Ways of Knowing – There’s Only One, That We Know Of

That there are ‘other ways of knowing’ seems to be doing the rounds again, often along with the charge of ‘scientism’. A specific charge made against many scientists is that there are wrong in claiming that science is the only way of knowing. History and Art are often offered as contrasting ways of knowing, but without any real explanation as to why we should think they are different in kind, rather than the one way of knowing approached in different ways for different purposes.

It’s also curious that the ones making bold claims for other ways of knowing often also assert that scientists claim science knows everything, and at the same time also claim, very specifically, that science will never be able to ‘know’ certain things. It’s hard to fathom out how some minds work.

I feel the correct view, and one I’ve seen many scientists portray, including Dawkins and Coyne as examples (they are often picked out as culprits of scientism), is that humans have only one way of knowing (a single epistemology of varying reliability) and that is modern empiricism: the view that we have only the senses and reason, where reason is a process of the physical brain, and the senses are physical systems that are part of the physical world that interact with other parts of it. Science then is merely a subset of all variations on the use of empiricism, a subset developed by humans as a means of compensating for the natural limitations and fallibilities of the senses and reason. Science is merely a more rigorous approach to our one way of knowing.

One of the key features of science is the application of its developed methods (its methodologies) to build as consistent and reliable an understanding of the world that is thought to be ‘out there’ (outside our minds), and subsequently, thanks to evolution, neuroscience, psychology, a more reliable understanding of how human brains work in this very act of developing an epistemology.

History, art, religion are also variations on this one way of knowing, varying in the degree to which they require and are able to develop the same consistency of understanding, and varying in the extent to which they apply various methodologies (and here I include using free wheeling intuition as a methodology for sparking new ideas).

History tries to apply more of the thorough scientific methods where it can (e.g. dating artefacts), but has to rely heavily on inference from limited patterns of data seen in the collection of information it has available. The problem for history, and for many of the ‘soft’ sciences, is that it is difficult to draw solid conclusions, and many theories can be constructed to model the same data. For example, it’s easy for the social sciences to be lead astray to Never Never Land, as pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. To be fair, it’s not all hot air (as Sokal and Bricmont point out in their book, they aren’t attacking the soft sciences generally, just the bullshit); the stuff being examined (human brains and human behaviour) is a really tough nut to crack.

Art has a far freer requirement for matching the senses and reason, in that it values imaginative representations of what we sense, or imagines things we cannot sense. Artists may talk of ‘truth’ and other such ideas, but in the context of art this really is more representative of the emotional content and the extent to which a piece might trigger emotions. The more spiritual artists may of course want to believe that this ‘truth’ has something of the sense of being real in the actual world that science discovers, but as with all spiritual imaginings there is never any evidence of such a connection. Any connection that does exist between artistic flights of fancy and the real world are likely to exist as physical states of the brain of the artist. Various transcendentalist ideas, and related ideas such as out of body experiences have never been shown to correspond to any reality other than the activity in the brains of those experiencing the phenomena.

Then we have religion. This is the wildest and least constrained of all applications of our ‘one way of knowing’ in that it is almost entirely Rationalist imagination at work. As with any pure Rationalism that doesn’t require consistency with sensed data, the religious can make up pretty much any damned story they like and claim it to be ‘true’. The use of faith is in direct opposition to science in this respect. Faith is the process by which the desired ‘truth’ comes first, and then any amount of rationalisation, as necessary, to account for all and every reasoned logical argument that refutes the religious case, and to account for any counter evidence or lack of evidence that might challenge the religious case. So certain is the application of faith in the hands of many theists they see it as total justification for the control of others.

All this of course is an epistemological problem – how can we be sure that what we know is ‘true’. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.

Thankfully our senses seem to be so persistently nagging at our inner mental lives that we feel sure that they represent something real, that there is a real physical world out there. The metaphysics, the detailed ontology of that world, is a separate debate. But whatever the ‘ultimate’ reality turns out to be there is never a shortage of adherents to the empiricism that we all live by. Even most religions don’t deny the senses and the existence of the natural world to any serious degree, and some rely on it, as a house of sin and as departure lounge to some other promised realm. For all that we are currently enclosed in our own heads, our own ‘minds’, we don’t generally limit ourselves to the dead end of pure Rationalism, but try balance our sense and reason experiences.

But really, we have nothing better than empiricism; and science is the best of our empiricism. So much so that as the human sciences improve and we discover more and more we can look on with incredulous scepticism at claims for ‘other ways of knowing’, such as sensus divinitatis of Alvin Plantinga. Without evidence to the contrary we can only put this mysticism of other ways of knowing down to mistaken beliefs, fantasy, faith. That the religious ‘value’ their beliefs is not in question. That the religious believe in the content of their beliefs is not in question. What is in question is the actual content of those beliefs.

