This text is also available in German. – Dieser Text in deutscher Sprache.

I do not know how it is.
But I know how it isn't.

Peter Moeller

Reflections on Epistemology

In this essay I treat the following topics:


Two things I do not want: 1st I do not want the knowledge of modern science to be ignored and 2nd I do not want this scientific knowledge or even the popularly flattened »scientific world view« to be stylized into ontological truths of the highest order.
I consider it incorrect when one takes an ancient book which is one or two thousand years old, for example the Bible or the Koran, and claims that absolute truth is found within it. I consider it also wrong when one distances himself from the present state of developments in science and speculates in order to create something pleasant according to his wishes. Science is an important part of man's intellectual development and should not be ignored.
On the other hand one should also not believe that we have arrived at a final ontological truth (concerning purest Being) through our scientific knowledge. We humans can only understand something within a particular area of Being both quantitatively and qualitatively. Within this area we may also be capable of arriving at correct knowledge, that is, objective matters of fact existing independent of us can become present to our consciousness. But the things we are able to know are always only truths within this particular area. What meaning these matters of fact have in the whole Being, we are not able to know.
One can make this clearer when one looks at the abilities of knowledge among different animal species: A tick can recognize only two things (? – I am no biologist, therefore I write this with some reservation) in its environment: warmth and butyric acid. The tick sits for example in a tree. Suddenly it perceives warmth and butyric acid. It drops out of the tree and onto a mammal which is walking below at that instant. For that reason warmth and butyric acid. The tick fills itself with blood and reproduces its kind. The species tick has survived with this minimal »knowledge« for x million years.
When the tick perceives warmth and butyric acid it is not, ignoring exceptions, deluded. It perceives correctly and reacts correctly. It gets along fine in its practical life with its knowledge. But of all that goes on around her it only »knows« precious little.
More highly developed animals know of course much more about their environment. Mammals can see, smell, hear. They can find their food, reproduce, raise their young, etc. But an animal will never be able to grasp what a book is. An entire region of Being which we humans have created, the sphere which stores human knowledge in books and other media, is inaccessible to animals. They do not have the faintest idea about the existence of this realm.
We humans, as the highest developed species on earth, have a greater insight both quantitatively and qualitatively into Being than every animal. But why do we assume that that, which we are able to know with our sense organs and our brain, is identical with pure Being? Is it not possible, indeed is it not plainly probable that we humans – biologically the most highly developed animal on this planet – only understand a segment of Being, quantitatively and qualitatively as well? Within this segment we may be capable of correct knowledge but only within that segment. There may be areas of Being from which we humans are as far away from as the animals are from books. And regardless how much we may try we will be unable to force our way into these areas of Being because we are simply not equipped for that.
When I think of such questions as: »Why is there anything at all? What is the relationship of consciousness and matter? Is there a spiritual origin of the world? What is the sense of life? What happens to our consciousness after the death of the body?« etc. I believe that the answers lie in areas of Being outside what is reachable for us, if such questions about a higher level of Being have any sense at all. [1]
The assumption that there are unknown areas of Being for us humans is not only a philosophical hypothesis. Scientific knowledge of the present also points to such areas. No one would argue any longer that there are quantitative areas of Being which we humans cannot perceive. We perceive neither the atomic nor the molecular structure of things, nor electromagnetic waves, outside the range of visible light. Just as earlier generations knew nothing of radio waves, it may also be the case that later generations will know about things of which we today have no idea.
The theory of relativity shows us that there are qualitative areas of Being outside our ability of cognition. Relativity theory posits conjectures which are contrary to healthy human understanding. A curved space is unimaginable for us, nor the realization which the constancy of the speed of light gives us. Also the proposition of Heisenberg that there is no causality in the subssatomic world is beyond our imagination. We humans think in causal relations, but that does not mean that there must be causality everywhere in Being existing independently of us. With modern scientific knowledge we have forced our minds to the borders of human understanding – and have even stepped beyond that in places. Dialectically seen, we could still understand a few sentences from relativity theory and still not understand them. And beyond that it goes further in qualitative areas which are completely unreachable for us.
When one assumes at first that Being is more than we can recognize, then the next step must be grasped, that a human – who is also part of Being – can also be more than he knows about himself and than he is able to know about himself. Nor is this proposition only a philosophical hypothesis. Natural sciences will not dispute this either.
That a human is quantitatively more than he knows of himself is clear. [Especially if he never weighs himself.] For example, there are constant chemical processes occurring in our liver about which we are not conscious.
But a human is also qualitatively more than he knows about himself. Since the origin of depth psychology we know that each person has an unconsciousness which determines his behavior to a considerable extent without being aware of it.
But here too a human can of course be much more than what we have learned up to this point, and much more than he is able to know. One can take seriously the knowledge about the functioning of the human body which we have gleaned from modern science, especially concerning the brain and the nervous system, and can accept these for accurate knowledge, without assuming that the human is exhausted by that which is recognized of him by scientific methods. [2]
Example dream: In a dream there is also an »I«. There is an I who experiences, who sees, acts, etc. But from the perspective of the waking consciousness, this I is a very limited one, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. There may therefore be a far more comprehensive I behind the I of the waking state, a qualitatively greater I. And behind this I there could be an even greater I, etc. If all limitations were surpassed, then the last, all-comprehensive I would be left in the end, who is no longer an I at all, but an ego-less, impersonal spiritual power at the core of Being. And this could be God or Brahman or the »original unity« or the »substance«, and so on, and so forth. Many terms have already been coined for this concept.


