I am 16 years old and teaching myself philosophy. I plan on becoming an cognitive experimental psychologist. I am currently developing my own philosophical thoughts and beliefs. I strongly believe that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important. I got overwhelmed by attempting to answer a question of mine a few weeks back. Are human beings capable of knowing objective truth through our subjective experiences and if so, how much and what objective truth are we able to know? Any insight that you may have would be very appreciated because I do not even know how to begin to answer the question. I do not even know if it can be answered. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated.
Answer by Björn Freter
I think — as my esteemed colleagues have also pointed out — it is not surprising that you are overwhelmed by those questions you discovered. They are indeed overwhelming. Being overwhelmed might even be a part of the human condition of a lot of human beings. Just consider of what Kant explains in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:
“Human reason has the peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason. Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it. With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions. But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them. But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions, from which it can indeed surmise that it must somewhere be proceeding on the ground of hidden errors; but it cannot discover them, for the principles on which it is proceeding, since they surpass the bounds of all experience, no longer recognize any touchstone of experience. The battlefield of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” (Critique of Pure Reason A vii sq.)
Kant points out that the human reason by its very own nature desires more than it can achieve. According to Kant the foundational problem is a self-misunderstanding of the human reason. It tries to solve its practical problems with its theoretical capacities, but these theoretical capacities are unable to answer the inevitable human questions. This is why Kant wrote a Critique of Pure (which means here: Theoretical) Reason: It is a book that wants to discipline the theoretical reason, it is a call to order, an attempt to discipline to human reason using human reason. That was Kant’s approach to react to pretty much the same feeling you have described. I think, it might be helpful, it may even be a relief, to understand that you came across a foundational problem of philosophy — at least within the Western philosophical tradition.
The Critique of Pure Reason is, within the Western philosophical canon, one of the most influential works; its influence is still distinctly noticeable in contemporary discussions of cognitive capabilities, be it in the philosophical, the psychological or neurological approaches. I would strongly recommend to get familiar with this book. As much as you might disagree with its results, as much it might offer you a great opportunity to get a profound introduction into the foundations of Western epistemology. (It is important to add that Kant is a highly problematic thinker, who has made many many racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic and more superiorist remarks and, so far, not enough research has been conducted to determine the influence of these superiorist thoughts on Kant’s philosophical thinking, including his epistemological thinking.)
I would like to add that another, additional question could be important for your further philosophical undertakings. Why do you think “that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important”? What kind of security, infallibility, certainty are you looking for and, again, why? There might be — surprisingly — deeply existential motive to be found here, the desire to find calmness within all the insecurity of the world. It seems important to be aware of this existential basis, it might make you biased to find a result if there is an unknown strong desire to have to find a result!
Within Western philosophical tradition, to my understanding, this desire was mostly openly discussed in the schools of Hellenism, most of all in Epicurus. His clear goal of philosophy was to reduce fear, and, if I may simplify somewhat, according to him, that could be regard true which would help to reduce fear. Here we can find an example where the existential problem of being lost in the insecurities of the world started to dominate epistemological issues. Epicurus seemed to care little about what can be known or not, it was more important that a piece of knowledge has had a certain existential, in or, other words, a calming effect. There might be nothing wrong with that concept of truth, but it also might be important to be aware of our human existential desires lurking in the background. And, I guess, it is a good thing, even should one not know what to do with these desires, to be aware of them!
I wish you all the best for your philosophical journey!