Category Archives: Knowledge & Truth

Certainty vs Probability

Most of our life decisions and actions are not a matter of certainty vs probability. They are largely a matter of probability alone. This concept is based on my last post Knowledge vs.Truth, which described why the distinction between truth and knowledge is important.

If we govern our everyday lives — from important matters down to the most trivial — based on the degree of probability the knowledge we acquire is accurate, then why do so many of us refuse to approach  metaphysical questions the same way?

Does-God-ExistInstead, we often avoid making conclusions about what are quite possibly the most significant questions of human existence e.g. Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death etc.

Rather than drawing conclusions based on reasonable probability, we demand the answers to such questions be nothing short of absolute certain truth — a concept many deny exists in the first place.  The key point is that absolute certain truth is too rare (if it exists at all) in our universe to govern our lives by it.  Instead, we rely mainly on knowledge that has a reasonable degree of probability of being true in our approach to most of life’s questions and problems.

Those who disagree with the notion we govern our lives based on the reasonable probability of our knowledge and not proven fact might want to re-examine the conduct of their own lives.

ManhattanBecause of our limitations in this world, we are forced to draw conclusions and make decisions based on the likelihood the knowledge we possess is true, and not on the absolute certainty it is true.  More specifically, we base the level of credibility of knowledge we obtain (in any given situation) using probability — not certainty. It is practical and serves us well.  The alternative way of conducting our lives would be impractical, paralyzing, and most likely impossible —   any sort of progress would be anyway.

To demonstrate just how ingrained this principle is in our minds, a trivial example seems appropriate.

Let’s say I have eaten at my favorite restaurant at least 500 times in my life, and I never once became sick after a meal there.  That alone does not allow me to conclude with certainty I will never get sick as a result of dining there.

Carnegie-deliThere does exist, however, the remote possibility that in the future I could get food poisoning and die after consuming a tainted hamburger I ate there.  But, most of us would agree that small possibility is not a sufficient reason to stop dining there.  In fact, the more logical conclusion would lead us in the other direction. We would reasonably claim it is actually a rather safe place to eat, again based on the knowledge provided by experience.

The point is that we often face unfavorable and even horrific possibilities of the most improbable, though possible, kind; yet, we still choose to risk such tragic possibilities because the reasonable probability our knowledge we have acquired is most likely closer to truth than that very improbable possibility.

Most logical, conclusions we draw are based on this concept of reasonable probability of truth described above.  It follows logically that we seldom have the luxury of drawing a conclusion based on absolute certainty — if ever.

If we accept the notion we conduct our lives based on the sound probability of the knowledge we acquire using one of the various methods of obtaining knowledge, then why do so many of us refuse to approach our metaphysical questions in the same manner? It seems irrational.  Why, after the many years of decision making and obligatory responsibilities of life, do we conduct our lives with such consistent reason only to discard it the very instant it comes time to draw rational conclusions about what are most likely the most paramount questions of life?

ugly-windowInstead, we trade in our practice of reason for a childish demand of proven absolute certainty we only enjoy in, say, mathematics — a field of knowledge unable to provide any clarity in the pursuit of the philosophical questions mentioned earlier.

Is there anyone out there who can enlighten me as to why so many of us approach the most challenging questions in life in such an irrational manner?

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com

Knowledge vs Truth

Knowledge vs Truth seems counterintuitive, but there is a distinction to be made and it is an important one.   Instead of continuing our series on the various methods of obtaining knowledge, I decided it was a good time to pause and regain our focus on why we should do so in the first place.  These processes are relevant and important in our everyday lives because they make the pursuit of truth possible.

Knowledge vs Truth Rational Worldview Blog

The pursuit of truth is often the driving force behind our actions.  Even criminals find it necessary to increase their chances of success.  The more reliable the knowledge they receive, the more likely they are to succeed when they plan and execute their crimes.

Knowledge and truth are frequently used interchangeably, and understandably so; in many contexts it is not wholly inaccurate.  But the difference between these two abstract terms is very significant in other cases.

Battle of Gettysburg AftermathFor the purposes of this discussion, I will borrow from Merriam Webster.  Truth is the “body of real things, events, and facts.”  Examples being, respectively, buildings, a pivotal battle in a war (such as the Battle at Gettysburg during the American Civil War), and a fact — a historical one being “Germany was defeated in World War II.”

