Metaphysical Uncertainty: Contextual Knowledge


Have you ever studied a particular idea, spending countless hours trying to figure something out, only to be further down the rabbit hole, having more questions than when you started out?


That is the story behind this page.


I started with reading for an independent study in philosophy, my professor thought epistemology would be something that would interest me, and he was correct. I was quite surprised with how flippantly some writers seemed to pursue an idea, without having first answered basic questions (such as “what do you mean when you use the word ‘truth’?”), it made me feel exhausted to read so many ideas that were going in the right direction, but were using the wrong tools, excavating a cave next to an open path. I felt like some of these sharp minds were draping clothe over ideas that had very visible holes in them, leaving traps for others to uncover.

What is Knowledge?
This basic question was answered in a way that I was shocked so few epistemologists question, but instead appeared to be agreeing with, only to chase red herrings. I can’t be alone in this, and I doubt this is a problem that is so localized to this field. 

My goal here is to lay out some reasons to accept a contrary perspective (which I define as ‘metaphysical uncertainty, with contextualism in mind’), that leaves for a broad range of possibilities*; I see this as being a consistent way to be philosophically honest in a marketplace of ideas. It is at the point that Epistemology and Metaphysics meet that must be addressed because the question of belief plays an important role in how we move forward. So, to start off, I will make a claim about Knowledge:


Knowledge is Functionality


All I mean by this claim is that the only reason we want to be able to say “I know” is because it serves some function in our day-to-day actions (whether physical, spiritual, relational, or psychological).
To say “I know she loves me,” means something distinct to me. “I know the stove works and is currently on” means a distinct thing to me. Both statements may mean something completely different to me in a different context (for example, if I am watching my lover cheat on me, or if I am camping hundreds of miles away from my stove). This brings me to a second claim:


Knowledge is Contextual


The statements I make, statements of belief, are contextual and will not hold the same value or the same function in every single context. Context is typically used in relation to justification (the justification for believing something is not always the same, it changes with different context [certain external factors may make the weight of my justification differ for each statement of belief]); I agree with this form of contextualism, but more at concern here is the leap from justified belief to Knowledge (that is, justified true belief). The truth of a belief can very well be uncertain, but does that diminish the belief? We will return to that question later; for now let’s consider how the traditional history has considered this point.


I know that I have hands.


In G. E. Moore’s Defense of Common Sense he wishes to argue that it seems obvious that we have hands, and that because of the clear sense-data that presents itself to us, the notion that we don’t have hands, seems rather absurd. Wittgenstein doesn’t think this is so obvious, but agrees with Moore, because the proposition lacks doubt (see On Certainty, number 4). Is there really a disagreement here? We’ll consider that in a moment.


We are acquainted with reality.


This is one of Bertrand Russell’s main ideas, that the empirical sense-data is the best approach to dealing with what we call “Reality” (although he was aware that there was more to it than this).** Some in the analytic field (A.J. Ayers, for example) took this idea to be rather final, holding a Humean approach to commit the rest “to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”*** Wittgenstein, appears to flip this verificationism on it’s head, saying it is rather best to ask what is refutable, what is falsifiable, and thus, rather than deciding what questions are able to be asked, we ask what questions can possibly have answers. But this still clearly seems to ask whether some of those Metaphysical questions (such as, “do I have hands?”) are absolute nonsense or not. The skeptic, the mystic (as they may be called), this person might have good reason for questioning something that seems so obvious as whether they have hands or not, but is this on the same plain as Moore, Wittgenstein, Hume, and the rest, who all outright reject such a question, and commit it to the flames?


I know that I know nothing

The wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (The Apology)

The oracle was correct here, but in another way this feels wrong (how could someone say that the cobbler or blacksmith has no knowledge?!), and it is in this difference where a huge advancement can be made. When someone sees the world in black and white, and they are presented with something gray, they are forced to bifurcate; the way they see the world doesn’t offer enough categories. This has been the traditional way philosophers deal with metaphysics and knowledge, to jump to some specific conclusions, and then building a philosophy from those assumptions, working backwards, excluding certain gray accounts.

