Friday, June 06, 2008

I See a Rock: Teaching Epistemology to Students

Epistemology (the theory of knowledge and knowing) is one of the hardest things to teach, and even harder to show how it impacts biblical and theological studies. I do, however, use these little illustration as a way of trying:

1. Naive Realism.

"I see a rock. "
"How do you know you see a rock?"
"What do you mean, 'how do I know?'. It's right there in front of me. If you can't see what I see then you're either blind or an idiot."

2. Phenomenalism.

"I see a rock. "
"How do you know you see a rock?"
"Well, I might not actually be seeing a rock. Afterall, it is just the electrical circuits in my brain creating the image and evoking the memory of a rock before me. It might well be an optical illusion or perhaps I'm mistaken and it is in fact just a piece of dog poo with sand on top. And then again, 'rock' is just the word that I use to describe it. Someone else might call it a 'pebble' or a 'stone' and who knows how many different words for 'rock' people working in a quarry might use to describe it. Someone standing to my left might not even see it and for them there is no 'rock'. When I say, 'I see a rock' all I'm doing is interpreting the sensory data I'm experiencing with linguistic codes that may or may not correspond to reality or correspond to anyone elses reality."

3. Critical Realism.

"I see a rock. "
"How do you know you see a rock?"
"Well, my vision ain't perfect, but it is genuinely pretty reliable. If I ask the guy over there if he sees it and if he does, then between the two of us we can safely assume that it's a rock. Of course I can also go over there and just kick it over and we'll see that it's a rock."

4 comments:

Grosey's Messages said...

How about fallible realism.. I see a rock, now at the moment my critical faculties inform my epistemic primitives that it is a rock, but should I ever doubt it is a rock I will examine the matter more carefully and possibly come to some other conclusion, which will effectively convert me slowly.
Steve

eclexia said...

Sigh, these are new terms to me, but reading them, I think I must certainly be a phenomenalist, until I drive myself and all my friends (usually in reverse order) crazy, and then I sink into periods of time where naive realism is a way attractive way of going about knowing. Until some other little question seeps its way into my brain, and then I'm off again running, "Well, maybe it's this, except it sort of looks like that, except that might just be semantics, and if I look at it from that culture's perspective...."

The scenario you gave on phenomenalism is so spot on with how I usually think and process and sort out and try to understand things that it made me really laugh: "There's actually a real word for that?!?" My friends call it overthinking. My therapist calls it "going all the way to the end of the road. with every road." Some people think it is a lack of self confidence. Me, ha, I'm now happy to say it's merely the phenomanalism approach to epistemology :)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Realism is about communication of reality. But, the question of meaning is an issue, even if you don't delve into the "brain/mind" question. Words are undestood within cultural context, which varies from culture to culture. Language reflects the values of the culture...Realism is pragmatic. I had a professor who said to not absolutize anything but God..the question then becomes "what God, and by "means of understanding"...Realism is about reality, but reality is still a paradigm within our heads...and yes, we can find another to agree....

Grosey's Messages said...

Very true Angie, but.. you gotta start somewhere, and you may as well start with what is.. is.
Steve