Epica: Epistemology and Subjectivity

Epica's fourth full-length studio album

This post was inspired by the Wiley-Blackwell 'Philosophy and Pop Culture' series. I am a huge fan of Epica (and the Wiley-Blackwell series!) and thought that a post like this would be a fitting overview of some of Epica's music and an introduction to the topic of epistemology - particularly in regards to the notion of subjectivity. Throughout this post are references to Epica's songs. The headers are lyrics from the song "Monopoly on Truth" from their fifth full-length studio album "Requiem for the Indifferent."

I see what you mean

The music of the Dutch symphonic metal group Epica is interesting not only because of their mixing of harsh and clean male vocals (including grunts and screams) with mezzo-soprano female vocals in addition to elements of heavy metal blending with elements of classical music (in some cases a 40-piece orchestra and a 30-piece choir), but because it leads listeners to reflect on various philosophical themes - a welcome departure from much of what is considered to be 'pop music' in the United States. For Epica, the music is not the only thing that can be described as 'bombastic' because the lyrical themes are similarly profound.

Recurring philosophical themes in Epica's songs -- which can easily form a long list which should attract listeners with varying interests and curiosities [I will list only a sample of themes and songs here] -- range from concerns about the environment ("This is the Time" and "Deep Water Horizon"), dangers of organized religion ("Cry for the Moon" and "Living a Lie"), fate ("Dance of Fate"), the nature of consciousness ("The Phantom Agony"), love ("The Obsessive Devotion"), martyrdom ("Safeguard to Paradise"), the nature of truth ("Monopoly on Truth"), religious pluralism ("The Divine Conspiracy"), isolation ("Blank Infinity"), addiction ("Chasing the Dragon"), the implications of scientific research and the conflict between science and religion ("Beyond Belief"), and freedom of speech ("Martyr of the Free Word"). Various songs also touch on events current to album releases; for instance, "Facade of Reality" includes spoken words by Tony Blair concerning the September 11, 2011 attacks in New York City and the song "Internal Warfare" was dedicated to the victims of Anders Breivik.

Epica's website heralded their most recent album, "Requiem for the Indifferent," with the following - a very clear indication that philosophically-minded individuals aren't just drawing implications from their music:
This title refers to the end of an era. Mankind can no longer stick their head in the sand for the things that are happening around us. We are facing many challenges. There is an enormous tension between different religions and cultures, wars, natural disasters and a huge financial crisis, which is getting out of control. More than ever we will need each other to overcome these problems. As we are all connected; the universe, earth, nature, animals and human beings, this period in time will be the prelude to the end for those who still don't want to, or simply won't see it. A Requiem for the Indifferent but also a possibility for a new beginning with great new chances!
It's clear what you say

The title track of Epica's 2005 album "Consign to Oblivion," while not necessarily advocating or arguing for particular philosophical positions, raises a large deal of philosophical concerns surrounding -- just to name three -- psychological egoism [the idea that all human behavior, even that which would be considered altruistic by many, ultimately stems from and is primarily concerned with self-interest], metaphysics [a domain of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality], and epistemology [a domain of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge].

The "Consign to Oblivion" lyrics which raise metaphysical and epistemological issues, while perhaps quite apparent to Epica fans, are contained here for the 'indifferent:'
No we can't understand the universe by just using our minds. We are so afraid of all the things unknown. We just flee into a dream that never comes true.
Too much thinking goes at the cost of all our intuition. Our thoughts create reality. But we neglect to be! So we're already slaves of our artificial world.
Philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) is popular for the notion of idealism - that material substances [largely referred to today as matter] do not exist, but rather reality -- or at least the objects which make up reality -- is ideas in minds of people who percieve. Physical objects, then, do not exist, on this accounting of reality. Berkeley's ideas, though, have fallen to the wayside in light of modern science and modern philosophy which both largely consider the idea of material objects existing independently of minds or observers as an obvious fact - and perhaps for good reasons (which I won't discuss here).

While ideas of idealism have drifted away by the 'force of the shore' and 'the tides of time,' what can be said, then, of subjectivity and facts about individuals? Perhaps a tenable version of "our thoughts create reality" can be had in some respects?

The truth isn't just a derivative of your views

The phrase 'perception is reality' is quite popular in current times. Following advances in science (perhaps particularly in the field of quantum physics) and movements of postmodernism across various disciplines, people have questioned the nature of truth - to the extreme untenable and self-refuting stance of 'there is no such thing as truth' (that statement itself appears to be a statement of truth). While it may be impossible to reach a certain truth on many matters (especially when considering that the notion of certainty is shaky and might have little to do with a justified true belief), there seems to be no compelling reason to 'resign to surrender' as far as epistemology is concerned.

