Orders of Knowledge

March 6, 2015

I have been trying to reconcile some conflicting beliefs about the epistemological value of science and philosophy respectively, and it has led me to the idea that not all knowledge is equal because there are multiple ‘levels’ of truth. Because we are never able to grasp Reality in the entirety of its complexity and the multiplicity of its facets, but only roughly and through the mediators of concepts and perception, knowledge is always incomplete in the sense that we must nearly always speak in terms of what is true in a sense and not absolutely.

Consider for example the truth of Newtonian versus quantum physics. Conceding the difficulties of gravity, it is obvious that in some sense the former model reflects motion on Earth. But the rules which apply at this scale do not apply at a quantum scale. I would like to say each model constitutes a reality which is just a facet of Reality, though it is hard to conceive how the two can be different sides of the same world.

So following a recent conversation with friends after which I was baffled by our attempts to define philosophy (and science) I thought about the fact that in addition to differences in domain (and yet sometimes they seem to be asking the same questions!) there are differences in approach. Now attempts to reach for an absolute, complete, non-arbitrary distinction between disciplines will always ultimately be frustrated because  philosophy and science have historically proceeded somewhat sporadically and with a diversity of methods in each. But there are some salient differences in character. And I think besides domain and approach, there is also a difference in the order of knowledge that each is after.

Consider the body. We might look at this and say it possesses its own physical existence. But if you were truly to examine as closely as possible its physical constitution you would find there are no clear boundaries to our bodies, and everything which makes it up is constantly coming and going. So by looking at its physical makeup as far as we can tell, and at its temporal makeup (since from instant to instant it is changing), we see that metaphysically speaking, it does not exist. The idea of my body is a practical construct to help me get around and know what’s mine and what’s not, and to some extent to understand all the processes that constitute what we conventionally call ‘the body’.

Are we just playing word games? Well, its a slight but real distinction between having reality inasmuch as it is part of the world which possesses reality, and having independent reality. When previously we said my body had its own individual existence we were misleading. And now that we’ve made this technical distinction and realize that metaphysically, my body is no entity in its own right, and has, strictly speaking, no independent reality, we think of it differently. We see it as a part of process and change, as a bunch of energy condensed into (what we perceive as) a certain form. And yet that form is itself indeterminate because it is one with everything else.
And to point out this vagueness is not petty or sophistic. Seeing things in a different light is a valid form of knowledge; after all, concepts are an organized form of seeing. It may be only peripherally helpful to practical science, but it constitutes knowledge of a different order than say, knowledge of what elements can be found in my body. As soon as someone makes these observations, in this case about the nonentity of a physical object, then they are making a philosophical distinction. And inasmuch as they derive some c nature they are beginning to think not in  scientific terms  but metaphysical ones. Because it isn’t a matter of whether my body is physical but whether it is a thing as such.  The difference lies in the significance which we draw from it. As knowledge of a different order, it will have a significance of a different kind. When we consider the indeterminacy and therefore the nonexistence of true boundaries in the physical world we gain clearer knowledge not of the sort that will give us any sort of medical insight or breakthroughs in chemistry, but of the sort that will alter my view of the real relations of the world.
And I can apply the problem of vagueness similarly to personal identity, which will probably also fail to have practical application, if by “practical” you mean useful to the ends our society has determined to fulfill. But, it will have application to life–to your personal life, and by extension to the social world the more everyone else discovers this and take it to heart– if you determine that there really is no you to pin down and all this energy invested into your sense of self is just a game. Of course this application involves a whole different discussion. But it does bring out the significance of these different orders of knowledge to think about what can be made of the notion personal characteristics as such in comparison to any biological description of our characteristics.
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