What is Epistemology?

Philosophy of Truth, Knowledge, and Belief

Euler diagram representing a definition of knowledge.
Szczepan1990 12:59, 23 July 2006 (UTC) (original submission); FrostyBytes, 13 December 2006 (resubmission, minor aesthetic changes)/Public Domain

Epistemology is the investigation of the nature of knowledge itself. Its study focuses on our means for acquiring knowledge and how we can differentiate between truth and falsehood. Modern epistemology generally involves a debate between rationalism and empiricismRationalists believe that knowledge is acquired through the use of reason, while empiricists assert that knowledge is gained through experiences. 

Why is Epistemology Important?

The study of epistemology is fundamental to understanding how and why we think, in other words, how we acquire knowledge, how we rely upon our senses, and how we develop concepts in our minds. A sound epistemology is necessary for the development of sound thinking and reasoning, which is why so much philosophical literature can involve seemingly arcane discussions about the nature of knowledge. Some questions frequently discussed by epistemologists include:

  • What can we know?
  • How can we know it?
  • Why do we know some things, but not others?
  • How do we acquire knowledge?
  • Is knowledge possible?
  • Can knowledge be certain?
  • Why do we believe certain claims and not others?

Two Camps

There are many different theories of epistemology, but they all fall into mostly one of two camps: empirical or rational. According to empiricists, we can only know things after we have had the relevant experience, in other words, our knowledge is a posteriori. Rationalists, however, believe it is possible to know things before we have had experiences, in other words, our knowledge is a priori.

To epistemologists, there are no third options, except, perhaps, for the extreme skeptical position that no knowledge is possible at all. But otherwise, one is either a rationalist or an empiricist.

Rationalism is not a uniform position. Some rationalists will simply argue that some truths about reality can be discovered through pure reason and thought (examples include truths of mathematics, geometry, and sometimes morality), while other truths do require experience. Other rationalists will go further and argue that all truths about reality must in some way be acquired through reason, normally because our sense organs are unable to directly experience outside reality at all.

Empiricism, on the other hand, is more uniform in the sense that it denies that any form of rationalism is true or possible. Empiricists may disagree on just how we acquire knowledge through experience and in what sense our experiences give us access to outside reality; nevertheless, they all agree that knowledge about reality requires experience and interaction with reality.

Epistemology and Atheism

Many debates between atheist and theists are epistemological in nature. When atheists and theists argue about whether it's reasonable to believe in miracles, to accept revelation and scriptures as authoritative, and so forth, they are ultimately arguing about basic epistemological principles: How do we know what is and isn't true, and is belief founded in knowledge?

Atheists tend to be either exclusively or primarily empiricists: they insist that truth-claims be accompanied by clear and convincing evidence, which can be studied and tested. Theists tend to be much more willing to accept rationalism, believing that "truth" can be attained through revelations, mysticism, faith, etc. This difference in positions is consistent with how atheists tend to place primacy on the existence of matter and argue that the universe is material in nature, whereas theists tend to place primacy on the existence of the mind (specifically, the mind of God) and argue that existence is more spiritual and supernatural in nature.

Important Texts on Epistemology