It follows logically that this body consists of both the material and the abstract — such as a mathematical law.  (An example — Euler’s identity — is pictured below).*

Eulers-identity

Truth is like reason in that it exists independently and separately from human beings.  If it were not so, future discoveries both on the planet and even in the galaxy would be impossible.  As it is, there is still so much we have yet to learn and discover about the universe and its inhabitants.

Further, the validity of truth is not reliant on the opinion of human beings.  A simple example will suffice since I do not believe this concept takes a lot of intellect to grasp.  That is: I can be the only person remaining on earth and believe with all my heart that 2 + 2 = 3, but that will never change the fact 2 + 2 = 4.

Picture of Mars by Nasa

Knowledge, defined by the same source above is: the condition of apprehending truth.  In other words, knowledge is the tool — using various methods — to acquire truth.

The more knowledge we gain about the universe, the closer we become to grasping this body of truth mentioned above.  The ideal situation is for human knowledge to mirror truth.  Given the situation, sometimes that is the case, many other times it is not.  We can have partial knowledge of something now, with the hope of obtaining complete knowledge of it later.

The various methods of acquiring knowledge bring us closer to the truth (as defined above).  We pursue knowledge, because it brings us closer to truth, and most of us do so because we’ve learned it only stands to benefit us in some way.  That does not mean truth is never painful, but most would agree in the long run, it is far more merciful than ignorance, or at least prolonged ignorance.

This post is the basis for the next one Certainty and Probability.

*Euler’s Identity is widely acknowledged as a non obvious fact that relates irrational and imaginary numbers with the very simple integer values of 0 and 1, using the basic operations of multiplication, addition, exponentiation.  

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Authority as a Source of Knowledge

eastern district highAuthority as a source of knowledge often involves both inquiry and/or practical instruction.  The concept of schools and universities is based on the idea that “authorities” in a particular field can provide knowledge to those who are not.  When we walk into a classroom, we take for granted that the teacher or professor knows more than we, as pupils do, with regard to the overall subject matter we are trying to learn.   Authority provides efficiency in our quest for knowledge.  If we can take for granted that something is valid, based on credible authority, we can expand our knowledge by building on that authority’s knowledge.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Authority as a Source of Knowledge

The disadvantage of authority is that it is not  always reliable, but then again, sources of knowledge most needed and most applicable to our lives are also not 100% reliable.

We cannot and do not discount authority as a form of knowledge, because we would severely limit our ability to make progress (both daily and long-term).  It would also seriously impede discoveries that benefit our quality of life.  Like other forms of obtaining knowledge, authority is reliable enough for us to depend on its validity in our daily lives.  It is justifiably practical to do so.

Levels of Authority

empty classroom

There are different levels of authority.  One of the most obvious being In academia.  One example of increasing authority could be the college student taught by the PhD candidate, who learns from the tenured professor.

We not only validate and classify the level of knowledge authorities have to offer with such titles, but we also determine the value of the authority’s knowledge based on other evident factors such as how much success one has in a particular area.

E.g. We assume a prize-winning, best-selling author to be good, if not excellent at his craft, regardless of his educational background.

Choosing the Most Reliable Sources of Authority

We can expand our knowledge by combining authority and inquiry – asking a contemporary about a topic with our goal being to obtain information or knowledge.  We choose the authority based on what we are trying to know or understand.

michael jordan playingFor example, if we want to know what it is like to be a successful professional basketball player, we would do better asking Michael Jordan than we would asking a professional player who never gets any playing time.  Jordan’s response could offer us a glimpse into the reality of his experiences.  We are, in essence, relying on the information he provides us as a trusted authority, based on his demonstrated expertise.

 
Similarly, if we wanted to better understand trigonometry, we would be more successful in our quest for that knowledge, by consulting an advanced mathematician, rather than someone who has a PhD in Russian studies.  (The exception being that, by some chance, that person happens to be an expert in both areas.)

How We Use Knowledge Provided by Authority

Authority as a source of knowledge can come in many forms including but not limited to:

  • eyewitness accounts
  • written accounts such as emails, memos, historical documents etc.
  • conversations e.g. with a friend, off-the-record interviews etc.

We make use of such authority almost everyday in both our personal and professional lives.  That is, we make decisions based on authority, ideally coming from a trusted, reliable source.  The times we do so are countless.

