Sunday, September 11, 2005

Choosing an Epistemological Approach to Human Experience

Here are the study questions for lesson 2. Unfortunately, much of the material I need to study is in Athens and Jerusalem, which is currently en route from the bookseller.

What is meant by the "epistemologies of the special sciences" and "metaphysical epistemology?"

These phrases strike me as specific to Bonsor's book. I did not hear them in the lecture, so I'll have to assume that is the case. I'll try to answer them after I've had a chance to read that book.

Based on the lesson text, I could induce that "epistemologies of the special sciences" refers to the methods each discipline uses to verify the truth or falsity of its own findings. On the other hand, "metaphysical epistemology" would refer to a critique of specific epistemologies to consider their validity in general. While a special epistemology might concern itself with only a small range of criteria, metaphysical epistemology evaluates all of the possible criteria.

What are the extremes of materialist and Platonic epistemologies?

Materialism posits that truth is only that which can be observed by the senses or inferred based on our observations (sense data). Even the individual soul (if one exists at all) is material and impermanent. Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the Carvaka (Lokayata) school are materialist.

Spiritualism (idealism) posits that ultimate reality is spiritual. Some schools deny that the material world exists at all but is an illusion (Hinduism's maya or Buddhism's Samsara). Others (such as Platonism) reduce the world to shadows of the real, spiritual world. The material world to the Platonist is a mere reflection or reminder of the real spiritual existence. In Platonism, we have phenomena (appearances) and noumena (realities) (CE, "Plato and Platonism"). These realities have been forgotten by our souls but are innate and can be recovered through introspection.

What was Aristotle's "middle ground" between these extremes?

Aristotle rejected the innate ideas of the Platonists and neo-Platonists and believed that we come into the world with a blank intellect (the tabula rasa of Locke?). He affirmed what the materialists asserted—that we learn about the world in which we live through sense data (what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell). However, he agreed with the spiritualists/idealists that some higher faculty allowed us to analyze this sense data and come to understand reality. We come to differentiate between the world of sense data as we experience it when conscious and the world that we experience in dreams and thought that, although derived from sense data, does not accord with reality.

Aristotle recognized that our human responses, our concepts, and our language go far beyond the explanations of the materialists. Something more drives human thought than a mere material existence.

Why was Christian theology Platonic until the rise of the medieval universities?

Aristotle's thought was largely lost to the west for many years (until the 1200s). Given the choice between the materialism of the Epicureans and Stoics and the spiritualism of the Platonists (and neo-Platonists to a lesser degree), it only makes sense that the early Church Fathers and the monastic theologians would veer toward an epistemology that accorded with exiting Church doctrine. Because materialists denied a transcendent reality, materialist thought could not be accepted. Spiritualist thought, with some modification, could align and become a useful tool for theologians. Some beliefs of the Platonists and neo-Platonists hd to be purged to accord with revealed truth, but the basic approach was still spiritualist or Platonist.

How has Platonism serve Christian theology? How has it distorted it?

Platonism has preserved the idea of the transcendant reality and the acceptance of realities outside of the realm of material experience. Without this accommodation, there could be no acceptance of revealed truth apart from material experience. Much of the language of the Platonists helped the early Church Fathers to translate the experience of a small Jewish sect to a larger, more cosmopolitan world. The world of 1st century Greece was a world of pagan sceptics. Only by aligning Christian thought with the wisdom of someone like Plato would Christian doctrine ever get a hearing outside of the diaspora.
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