Epistemology is a Four Letter Word

“How you think and what you do has an effect.  On everything…”

[Originally published on MySpace on March 13, 2010.  Comments reconstructed below.]

4-5-10  To anyone who takes a peek, yes, I am writing the next blog.  Hope to have it up in the next day or two…

If anyone has ever challenged you with the question, “Oh yeah?  How do YOU know?” then you’ve already been introduced to the subject of epistemology.  In somewhat academic terms, epistemology is the branch of philosophy (and sociology, actually) that deals with the nature of knowledge—how it’s acquired, what its limits are, if and how it affects and effects existence, etc.

…skipping over the rest of a large academic discussion to get to the important part, which is my opinion…

Why do I think this is important enough to put in a blog, especially now that my Mom’s kicked the bucket and isn’t going to therefore read it and pat me on the head?  Well, just about ALL of you have probably also heard the saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” right?  And you’ve probably all heard the answer to that, which is “Wrong!”  The part that might be new goes, “What you DO know can also hurt you, and your neighbor, your friends, your family, strangers, your dog, your cat, and indeed your entire planet.”

How you think and what you do has an effect.  On everything.  Call it the Butterfly Effect if you like.  Conversely, what other people think and what they do has an effect.  On everything—which includes you.  This is because what you think and how you act is embedded in a cultural context that exists simultaneously in the here-and-now and as an on-going historical process.  In other words, we create our world day in and day out through a process of culture, which includes things like norms, traditions, customs, standards, rules, criteria, ideals, values, morals, etc.  It also includes things like stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions.  It even includes things like fashion, style, fad, craze, and, God help us all, school of thought and paradigm.  All of these, for each of us, add up to a particular way of looking at the world around us, such that we make choices in a particular way in keeping with our world view.

We’ve all heard the expression “thinking outside the box.”  Everyone knows what that means in some amorphous sense, but I’m going to give it a little bit of shape anyway.  This means that you take a particular situation which is traditionally defined in a certain way and you step outside the borders of that tradition, dragging those borders along behind you, so that now the box contains new ground which can then be used for innovation within the particular situation originally defined.

Here’s an example most of us are familiar with:

A farmer is standing on the bank of a river with a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain.  He needs to get to the other side of the river, taking all three with him.  However, the farmer’s boat is only big enough to carry the farmer and one other thing, so he’ll need to make several trips to get everything across.  How can he do this so that the fox doesn’t eat the chicken and the chicken doesn’t eat the grain?

The traditional answer is the farmer takes the chicken across first, leaving the fox and the grain together on the river bank.  Then he returns and collects the fox, but when he gets to the other side of the river, he takes the chicken back across with him so the fox can’t eat the chicken.  He drops the chicken back off on the original side of the river and takes the grain across, then finally comes back for the chicken.

You don’t have to stop there, of course.  Another wit posed this answer:  barbeque the chicken and boil the grain, eat it yourself, and then you and the fox go on your merry way, taking all three across the river at once, thus saving multiple trips and a lot of time.

When this conundrum was originally posed, it was difficult for people to solve, because it didn’t at first occur to them that they could take something back across the river (or eat the chicken and grain themselves).  The ability to solve this puzzle demonstrated a capacity to think “outside the box” to come up with innovative solutions that still fit within the definition of the original problem.

What I would like to point out is that the original problem is what’s known as a given.  No one questions the way the problem is defined to start with, they just assume that was all they had with which to work.  For instance, the first thing that occurred to me when I heard this was “what the heck is the farmer doing standing on the bank of a river with a chicken and a fox that are not in crates, if it’s important to him to keep them from running away (or attacking each other) long enough at least to get them across the river?”   How about what’s the farmer doing with a fox to start with?  Chicken and grain make sense, but what if he stole them?  IS he actually a farmer?  Is the boat the only way to get across the river?  Why doesn’t he just pull out his tricorder and demand that Scottie beam him up?

And here’s some REALLY good ones:  Who is asking this question about farmers and critters, and what is his or her agenda?  What is my agenda??  And even, why is it important to think outside the box?  Who cares?!

Do the questions I just listed above constitute hair splitting, some of them?  Are they beside the point?  Am I failing to play the game properly by questioning the original set up, even to the extent that I seem to wander far off the original point or else introduce what most would consider absurdity?


Or yes and no, actually.  As an entry-level training exercise, the idea represented by the solution of making multiple trips back and forth is useful and sufficient for expanding the trainee’s thinking.

If we’re in the business of solving real world problems, however, this isn’t enough.  (“Wait!  Whachoo mean ‘we’, Paleface?” you’re probably asking right now.  At least, I hope you are.)  We REALLY need to be able to spot the boarders of any given situation and QUESTION what’s “given” about them.  What are the assumptions, including our own assumptions, and what effect do these assumptions imply in terms of action?

To illustrate my point, I’ve designed an exercise using a real world situation:  a thirteen year old adolescent tries to commit suicide despite the fact that she lives in a nice house with plenty to eat and do, with two parents and a sibling who all love her, she’s smart and funny with a well-rounded set of developable talents and inclinations—yet she’s completely miserable.