Parents rely on teachers to provide knowledge of their children’s progress in school.  A journalist will most likely go forth with a story based on information provided by a trusted inside source.  A child born often relies on the knowledge of her parents and grandparents in order to better understand what life “was like” before they were born.

We use authority to obtain knowledge and make decisions by taking for granted that the authority’s information has a larger probability of being accurate than inaccurate.  We make a practice of this so much we often fail to acknowledge it.

One final point: when we make use of authority as a source of knowledge in almost any field of academic study, we classify them into primary and secondary resources — the topic of a future post.

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Are eyewitness accounts reliable?

Are eyewitness accounts reliable?

Presidential Motorcade November 22 JFK assassination

Eyewitness Accounts – When we rely on the validity of the information about an event based on the word or written statement of one or more persons who witnessed the event in action.  Witness accounts can range from very reliable and thus, important, to very inaccurate and even fallacious.

The Kennedy assassination is a prime example cynics often mention in their defense of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts.  I, myself, have spoken to witnesses who can be seen in the famous Zapruder film, which captured the assassination.  They told me that some of the initial details they gave of their experience were later proved to be inaccurate after they watched the Zapruder film.  However, other details they gave in interviews were corroborated by the film, thus, validating their account of the assassination — the most significant being they witnessed the mortal wounding of their President.

The validity of eyewitness accounts is substantially strengthened when given accounts of the same event do not conflict.  Please take note that by “do not conflict,” I do not mean “different.” Any event with multiple witnesses will inevitably yield different, though not necessarily conflicting, details given by the witnesses based on their position relative to the event.

D-Day June 6, 1944 Aerial

 

For instance, the experience and account of an American paratrooper who was dropped over France shortly after midnight on D-Day will differ greatly from the account of an American GI who participated in the invasion’s amphibious assault roughly six hours later.

 

 

That would not make their accounts conflicting — only that they experienced the event from different perspectives and positions.  Their differing accounts actually provide more information about the event, giving those of us who were not present during this most successful military invasion, the knowledge that it was a complex and vast endeavor.

D-Day Amphibious Assault

Witness accounts are often used to substantiate a prosecution’s case in criminal trials e.g. Mr. Smith was sentenced to life in prison after two bystanders said they saw him stab the victim while in the alley.  Similarly, witness accounts can exonerate a wrongfully accused person e.g. the two reputable bystanders in the alley say Mr. Smith was not in the alley when the murder took place.

Thucydides

Witness accounts also carry a lot of weight with regard to the interpretation of history that took place before photography, audio, and video were invented.  Example: I did not witness the Peloponnesian War and there are no pictures of it, but I know it happened and I have knowledge about it based on the witness account and written records of Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War – a book I highly recommend, by the way.

Some people discount the importance of eye witnesses because such accounts are not scientific and, at times, have been inaccurate.  It is apparent witness accounts can, at worst, be used to cause harm to innocent people, and at best, very accurate and reliable.

biblesUnfortunately, we live in a time where we are quick to dismiss the importance and validity of the written record of eyewitness accounts because we rely on them to provide knowledge about eras and time periods well before our own.  This makes us feel uncomfortable because we are a people whose identity is rooted in a sophisticated technological age.  It is only natural that we feel very disconnected from both ancient and recent history that had very crude forms of technology, if any at all.  This difference has caused a general attitude of condescension toward those who lived in previous periods in human history.  It has also led to cynicism about information provided from witness accounts from earlier historical periods that had no access to sophisticated technology.  Hence, the hostility often encountered about historical texts such as the Torah or the Bible.

The more recent and technologically advanced a historical period is, the more believable and thus, more “accurate” their recorded history is to us.  But is that notion based in reality? For example, it is easier to envision, relate to, and therefore, believe the horror of the American Civil War because we have photographs showing fields of dead and wounded soldiers.

Battle of Gettysburg AftermathBut we find ourselves much less able to relate to the Peloponnesian War.  In general, we do not relate, feel or even understand the pain of the ancient Greeks like we do the veterans of the Civil War, even though the historian Thucydides painstakingly recorded the horrors of that war, in which he was a participant.  To some, it may as well be folklore.