People, though, often think of justified true belief as a matter of 'feeling' or 'gut thinking' (I just happen to believe this certain way because it seems right 'to me') as opposed to considering or thinking (whether they think in terms of these categories or not -- ideas of justification, warrant, coherence). For some, if something is believed and perhaps 'felt,' doubt simply can not or does not enter the picture. Self-reflection, then, is tossed to the side in favor of over-reliance on one's own views on a matter just because, as it seems, one happens to hold particular views or 'feel' a certain way. Can some beliefs, though, be justified in a very hasty manner because one might just happen to believe a certain proposition without much thought or needed reasons?

Various non-controversial claims such as 'the table is red,' 'it is raining outside,' 'I will experience pain if I kick that table,' etc. may as well be warranted simply by the fact that one holds the belief and the belief is not coupled with a good reason for an observer or the person holding the belief to doubt it. We understand, through past experience with a realization that our five senses are not faulty, and perhaps -- for the more advanced -- Bayesian analysis that such non-controversial beliefs are justified true beliefs although Hume may throw a wrench in the machine.

Truth is a fiction of your views

Non-controversial beliefs aside, what can be said of people who -- expressing certain feelings about a certain matter -- appear to be acting in a fashion contrary to an appraisal of a certain situation by outside observers? A person, Jane, might believe that all of her actions end in failure while holding a superstitious belief that the world is 'out to get her.' Despite a friend -- Jack -- discussing facts about Jane (who happens to live in a brand new home, has a secure well-paying job, two healthy children, and an affluent and happy spouse), responses of 'this is how I feel' are the answers to anything Jack proposes. Jane, in this situation, believes that because she holds a particular belief or 'feels' a certain way, her belief is a justified true belief.

Does simply 'feeling' something, then, make a belief true? It seems obvious that in this case the answer should be 'no.' One would be foolish, though, to deny that this person believes a particular proposition (and the person who is presenting contrary evidence certainly is not doing so) despite protestations from the person who may continue to utter phrases like 'you are telling me how I feel' or 'you are telling me I don't have a right to believe a certain way' - conversation-stoppers which are not relevant to the discussion or are otherwise distortions of what a conscientious objector with good intentions may hold. The belief and the 'feeling' is acknowledged by the person who presents evidence contrary to a certain belief (even though there is disagreement) - the dispute, though, lies not with one's 'right to believe' or whether one is 'entitled' to feel a particular way, but rather with whether the belief is a reasonable one for a person to hold [given contrary evidence].

Protestations of one lacking open-mindedness or empathy are similarly conversation-stoppers and unwarranted assumptions. A version of open-mindedness 'worth wanting' is one in which a person is willing to amend beliefs provided new information is presented, not, as some would think, a cognitive shift that takes place merely because someone asserts something to be true. One can be justified, in many cases, as should be obvious, in not changing a belief because the information presented was not sufficient enough to warrant the change. Similar is the case with empathy. One can listen to what someone says and even understand a particular perspective but also happen to disagree with a person's evaluation or reasons for holding the belief.

Your fury can no longer stand

Perhaps people are quick to respond to objections concerning matters they find to be personal and believe to be very evident (even though much evidence to the contrary might exist) because they hold positions in which they envision their beliefs as 'parts of their person' instead of viewing propositions as a result of particular stimuli and reflections (taking a 'disinterested perspective' a la Thomas Nagel's "The View From Nowhere"). A person such as this might then view disagreement, even if voiced by others in a very civil and non-attacking manner, as disrespectful in that a person voicing an objection to a particular [cherished] belief is acting in an immoral fashion.

Persons with an attitude like this aren't acting in intellectually virtuous manners or employing what is often referred to as an attitude of skepticism (not to be confused with the classical philosophical notion) in which one is willing to modify any belief considering sufficient argument, evidence, and reason is presented to justify a modification. Instead of engaging with objections to their ideas -- as detailed above -- persons with this unhealthy attitude levy personal attacks at their detractors assuming sinister motives when there may not be any good reasons to do so.

This hauteur will come to an end

It is healthy to apply a reasonable measure of doubt to certain beliefs one may hold - especially when said beliefs can be 'beset in gold.' Since our beliefs can (and do) very often inform our actions, it should be important to 'just think it over now' and consider 'another point of view'. Instead of responding to detractors -- especially when they seem to be expressing genuine concern while being thoughtful and charitable -- with 'no discussion,' one should take the words of Epica's "Monopoly on Truth" to heart and sing along saying, "It's time we realized our errs." As the song goes, "If you look around and you see all the things that are not meant to be, then you know it's time to let them go."