What’s the problem here?  What happened?  What other questions might we ask besides these first two?

Here’s your assignment, Class:  think about it.  And oh my goodness yes, this is absolutely a trick question.  Bearing in mind what I said above about epistemology, and about the idea I posed that what you think and what you do has an effect, and that what other people likewise think and do also has an effect, let’s see if anyone gets the trick.

Tell me what you think.

By the way, there are no right or wrong answers. That definitely is beside the point.

I’ll come back with a new blog in a week to two weeks with the next bit of discussion on this topic.  In that blog, I’ll give you some of my ideas regarding the exercise above, and, assuming there are any, I’ll include points made in comments left by you folks on this blog as part of the discussion as well.

By the way, if you’re more comfortable sending me an email, go ahead, though I encourage you to get involved with other folks in the discussion.

Please.  Do not flame anyone (um, including me).  The idea here is to begin to solve problems, not create new ones.


“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

7:55 AM  20 Comments  6 Kudos

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17 Responses to Epistemology is a Four Letter Word

  1. Thea says:

    Jeffrey Onehorse:

    &^%$ eh? What’s missing is a synchronicity with ascending purpose.

    Posted by Jeffrey Onehorse on March 13, 2010 – Saturday – 7:43 AM

    • Thea says:

      Could you be more specific? Do you mean with the way I’ve outlined the exercise in this blog? With my underlying agenda and assumptions that caused me to write this blog? With the way the world operates in general? Something in between? Something outside these borders?

      Posted by Thea on March 14, 2010 – Sunday – 8:48 AM

  2. Thea says:



    Tommy's Dragon

    Posted by ROBERTOelDRAGÓN&IDYs! on March 13, 2010 – Saturday – 8:29 AM

  3. Thea says:



    Posted by ROBERTOelDRAGÓN&IDYs! on March 13, 2010 – Saturday – 6:48 PM

    • Thea says:

      I agree, it could be any number of reasons. The scenario I outlined above is hypothetical for my purposes, so I’m not asking anyone to guess what “actually” happened, rather to speculate. And that speculation need not be limited to the specific scenario as written above.

      Posted by Thea on March 14, 2010 – Sunday – 9:00 AM

  4. Thea says:


    First, this is a fantastic blog; would that all philosophy were treated in such plain, well-written language.

    Now on to your trick question (although, when dealing with the massive complexity that is a human being–and yes, I am assuming that our teen is a human being–it seems most problems are tricky): We could ask “why,” and “what, if anything, makes her happy?” What are her talents, is there anything for which she has a passion, is there a single event that has made her feel this way? Does she relate to other people, is she gazing into an abyss that gazes back with anger or worse, apathy? I guess I am just abrim with questions, though, as with many people in such a situation I imagine answers might not be coming, at least not directly. In the context of this blog, I would suspect that she has begun asking some grand questions and has either found no good answers or mindless pabulum (it seems I rarely have a chance to use that word). What many might find ironic is that her very quality of intelligence may well be the cause of her state of mind–what some people would call “thinking too much” but I consider a fantastic trait.

    Oops. I guess I rambled pointlessly.

    Posted by Faust on March 14, 2010 – Sunday – 5:42 PM

    • Thea says:

      Oh my GOD, if I had a nickle (or maybe a brass knuckle) for every time I’ve been accused of thinking too much! But how does this work, the idea that “her very quality of intelligence may well be the cause of her state of mind?”

      And around here, we tend to refer to pointless rambling as “intellectual scrying.” Bring it on. *grin*

      Posted by Thea on March 14, 2010 – Sunday – 6:45 PM

      • Thea says:


        Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this. I suppose part of my reason for saying that is a cliche (and I don’t think it is statistically supported) that smarter people are more suicidal. No matter, it seems that when we think, we often tread some paths that are disconcerting; it seems that it does take a certain amount of contemplation to gaze into the Abyss, as Nietzsche might say.

        Posted by Faust on March 18, 2010 – Thursday – 4:11 PM

        • Thea says:

          Hmm, yes, that’s an interesting point, especially when one arrives at a spot in the road where one wonders “how come this looks this way to me, and some other way to EVERYbody else??” Typically the next question is, “What’s wrong with me?” (if anyone disagrees, please do speak up). Which, if you ask me, is a debilitating kind of question to ask. Care to take a stab at why this is typically the next question? What (other) kinds of questions might you be faced with when what you see and what you’re told appear to be in conflict?

          I’m scairt to talk in terms of differing capacities for cognition (to put it rather generically) between individuals; nonetheless, I don’t have any trouble imagining that it’s a factor. But is it the basis of the overall problem? How does that work?

          No worries about taking your time, I very much appreciate your generosity with it! 🙂

          Posted by Thea on March 18, 2010 – Thursday – 5:01 PM

  5. Thea says:


    “How you think and what you do has an effect. On everything.”

