, the real world cannot then be known by the senses. Plato believed the soul has always existed, and in its previous existence it saw God, the whole Truth. He also accepted the saying of the Pythagoreans that the body is the “tomb of the soul.” When our spirits descend into our bodies, they forget the real world and must be reawakened to the truth that is in us.
The Eastern religions share this epistemology more or less. For the first 600 years of Christian theology the Fathers of the Church were predominantly Platonists. The theology of the monks, Monastic theology, from 600 to about 1200 when the medieval universities were founded, was also predominantly Platonistic in its epistemology. Today Platonism can be found in the theologies of the Protestant churches.
A Middle Ground
The third epistemology is that of Aristotle, a middle ground between materialism and spiritualism. Aristotle pointed out that the data about reality comes through the senses just as the materialist says, but he taught that this cannot be the whole explanation of human thought. Our brains take in and process data from our senses, but a lot of the information is accidental, irrelevant material. We must also use our intelligence to analyze what the senses tell us, to separate out the irrelevant material. So our knowledge comes from both the senses and the intellect, which is able to transcend the level of the material in order to get at what is essential in the world and make a scientific critical kind of knowledge possible. This is the epistemology of the Catholic Church.
Around the thirteenth century with the beginning of the great medieval universities this epistemology emerged. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, but his work was obscured and hardly understood, often confused with that of Plato. In the High Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas saw clearly that the epistemology of Aristotle is different than that of Plato, and that it reconciles the materialistic and spiritualistic worldviews.
Aristotle denied that we have innate ideas as Plato taught, and instead said we come into the world with blank intellects. We know nothing intellectually. As children we begin to learn about its world through our senses. Babies touch things, stare at things, startle at noises, grimace or smile at tastes and smells; they begin to learn in a materialistic way. As children gather knowledge, they begin to think in an intelligent way. Children learn to see the difference between the external senses that contact the material world and the internal sensations or fantasies that go on in the mind. Then children learn to speak and communicate thoughts.
Human thought is expressed in language and it is beyond the language of animals. Animal language is only made of sounds that warn or attract, or convey some function of the material body. Human language contains abstract notions, and these abstractions are based on both sense data, and the analysis of that data, what is relevant and what is not for a given purpose. Consider the scientist. Would he be a scientist if all he did was observe the world? It is no surprise that the Aristotelian epistemology led to the development of the Scientific Method.
Which is your epistemology?
Most Catholics are probably comfortable answering this question, but I had never even heard it posed until I converted and began to study theology. A variety of people read this blog, so I pose the question to the readers.
Do you have an epistemology and which is it?
Or do you have none at all?
Some people seem to have an anti-epistemology, and go so far as to say that there is no truth at all. I have a developing theory (which certainly is not novel or unique) that this is the problem with science today. Too many scientists not only have no epistemology, they have lost the ability to trust that humans can even recognize truth. So they conduct studies to prove things that are obvious, wasting massive resources and distorting the purpose of scientific inquiry. Ah, but another time…
*Reference: This explanation is taken from a lecture in a Philosophy for Theologians course taught by the recently deceased Father Benedict Ashley, philosopher and theologian who spent his life bridging the gap between science and religion by teaching people how to integrate the teachings of St. Thomas into their thinking. Fr. Ashley was an atheist during college, and a member of the campus Communist Party. He converted to Christianity in 1938 and went on to serve as a Dominican friar for 71 years.