We have only one way of knowing, as far as we can tell. Claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ amount to red herrings, which are no more than variations on our one way of knowing, or are claims to something else for which no one has ever provided any evidence.

So when scientists make statements such as ‘science is the only way of knowing’ they are really expressing their understanding that it is the best of our one way of knowing. Scientism is simply a pejorative label used by those that don’t get this. The charge of scientism is often made as an objection to a false perception that scientists believe they can acquire certain knowledge.

No one (least of all scientists) is claiming science has access to all knowledge, or expecting that it should have it. But I do think that we cannot say that some things are beyond science, which is quite a different point. This is because a claim that something is beyond science is already a claim to the knowledge that it is beyond science, so is in itself a specific claim to knowledge. We cannot know what we cannot know, for to know what we cannot know is to know something of what we cannot know. I can’t even claim that I am certain in thinking this, because it too would be a claim to knowledge that I can’t be certain of.

The contingency of human knowledge seems inescapable, and it seems to be contingent on how we come by it. So far there is only the one way that seems remotely reliable: comparing sense and experience, empiricism, performed as rigorously as we fallible humans are capable of, through science.

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13 thoughts on “Ways of Knowing – There’s Only One, That We Know Of

  1. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.

    I agree with that part, at least.

    You keep praising empiricism. But what is empiricism? If you only mean that all knowledge is gained via experience with our interactions with the world, then fine. But if you are referring to what is described as empiricism in the literature, then I find much of that to be sophisticated nonsense – and I am using “sophisticated” in a pejorative sense.

    It seems to me that you are broadening the meaning of “science” so much, that the word loses it usefulness. People who criticize scientism are typically looking at “science” as applying to a narrowly confined discipline. When you respond by broadening the meaning of science to encompass everything, you are not really answering their criticism – you are evading it.

  2. Hi Neil,

    I do think we’ve gone over this before, and I think my terms are pretty clear. I use the term ‘modern empiricism’ here, but I’m happy to use the simpler term ‘empiricism’. I specifically mean the combination of the senses and reason. I have given other explanations why I think we need both, which is basically that they are individually flawed faculties. The only way we can come to any remotely reliable knowledge is by using both. We have experiences, we contemplate them, reason about them. In doing so come to some understanding of our experiences, but that typically raises more questions, so we try other experiences. This is such a natural integrated process for humans that it may be difficult to say, for any piece of knowledge (putting aside the difficulty of defining boundaries that allow us to isolate a piece of knowledge), what was influenced by experience and what by reason, and in what order. The processes are so complex, second by second, that it’s hard to say what is the major contribution. Einstein’s reasoned thought experiments seem to be entirely mental reasoning exercises, but could he have performed them without the wealth of experience he had already?

    Part of the problem when using the term ‘empiricism’ is actually deciding what ‘reason’ is, and what constitutes sensory experience and what does not. Simplistically, sensory experience is what we sense through what we commonly think of as the senses: touch, sight, hearing, etc. But of course in this I should include (as you pointed out on your blog) motor action, because it seems to be that our active sensory interaction with the world that allows our senses to acquire data. But if physicalism is the correct interpretation of the mind/brain issue (i.e. the mind is not some separate dualist phenomenon) then even reason itself is a physical process, and as such is a physical experience. Then ‘experience’ includes both the traditional ‘sensory’ experience and the internal physical experiences that we are having while reasoning.

    And Einstein is a good example of this problem. Does the reading of papers by practising scientists and reasoning about them and coming up with thought experiments and new theories constitute an experience? I think it does. The boundaries are vague.

    I don’t think my use of the term ‘science’ is too wide at all. I am not equating ‘science’ with ‘empiricism’, but saying that science is a sub-set or sub-process, or a specialisation of the process (there may be several ways of describing the connection). How wide we then make ‘science’ depends purely on specific preferences. Some physicists may think that even chemistry is an inferior science. Poor psychologist sometimes have a hard time justifying their claim to ‘doing science’. And sociologists and economists seem like real outsiders. But even in history and art, which personally I would not call sciences, they clearly can use techniques and methodologies of science. There are also many respects in which the hard sciences can be considered ‘artistic’.

    The main point is that humans are sensory experiencing animals with the capacity to reason about what we experience. That is what empiricism amounts to. And it is the foundation upon which science works. Science then is a specialised more rigorous application of our one way of knowing.

    And if you want to get specific about what science is you can start listing all the specific methods that are used in the fields that you think are sciences. But somewhere along the line others are going to disagree about what specific methods are scientific and which are not, and about what some minimum set of methods must be employed to justify labelling an area of enquiry as a science. But I’m not so interested in identifying or defining these specific boundaries, but in acknowledging that there are various overlaps and interconnections that make such precise identification unimportant. Such detailed debates perhaps tell us more about our personal perspectives that they do about any precise barrier that might exist between science and non-science.

