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knowing and believing

15 or 20 years ago I rejected ontology. I decided that it was impossible to know what, or even if, the “reality” of the world is. That stance has led to many consequences for me and my life. First, it led me to become very interesting in epistemology–in how we think we know things–as a substitute for ontology. That in turn brought me to the following: since I don’t know what or if anything really exists, I don’t actually “know” anything. I “believe” things, but knowing is beyond my, or any one else’s, capabilities. As a result, I always hold everything I believe in some level of doubt.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe and live my life as if the tables and chairs and people and other objects you and I commonly discuss are real. My argument about not knowing they exist is purely a result of my definition of “knowing”–something which is certain and beyond doubt. Not knowing, however, is not an excuse for not acting on the beliefs I hold. Instead, I feel I must act on my beliefs and at the same time call them into question. I hope and believe this gives me a more considered approach to my life, one in which I am always reconsidering, pondering; never am I vulnerable to fanatical and unquestioned belief in any idea.

One unfortunate aspect of my radically empirical stance toward ontology is that it subsumes the world into my own subjectivity. This has been done many times before, though in different ways, starting (in the Western tradition) with at least Hume and coming forward to the post-modernists of today. This idea also negates the existence of my fellow humans, a ridiculously solipsistic way to live my life.

All this was called into question when I read Brian Cantwell Smith’s On the Origin of Objects. Smith comes from a computer science background, but his brilliant book is one of the least known and most profound books of contemporary philosophy that I know. I could go on and on about it, but I will restrict myself to a brief summary of the main idea as I understand it. Smith was trying to get robots to recognize trash and pick it up. This turns out to be remarkably difficult. How can a robot tell the difference between, say, a gum wrapper and a change in the pattern of your carpet? How can the robot know when a small rug is a small rug and not trash? And there’s still the problem of my trash being perhaps your treasure. From this problem, Smith began to see that it is the relationships between objects in the world that defines those objects. In the end, he posits that there is something out there (he calls it “flux”) and that the flux is defined as objects by its relationships to other parts of the flux. The more different parts of the world interact with each other, the more they define each other. This is easier to see with people relationships (as in my friend and I help to make each other who we are), but it is equally applicable between people and inanimate objects and even between two or more inanimate objects.

Perhaps this idea is obvious to you. For me, it was a revelation of sorts. It reclaims ontology, makes it relevant, and combines it with epistemology, since it is through the relationships between us and the world that the world (and us) are defined and those same relationships are how we know the world. That is, it is through the process of knowing the world that we define what it is and we are. There is stuff out there and both its reality and our own are affected by each other.

Looking further at the political and social consequences of my solipsistic philosophical stance, I see that the denial of reality outside my own mind, and the consequent negation of other human lives, is a profoundly dehumanizing position. This was recently brought more to the fore as I began to read Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I’m only just finishing the first chapter, but his analysis of my stance toward reality leaves me in an untenable position:

The separation of objectivity from subjectivity, the denial of the latter when analyzing reality or acting upon it, is objectivism. On the other hand, the denial of objectivity in analysis or action, resulting in a subjectivism which leads to solipsistic positions, denies action itself by denying objective reality. Neither objectivism nor subjectivism . . . is propounded here, but rather subjectivity and objectivity in constant dialectical relationship.

Since I believe in action, I need both subjectivity and objectivity, as Freire points out. (Freire’s argument is nicely mirrored in Smith’s, though in different terms and contexts.) I’ll work on it. That is, I’ll work on both believing and knowing and the relationships between the two ideas.

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