A historian or political scientist may rely more on recorded witness accounts left behind from previous eras in human history than, say, a physicist does.  But, even though the scientific method may provide more reliable knowledge, that does not mean witness accounts are somehow less significant in their ability to provide us knowledge.  In fact, the scientific method relies heavily on the accuracy of witness accounts.  (After all, it is how scientists conduct the very experiments that provide knowledge.)  However, the reverse is not true: eyewitness accounts do not rely on the scientific method in order to be valid.

It is obvious we must interpret witness accounts with a certain degree of caution and sometimes even cynicism, particularly when considering the source.  It is only logical, however, to assume that the veracity of a witness account increases each time it is corroborated by another person, with the obvious caveat that the witnesses are giving an honest account to the best of their ability.

Most importantly, we should resign ourselves to the fact we use this method of obtaining knowledge on a daily basis.  We witness our experiences and the experiences of others to — whether we realize it or not — form our beliefs about life and make decisions as well as judgments.

It is for this reason it would be foolish and even ignorant to dismiss the importance of this form of obtaining knowledge simply on the basis that eyewitness accounts can and have been unreliable at times.

As people of the twenty-first century, we should remind ourselves of the need to, when appropriate, rely on witness accounts for knowledge because, many times, other forms of obtaining knowledge, such as the scientific method, are simply not applicable and often useless in the pursuit of answers to most of our nagging questions about the universe.

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Experience as knowledge

Experience.as_.knowledgeExperience as knowledge is generally acquired through practice and repetition.  It is hands-on, involves much more than a theoretical understanding, and can often lead to expertise.  I would say most experience falls into either vocational experience and life experience or life lessons.  Both are practical, useful, and very similar.

Vocational Experience

Expertise is the understanding or mastery of a particular craft, vocation, field etc. It requires practice and/or field experience. Through classroom instruction and observation, a student pilot can come to an understanding of the theories behind how a working aircraft is flown.  But, obviously, no one would dare trust his life to a student pilot with no practical experience.

This form of knowledge is acquired only through (often times) repetitive practice and cannot be gained by understanding theoretical abstraction or the laws of hard science — in this case how flight is possible in the first place.  Most titles and licenses e.g. pilot, physician, dentist, and many others are given only after the candidate demonstrates his or her ability based in practice, with the ideal scenario being the more practice, the more experienced, and thus, more advanced, one becomes.

keyboardThe same can be said for a musical instrument.  After a lesson in piano theory, one may know how to read all the notes on the scale, but that does not make him knowledgable when it comes to playing the piano.

Life Experience (Life Lessons)

Life experience (or life lessons) – At some point in our lives, most of us admit we had to learn something “the hard way.”  Typically, these lessons cannot be learned by reading a book or by someone telling us what to do or how to do something.

It is expressed through statements like:

  • “I’ve experienced a much happier and more intimate marriage when I realized which sacrifices of my time and energy made my spouse happy and thus, more affectionate toward me.”
  • “I regret marrying him, but I was very young, and no one could convince me I was making a mistake.  Now, I see what they saw, and it’s too late to try and make this work.”
  • “After six failed attempts, I finally figured out a way to make my business sustainable and even grow.”
  • ”Over the years and after trying several different methods, I have learned to get along well with aggressive people by doing this…”

old.people.signMore often than not, this type of knowledge increases as we age.  We typically find that older people are wiser.  It often involves failures, as well as anticipating failures and other seemingly unexpected results.  It can include a certain amount of trial and error, but it is not scientific. Many times it involves the acceptance of both our shortcomings and those of the people around us.

Experience as a form of knowledge is pretty apparent, but it still warrants covering in our discussion of the various forms of knowledge.

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Intuition as a Source of Knowledge

Intuition as a source of knowledge seems to be the exact opposite of the scientific method.  It is a form of knowledge that seems to come from within and requires no experimentation.  Many people dismiss it as unreliable, and it often can be.  But sometimes, given the test of time and in the appropriate situation, if we act on this type of knowledge, it can and has turned out to be accurate.

Types of intuition

There are multiple examples of this type of knowledge.  I will list a few common ones, based on experience and conversations I have had over the years.

  • couple.in.loveIntuition has been described as “love at first sight.” Although this example may sound ridiculous to non-romantics, there are enough people with successful marriages who acted on this innate knowledge to recognize it might have at least some validity to it.

