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Ask Dr. Silverman 2 — Epistemology and Metaphysics: How You Know, What You Know, and What You Only Think You Know

May 5, 2019

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewees: Dr. Herb Silverman

Numbering: Issue 3: Mathematics, Counselling Psychology, and More

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: May 5, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 907

Keywords: Herb Silverman, mathematics, philosophy, Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about the epistemology and metaphysics.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we are looking at the formal structure of the field of philosophy of mathematics, it exists within or as a subset of the philosophy of science. How can the philosophy of mathematics provide some deeper comprehension, as alluded in session 1, of epistemology and metaphysics, especially as traditional endeavors, including theology, tend to assert knowledge where none seems apparent?

Professor Herb Silverman: Before trying to answer a question involving metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics, I feel the need to define these terms, or at least as I understand them.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that studies questions related to what it is for something to exist, what types of existence there are, and the fundamental nature of reality.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that studies knowledge, how it is acquired, and what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. It asks how we know what we know.

The philosophy of mathematics is a branch of philosophy that studies the assumptions, foundations, and implications of mathematics, and attempts to understand the place of mathematics in people’s lives. It looks into questions about mathematical theories and practices, which may include the nature or reality of numbers, the nature of different mathematical disciplines, and limits of formal systems.

What makes mathematical knowledge unique among philosophies is that mathematical knowledge is certain. We know that 3+2=5 is always true. You may call this an eternal truth. Mathematical knowledge comes from pure thought, not from anything in the real world. We gain knowledge of mathematics by thinking, not by using our senses. Most people are interested in mathematics because it is so useful in describing reality. In fact, part of the philosophy of mathematics deals with why it is so useful. For instance, mathematics has nothing to do with space and time, but mathematics seems necessary to learn deep information about these concepts.

Mathematics does not necessarily give us truths about the real world. If an axiom in a mathematical system happens to be false in some sense, then the conclusion is not applicable in the real world. This is not a problem in mathematics, since it is only required that the conclusion follow logically from the assumptions (axioms).

Mathematics differs from other forms of knowledge, like metaphysics and epistemology, where people reach tentative conclusions based on assumptions they believe to be true and apply what they learn from experience. This is not to make light of these other forms of knowledge. We need to learn better ways to distinguish belief from opinion, and try to answer fundamental questions about existence.

In one sense, mathematics has nothing to do with theology. The truths of mathematics remain true whether or not there is a god. We still know that 3+2=5. However, both metaphysics and epistemology often attempt to provide information about theology. They deal with how we distinguish fact from fiction and what we might know about the existence of supernatural beings. Done correctly, I don’t think metaphysics or epistemology can give us any information about the existence of such gods. We can examine theological assumptions, and test whether the conclusions follow from the assumptions. If they do, that means the argument is logical. For instance, you can conclude that God exists by making the theological assumption that every word in the Bible is true.

But we also need to examine whether theological assumptions make sense in the real world. If not, then it doesn’t matter what conclusions follow from the assumptions. I’ve never seen a logical argument for the existence of a god where the assumptions made sense. I hope that most practitioners of metaphysics and epistemology agree with me.

Finally, science does not seek to prove or disprove the existence of gods, but it does help us understand our physical universe. How it’s put together, how it works. Many mathematicians have solved such problems, which means there is a large body of mathematics that has been used in science to show that many theological beliefs are false.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Silverman.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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