How Do You KNOW That?

The philosophical subject of epistemology is the study of knowledge. Father A. C. Cotter, S.J., who was Father Leonard Feeney’s philosophy teacher, and whose book on the subject was heavily utilized by Brother Francis in his philosophy course, defines epistemology as “the science of the certitude of our cognitions.” Epistémē (ἐπιστήμη) is the Greek word for knowledge.

Cognition, I should say, is both (subjectively) the act of the mind by which I know, and (objectively) the thing known. And yes, in a mind that functions rightly, assisted by properly functioning senses, there is a point-to-point comparison between the object known and the knowledge in the intellect. As simple as that last proposition is, and as much as we constantly depend on it in our day-to-day existence, there are many people — educated people — who do not believe it. They question, doubt, or deny the capacity of the human mind to know. The educated among them even sometimes write books about it, which justifies our questioning their sanity, or at least their consistency, for, if we cannot know, what is the point of books?

The Greeks and Medieval Scholastics did not have a distinct science of epistemology. They did not need one, since they took the fact of knowledge for granted. Since roughly the days of Descartes (d. 1650), the fact of knowledge is no longer taken for granted, but must be defended.

Father Cotter’s book, above mentioned (recently republished as The ABC of Scholastic Philosophy), presents the course of epistemology as a defense of twenty-two theses. In order to give readers a flavor of this subject — and perhaps also to whet your appetite for studying it with Brother Francis as your master — I will present the first three of these, with little explanations of my own.

Thesis I: “Universal Skepticism is theoretically absurd and practically impossible.”

Something is theoretically absurd, as Father Cotter points out, if it denies implicitly what it affirms explicitly. (People do this all the time, really!) Now, the universal skeptic holds that nothing is certain, but, implicitly, he holds that at least one thing is certain — namely, that nothing is certain. Therefore, Universal Skepticism is theoretically absurd.

It may be necessary to read that last paragraph (and some others) over again before it makes complete sense, but such an endeavor would not be wasted.

Something is practically impossible when it cannot be done in practice. Now Universal Skepticism is practically impossible because it would entail doubting everything and living accordingly. A person who really attempted this would be run over by cars, falling off mountains, or driving off cliffs until dead, since he doubts the reality of mountains, cliffs, gravity, life, death, mortality, and is heedless of the medical consequences of the sudden impact that follows a precipitous fall. Nobody really does this — certainly least not the principled skeptics who get paid for writing books about skepticism that nobody should read because the reality of the books themselves is questionable at best.

As Father Cotter says, no doubt with a tinge of humor, “A real skeptic should be taken by the hand and gently led to the psychiatrist; he needs rest of mind and healthy bodily exercise, but his disease is amenable to no arguments.”

There is much more to be said about this, and Father Cotter goes on for pages, but this is only a summary.

Thesis II: Relativism is absurd and leads to skepticism.

All truth, according to the relativist, is relative, i.e., conditioned on times, places, persons, circumstances, etc. Such a person does not deny certitudes outright, but makes them so very conditioned that there is nothing absolute. Now, while certain statements are certainly conditioned on circumstances (e.g., “It is a warm day today.”), others are not: (e.g., “Murder, adultery, and robbery are morally wrong,” “dogs are brute animals.”) Contrary to the relativist, the orthodox thinker holds that some truths are absolute (i.e., the opposite of relative), and may not be denied except at the peril of uttering a falsehood.

As we said above, something is theoretically absurd if it denies implicitly what it affirms explicitly. The relativist, who holds that all truths change based on times, places, persons, circumstances, etc., implicitly holds that one truth is not so conditioned — namely, that all truths change based on times, places, persons, circumstances, etc. A contradiction!

Yes, it is absurd, but how does relativism lead to skepticism? Because anything that implies that we can never be certain necessarily leads to skepticism. This is so because we can only be certain of something that cannot be false, yet, according to relativism, all propositions may be either true of false. Therefore, we cannot be formally certain of anything. Therefore, skepticism (“nothing is certain”) certainly follows upon relativism. So, what we said above about skepticism applies also to relativism.

The above three paragraphs cannot adequately supply for Father Cotter’s six pages on the thesis, but the kernel of his reasoning is there.

Thesis III: “We have many cognitive faculties and they are per se infallible.”

“Cognitive” means of or pertaining to knowledge (Latin congnoscere means “to know”). A “faculty” is a natural power that man has, such as his intellect, his will, or his internal or external senses. Now, of the powers that man has, some are cognitive (powers of knowing, e.g., the senses and the intellect), while others are appetitive (powers of loving or desiring the good, e.g., the will and the appetites, or passions).

A knowledge power not only apprehends things, but apprehends them as they are. That is its purpose.

“Infallible,” means “without error,” as when the pope teaches infallibly. Here, we are not speaking about the pope’s infallibility in faith and morals, which is a unique spiritual charism, but the ordinary infallibility that our knowing powers have. But does this mean that our knowing faculties may never err? Well, no. That is why it is qualified with the words “per se.” As Father Cotter explains, “‘Per se’ means ‘as intended by nature,’ hence normally, generally ordinarily.”

Brother Francis frequently pointed out that our senses and our intellect are knowing powers, not creative powers. They do not manufacture reality, but receive it so that the mind may conform itself to reality. (Truth is defined as “the conformity of the mind to reality.”) Without reliable senses, we have no hope of knowing the truth. This is so because, as the scholastics said, there is nothing in the intellect which is not first in the senses. True, God can infuse knowledge into our intellects supernaturally (as he did with certain saints), but this is not only supernatural, but extraordinary. Therefore it has nothing to do with the ordinary way man knows truth. When we say that nothing is in the intellect unless it is first in the senses, we are speaking of the ordinary way that we acquire knowledge.

Each knowledge power that we have has its own area in which it is per se infallible. The sight of one who is not color blind apprehends color, and, in so doing, it sees things that are really there. If my sight were not per se infallible, I could not have certitude that I see something (e.g., the words that you are reading now, and that I saw as I was writing them). And so with all the other senses. Without this per se infallibility, there can be no certitude. When my intellect forms judgments based on the data my senses present to it, there is the possibility of error, and such error often happens. We make mistakes. But the fact that we err when a mistake is made itself shows the per se infallibility of the faculty. In other words, if we were using the faculty of judgment properly, we would not err.

This thesis is explained in eight pages by Father Cotter, so my five paragraphs do not do it full justice.

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I end these thoughts with “the Parable of Joe Murphy,” a cautionary epistemological tale I’ve heard numerous times from an eye-witness of the actual event, our dear Brother Francis. For, before he passed into legend, Joe Murphy was a real person, and the tale you are about to read is true, while the quotes are certainly not word-for-word.

In the early days of Saint Benedict Center, when it was a student center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was a student named Joe Murphy who attended the Center to hear the lecture one night. His poor mind was so confused by the bad thinking he had been exposed to at his elite institution of higher education, that he was reduced to a bewildering skepticism. In the post-lecture conversation, he objected to many things he had heard that night, for this wayward son of Erin had been robbed of his Catholic certitudes. He was so very skeptical that Father Feeney tried to get him to admit at least one thing with absolute certitude. Pointing to the coffee table in the room they were standing in, Father said, “Joe, at least you are sure that you are not that coffee table, right?” And to that, poor Joe replied with the confused honesty of a true skeptic: “I don’t know.”

That night, the coffee table was christened “Joe Murphy,” and “Joe Murphy the coffee table” has lived as a byword ever since.