  • Women tend to pay more attention to their intuition, hence the age-old term “a woman’s intuition,”  especially if they find themselves in the company of a potentially dangerous or predatory person.  It can be expressed in sentences such as “something is wrong right now, but I cannot put my finger on it” or “I don’t feel safe being alone with this person.”  In my own experience, both as a child and as a woman, I have experienced this.  In general, women also tend to “be more in tune with” another’s mood or how that other person is feeling compared to their male counterparts.  But, I must admit my own intuition in this department falls short.

  • children.playingWe use intuition as a source of knowledge more often as children than as adults.  Children use their intuition when they run to their mothers instead of a relative with whom they are less familiar when, for example, they hurt themselves.  If their mothers are not available, they will often go to and seek comfort from the person with whom they are most familiar in a situation where they feel unsafe or unfamiliar.  They do not make this decision based on making calculations of how many times someone has comforted them, but on where they feel the most safe.

  • Longing – Can be motivated by something that takes place.  In my own experience, I experienced “longing” at 16, when I looked down over Rio de Janeiro from the Påo de Açúcar also known as Sugarloaf Mountain.  It was the simultaneous sensation of feeling awestruck, the sudden awareness of the small and finite nature of my being relative to the universe, and my desires for both a greater understanding of the universe and a connection with whatever was responsible for such natural beauty.  rio1Our control over longing is limited and It is typically a desire/experience that originates “inside our being.” Longing can also occur in a seemingly random, momentary burst “from within” that we cannot fully explain or even understand at the moment we experience it. e.g. a random, fleeting longing to escape the world or to experience something outside this world.

The significance of intuition

What we should recognize from our intuition is that, although not scientific, everyone uses it at some point and it has proved reliable at times for all of us as human beings.  It only seems logical to concede its existence.  Most of us would agree we can name a time where we “just knew” something and by acting on that “gut feeling,” we turned out to be right.  On the other hand, as we mature, we realize which situations in life where intuition might be helpful and in which circumstances it could actually hurt or prove to be detrimental to us.  Intuition as a source of knowledge will not help with how to dismantle a bomb, but it can prove helpful when we make decisions on, say, who we should spend time with and who we should trust.

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How do we obtain knowledge?

How do we obtain knowledge? Some of the methods we use are more reliable others.  Still others may be used more often due to necessity.  However, that does not mean that a certain method of obtaining knowledge that we do not use very much or may be less reliable should not, at the appropriate time, be employed to better understand how best to act or proceed in a given situation.  After all, there is no method of acquiring knowledge that is both 100% reliable and 100% applicable in all situations.

For example, the scientific method has opened the door to technological discoveries that provide us useful information about the development of a fetus during each trimester of the typical nine months a particular woman carries her child. fetus She cannot, without such scientific knowledge, come to know which aspects of her child are developing and when simply by carrying it.  She only knows that it is developing because her belly gets larger and larger.  She gets most of her knowledge about the stages of fetal development from what scientific discovery has so far provided at this point in history.

On the other hand, the scientific method cannot tell us exactly when that woman will give birth (given that her labor is not induced).  Only the knowledge provided by that woman’s body — namely, that she will feel great pain and contractions — will indicate it is time to give birth.  pregnant womanShe could go into labor days, weeks, or even months before she has been pregnant for a full nine months.  She may be up to speed on every aspect of fetal development, but that knowledge will not help her in knowing when it is time to go to the hospital (or birthing center, if you like) to deliver her child; the knowledge provided by her body will.

My ultimate point is that the knowledge desired or needed dictates or determines which method of obtaining knowledge is most appropriate and most useful for the given situation.

Even though the scientific method of observation and experimentation may be the most reliable form of acquiring knowledge, we cannot make the mistake of assuming it is more legitimate in every given situation.  Further, we should not draw the even more erroneous conclusion that it is the only legitimate way or method of obtaining knowledge.

Other scenarios will make the same point.  There are (obviously) times when we come to know something only by life experience just as there are times when the only method of obtaining necessary and/or desired knowledge is by witness account or classroom instruction.  Sometimes a situation requires the use of more than just one method of obtaining knowledge, and sometimes these methods are similar.

The various methods of acquiring knowledge are listed below with their corresponding links.  The list is not comprehensive and ongoing.