    It’s a bit like the distinctions between species in a particular evolutionary chain. At two ends of an arbitrary section we might identify two separate species, because they probably would not be able to interbreed (or maybe merely wouldn’t choose to); and yet each parent-child in the chain is of the same species. We end up looking for a very neat barrier that doesn’t exist, even though at the extremes we can see a distinction.

    1. I use the term ‘modern empiricism’ here, but I’m happy to use the simpler term ‘empiricism’.

      I find myself preferring John Locke’s account of empiricism to the accounts that I find in recent literature. For sure, there was a vagueness about Locke’s version. However, while modern accounts have taken steps to reduce vagueness, they all seem to be steps in the wrong direction.

      I specifically mean the combination of the senses and reason.

      Well, fair enough. But that’s back to the vagueness of Locke. What do we mean by “senses and reason?”

      We have experiences, we contemplate them, reason about them.

      I’m not sure that’s even correct. But, assuming it is correct, why isn’t it dualist? Why isn’t the whole of epistemology considered dualistic?

      The problem here is that “experience” is an abstract term. So if you are contemplating experiences, you are working with abstractions. You can say that experience is physical action in the brain. However, you are not actually contemplating physical actions in the brain.

      My starting point is perception. That is, I am examining how perception could possibly work (from a theoretical point of view). As best I can tell, there could be no senses and there could be no reason prior to perception. As long as we are willing to take perception as a magical deliverer of propositions (or other representations), we are bound to be thinking dualistically and at most deceiving ourselves into believing otherwise.

      Part of the problem when using the term ‘empiricism’ is actually deciding what ‘reason’ is, and what constitutes sensory experience and what does not.

      But that is way too far along. Far too much has to be taken for granted, before there could be sensory experience. That’s why I preferred to start at the beginning.

      The main point is that humans are sensory experiencing animals with the capacity to reason about what we experience.

      Right. But if you start there, then what you have will be unavoidably dualistic. Well, it could be monistic if you are willing to take the stance of a Berkeley idealist. And, in a way, that’s my point. An idealist could start at the same point. So there cannot be anything that connects your empiricism to a material world, because an idealist could use the same empiricism while denying that there is a physical world.

  3. David Deutsch covers the relationship of science (and the scientific method) to reliable ways of solving problems (in a broader, everyday sense) very well in The Fabric of Reality (and very likely in The Beginning of Infinity, but I still haven’t read that… Pinker’s Better Angels… is defeating me).

    He gives the gist of this in a recent article:

    Unfortunately, what we know about epistemology is contained largely in the work of the philosopher Karl Popper and is almost universally underrated and misunderstood (even — or perhaps especially — by philosophers). For example, it is still taken for granted by almost every authority that knowledge consists of justified, true beliefs … The prevailing misconception is that by assuming that ‘the future will be like the past’, [we] can ‘derive’ (or ‘extrapolate’ or ‘generalise’) theories from repeated experiences by an alleged process called ‘induction’. But that is impossible.


    Now, the truth is that knowledge consists of conjectured explanations — guesses about what really is (or really should be, or might be) out there in all those worlds. Even in the hard sciences, these guesses have no foundations and don’t need justification. Why? Because genuine knowledge, though by definition it does contain truth, almost always contains error as well. So it is not ‘true’ in the sense studied in mathematics and logic. Thinking consists of criticising and correcting partially true guesses with the intention of locating and eliminating the errors and misconceptions in them, not generating or justifying extrapolations from sense data.

    Science, then, is our best critical mechanism, but it is just the most refined of a set of similar critical mechanisms that we apply in everyday life, and which generally provide the only reliable way of knowing. So, maybe, that last word should not be “science”? Better to say, as Coyne often does, “science (broadly defined)”. (Although Neil would be critical of that!)


  4. Neil,

    “The problem here is that “experience” is an abstract term.”

    So is ‘perception’. All our terms are abstract if you’re going to be that picky.

    “That’s why I preferred to start at the beginning.”

    That’s what Descartes did. Picking up his attempt and not having the need to incorporate a God, as he did, we can take this route.

    “You can say that experience is physical action in the brain. However, you are not actually contemplating physical actions in the brain.”

    You are right, we are not experiencing the physical action directly, personally, subjectively, introspectively, because we can’t. But here you are failing to acknowledge the illusion of a separate mind. And you are assuming that the first person subjective experience is the significant one. In all other science we are quite content to take a third person look at our subjects and examine them and explain them. Only with consciousness, because of the personal experience, do we decide that the third person perspective is less informative. Why?