Objective truths are immediately recognized as such. They are no longer the result of arguments. They are propositions which one cannot seriously discuss. Everything which one must prove through arguments remains subject to doubt. But no reasonable person would seriously consider starting a dispute about whether or not Rumpelstilskin exists. At the moment when one attempts to prove that Rumpelstilskin does not exist, he has already lost.
If a person exists on an intellectual level on which he can believe that the world is only a dream, or that this at least could be the case, you cannot prove anything else to him. Every argument one puts forth could, from the other's perspective, be a dream. One could merely put forth arguments that the world is in all probability not a dream. But one cannot prove it. (But most people will not question the existence of the world, because they do not recognize that there is a problem at all.)
One can divide all propositions which exceed immediate experience into two groups: 1st into the group of propositions which one can with certainty reject as false, and 2nd into the group of propositions which can stand as possible truths. Within the 2nd group one can hold one explanation as more plausible than other explanations, but one can prove nothing in the end.
The intellectual level is not a static state, or it must not be. A person can develop himself through learning and thinking to higher levels. On every level he will again and again reject with certainty propositions which had remained as possible truths on the former level. One cannot communicate truths which are only recognizable on a certain level to a person who has not yet reached this level.
I have developed this »exclusion process« in reference to Karl Popper's »falsification principle«. But I go further than Popper because I use this principle in the areas of philosophy and religion as well. And there is a difference between my »exclusion process« in philosophy and religion and Popper's »falsification principle« in science. In philosophy and religion propositions are not falsified but rejected at once with immediate certainty as naive. [3]
The philosophical process of cognition is a narrow path on which there is the constant danger of falling off.
On the one side one can fall off into relativism, which recognizes nothing as certain, and is therefore naive, because on each intellectual level one is able to reject numerous propositions. On the other side, one can fall into dogmatism in which one accepts propositions as absolute truths, even though they are not. One can never be sure whether one has not fallen onto one or the other side, in at least parts of one's convictions. But in spite of all danger of falling, there is no alternative to this narrow path, unless one refrains from practicing philosophy.
Since dogmatism is far more widespread than relativism, I want to counsel that one weigh it out in one's mind ten times before accepting a certain proposition as an objective truth.
This applies equally to the areas of ethics and aesthetics. In ethics one can fall into nihilism, which recognizes no ethical standard and is therefore inhuman; in this realm the acts of sadists who torture small children to death are on the same level as the acts of philanthropists who selflessly take care of sick children. And one can fall into moral strictness where one's own moral ideals are made into objective standards. In aesthetics one can fall into aesthetic relativism. Then Beethoven is in the final analysis worth as much as a bum who hums on his pocket comb. And one can fall into a petty intolerance in which one raises one's own taste to the status of objective aesthetic standard.
Even in ethics and aesthetics one can never be certain whether one has fallen into one or the other side in part of his convictions. But even here there is no alternative for the narrow path spoken of above.[4]