    So true. John Austin comes to mind: how to “do” things with words – illocution, perlocution… nice terms to express that words do something, they generate a necessity for response, or whatever. Your leap towards “thinking outside the box”, I would interpret as the necessity to preserve the questions. In other words, knowledge or answers should not encourage determinism. Answers are okay but questions will always have a priority.

    The young adolescent is growing up (that’s what adolescence means) and may get a strong impression that all the answers have already been set out for her. Yet, she discovered problems without a satisfactory answer (could be anything: seeing someone in need, why don’t her parents help that man? Or she discovers her sexuality and no one is listening to the signals). The answers she recieves do not answer her questions as she experiences them in some depth. She may feel locked in. The worst thing that can happen to a human being is, in many cases, the feeling of being locked in – or locked out for that matter.

    Posted by jcmmanuel on March 15, 2010 – Monday – 11:15 AM

    • Thea says:

      “Your leap towards “thinking outside the box”, I would interpret as the necessity to preserve the questions. In other words, knowledge or answers should not encourage determinism. Answers are okay but questions will always have a priority.”

      Questions will always have *a* priority? In what regard? How can knowledge or answers encourage determinism? I mean, how does that work? What IS determinism? What’s wrong with determinism? What’s the alternative? Is there more than one?

      “The worst thing that can happen to a human being is, in many cases, the feeling of being locked in – or locked out for that matter.”

      Locked in or locked out of what? Who locked it? Is there a key? Where is it? Whose job is it, if anyone’s, to turn that key?

      Maybe you should write the next blog! Maybe you already are…thank you VERY much for your clear understanding, and for tightening the scope and focus here.

      Posted by Thea on March 18, 2010 – Thursday – 4:43 PM

      • Thea says:


        You beat my answers with questions – in line with the priority of questions. Questions have a priority over answers much like looking for food has a priority over finding it. Questioning is primary action, answering them is secondary action.

        Determinism: e.g. when answers are considered to deliver definitive shape to it (think of inerrant, in any kind of way). But you are certainly right that not all determinism is wrong. Spinoza was quite deterministic yet that makes sense if you can see that in a broad sense: “there must be final answers” is a broad assessment and deterministic in a way – but if we can fully acknowledge not to be there yet, it won’t become a danger. I think humans cannot call ‘final’ anything within their own shallow time span. If final is anything, it is a belief, from deep within. I think that belief is justified, although we don’t know the full picture of it.

        Locked in or out: locked in someone’s mindset, life (parents in this case), locked out someone else’s mindset, life (e.g. the stranger, people in need – and we seemingly can’t reach out to them as we feel we should). The key is probably ‘mind’ in a broad sense – it is both in us and in others, the key itself need to be unlocked by opening the mind, which may then open up life to us. Who unlocks: that is a personal responsibility of any human being, and others can assist in the process (which is also a responsibility: to responsabilise others.

        Thanks for the suggestion to write the next blog, but I’m sure you do a better job as a sociologist.

        Posted by jcmmanuel on March 20, 2010 – Saturday – 6:36 AM

        • Thea says:

          Hormones, too. Can’t live with em, can’t expunge them. At least not without benefit of clergy, according to my Grandmother…LOL

          How does one go about listening?

          Nice!! 😉

          Posted by Thea on March 17, 2010 – Wednesday – 4:11 PM

  6. Regina Kay says:

    I liked it very much. I do remember reading it before. And I did comment on it via MS. uuugh. Yes, I know, I know. I do not see how you all do it with blogs and the creations of such, photos, comments, etc. Seriously, I must be pretty slow. I do think it is a lack of my education, however, I do have this understanding that I am just a spec in the 8… billion of the humans that are amongst us, by peer review ;), the details of this understanding begin to fall into place.

    So… to answer your tricky questions once again… 😀 I’d say the problem is that she is miserable. What happened, is that she tried to commit suicide and fortunately was unsuccessful. My opinion is that her own happiness, is not within the confines of the perceived “happiness” by those around her. So, does she therefore feel that her only means of escape is on the other side of death?

    Now to add… lol

    I would say best to leave out the assumptions, and ask her directly, yet what if it is something she does not even understand, furthermore, would she, depending where she is at in life, even feel comfortable enough to tell?

    Assumptions, imo are one of the deadliest “parasites” among humans that separate us, we speak them to each other without the one who is being assumed ever even knowing that the thoughts of others are now being placed within the thoughts of who is being assumed.

  7. Patrick Sims says:

    I read many posts before I decided to respond. It seems to me that many of you like to use vocabulary words you do not use in everyday conversation to make yourselves feel intelligent. I do not care to solve the riddle or address any particular posts. You are not elevating human beings. You are giving yourselves pats on the back.Quit that shit.

    • Thea says:

      ^^^obvious troll. If you wanna be successful at trolling, then you should have actually done as you said, and read some of the posts. Ever’body’s laughin at you now. *rolls eyes and continues her self-serving efforts to save the world*

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