Idealist or Materialist? Skeptic or Pragmatist? Atheist or Theist?

These are all ways that people have built a world up from a basic assumption (there are several systematic theologies that don’t ever stop to argue whether or not God exist). It doesn’t feel right to just say that all of these theoretical ideas are wrong and the other idea is correct; just as well, it feels strange to say that it is all relative or mysterious (being nihilistic, and having no set category or value system); and I think either one of these will leave truth-seekers empty. This doesn’t seem all that incorrect, though. Why would it ever be plausible to leave open possibilities when a system is working so well? We all have beliefs that we have strong feelings for, and we can admit that other people on the other side will disagree and even create great ideas from their beliefs (even though they stand in contradiction to our beliefs).


Metaphysical Uncertainty


Let’s go back to the contrarian perspective, which I believe will help clear up some of this mess. Richard Taylor says that “metaphysics has to begin with something, and since it obviously cannot begin with things that are proved, it must begin with things that are believed…” So, in a way, the best metaphysics is an epistemology, and rather than seeking out a wisdom or certainty, people “seek, instead, the justification for what they happen to cherish (see Metaphysics).”**** Accept a metaphysical uncertainty, one where some questions are suspended or clearly understood to be assumed, and we can move forward. [If you are still with me at this point, I promise, although it may seem as if we keep digging deeper, once we get some of these definitions and ideas clarified, we will be able to zoom back out] Another fundamental question must be asked at this point for epistemology:

impossible staircase


What is the structure of knowledge?


The two main answers have been: Foundationalism or Coherentism

It seems (and I will not argue here) that foundationalism is the better option (if there are a few modifications to traditional foundationalism). Our knowledge structure starts with basic assumptions, which will often resemble those acquaintances with reality (as Russell has put it), and we then build from various pillars, and have a nice structure (our very own belief building):


Knowledge is pillars of contextually functioning foundations


So, if we take these three ideas about knowledge (that it is foundational, that it is contextual, and that it is functional), I think we get a very comfortable way to understand various beliefs, understand how certain assumptions (perhaps ones that we don’t adhere to ourselves) within certain contexts can be accepted (even if they aren’t true), and how they may function appropriately, even if they are not something we ourselves agree is true. [Take a deep breath, we are going to start wrapping this up]

To pull from an example I have already used, one might have the assumption that God exist, and from that assumption understand certain questions about the world. That person can then create a pillar of beliefs (based on that assumption) that is internally coherent, and, within the given context, function perfectly well; they can have knowledge about the questions asked. Another person may not adhere to this assumption (they may adhere to the assumption that God does not exist) and still be able to create a pillar of belief that answers these questions. But both obviously (logically) can’t be right. This is were a Metaphysical Uncertainty will coincide with Knowledge. As long as both are internally consistent, both allow the user of assumptions to function, there is not an issue here, because neither assumption can be answered (and I might add that the assumption of one [and the further beliefs that are derived from that initial assumption] cannot be used to dismantle the beliefs of the other person).



If we adopt this model, I think it answers the initial question (the uncertainty of the truth of a belief).

See how a disagreement may only be contextual, may only be disagreeable on terms that either side cannot answer (uncertainty). Wittgenstein’s assumptions answer the question and function just as well as Moore’s response, but so too may the skeptic be consistent and (within it’s appropriate realm) be correct in questioning the claim “I know I have hands.” The cobbler is acquainted with what appears to be the reality and science behind shoe making. They have a contextual and practical knowledge that Socrates and the oracle completely pass over, not because they are wrong, but because they are not looking for the same things (one practical, one theoretical).


