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Knowing is Half the Battle [Feb. 5th, 2009|09:03 am]
[mood |awakeawake]
[music |Sinead O'Connor, "I Am Stretched On Your Grave"]

Men. And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Soc. I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the, very subject about which he is to enquire.
--Plato, Meno
While I have always been among those who thought Socrates' solution to Meno's paradox was unsatisfying (more on this in a moment), I am yet convinced that the paradox itself is essentially correct. That is: when dealing with theoretical knowledge of reality, (a) there is no self-obvious place to begin, nor any "facts" simply waiting to be used; and (b) there is no way of knowing--even should we arrive at "the right" theory--that we have found what we are looking for.

But of course, Meno offers up this paradox in an attempt to bring the conversation to a halt (a Samson strategy; if Meno can't win the conversation, he'll pull down the pillars and take Socrates with him...), and Socrates is right to deny the implications Meno draws from the paradox. We can of course inquire into that which we do not know; indeed, we must. However, the paradox would seem to limit us to only two types of response.

The first response is, of course, the sort Socrates offers. But here pay close attention to the text; what's odd is not simply Socrates' answer (that truth need only be "recollected" from the soul), but also where this answer comes from:
Men. Well, Socrates, and is not the argument sound?

Soc. I think not.

Men. Why not?

Soc. I will tell you why: I have heard from certain wise men and women who spoke of things divine that-

Men. What did they say?

Soc. They spoke of a glorious truth, as I conceive.

Men. What was it? and who were they?

Soc. Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how they might be able to give a reason of their profession: there, have been poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many others who were inspired. And they say-mark, now, and see whether their words are true-they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness. "For in the ninth year Persephone sends the souls of those from whom she has received the penalty of ancient crime back again from beneath into the light of the sun above, and these are they who become noble kings and mighty men and great in wisdom and are called saintly heroes in after ages." The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, rand having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection -all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry: for it will make us idle; and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you into the nature of virtue.
In order to answer the paradox, Socrates must turn to myth and religion. Andy why? Because this is the only way to guarantee the possibility of certainty: without denying (a) (the lack of self-evidence in both where to begin and the facts to which we can appeal), this allows Socrates to escape (b). Now, he can rest assured that, if we ever find the right answer, we'll be able to recognize it as the right answer. Furthermore, since the right answer already exists in the form of theoretical knowledge in the soul, we are all the more likely to "stumble upon" it--for we'll have a sort of intuition to guide us.

It's interesting to note that this very answer runs through Christian epistemology; obviously, Augustine's dialogue De Magistro springs to mind here, as essentially a straight Christianization of Plato's Meno (with little Jesus in our hearts playing the role of anamnesis). But notice that this same theory forms the basis of Mormon epistemological certainty; for Mormon's, the "light of Christ" is put into our soul by God, and through it we can automatically recognize Truth when we see it. Hence the first question a Mormon will ask you when s/he accosts you on the street or at your house is, "Have you read the book of Mormon?" The assumption being that anybody who actually (and openly/honestly) reads the book of Mormon will recognize it as the truth, and hence convert.

In various ways, however, this type of answer to Meno's paradox has cropped up again and again. While not always simple variations on the theme of anamnesis, the general form of the answer remains the same: a metaphysical postulate that guarantees certainty. Without recourse to religion, however, there can be no guarantee of certainty. This is not--as Meno (and Hume) believes--a denial of the possibility of knowledge, inquiry, or theory. But it does present some insurmountable problems for the notion of absolute Truth and certainty.

Problem (a), the lack of self-evident facts, means that all observation is theory-laden; there is no such thing as a neutral, or completely objective, access to "the data." In fact, facts themselves are in this sense not so much found as constructed. This is not to suggest that "there is nothing outside the text." But it is to assert that experimentation without theory is blind (even if theory without experimentation is emtpy). Certainly, this is what Kuhn has in mind when he talks about paradigms; but in their own ways, Lakatos, Bachelard, and Canguilhem are all saying versions of the same thing.

Likewise, problem (b) means that we can never be sure that our theories are absolutely correct. Without metaphysical confirmation, science can only ever present us theories of the world that are our current best (educated) guesses, based on the available data. Again, Kuhn, Lakatos, Bachelard, and Canguilhem have all offered versions of this idea, though certainly Popper's idea of falsification seems the clearest explicit acceptance of this part of Meno's paradox.

I am certainly not trying to suggest that Kuhn, Lakatos, Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Popper (let alone Musgrave, Foucault, etc.) are equivalent, or saying the same thing. Their many--and intractable--disagreements are actually the important part, here: for all of their differences, they are all ways of accepting--and moving beyond--Meno's paradox without recourse to a metaphysical guarantor of certainty. Accepting Meno's paradox--and refusing the retreat into religion--is not enough to determine a complete theory of scientific theory. But I think it must be the starting place, the foundation from which any non-religious theory of science must begin.