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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What is a Worldview? Part 2

The short answer

Not everyone has time for a phD in philosophy, but at some point most of us realize it is in our best interest to pursue the truth about life — ultimately a worldview.  I began the discussion in my last entry What is a Worldview? Part 1.  My short definition of ‘worldview’: a logically coherent set of rational beliefs based on reason about the world and our relation to it.

The longer answer

IMG_0155When attempting to nail down a vast definition of a topic such as this, I like to use a list form for the sake of clarity and simplicity.  That said, I would say a worldview is an ideological framework an individual holds that includes, but is not limited to and not in any particular order:

  1. what a person believes to be true about nature, or more precisely the material world
  2. what a person believes to be true about knowledge and its various forms
  3. whether a person believes in God, or rather a Being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (one’s religious/theistic point of view)
  4. how we, as human beings should relate to God if we conclude God’s existence to be probable
  5. that person’s set of moral beliefs

These five basic beliefs are directly connected with how we answer and approach such common philosophical questions as (again not a comprehensive list):

  1. What is the meaning of life?
  2. What is my purpose in life and how is it connected to my fellow human beings?
  3. Is there a God, and if so, how does that affect me?
  4. Is there any sort of life after death, and if so, does the chaos, cruelty, disease, and decay the present world includes exist in that one as well?
  5. What is the purpose of art and its various forms?
  6. Where do “natural gifts” and “talents” come from?
  7. Are emotions “real,” and what is the purpose of having them?
  8. Why must every single human being experience some sort of pain?
  9. Does reason exist?
  10. Do we have a free will to exercise?

Many times, it is these questions that nag most of us and are the source for what leads us to form our belief system involving the five philosophical categories in the definition I laid out in the beginning.

Forming a worldview, especially a coherent one, can take decades, because the experiences we all have at different stages of human development, add to our depth and breadth of knowledge.  This knowledge — including its many forms — causes us to shape and re-think the truth of reality, in many cases, over many years.  I mean, who hasn’t heard of cases of noted intellectuals having dramatic paradigm shifts — where their worldview by the end of their lives was diametrically opposed to one they held in their youth.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (author of my favorite work of fiction – Crime and Punishment (Vintage Classics) – and The Idiot) is one noted literary figure whose worldview dramatically changed by the end of his life.  Another is C.S. Lewis, whose most famous works include both fiction such as his seven book series Chronicles of Narnia Box Set, the most popular of that series being The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his non-fiction The Problem of Pain and his auto-biography Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.

These two authors, both whose works I have read and re-read extensively, have been enough, at least for me, to constantly question my worldview and whether my belief system is a rationally coherent one.

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What is a worldview? Part 1

Note: All links below will open in a separate window.  Click on images to find their original url source.

nasa.freeuse.planet.earthThe purpose of my last blog post was to provide a starting point for the discussion. I claimed that a person’s worldview begins, more often than not, on what they believe to be true about nature, more specifically material matter e.g. the universe, planet, and its inhabitants — namely human beings.  A person either believes nature is all that there is, or that it is not.  (I will hold off on the discussion of agnosticism for now.)

If a person believes that nature is all that exists, he is a strict materialist.  If he believes in at least some element of existence to be beyond nature, I would classify his worldview as being a supernatural one.

A quick historical background

The main reason to explore a word’s historical background in further depth– particularly one that has its roots in another language — is to gain a better understanding of how to use the word in the English language and to prevent misunderstandings when discussing this unruly topic.

‘Worldview’ is a compound word that seems to lend itself to multiple meanings and/or a plethora of definitions.  This post could trail off into one exclusively about meaning in language or historical linguistics but to keep things simple I will stay close to the matter at hand — ultimately how the word ‘worldview’ is used in the English language, and how I will use it in this blog.

As mentioned in previous posts, the word ‘worldview’ has its roots in the German word ‘Weltanschauung’.  Because ‘worldview’ is a borrowed word that has been translated literally, it is called a calque.  For a list of common calques we use in everyday link, check out this partial list on wikipedia (not that I agree with everything on wikipedia, but I do think the list provided helps in this context).

