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 they 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.