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Existentialism is the idea that life is without any true meaning or purpose beyond simply existence.  And, that the only thing that can be defined as truth is one’s individual experience, emotions, or perceptions.

For me, existentialism embodies my understanding of the world from a scientific perspective.  It is not hard to be immersed in a natural setting, watching the cycle of life, death, and birth and not realize that we are bound by the same natural laws and that the life of a squirrel as it is snapped up and consumed by a predator is no more or less valuable than the life of any other creature. 

Existentialists, such as Albert Camus described, expresses I think the basic premise for this.  We live, we struggle.  Our struggle holds no meaning except that which we ascribe to it.  That any task that we pursue is futile in the face of death. 

Then, we die.  Morbid, I know.  But, the struggle is its own truth….and meaning is our own.

Social constructionism is a theory that holds that the way different peoples (cultures) construct their reality is dependent on their shared social experience & worldview.  A social construct is a way that a culture or society imposes a shared order over the natural world.  As language is the primary medium through which social interactions are mediated….our language and how we define the world shapes our understanding of  it.  And, that process is essentially a shared social process.  In essence, we get together as a group and develop shared definitions about the natural world around us.

In this view, “truth and meaning are seen as culturally determined constructions”. 

For me, in this class, the topic of race highlighted the presence of socially constructed understandings.  Essentially, we take the breadth of human diversity and assign distinct categories based on perceived shared attributes.  But, when we look around, other groups are taking the same set of natural circumstances and applying a different set of definitions and coming up with different categories.

By and large, I see how this works…we come together and created shared definitions for the world around us….But, on the other hand, I think about a landscape….am I truly seeing/perceiving something different than someone from a different social or culture perspective.  Does that tree not exist?  Does the grass not look as green?

“The human quest for perfect undersanding….”

In western thought, enlightment is expressed as reason and rational thought overcoming superstitions and irrational thinking.  It is oriented around the development of philosophical frameworks of rationalism, materialism, skepticism, etc…

In eastern philosophy, enlightment is expressed as a state of being, an individual experience.  It is the shunning of material things and the awareness that the human senses can be deceptive.  It is cleansing oneself of outside distractions so that one can be free of the suffering that accompanies life in a material world.

For one, it is a reliance on a materialist perspective to achieve perfect understanding and, for the other, it is about eschewing all things material to achieve peace/balance.  

I think for most people, enlightenment is aobut attaining or understanding “truth”. 

But, for me, enlightenment is a state that is impossible to achieve….both in the western and eastern tradition.  I think the human condition…our reliance on the material world coupled with the deceptive qualities of our own individual senses prevents us from achieving true enlightenment however it is defined….

Phenominalism, a branch of empiricism, is the idea that everything is reduced to it’s sensory perception, that the reality of material phenomena is dependent upon our perception, dependent upon the sensory data about it.   It is the sensory, perceptual experience that is ‘true’, more that the object itself. 

For me, there is an element of phenominalism that resonates…… I do think that our experience of the world is based upon an accumulated collection of sensory data and the perception of that holistic sensory experience.  I think this is where the old philosophical question about the tree falling in woods with no one around to hear it comes into play.  The question is, does the tree make a sound…? When you think of how sound is produced in the ear….as sound waves that are picked up by the tiny bones of the ear…….  If there is no one around to receive the sound waves….is the sound truly produced? 

On the other hand, I think that an object can exist in and of itself….  I think phenomenalism posits that the reality of an object is predicated upon perception….but, I do think the reality of an object exists despite perception, that it is our sensory perception that helps us to identify the sensory boundaries of the physical object itself.

Empirical knowledge is that which is experienced through the senses.  Empiricism is developed around a reality that can be percieved through direct observation.  It emphasizes sensory experience and material evidence.

For most, empiricism embodies a sense of material “truth” based on sensory perception..

In science, empiricism helps to define the nature of the scientific method. All arguments/hypotheses/theories must build upon a foundation of empirical data….data that is gathered from material observation and experiment.

Keep it simple.

