Some Thoughts on Epistemic Models

Douglas P. McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts" Bertrand Russell

Models obviously have a likeness to the original of which they are models. Consider a model you might have put together when you were young, i.e., an airplane, or a model of a famous structure (the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, etc.). The model is easily recognizable; for there is a likeness to that which it models or represents (i.e., the model of a 747 airplane has a likeness to a real one). It re-presents the original, that is, it "makes it present again" in your mind.

There is, however, a great deal about the model that falls short of the original. Some models are more detailed than others, have more content, and thus are richer representations of the original. What does this have to do with knowledge? In knowing anything, what is known exists in the knower in an intentional way. The idea that exists in the mind is the same "essence" that exists outside the mind - the former exists intentionally, the latter exists "really" as a particular existent; for a being is a composite of essence and existence, and essences are existentially neutral. This does not mean one knows the essence of the thing completely or with great precision necessarily; rather, one apprehends "what" that thing is, albeit incompletely. Knowledge is a union between the knower and the thing known.

We have a host of concepts in our minds, which are incomplete apprehensions of what things are, and we have a myriad of judgments, reasoned conclusions (some of which are true), and inductive inferences, beliefs, and narratives that possess only a degree of probability. The totality of what is in the mind is a model. It is that through which we interpret the real. The world that we know, however, is much larger and richer than what exists in us . Our knowledge is imperfect; it is profoundly incomplete. What is in us is a kind of representation, an epistemic model; it is that through which the real is made present to us. I don't mean to suggest that what we know first and foremost is our ideas of things. On the contrary, we know beings first and foremost. But there is more to our knowledge that a collection of isolated concepts and abstract judgments. We express what we know about the world in a narrative, a sequence of cause and effect explanations that give meaning (sense or direction) to the real, which is of course already meaningful, but the real is intelligible in ways that are often beyond us at the moment. In other words, we begin to explain phenomena we encounter every day, such as wars we read about, homeless people, high taxes, etc., and our explanations are very often made up of good guesses - although we tend to think they are more than guesses. Recently I listened to an attempt to explain modern art, that is, the reasons for certain developments within the history of art. Regardless of the quality of the explanation, it was a hypothesis in need of some sort of testing and corroboration. Thus, our hypotheses might be wrong, or partly right and partly wrong; in other words, they are tentative, and so we ought to speak with a corresponding level of confidence, which often means a very low level of confidence.

We have religious views, political views, views about human nature and human behavior, metaphysical views, etc. The view we possess is a kind of model. We interpret the world, the realm of the real, on the basis of everything we know and think we know so far. We make "sense" (meaning) out of our day to day perceptions on the basis of the "knowledge", or the data, beliefs and inferences that are available to us at the moment. We theorize, we speculate, we conjecture, and we react emotionally on the basis of what we have interpreted, which all takes place within an epistemic model, our own representation of what the world is like, that is, our model of reality.

Like any model, however, it has a likeness to the real, because knowledge is a union between the knower and the known; but not everything within our minds is knowledge per se. In fact, one could argue that very little of it is. It only appears to be genuine knowledge because our narratives give "meaning" or sense to what we experience. However, even false narratives and false hypotheses have meaning . Truth is something else entirely. Much of what is in our minds is conjecture that we mistake for knowledge; much of it is faith and/or opinions that are in some ways more the result of loyalty than a genuine apprehension of the real. We imitate others, and we've been doing so since we were children; we think like the people whom we admire, and some of these might be our siblings, or parents, or our professors to whom we feel we owe loyalty. Of course, our only loyalty is to the truth, not to our siblings, parents, and former professors, etc. And although we owe loyalty to God above all, for He is Truth Itself, I might add that a great deal of our religious opinions is a matter of projection: much of what we see as the will of God is merely our own will, or our own conclusions that make sense to us at the moment. How much of our understanding of what constitutes the "will of God" has changed over the centuries? If our understanding of what constitutes God's will has changed significantly (i.e., we no longer burn heretics, nor label Jews as perfidious, nor cut off the hands of thieves or stone adulterers, or wipe out entire enemy populations, etc.), then there is room now for a dose of healthy skepticism regarding what we currently perceive to be God's will. This does not mean that it is okay to be moral or religious relativists - relativism is just another form of dogmatic absolutism (i.e., there are absolutely no moral absolutes and I am certain of it). Rather, it means that we should avoid speaking with a rhetoric of certainty; we need to listen, ponder, question, raise possible objections, and learn to be at ease with "not knowing".