  1. The scientific method
  2. Intuition
  3. Experience
  4. Are eyewitness accounts reliable?
  5. Reason as a source of knowledge
  6. Authority as a source of knowledge
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Steps of the scientific method

We scratched the surface of what knowledge is in the last post, but how do we obtain it in the first place? definition of knowledgeIt is a pretty simple question, but we should not take it for granted that we acquire knowledge — in many different ways — every day.  We should acknowledge each of those methods individually to better determine whether our beliefs are rational.  I will begin the list with the most popular — a step-by-step description of the scientific method.

1.  The scientific method of observation and experimentation

As elementary school students, most of us were assigned the task of conducting a scientific experiment using this 6-to-7 step method.  It can vary depending on who you ask, but it typically involves the following steps in chronological order:

  • Einstein at blackboardMaking an observation about the universe.
  • Forming a question about that observation.  It can either be a “yes-no” question or one more open-ended.
  • Forming a hypothesis — an educated guess about your question that will, hopefully and in theory, ultimately be confirmed or disproved.
  • Performing an experiment.  The experiment should be a controlled one, meaning you are able to control all variables.  Ideally, only one variable, called the independent variable, is tested each trial, while all other variable remain constant.
  • Recording your results.  This goes for each trial of the experiment conducted, including all data observed.
  • Make a conclusion. Involves acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis.  If the hypothesis is rejected after experimentation, determine whether your hypothesis really is invalid or whether you need to design a better experiment to test it.

The scientific method is the first in a long list of methods of obtaining knowledge — the topic of my next few posts.  Of course, some ways of acquiring knowledge may be more reliable or more valid than others, but we should still recognize the potential importance of all rational forms, due to the fact that we cannot rely solely on any one method of obtaining knowledge to govern our lives or understand the universe. What other ways of gaining knowledge should be included in this list and why?

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What is knowledge?

In my last post I wrote that empirical science is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive knowledge for the metaphysical questions that nag us as human beings, but what is knowledge and how do we classify it? These questions alone have been the topic of many books, but let’s Butler Library at Columbiakeep it simple by sticking to a standard definition.  Most English dictionaries list several definitions, most of them similar, but I will combine two from dictionary.com to keep this post brief.  For our use here, its definition is: the acquaintance of or familiarity with facts, principles, and theories, acquired by experience, report, or study/investigation.

In short, knowledge is obtained by education, by experience, and sometimes both.  The branch of philosophy concerned with both the limits of human knowledge and the methods of obtaining it is known as epistemology.  Epistemology is also concerned with the origin and nature of knowledge.

The three basic categories of knowledge

In general, knowledge is classified into three basic categories among philosophers, though it should be noted it is not infrequent to find overlap in these categories.  The three main categories are:

  1. Knowledge by acquaintance or personal knowledge.  It is obtained by repetitive personal interaction, which brings about familiarity. An example would be: I know Allen because we have been friends for many years.  I am familiar with his personality traits and some of the current events and historical events of his life. e.g. He is married (current event) and grew up in Brooklyn (historical event), respectively.

  2. pianoProcedural knowledge, often referred to as knowledge-how.  It is often acquired through instruction (though not always), learning, and repetitive action.  An example of its stated use would be: After seven years of lessons and consistent practice, I know how to play the piano.

 

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth     3.  Propositional or descriptive knowledge.  It is knowledge declared to be true based on a fact and is more ambiguous and of the three classifications here, is definitely the most debated in philosophical circles. Instead of “knowledge-how,” it is the “knowledge-that,” and is often stated “I know that A because of B.” Example: I know that Yankee hall-of-famer Lou Gehrig wore number the number 4 on his jersey.

Understanding these basic categories of knowledge gives a better understanding for the argument that if the knowledge obtained by the study and experimentation of empirical science it provides is limited, then it logically follows that the nature of knowledge embodies more than just what empirical science provides us.  Further, we must be open to other types of knowledge as well as how to acquire such knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of the universe.  I will begin that topic in my next post.

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Sheldon Cooper

Why Science Can Never Tell Us Why

Like millions of other Americans, I too am a fan of The Big Bang Theory.  On last week’s episode, in a conversation between Sheldon (a socially inept but highly intelligent physicist played by Jim Parsons) and his neighbor Penny, Sheldon says:

Sheldon Cooper” if (Stephen) Hawking’s theories are correct, …they prove where the universe came from, why everything exists, and what its ultimate end will be.”

