Everybody Wang Ch’ung Tonight

Wikipediaddiction. When you can’t stop clicking links in successive articles. I used to do it in the days of printed encyclopedias, but at least you had the physical exercise of lifting a hefty book.

It was how I got on to epistemology today. I’m a moderately well-educated person, but to tell you the truth, I couldn’t have given you a definition of epistemology until now. Actually, it’s quite simple. It’s the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we know things? How do we know we know things? And so on. Now you can drop it into your conversation without fear of embarrassment. I know I will. Well, I think I know I will.

There’s this Venn diagram in the article suggesting that knowledge is a subset of the overlap of truths and beliefs. A subset, mind you. Philosphers have to consider the possiblility that there are true things you know, but aren’t knowledge. They might argue that if you’re mistaken about why something is true, then it isn’t knowledge. I mean, you know that if you turn on your television, a picture will appear; but if you think it’s caused by tiny elves running around inside with torches, it would be fair to say that your knowledge is flawed.

Anyway, as I read the article, it was the issue of “truth” that I wasn’t happy with. How can you possibly tell if something is objectively, absolutely true? Needless to say, I’m not the first to ask the question, and philosophers have suggested a number of ways out, ranging from “Rationalism” (badly named) in which awareness of truth is an innate human ability, to “Scepticism”: “The only thing I know for sure is that I do not know for sure.”

Wikipedia unfortunately spells it as “skepticism”, a modern coinage (not even an American tradition) which is also used to describe those with a pathological objection to spirituality, psychics, alternative medicine, and similar flimflam. I probably come under that heading as well, but as I read more I realised that I am also a philosophical sceptic.

The first known Greek philosopher to espouse sceptical ideas was Pyrrho of Elis in about 300 BC. He felt that all existing schools of philosophy based their arguments on assertions that were ultimately unfounded (or unprovable), and that the only road to serenity was to admit ignorance and to abandon any attempts to know about things that you could not possibly know about. Like “infinity” or “reality” or “God”.

Further clicking allowed me to read about other relevant philosophers from thoughout history and all around the world. Al-Ghazali from medieval Persia, a pioneer of Islamic philosophy. Wang Ch’ung in Han period China, who rejected superstitious veneration of Confucian and Taoist sages in favour of rational discussion and study. Gangesha and the Indian Navya-Nyaya school of the 13th century, who probably had the most systematic and rigorous understanding of epistemology until very recent times.

They all more or less agreed that absolute knowledge is an impossibility, and absolute certainty is only possible as a consequence of ignorance. Me too.

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