Throughout history, cultures have held disparate views on the nature of knowledge. Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that focuses on basic questions such as: “What is knowledge? How do we know what we know? ”, lies at the heart of these views. In Western culture, the answers to these basic questions have changed markedly over time. Throughout history, this evolution in philosophy has been inextricably linked to science and religion. Much of Western thought has been heavily influenced by the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. In particular, the epistemological views of the Ancient Greeks dominated Western thought for centuries.
Of all the Greek philosophers, Plato was one of the most influential. In his most famous work The Republic, Plato used the Allegory of the Cave to describe the role of sensory perception in knowledge acquisition. In his analogy, Plato described a cave in which people were chained down in such a way that prevented them from looking anywhere but forward. Behind them was a fire and in front of them was a wall that reflected shadows from that fire. The prisoner’s captors manipulated these shadows to create forms and stories. The forms and stories that the prisoners saw were the only reality that they knew.
Eventually the prisoners left the cave and found true reality outside. It was only then that the prisoners understood that what they had perceived until this moment was a false perception. The Allegory of the Cave served to illustrate Plato’s epistemological views. Today, we describe Plato’s philosophical views as rationalist. He argued against reliance on sensory experience because he believed that it failed to provide us with any guarantee that what we experience was, in fact, true. He believed that the information we get by relying on sensory experience is constantly changing and often unreliable.
It can be evaluated only by appealing to higher principles that do not change. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato was comparing our sensory perception to the shadows on the wall of the cave. Plato saw us as the chained prisoners unable to know anything but this false reality. Only by leaving the cave and ascending to higher orders of thought are we able to know true reality. Implicit in this view was the belief that true knowledge cannot be found through empirical investigation. According to Plato, empirical knowledge was merely opinion. Only thought and abstract reasoning could produce true knowledge.
The rationalist view of epistemology dominated much of Western thought for centuries. Eventually, progress in science during the Renaissance changed this. One of the first to change these dominant views was Andreas Vesalius. In 1543, Vesalius published De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body), an elaborately illustrated atlas of human anatomy. While Vesalius’ published work had significant historical importance in the field of medicine, his most enduring legacy was his revolutionary challenge of the medical conventions of his day.
For centuries, physicians had relied on reading texts from Galen for medical knowledge rather than participating in the direct dissection of human corpses. Vesalius promoted the practice of dissection and hands on experience. By overthrowing the Galenic tradition and relying on his own observations, Vesalius was advocating an empirical understanding of the human body. This shift from rationalism to empiricism became one of the defining characteristics of the Scientific Revolution. In direct contrast to rationalism, empiricism emphasized the acquisition of knowledge through direct observation and experiment.
Empiricism not only encouraged but required reliance on our senses. This was in direct opposition to Plato’s epistemological view that had dominated for a millennium. This shift from Plato’s rationalism to scientific empiricism had significant ramifications for philosophy. While before this time there had always been collaboration between science and philosophy and religion, there had been no real distinction between them. Now, empirical knowledge served as a way of testing philosophical knowledge. This would ultimately lead to their incompatibility and their eventual separation.
This separation is largely attributed to Galileo, one of the major figures during the Scientific Revolution. Even in his time, Galileo was a renown scientist and a philosopher. While he relied heavily on empirical methods in his studies of physics and astronomy, he also depended on rational thinking in his use of mathematics. It was through his combined use of empirical observations and rational thought that he confirmed the Copernican view that the sun was the center of the universe. However, the Copernican heliocentric worldview conflicted with the dominant geocentric view espoused by philosophers from the time of Aristotle.
Making matters even more complicated was the fact that philosophers couched this dispute as a religious matter arguing that a heliocentric worldview went against the teachings of the Bible. As the geocentric view had been adopted by the church, the heliocentric worldview was branded as heresy. Galileo, certain of the physical truth of his heliocentric paradigm and at the same time devout in his religious beliefs, worked to reconcile this conflict by divorcing the church from “purely physical matters, where faith is not involved.
By working to separate science, philosophy, and religion, Galileo was attempting to reestablish the compatibility of science and religion. Despite Galileo’s attempts, the conflict between scientific and religious worldviews is still evident today. The epistemological tradition of today has created a dominant worldview based on evidence. As during the time of Galileo, this worldview has at times conflicted with widely held religious beliefs. This divide, empiricism vs. faith, has become an increasingly prominent conflict in American politics.
A recent announcement by GOP presidential candidate, Rick Perry highlights this divide. Rick Perry recently publicly declared his disbelief in the theory of evolution in favor of intelligent design. The theory of evolution is an explanation of the origin of life widely supported across numerous scientific disciplines. Though science and empiricism overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, it does not largely accepted by the populace. The controversial nature of evolution has emerged because, once again, a “purely physical matter” has been politicized as a religious matter.
Rick Perry’s views on evolution illustrate a larger phenomenon in U. S. politics. That is, views regarding the evolution/intelligent design conflict tend to be politically divided. Intelligent design or faith based arguments are generally forwarded by conservative Republicans such as Rick Perry. Evidence based empirical arguments, such as evolution, are championed by liberal Democrats. Science has become political as conservatives are aligned with religion.
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Topic: How Have Western Views of Knowledge Changed over Time
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