October 03, 2012

The epistemological problems in modern and recent politics and economics

By Dr. William Luckey *

There are many reasons for the general population, and the politicians who cater to their wishes, not to accept what the scholars tell it to be true in economics and politics.

There is ignorance, like the case of the woman who said that Obama was going to pay her rent, electric bill, etc.  When asked where he was going to get the money, she replied, “From his stash.”  There is the classic problem that you can never successfully oppose a principle to an interest. Even if I know what is right, it is very hard to think of the common good if that will stop my check from coming in. But what I would like to discuss in this entry is the problem of knowledge, the validity of it, and the method by which we attain it; and the problem of knowledge in our society.

This subject is called epistemology, from the Greek word, epist?m?, meaning true knowledge as opposed to opinion.  Opinion is a statement made with fear that the opposite may be true.  Note that the fear does not have to reside in the know-it-all making the statement, but in the hearers, who would not bet money on the truth of the statement. Seeking the truth is a process designed to replace opinion with knowledge. In order to achieve knowledge one must be assured that the human being can accurately know the world outside of itself. This not only applies to physical things, but things such as the order contained within things on which the senses focus. Take the example of the little child who is given a new pink rubber ball. Such balls were common when I was a kid. Unless he has never seen one before, the child knows that that is a ball, that it is rubber and that it bounces. The child immediately begins to bounce the ball until his mother tells him “Not in the house, dear.” The child then goes outside to continue to bounce it.  That child did not spend any serious time thinking about the ball; he got it in his hand, bounced it, his expectations were correct. 
The great political philosopher, Leo Strauss, calls the fact that that we can accurately know what we sense pre-philosophical common sense. While there are cases when your senses can be deceived, those are out of the ordinary. I remember smelling what I thought was the smell of rotten eggs coming out of the chemistry lab, when it was really burning sulfur. Once I knew of the place from which the smell originated, and since I know there is no reason for eggs to be in the chemistry lab, I immediately drew the correct conclusion. I replaced opinion about the smell with knowledge about the smell. We could not live without this ability. Also, this does not apply to purely sensible objects, but to more and more complex things. Think of the name Mary. It may remind you of our Blessed Mother, or a nice relative with that name. Suppose I add the word “typhoid” to Mary, so that it becomes “Typhoid Mary.” Typhoid Mary was the nickname of a woman in New York, who, beginning in 1901, contracted Typhoid fever as a carrier without symptoms and infected numerous people because she was a cook and unknowingly infected her customers. It was very difficult to find this carrier, so she became a household name. 

Notice how your mind changed its orientation when the word “typhoid” was added to “Mary.”   You needed no prompting from anybody to go from a joyful attitude toward “Mary” to a fearful attitude to “Typhoid Mary.” How did this happen? Typhoid Mary was a real person of which we received an intelligible species impressed upon our mind, such that “Typhoid Mary” became in some sense a part of you. The concept, coming from the reality and being impressed upon the intellect, can be analyzed by the intellect, and conclusions can be drawn. Hence flows the negative attitude. This is how human beings exist in the world. Their senses pick up something intelligible, the species impresses itself on the mind, the intellect analyzes it and logical conclusions are draw, frequently, but not always, followed by action.
But now a days, the matter has become complicated. Beginning with the thought of René Descartes (1596-1650), who was a Catholic and a canon and civil lawyer, there arose the idea that we really cannot know what is outside our own head. For Descartes, the disagreements among philosophers were proof that we could not know reality outside of our mind, but we could only know our own ideas about reality. Thus he thought geometry was the true philosophy—because all of it was a mental construct. John Locke picked up on this in his epistemology by holding that our knowledge is only conversant regarding our own ideas, not external reality.  Bishop Berkeley, who was a devout Anglican, felt that original creation could easily have been only mind and ideas, not real things. He held that anything that was not perceived, did not exist, meaning that we only know what things are perceived by our own senses, and known by our own mind only.  Any thinking not linked to these subjective things of sensing and perceiving have no existence.  The things we think exist are, if you will, products of our senses and our mind, and we cannot posit their objective existence.  Berkeley wrote: “their esse (existence) is percepti (perceptible), nor is it possible they should have any existence outside of the minds or thinking things that perceive them.”

David Hume (1711-1776) continues this line of thought by holding that man has no distinct intellectual capacity for abstracting the intelligible from what his senses perceive. The things that the senses perceive are faint copies of the original, hence any intelligibility is a figment of the perceiver’s mind. Immanuel Kant took Hume seriously, and held that there was the world as it is and the world as we know it, and they were not the same. What humans do, supposed Kant, is to impose categories on perceptions as though the perceptions were of real things. The categories are subjective. The person projects these categories or ideas outward on to the perceptions.

With all of this as background, we see in today’s society that these ideas are rampant, not just in intellectual circles, but in the very populace itself.

We have all had conversations where our interlocutors have said, “Well, that’s true for you; not for me.” (As I recall that there is a line in West Side Story that says that very thing.) But today this subjective approach to reality even encompasses public policy.  People in public life say things that are factually not true.  More to the point, politicians, and even some economists, say things that the study of economics for centuries show are not true, yet they continue to mouth the same ideas. Even the economic practices of government have shown that they are not true, yet the persons uttering these same ideas continue to do so. Let’s take the economic stimuli.  As a freshman in college, I could have told you that these injections of government funds (taxes) will not stimulate the economy. At best, they will lead to a temporary boom, which will end in a bust.  At worst, like today, it will have no effect. The only outcome is inflation. Ben Bernanke, former economics professor at Princeton, should know better, but he now says he will continue injecting money into the economy by the billions every month to stimulate growth, despite the fact that economic theory tells us otherwise and practice over the past few years has verified the theory, as it did, by the way, in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Bernanke and politicians, the media and many citizens think it will work. Why? Because the only reality is in their minds. If they think that it will “jump-start” the economy (as if the economy was a motorcycle) it will.

All of this is a type of Gnostic thinking. Gnosticism is a kind of infused, private knowledge given from “above” that only the elite have, such Obama, Bernanke and Geithner. Their followers are either in the Gnostic elite’s second tier, slavishly following the “enlightened,” or in the group which hangs on because of what they can gain from the elites being in power. 

How do we remedy this situation?  How do we change the minds of those who think that what they think is true, despite the objective truth?  First we must ask the cause of the problem.  I believe it falls directly on the government educational system and on the colleges and universities.  Where would people pick up such outrageous epistemology except in the college classroom, taught by professors who cling to the Cartesian-Kantian fad?  They inject the idea that we cannot know reality directly into the minds of students, who then go out and teach in the government schools.  The poor teachers may never have heard of another epistemology. Oddly enough on the other hand, those who major in business administration do not pick up these false philosophies because, if they thought like this, their business would fail and they might even wind up in jail. They cannot say that “they believe” that the company has a certain amount of funds, if the funds are not really there; but a liberal arts graduate can say that the stimulus will work, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence to back that up. Hence, prior to reforming the society, we have to reform education. When hiring teachers and professors, it is not where their degrees come from that matters, it is what they teach. If this is not done, the society will continue its downward slide.

Dr. William Luckey is the former chairman of the department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, where he is currently a professor.  He holds advanced degrees in Business, Economics, Political Philosophy and Systematic Theology. He was married in 1971, has four children and 12 (soon to be 13) grandchildren, and is a Lay Dominican.

You can visit his blog entitled Catholic Truths on Economics at: http://www.drwilliamluckey.com/

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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