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?). 



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