Epistemology is the new Ontology

How do we truly believe things these days?

We feel them.

We're told our emotions are the barometer of everything. We intuit responses to new material. We feel our way through new relational interactions. We respond with a set of emotions to something presented to us.

Of course we do, we're part of snowflake generation. That generation – 7 billion of us – where every single one of us is different. You unlike me. Me unlike you. We're just not the same. We're all unique. And to push it further, we consume life as millennials – tasting here, darting over there, questioning this and that, looking for another decent dose of dopamine, and another care-free activity. Low in commitment, high in expectation.

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So how does that make epistemology the new ontology?

Well it doesn't. Though it certainly does introduce a new phase. A tectonic shift, no less. As we go about intuiting this and that, tasting here and there, we are learning a new way of navigating the world. Gone are the days of formal training – 15 years in school followed by 3 years specialising at university – and here is the new world of dynamic learning. Learning on the job, re-training, picking up new skills, tasting from a new vocational tradition or a new workplace culture.

On epistemology, this is noteworthy. The word simply means the 'theory of knowledge' – or more specifically, an understanding of the methods, scope, and validity of knowing – the very domain of what we believe. We could reduce it (somewhat simplistically) to know-how. And within this would also fall the important distinction between justified belief and opinion. Or, to rephrase this, between the world of objective fact and subjective musing.

As for ontology, our musings suddenly become more significant. Ontology is the 'branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being'. What exists? What is? How come? These questions are front and centre – fundamental, foundational, and largely implicit in sophisticated societies. We rarely stop to consider them. Yet they shape what we believe both to be true, and also valid of truth.

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So what if epistemology is the new ontology?

This is huge. The means supplant the ends. The journey becomes the destination. Our methods are our means – we live by what we do, what we enact, how we know. So what? Well, millennial culture is arguably a long way there already. Broadly, epistemology is the new ontology. We're told to go and make memories – 'you only live once' – and to be brazen and brash – to grab life by the horns.

The ethical and moral implications are enormous. The implications for christian thought are also enormous – do we still believe in an after-life? Do we live like we do? Even the consequences for consumerism are significant – instant gratification is obsolete. Relationally, loyalty and commitment morph as well. How do we envisage life-long friends, spouses, or the ministry of children? Yet the thought experiment is fascinating in positive, inspiring implications, as well. Epistemology enlivens our thirst for life, our quest for knowledge (what of wisdom though?). Questioning the scope & validity of knowledge can make our truth-telling more robust.

by Samuel Johns

Samuel JohnsComment