I wonder how often in the realm of Humanities, Science, and Theology this simple distinction would have been a way of clarifying (perhaps Hume’s fire would not burn so hot). I wonder how many more people would adopt science (perhaps adopt religion) without fear of not being objective. I wonder how many people would be more apt to change their own minds when confronted with two beliefs that function, but just are not consistent (they hold contradictory assumptions) rather than constantly feeling attacked by those that disagree. And I wonder how more lightly we would tread with claiming everything we disagree with as utter nonsense (perhaps we would start to see the consistency in other people’s beliefs). I hope if you made it to the end, you will see a strong reason to adopt this view of Knowledge and Metaphysics, and if nothing more, it will leave you with more questions. As a great philosopher once said:


He who dies with the most questions wins!*****


* There is a book I came across recently, ‘Truth in Context‘ by Michael P. Lynch, in which he defends an objective metaphysical pluralism. It acts and sounds similar to what I am purporting here; although his seems to be more strictly a metaphysical work, whereas mine is an epistemological work, dealing more with the individual experience, the structure of knowledge itself and how that is structured. I would suggest further reading here, as I myself am still reading his work.

** “Sense-data, as we have already seen, are among the things with which we are acquainted; in fact, they supply the most obvious and striking example of knowledge by acquaintance…all knowledge of truths, as we shall show, demands acquaintance with things which are of an essentially different character from sense-data, the things which are sometimes called ‘abstract ideas’, but which we shall call ‘universals’. We have therefore to consider acquaintance with other things besides sense-data if we are to obtain any tolerably adequate analysis of our knowledge.” (See The problems of Philosophy)

*** “When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (See the ending of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

**** He also says that “it can very seldom be proved and known which theory is true…It is for this reason that one can be a wise metaphysician who nevertheless suspends his judgment on metaphysical views.”

***** This quote is attributed to Dr. Doug Olena, who not only has helped me search for answers, but has been a well-spring of resources (did I mention he is also an amazing programmer?). 



Suicide and Responsibility

Strange (or perhaps not), I have become rather numb to the constant attacks and shootings that have been happening during my adult life (The FBI reports that there has been 160 active-shooter situations the first 13 years of the millennium). I say –with the least intended morbidity– that I almost look forward to them, as an outlet from insulating this culture that we live in (mostly peaceful and rarely unsettled), from all of those of the past.
Although I would rather have a peaceful world, one without sickening violence and constant fear, it seems unattainable, so, I simply ask for congruence between what we experience today and the great minds of the past have experienced. Yet, this also seems phantom, as with each “terrorist” attack, with each school shooting, we remain insulated, we remain in a fantasy of safety; so, I continue to not be moved much, letting these tragedies fall to the wayside of history (and I don’t think I am alone in this).
We all let these terrible events come and go like a sigh, even large social disasters are lost to the next regime or empire (I mean how many of us actively reflect on the earthquake of 1811). The only thing that seems to be kept from these events are the deeper philosophical questions, the lessons that can be learned. Few things will draw me back into a thorough reflection of the specific event, I just don’t seem to be moved by the tragedy of the day.

This undated photo provided by the Lafayette Police Department shows John Russel Houser, in Lafayette, La. Authorities have identified Houser as the gunman who opened fire in a movie theater on Thursday, July 23, 2015, in Lafayette. (Lafayette Police Department via AP)

The recent tragedy in Lafayette, for some reason moved me. It wasn’t a special case, I don’t think there was anything in the details that made me feel sympathy. It seems to be the often repeated narrative that the shooter “took their own life” that made me stop and reflect.

I just don’t get it!

Why do people feel like their life is not worth living? What sort of implied beliefs bring someone to this act as being the most tenable option? Even more so, why take other people’s lives? How is there any justice in such a tragedy?

I, again, am not alone. Camus stated that this question of suicide was the one truly serious philosophical question. We must ask “whether life is or is not worth living.”

I think I have good reason (as I will briefly lay out) that this question (and it’s answers) derives out of tragedy, and that tragedy derives from the anxiety of making sense of nature and man’s place in it.

I think rather than working top down, it would be best to look at this anxiety.

What is man? What is our purpose? What is the meaning to all of this?

These are questions that every cognizant person asks at some point in their life; they have gone above the level of necessity (living to meet their basic needs) and have come to some self-actualization.
And these aren’t easy questions (which should be any indication of the depth at which the answers must reach). All around there are possible answers, some people point to religion, others to social progress, some to science and psychology, others to a cacophony of various points. These questions in reflection of nature will create anxiety.

