An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #9

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn attention to the the ninth issue:  Knowledge Acquisition

Earlier, in the third issue, I pointed out a contrast between Plato, with whom ancient/classical philosophy begins, and Rene Descartes, with whom modern philosophy begins.

With Plato, as exemplified by his Allegory of the Cave, we are introduced to the idea that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through the community activity of dialogue.

With Descartes, as intimated by the narrative of his winter bivouac, we are introduced to the idea that the only useful path to knowledge acquisition is through isolated activity which denies the value of community dialogue.

There are other aspects of this contrast to which I now wish to introduce you.

Augustine’s “I believe so that I might understand” and Saint Anselm’s advocacy of “faith seeking understanding”, provide us examples of a mind set that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through attitudes of faith, trust, and loyalty.

This communal dialogical mentality continues throughout the Medieval Middle Ages period, examples being the monasteries as places of knowledge preservation and the development of the universities in the later Medieval Middle Ages period.

But, at the beginning of the period of modern philosophy, around A.D. 1250, we see a contrary attitude arise which gives rise to what might be called causation-limited-science and to what is called, the technological agenda of modernity.

In the words of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, two of the greatest minds of modern mathematics and scientific method, we see a complete awareness of the previous faith based attitude and a complete rejection the trusting, loyal, faith filled based learning espoused by the faith based attitude.

We see this rejection of faith, trust, and loyalty as a sure basis for knowledge acquisition in the sixth part of Descartes Discourse on Method.  In the following quotation, Descartes rejects “the speculative philosophy taught in the schools”,   “The schools” refers to the birth of the universities in the late Middle Ages.  The phrase “speculative philosophy” refers to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Descartes writes, 

“I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and instead of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords [masters] and possessors of nature.”

We can also see this same rejection in the words of Francis Bacon where he writes, “The Research into final causes, like a Virgin dedicated to God, generates nothing.”  The “final causes”, which Bacon rejects refers to the internal causation ideas of Aristotle and to the Christian God who authors and stills goals and purposes in the things God creates.

Finally, we see this rejection of the Platonic Christian ideal of knowledge acquisition happening best within attitudes and institutions based on faith, trust, and loyalty, in the section of the Meditations and Discourse on Method in which Descartes writes his well known je pense, donc je suis, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”.  Descartes tells us that “I think, therefore I am” is only a broader example of his most central idea, which is, je doute, donc je suis, “I doubt, therefore I am.”  With his “I doubt, therefore I am” as the basis of his new infallible method of knowledge of acquisition, he tells us that the best way to acquire new knowledge is by doubting every assertion, being skeptical of every assertion until they are proven self-evidently or proven by mathematical consistency and/or logical support.

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