This is the 5th in a sequence of lectures at Masid Al-Muzammil. For the previous talk, see Building Islamic Foundations for Social Sciences. In this lecture, we explain some fundamental ideas of Western philosophy which are the basis for modern social sciences. The talk in urdu is embedded below. A detailed explanation in English, split into parts, is given later.
Highbrow European Philosophy: Q: What is “Knowledge”? A question of central importance, regarding which there is a huge diversity of views. In this talk, I will not discuss the Islamic tradition at all. Rather, I will discuss how the thinking of Western philosophers evolved in directions which are so bizarre, alien, and far from common sense that they are virtually incomprehensible to the common man. Yet, these philosophies form the foundations of modern Western social science. Because the conceptual framework of Western understanding of human beings and society is built on these foundations, this framework is absorbed by all educated in universities and absorbed by the general public via diffusion of ideas. To understand Western thought today, especially for Muslims, we need to understand these philosophies, and yet the complex and sophisticated philosophical thought, as it evolved over three centuries or more of development, would require many years of study to understand. We have discussed this dilemma in earlier lectures.
The Lowbrow Approach: The approach we take here is to abandon highbrow philosophy and instead study the impact of this philosophy on the general public (this includes highly educated non-philosophers, who are completely unaware of the philosophical foundations of their thought). I will call this “folk” philosophy, to distinguish it from the highbrow version. There are two philosophical terms of central importance which have been debated for centuries. Epistemology or the Theory of Knowledge – What is the nature of human knowledge? What can we know, and how do we come to know it? How can we arrive at truth, and how can we be certain that what we know is true? The second is Ontology, the study of existence. What are the objects and effects which exist in the real world? Does God Exist, Do angels exist? Do atoms, electrons, and gravity exist as real forces in the external world? These are all questions of Ontology. There are centuries of complex and convoluted discussions in nearly incomprehensible technical language of philosophers on both of these topics. However, none of these controversies or debates are taught to non-philosophers. Instead, these philosophies shape the subject matter which is taught and the style and manner in which it is presented. Without knowing the meaning of the words epistemology and ontology, students absorb controversial conclusions of complex debates regarding these matters without any awareness of the philosophy. They learn that “human knowledge” consists of what is taught in the universities, and we acquire knowledge using the methods currently in use in university for imparting education. What exists is what the textbooks discuss and described, and objects like God and Angels which are never discussed either do not exist, or else, their existence is of no relevance or importance for human knowledge. Thus folk philosophy comes into existence via the process of education, without conscious awareness or discussion that students are learning a particular epistemology and ontology.
A Lowbrow History of Western Philosophy: Unfortunately, the edifice of Western intellectual thought is built on dramatically flawed foundations. The easiest way to understand this is to study how this thought process emerged and developed over the course of centuries. We will take an outsiders perspective and also hugely over-simplify, because we are concerned with the development of the folk philosophy that lies at the foundations of modern Western education. Western philosophy begins with the trauma created by loss of faith, reasons for which have been explained in greater detail in European Transition to Secular Thought . This led to a deep examination of epistemology. European historical experience showed their philosophers that widespread consensus on existence of God, and deep heartfelt belief, to the extent that masses of people were willing to die for these beliefs, did not suffice for knowledge. Even though it was nearly universally deeply believed, it turned out that Christianity was wrong. How can we protect ourselves from such mass deceptions in the future? How can we build knowledge on certain foundation? These were the question of burning importance for Western philosophers in the period of the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the name of questioning all inherited and traditional beliefs and subjecting all pieces of human knowledge to the test of reason. Some of the consequences of this elevation of the mind and reason, above all other human faculties, are detailed and explained below.
Trauma of Loss of Faith: Somewhat arbitrarily, we may start with David Hume, who argued that human knowledge came only from what we could observe and deduce from logic – facts and reason. He famously proposed to burn all books which went beyond observations and logic, since they only contained “sophistry and illusion”. Loss of faith in God led Europeans to lose trust in the testimony of the heart, and to deny the unseen. One of the key philosophers in the development of thought was Kant. His philosophy is too complex to be described in any depth, but the lowbrow version can easily be explained. Kant distinguished between the phenomena (which we observe) and the noumena (the hidden reality which generates the observations). He argued that the true nature of hidden reality was forever out of reach. The attempt to deduce what reality is like from the observations was doomed to failure, since we could never know more about reality than what we could observe of it. Instead of this age-old pursuit of philosophers, he proposed to launch a Copernican Revolution in Philosophy by abandoning the search for truth as in illusion. Instead, he said we should analyze how our mind creates coherent structures our of the incoherent surface observations that we see. He argued that many structures that we believe to be part of external reality are actually projections of the human mind onto reality. This point is explained in greater depth in Kant’s Blunder, Errors of Empiricism, and Beyond Kant. Even though Kant did not deny the existence of hidden reality – in fact, he strongly supported it — he did make it possible for future philosophers to say that we may completely ignore this hidden reality for practical purposes. All that exists is what we observe and what our mind constructs from these observations. After many twists and turns of thought, this eventually led to the development of models in economics which have no connection to reality — see The WHY of crazy models, and Three Types of Models.
Emergence of Logical Positivism: David Hume argued that religious books should be burnt, and the books of science were the only source of human knowledge. Since then, philosophers struggled to find a way to differentiate between the two, to show that science leads to valid and reliable knowledge, while religion is just superstition. In the 20th century, the Emergence of logical positivism actually accomplished this goal. This philosophy asserted that meaningful sentences must be verifiable by logic or facts of observation. For statements about angels, if no scientific observations could be found to either confirm or deny their existence, then the statements were meaningless. Even though this philosophy was later rejected by philosophers, it spread like wildfire, and continues to dominate thought among non-philosophers. This was because it was the fulfillment of the dream of David Hume, and the culmination of centuries of efforts to achieve this goal, of cleanly and sharply separating religion and science. This is where it becomes essential to separate highbrow and lowbrow philosophy. Among the highbrow philosophers, logical positivism is a thing of past, rejected more than 70 years ago, which the conversation among philosophers has moved on. Among the non-philosophers, logical positivism continues to be the dominant approach, and its central ideas are widely accepted. The foundations of economics and econometrics are based on logical positivism, and even though logical positivism has been rejected and refuted, the foundations have not be re-examined and re-constructed. From the point of view of understanding the mind-set of European intellectuals, and the foundations of modern social sciences, it is essential to understand the philosophy of logical positivism, why it was so attractive, what were its weaknesses which led to its rejection. This is required to cleanse the minds of the general public of the folk version of logical positivism which is automatically absorbed via the process of Western education. For a more detailed discussion of this topic see: Logical Positivism