Arthur Schopenhauer explained a scene that may add perspective

In Java a plain, as far as the eye could reach, entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a battle-field; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles,…which come this way out of the sea to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off the small shell from the stomach, and devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs

This is nature.

This brute survival, this battle between species, the natural scarcity, which causes a constant scourge for resources, all of this is life. But for humans, there is much more than just this. Our ability to socially cooperate and to communicate with one another has pulled us above and beyond any other animal. But not just that, we experience things like beauty and we create things we call art and literature, that make us unique and different than just animals. So, we balance this amoral chaos with a seemingly ordered, anthropocentric universe. We are the rational animal. We see the world for what it is but see ourselves as being moral agents, capable of changing our nature, changing the brutality of survival.

Schopenhauer states that this, our default moral character, demonstrates the most valuable form of tragedy “because it shows us the greatest misfortune not as an exception, not as something brought about by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but rather something that develops effortlessly and spontaneously out of people’s deeds and characters, almost as if it were essential, thereby bringing it terribly close to us.” And he concludes the above image, which paints survival as a dim reality, with the fact that Man is not any better. “Yet even the human race…reveals in itself with most terrible distinctiveness this conflict, this variance of the will with itself; and we find homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to his fellow man).”


Humankind, then, puts itself back among the animals, although there is a sense that it is something separate or different. But humans want to be special, we have foresight and cognitive tools that allow us to not only live in the world, but to construct a world that is separate and unique.

We try to pull ourselves out of this brute nature with Society.

We have an innate social order in us that is conducive to our survival, but society is more than this; it is an evolution of this and has taken on it’s own place in the human experience. Even if it is partially constructed, no person is excusable, this isn’t something that can be opted out of. Ludwig Von Mises, neo-classical economist that founded what is commonly known as the Austrian school of economy, had much to say about society and the individual:

Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders, no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.

Sartre follows this sentiment:

…Man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

Whoa. Woe. That seems like much more responsibility than most are ready for.

I don’t think this idea (that you are responsible for everybody else) is an idea that most people are prepared to deal with and actually give much thought to. Some will outright reject this, claiming that autonomy trumps any form of society, but just as much as society is constructed, so too is the individual. In fact, one may argue that the individual can only be fostered, and thus created, through the society. As John Donne says, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” This is not the argument to be had here, but assume (as most do) that the individual is just as important as society as a whole (because the society is a conglomerate of individuals), and that society, then, is important. I am responsible for not just me and my actions, but the whole of society, as each action I take will effect others. And this is a lot of pressure. This creates anxiety.

So, how do we respond?

One way, the most common way, is to reject it. We reject the anxiety by pretending the natural absurdity that exist, the very state of mankind, is just non-existent. One way in which rejection of the absurd emerges, is through distraction ( and this is probably the majority response). We distract ourselves with political commentary, entertainment, and what ever the fancy of the day is. We don’t stop to consider, we ignore the response to this question entirely.

Suicide, then, is just another way that rejection arises, one way in which rejection of the absurd comes to head. Suicide, homicide, abuse (etc.), these are all self-perpetuated forms of tragedy. Rejection of the absurdity of man in this tragic existence is not a viable response. Creating tragedy does not displace tragedy.

Sartre again:

The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions…and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the “divine irresponsibility” of the condemned man.

To live absurd is to not distract or to reject our lot.

Tragedy is natural, there are the stark brutal realities of nature, and then there is man, and we struggle to fit in with this seemingly bleak picture, so we often distract ourselves or reject ourselves. Camus, Sartre (et al.), they would say this is inauthentic; rather, we ought to embrace ourselves. We ought to live life embracing the absurd (or at least the appearance of the absurd) along side the other things; the joy, the wonderment, the happiness, all of it!

Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. (Camus; Sisyphus)

We must not allow some vain idea of fate or tragedy dictate our actions entirely, unless, if for nothing else, to give us strength to climb the hill once more. I won’t let the tragedies that are brought about by human hands do anything but persuade me to keep searching, keep hoping, for a greater truth, knowledge, and wisdom for Man and our place in nature.