I realize Jim Parsons is only playing a genius, but this line really expresses the sentiment of our culture and the spirit of its current age, particularly in academia.  Often times, without realizing it, we make the jump from: Because a person is an expert in explaining certain ways of how the universe works, to: that person is capable of telling us why those laws and the universe exist.

For all its merit, its necessity, and its study, science — which contributes to our way of life in so many wonderful and innovative ways — cannot answer such questions as “why everything exists,” as the loveable Sheldon Cooper claimed.  Science cannot and never will be able to explain the metaphysical questions that nag us as human beings.  For a list of some of those questions, refer to the previous post What is a worldview? Part 2.

Picture of Mars by Nasa
Science — and all the many fields of academic study that fall under its umbrella (mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry etc.) — often over-extends its reach into territory where it has no business doing so.  I am not disparaging the importance of science with that claim.  The breakthroughs in science made, particularly in the past century, have been amazing and those discoveries will only increase to make our lives better.

However, I think it is important to realize that when determining the components of a worldview, one must keep the role of science in its proper place.  The role of science is to provide laws and substantiated reliable theories about the natural world based on observations and experimentation.  Those laws often come with the caveat “given nothing interferes.”

For the sake of simplicity, I will give an almost too simple example.  If I ask my friend the following questions:

  1. “Am I correct in asserting that if I mix a blue highlighter and a yellow highlighter on paper, the colored portion of the paper will turn green?”
  2. yellow and blue make green“If so, would it also be true that yellow and blue will always make green given the same set of circumstances in my experiment the future?”
  3. “Finally, am I correct in claiming the colored portion of the paper will definitely still be green tomorrow?”

Her answer, based on what we all learned in kindergarten, would most likely be respectively:

Mixed Primary Colors

  1. “Yes.”
  2. “Yes.”
  3. “Yes, but only if no one or nothing else tampers with the colored portion of the paper. If someone comes along and marks over the colored portion with a pink highlighter, the colored portion will no longer be green, thus making your third assertion untrue.”

This illustration is meant to convey that the purpose of science is to explain a result, conclusion, or phenomena of the natural world based on repeated observation and experimentation in controlled conditions.  In short, the role of science is essentially to make and record observations about the natural world and for humanity to progress by using those observations for innovation, which improve our quality of life.

However, science falls short in that it cannot explain the phenomena that exist outside or beyond the natural material world — what I defined as the supernatural in my previous post titled Do you believe in the supernatural? Here, I am not using the term ‘supernatural’ in any religious sense, but only as those elements found in our universe that are not natural or material but yet we believe to exist e.g. the non-corporeal parts of our being such as our consciousness and mind.

Throughout my life I have heard over and over again statements such as “the supernatural and God do not exist because the laws of science cannot explain such things or because there is no scientific evidence to prove it.”  However, I believe this to be a fallacy.  Just because science falls short of explaining anything outside or beyond the natural world does not logically necessitate the nonexistence of anything outside or beyond the natural world.

the limitations of scienceNor does it mean we should allow science’s limitations to become a stumbling block leading us to fall short ourselves in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe, which most would agree likely includes something outside of or beyond material nature.  

I would say no matter how “complete” science becomes, it will never provide an explanation for everything associated with our existence.  In cruder terms, the explanatory power of science will almost always fall short.  For one, the laws of the natural world are unable to explain the “why (not causal use but purpose) of existence” — that is the existence of the universe, its inhabitants, and all of the events that take place within it.  To observe something is one thing.  To claim to know why it came into being is entirely another.  The latter is not a matter of science (Lewis, 1980). Surprisingly, though, both the intelligent and unintelligent alike conflate these two issues just like Sheldon Cooper did in the season finale of The Big Bang Theory.

Science is wonderful, but it only makes sense to turn to other forms and methods of obtaining knowledge to better understand our universe as a whole and to throw off, or at least attempt to throw off, the heavy yoke placed on us by the perpetual myth we were taught in school our whole lives that science has some sort of monopoly on knowledge or that knowledge obtained by science is somehow truer than knowledge obtained by other methods.  If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that most of the knowledge we accept as valid was not obtained in a scientific lab, but through other “less certain” and “less precise” methods that have nothing to do with the hard sciences.

Please feel free to leave a comment, agree, or disagree.

Works Cited

1.  Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.  New York: MacMillan, 1980.

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