I spend a good amount of time writing about philosophy on this blog, and in particular I write a lot about the question of epistemic access and its ramifications for attempts at making what I have generally referred to as objective knowledge claims. I have recently been questioned concerning my use of the word objective and in the course of thinking through how I would respond to these questions came across an interesting distinction made by Aristotle that I think may capture better what I mean in my arguments.
The distinction (shown to me by Professor John Hare) has to do with the concept of necessity, which Aristotle breaks down into two types: simple and hypothetical. Hypothetical necessity involves an “if” clause: “it is necessary to have a if you are to have b.” Simple necessity does not involve such an “if” clause and simply states that “it is necessary to have a.” For Aristotle, mathematics is an example of simple necessity. The rules of mathematics simply are. 2+2 is always 4, there is no conditionality to this. a+b = b+a, this isn’t hypothetical, it necessarily is. On the other hand, Aristotle thinks that nature and art are examples of hypothetical necessity. The growth of a tree to reach a certain height isn’t necessary in and of itself, but for it to happen it is necessary for other conditions to exist first (such as a particular climate and the right soil conditions).
I want to apply this distinction to my thoughts about epistemic access and suggest that is is a better way of understanding what I have attempted to convey than the term objective. What I have been meaning by objective knowledge claims can I think be seen as analogous to Aristotle’s notion of simple necessity. In other words, this could be taken to mean that the proposition in question is claimed to be necessarily known in the same way that mathematical proposition carries necessity. My claim is that in reality, all such propositions are hypothetical.
So for example, lets take a famous syllogism:
a) All humans are mortal.
b) Socrates is a human.
c) Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
This syllogism, as written, is intended to convey simple necessity. Statements (a) and (b) are taken to be given and therefore statement (c) is necessarily true. What I want to suggest is that in even the most basic of syllogisms like this, there is always an implied conditional. So I would write this syllogism as follows:
a*) If all humans are mortal
b*) And if Socrates is a human
c*) Then it follows that Socrates is mortal.
The importance of this “hypothetical form” is the acknowledgement that the premises are not givens. I can imagine a counterargument to the first premise (perhaps taking the resurrected Jesus as its example) or a counterargument to the second premise (perhaps claiming that Socrates is not human but a mythical figure in Plato’s mind), both of which would undermine the argument.
Now it might be suggested that really what we have done here is introduce a new syllogism and that the old one still stands. My response is that the old syllogism stands only in so far as it represents a mathematical formula. So the syllogism:
x) A = B.
y) C = A.
z) Therefore, C = B.
is valid because as a mathematical formula it displays simple necessity. The moment we introduce content to the statement (and specifically, content we do not intend to be merely a variable like the letters in an algebraic equation), however, I think we are entering into statements which can only display hypothetical necessity. Socrates is only necessarily mortal in the context of our syllogism if it is indeed the case that all humans are mortal and that he is actually a human. It may turn out that Socrates is indeed mortal, but not for any reason given in the syllogism (hence the fallacies of affirming the consequence and denying the antecedent), but in the context of this syllogism the necessity of Socrates’ mortality only follows if both the mortality of all humans and the humanness of Socrates can be demonstrated.
Now why is any of this important?
My contention has been for a long time that there is a gap in our epistemic access which limits us to a kind of perspectivism. In particular, this gap has to do, I think, with our ability to extrapolate from our immediate experiences using the mechanism of reason and come to broader, metaphysical conclusions.
When we make knowledge claims, we are assuming truth is attached to the propositions in question. To claim that a rational argument leads to a conclusion that counts as a knowledge claim about metaphysics requires then that the argument (both its premises and conclusion) be true. All such arguments can be either in the hypothetical form or the simple form we have discussed. In light of the distinction we have drawn from Aristotle in this post, the claim I am making might be put this way: we lack the epistemic access to make rational arguments in the simple form and can only ever make them in the hypothetical form. Thus, there is a degree of conditionality to all such arguments and their conclusions. The extent to which this conditionality is fatal to the cause of philosophy is debatable. At the very least, however, it seems to limit our knowledge (defined in a traditional sense) to our immediate experience and make all other propositions subject to the realm of belief. To me the realm of belief is extremely important and not something to be looked down on, but to others the prospect of metaphysical propositions not being able to count as knowledge is extremely problematic. But more on that for later discussions…