What one can know, and what not, is not only a question of intellectual strength, but also a question of interests. Our interests limit our ability to know. We constantly suppress a variety of facts from our consciousness. And the process of suppression is also suppressed. We deny something in ourselves and others constantly. If each person were to tell every other person only always the truth – or what he believes to be the truth –, there would be murder and killing, relationships would be broken off, etc. Suppression of truths is often a prerequisite for happiness. All too often we want to be lied to.
I attempt to live without allowing any suppression into my life. Knowledge is more important to me than happiness. (In order to avoid misunderstandings, that does not mean that I am in favor of inhuman scientific experiments. This »I'd rather know what's going on than be ignorant and happy« is quite fitting for me. Each person should decide that for himself, but no one for others.)
The suppression of truths leads, among other things, to criticism of others in areas where we ourselves do the same, or would not act differently if we found ourselves in the situation of the other. At least here suppression should be overcome.
The Marxists point especially to economic limits of knowledge. But a person is not only interested in the economic sense. A person can become infatuated with a particular perspective on the world (for example Marxism), and will avoid destroying this system. Whatever this perspective contradicts is then suppressed or re-interpreted. Only thus is it explainable that there are highly educated Catholics who nevertheless remain Catholics.
People see primarily the injustice which is done to them, or to their group. One's own crimes and crimes of group members are suppressed. But although the knowledge of a person is limited by his interests, he is not hopelessly and completely given over to these limitations. If he knows that interest-related barriers of knowledge exist, then he can seek to recognize these interest-related barriers to overcome them. One method is to make cognition his highest interest; that we raise reason – like Spinoza – to our highest passion.

I wrote this essay in 1991 as an extension of a longer treatment My Philosophy (this text is only available in German) in which I described my development from an extremely skeptical to an undogmatic pantheistic position. I have revised the text for distribution in internet. Translated from German into English in December 1999. (Many thanks to Kirk for helping me.)

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N. 1: »How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?« The first question is answerable meanwhile. The second question has become senseless. Back
N. 2: In the theory of the limitation of the human ability of cognition I'm influenced by William James und Hoimar von Ditfurth. Back
N. 3: Naturally every proposition of rejection is at the same time a reverse conclusion or an »It is thus« proposition. The same problem exists in Popper, that every falsification is a verification as reverse conclusion, or the falsification must be verified. This has to do first of all with the »path« which one uses to come to recognition of knowledge. The path through falsification or rejection of propositions protects one from dogmatism, the method of verification encourage dogmatism. Besides, a rejection proposition which aims at an »It is thus« statement is usually a very open proposition which is open to various possibilities. This is less the case with the verification method. Back
N. 4: Here I would like to note that I am no relativist in questions of taste, that is in the area of aesthetics. Just as one can exclude too naive propositions on a certain intellectual level, in the same way one can set up a hierarchy of artistic performance on a certain aesthetic level which has merit beyond an individual person. There is no doubt at all in my mind that Beethoven belongs to a higher aesthetic level than a Punk band. But just as one has little chance of proving to a person on a lower intellectual level that the devil does not exist, it is just as futile to try to prove to someone on a lower aesthetic level that a sculpture of Schadow – for example the »Double Portrait of Louise and Frederike«, which I love – represents a higher aesthetic level than a pin-up girl. Back

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Copyright © by Peter Möller, Berlin.