philosophy theology

knowing about knowing

Epistemology is (loosely defined) as the study of knowledge.

As the ending of this very sentence will show, it is circular to assume ( that is, before investigation or a priori ) that you know what it means to know something (i.e. that you know what knowledge is!).

Epistemology – thinking about knowledge – can be helpfully characterised by fundamental questions such as:

  • What is ‘knowledge’? (What do we mean when we say we ‘know’ something?)
  • How do we truly ‘know’ anything? (What sources are used, and how are they used?)
  • How do we know that our knowledge is accurate/true? (How do we evaluate knowledge?)
  • etc.

Another (I think) helpful thing is to at least note the way that different ‘ways of knowing’ are seen (for example) in the English language (the question-words):

  • ‘knowing’ what (to do with ‘objects’, ‘things’ or ‘stuff’)
  • ‘knowing’ where (to do with ‘location’, ‘place’ or ‘space’)
  • ‘knowing’ when (to do with ‘time’, ‘duration’ or ‘moments’)
  • ‘knowing’ why (to do with ’cause’, ‘purpose’ or ‘intent’)
  • ‘knowing’ who (to do with ‘personality’, ‘identity’ or ‘character’)
  • ‘knowing’ how (to do with ‘process’, ‘sequence’ or ‘progression’)

Anyone who thinks this is useless, ‘abstract’ philosophizing should take note of their own everyday, continual, ‘down-to-earth’ use of these words.

My last two posts have had to do with morals and worldviews, and seeking a foundational place from which to dialogue.  One finds (eventually) that different ideas of morality and yes, even different labels of worldview(s) are defined differently.  I’m not sure it gets any more foundational than the topic of how we know anything at all, and how we use and/or value knowledge.  I’m interested in discussing how we ‘know’ and how this relates to (both directly and indirectly) worldview(s) and morality.

5 replies on “knowing about knowing”

Perhaps a good idea would be to jointly explore some of the various types of ‘evidences’ that lie at the margins of accepted knowledge to see if, in doing so, we can identify good or bad ways of gaining knowledge.

How about the following examples:
1. How can we be sure of the distance to the moon?
2. How can we know if Benny Hinn is really performing miracles as he claims?
3. Is the evidence provided by Hindus for reincarnation convincing? Why? Why not?
4. Lots of people claim to have been abducted by aliens. Is this true?

The best way I know of testing all of these claims is by using the scientific method.

Using this method I can fairly simply test both 1 and 2 and would have a reasonably high degree of confidence in the results.

Number 4 I have to be careful about because in theory every part of the claim is plausible, but I’ve looked into it and found that these claims can be better explained by a mixture of cultural memes and fantasy-prone personalities with perhaps a little deliberate trickery at times. But I’m technically open to the idea – more verification required.

Number 3 I have to admit I don’t know much about but I understand that they believe that there is a continual chain of living things that are reborn as varying species depending on their behaviour in the previous life. The only evidence I’ve heard for this is people’s occasional recollections of past lives. I personally haven’t experienced this and so start out with dubiousness. The scientific method in this instance doesn’t have much to work with; it seems that all the parameters are beyond examination or our ability to test. Other areas where the scientific method has been used can throw doubt on the claim – I’m thinking here of the evidence that points toward a common ancestor for all living things which doesn’t appear to fit with the claim that souls are just being recycled each time they die (where do all the new ones come from?).

So, in summary, my method of knowing relies heavily on the scientific method combined with a requirement for stronger evidence proportional to the oddness of the claim.

How would you go about these four tasks? Perhaps you have an improved way when it comes to the question of reincarnation?

Cheers Damian,
Unfortunately, one thing that I know at the moment is that my essay is due in 2 days and I have to focus (i.e. stop reading/researching and actually write the thing!). But I will reply once it’s done!

Right – a quick comment before bed…

The most indicative part of your comment is this:

The best way I know of testing all of these claims is by using the scientific method.

It appears as though you think the scientific method is the way to really know anything
I doubt you actually think (let alone live) this way, though – which is why I think it’s helpful to come at it from the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ angle;
Or if not those specific words, at least talking about what different kinds of knowledge there are, and what value/use each has.
But to quickly go through your 4 things:
1. knowing ‘distance’ is either measuring or mathematics (or both?) :)
2. this is obviously more complex than 1. Even if we properly established criteria (i.e. what constitutes a miracle [healing], what constitutes ‘sick’, what constitutes ‘performing’ a miracle, etc.) the sheer number of cases is large. as you know, I’m openly critical of Hinn; but, prior to investigation, I have little way of knowing (with any degree of certainty) that at least some people have indeed been miraculously healed or not. Certainty without research surely can’t be called ‘scientific’.
3. this would be harder to test (in principle?) than miraculous healing, I think. The ‘evidence’ for reincarnation is tradition, and traditions are hard to test scientifically, per se (i think that makes sense!?). As for where new souls come from, I’d not be surprised if some Hindus are totally OK with evolutionary biology and have worked out a way of understanding their traditional view by way of reference to the generation of souls (perhaps) by way of emerging from the collective spirit/soul dimension/realm… ?
4. this one is a bit like #3 – the evidence is traditional, and hard to test.

(off to bed now)


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