    The brain is monitoring its own operations and processing the data further. As evolved biological systems we should not expect these processes to be delineated to the same extent as models in a computer system are. There is no separate memory and processor systems. There may be some generalised modularity, such as the various visual and auditory systems, and some features, such as the route from short term to long term memory may have some specific path. But we don’t know yet how dispersed are the conscious and unconscious aspects of brain function. It may not be a clear delineation, in that the very same regions may be doing conscious and unconscious work. We don’t know how ideas come into consciousness, or how intuitions seems to spontaneously spring an idea on us – though a plausible explanation is that it comes from a combination of all past and present conscious and unconscious brain experiences.

    The problem with your dualist objection is that you have to assume a dualism to then rationalise it being the case. Dualism seems to be a natural personal assumption, because of the apparent disconnect between the mental and the physical in the brain. It need not be an assumption in an investigation by science.

    There are many mental illusions that we recognise as such because we see that they are unusual. Hearing voices is an experience that can be had without auditory input – there is real brain activity. Brains can be stimulated directly to have mental experiences of seeing or hearing things that are not there. But the illusion of a separate mind is one we have evolved with, developed to experience subjectively, and we seem reluctant to let go of that feeling. Seeing dualism without any corroborating evidence is a personal bias at work.

    What would it feel like for a system that was self-aware of just some of its own processes, but not of its own physical processing system? Would it feel like this? If you restrict your inspection to introspection then yes, you will convince yourself that the mind is separate, and you will have some difficulty explaining why thoughts are not physical.

    Upon examination and reflection there is no reason to think there is any real dualism. The dualistic feeling of a distinct mind can be explained as an illusion caused by the fact that introspection does not reveal the physical nature of the brain to us, but instead gives us the impression of a separate mental experience.

    Within a rationalist philosophy, or a theological one, we can posit a mind, or a soul, but there is no evidence of either; they are just so much Rationalist speculation, with a whole lot of rationalist rationalisation used to make them as persuasive as possible. They seem to be persuasive to the indoctrinated and the gullible. We are often told by the more mystical among us that we physicalist proponents of a scientific approach are excluding the non-physical as possibilities. We are not. We just want something more persuasive than the intuitions and internal mental experiences of some Rationalists.

    1. What would it feel like for a system that was self-aware of just some of its own processes, but not of its own physical processing system? Would it feel like this? If you restrict your inspection to introspection then yes, you will convince yourself that the mind is separate, and you will have some difficulty explaining why thoughts are not physical.

      That reminds me of Wittgenstein on geocentrism v. heliocentrism!


      1. Ant,

        See: http://ocham.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/wittgenstein-on-relativity.html

        Wittgenstein was being a bit of a clever dick, according to how the story is told. First, learning stuff changes your perceptions and assumptions. Any educated modern human would probably go along with Wittgenstein, or at least agree with him once he’d made his point, because they have at least some understanding of the nature of the solar system. I don’t think he takes the perspective of pre-scientific humans seriously. Various motions have distinct perceptions, acceleration being the obvious one. It is unlikely that any early human would have experienced uniform linear motion at all, since most modes of transport then would be anything but smooth enough to be close to linear, and few would be sufficiently enclosed to hide motion from visual perception. Maybe moments enclosed in a vessel at sea in very smooth conditions would be an exception.

        But generally they would have a distinct impression of motion and non-motion, and being ‘stationary’ on the earth would count as non-motion, as it still does as a normal experience for us. Even my cat knows the difference between motion relative to the earth and apparent non-motion when stationary relative to the earth’s surface. I have claw marks to testify to that. I’ve never noticed him look at the sun and suddenly grip the earth for fear of being spun off.

        In the case of consciousness though it’s the rationalists that are failing to appreciate that just because it feels like the mind is something special this is no guide to it being special (i.e non-physical or somehow special and not reducible to the physical). They haven’t appreciated what it might be like for a physical system to acquire subjective experience as a mere physical process – i.e. just like this.

  5. Hi Ant,

    While I agree with much of what David Deustch says I disagree with quite a bit too. I’ve got both his books sat on my bookshelf waiting their turn. I did start on Fabric or Reality and started annotating it; found I was disagreeing too much and decided I needed to read some other stuff first.

    I’m not sure, without going back to it, what he means by Popper being underrated and misunderstood, because Popper’s adherence to ideas like falsification is problematic too (though he may well have been aware of those problems). And criticisms of induction are mostly pedantic philosophical ones. It works quite well for science. I’ve just read a post from Steven Law on his treatment of induction, using the Sun and Black Swan. I want to respond to that in detail so I’ll do that soon. But the upshot is that induction isn’t a problem for science.

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