Ockham’s Razor, or the “principle of parsimony”, basically states that “all things being equal the simplest explanation is the best.”  When building an argument, the least number of foundational assumptions, the better.  Ockham’s Razor is a nominalist position…meaning that reality is understood to be made of particular, known, named entities. 

Ockham’s Razor serves as a guide for constructing scientific argument and provides a cornerstone in scientific thinking.  In scientific predictive modeling, the simplest explanation recieves priority in investigation. 

I tend to think of Ockham’s Razor as a method for building a scientific “proof”, much in the same way a proof is constructed in math or calculus.  The foundation of your argument/hypothesis/theory must be built upon a progressive construction of knowable, empirical elements…. each built upon the other.

The dialectic between “appearance” and “reality” in philosophy is really one about the relationship between the “objective” and the “subjective”.  It centers around the concept of how we distinquish between an individual’s internal perception of reality vs. an external ‘truth’.  ‘Appearance’ is essentially ‘reality’ filtered through the senses.  It is a cognitive exercise.

How does the lay person process this dialectic?  I think, the common perception, is that we as individuals are experiencing the external world in the same way.  That there is, indeed, an objective reality…..the sky is blue…and we all experience that blueness in the same way.  Is that ‘true’, though?  If we are filtering that blueness through the lens of our own perception, ‘reality’ becomes dependent upon a biological mechanism that can be biased.

For me, as someone who organizes her world using scientific method as a guide, I do think that there is an essential reality….and that it is up to us to ask the right questions, use the most effective tools, explore the complexity of the phenomena to get at the nature of that reality.

How do we know what we know?  How do we acquire that knowing? 

Epistemology, one of the five classical fields of philosophical inquiry, is the study of knowledge, of the nature of knowledge, of how it is obtained, of how it is processed, and of it’s relationship to the known or knowable world.   At it’s core, epistemology is about truth, the knowable truth.  How do we know what we know?  What does what we know mean?

Is knowledge constructed around experience?  Is it a product of logical and reasonable deductions about a material world?  Is is an intrinsic part of the construct of a knowable world? 

I think the common perception of epistemology is that it is about “truth”.  What is “true”?  How do what we know what is true to be true? 

For me epistemology is at the core of how we define our realities.  The answer to those questions helps to clarify the perspective from which we approach our understanding and knowing.  The answers guide us in our world perspectives. 

If you believe that world is not knowable or that reality is a matter of perception, for instance, that will serve to provide a frame for how you answer those questions and where you choose to focus the boundaries of the construction of knowledge.

The philosophy of materialism is predicated on the fundamental understanding that only matter exists; that all things are essentially products of material phenomena.  Even consciousness is product of the mind which, itself, is a result of material interactions. 

The popular, common use of the term ‘materialism’ typically focusses on the acquisition and collection of ’stuff’ — particularly frivolous, non-essential goods.  And, though, the essential focus is on the object as material, the concept of the mechanistic nature of materialism is lost in this definition.

For me, the concept of materialism is compatible with a world-view that is grounded in scientific understanding.  As a student who is pursuing natural sciences and whose study focusses on the exploration of the interaction of organism, I find that a materialist perspective grounds this research.

The traditional philosophical conceptualization of “skepticism” is a belief that absolute certainty or ‘truth’ can not be achieved, that “no postion is certain”, that a position can be successfully argued from both sides. 

I tend to think of “skepticism” as a tool for scientific thinking, a keystone in the scientific method.  In my view, it is an intellectual approach that questions or attempts to deconstruct that which is presented as fact or “truth”.   And, further, that all knowledge is subject to continued evaluation and re-evaluation.  The scientific method tells us to test and retest, that we are not to rest on our laurels nor sit back and accept that we have achieved ‘truth’.  We must continue to seek vulnerabilities, try to poke holes in our arguments, deconstruct and reconstruct the foundation of our logic. 

The common perception of ‘skepticism’ is that of doubt.  The skeptic is thought to be a contrarian, someone who approaches every idea from “a place of no”, from a position of disbelief.    And, to some extent, this may embody the philosophical notion of ‘skepticism’.  But, for me, skepticism demands a refinement of argument, a clarification of ideas and definitions.