Sigmund Freud used it in his lectures sometimes.  According to Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebook Project – a collection of historical and academic documents — in 1918 Freud defined ‘weltanschauung’ as “an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in… a comprehensive hypothesis… in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.” To read the lecture in its entirety, click here.

Like any philosophical term, I believe it is a good idea to attempt to define it as comprehensive and precise as possible for the context and discussion in which it is being used.  This does not mean that the way I will define the term is by any means the best way, but clearly defining the term for the discussion prevents misunderstandings and provides a reference for the discussion.  I will do this in my next entry titled: What is a worldview? Part 2.

On a separate note, my goal is to eventually provide a more comprehensive glossary of terms for use on this site at a later time.

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Why metaphysics is for everyone

In previous posts, I have gone to great lengths at least on some general level to define metaphysics in its broadest of senses, but I believe in short, metaphysics is merely an evaluation of our view of the universe, or more simply the world and human existence.  Though vast and overwhelming, it is ultimately the pursuit of truth.

The study of unanswerable questions falling under the umbrella of metaphysics, which ultimately comprises one’s worldview (or framework of beliefs about the world) is for everyone — not just philosophers, scientists, and other academicians.

Metaphysics is unlike, say, accounting, sports, or music.  In other words, there is no special “gift” required or necessary talent to excel in understanding metaphysical matters — only the ability to use rationality and a devotion to the pursuit of truth  Sure, there will be some who have a better understanding of how to articulate better what they believe and why they believe it, but at this juncture, what I am claiming (and will support with future posts) is that no one — no matter how brilliant — has a monopoly on metaphysics.  It is, in general, a level playing field.

Metaphysics, by its nature, opens its discussion to everyone.  As human beings, we are forced to visit its study, first, because “we are” and second, because we are — or do that business of being — within the universe.  Everyone draws metaphysical conclusions, both implicitly and explicitly, acknowledged or unacknowledged, every day.  We have done it for years and cannot escape it, although I do think it true that many do not bother to examine, much less discuss, their metaphysical views.  Most of us are consumed with quotidian affairs, and justifiably so, with earning a living and taking care of the people and things important to us.  Many times, the monotonous, uninspiring but necessary demands of life prevent us from such examination and discussion — a discussion vital to our destiny.

Therefore, establishing that one’s understanding of the universe — in this context, mainly the how and why of its existence — are not totally and necessarily dependent on one’s intellect or whether a person excels — or has the potential to excel — in one specific academic area or another.  There are plenty of people who, as a rule, are horrible spellers, but excel very quickly in mathematics or in their ability to reason and debate.  How many times have we met or heard of a brilliant person who suffers with dyslexia? These two examples are meant to illuminate the fact that we all, as humans, have strengths and weaknesses, but we all have something to contribute to the most important philosophical questions that have plagued humankind as far back as we, collectively as a species, can record.

To disparage or even discredit someone’s contribution to the conversation based on the fact that someone lacks knowledge in physics, biology, theology, history etc. is, I believe, foolish.  To ask, debate, think about, and discuss such issues is to be human.  Someone may be an expert in say, neuroscience or quantum mechanics, but that does not qualify her to make definitive, absolute factual statements about important matters such as the existence of God or why and how the universe came into existence, because ultimately nobody can; further, being an expert in one academic field or another does not even make a person more qualified to make such statements either.

For example, to make the jump from “I am a credible source for knowledge about quantum mechanics because I have a PhD in the field” (a reasonable claim) to: “Therefore, I am more qualified to make absolute, comprehensive statements involving matters such as the existence of God and and why the universe came into existence” has no logical merit.  Such a person would, no doubt, be qualified to explain the theories, facts, experiments, and observations in her specific field, but could not possibly declare as fact her stance on the philosophical matters listed above because she cannot prove those philosophical ideas in the same way she is able to prove her scientific hypotheses in the lab.

This fact that no person can conclusively and definitely answer with absolute proof the numerous unanswerable metaphysical questions that plague us as humans is the nature of this beast.  Therefore, questions like “Does God exist?”; “Why did the universe come into existence?”; and other related questions are open to every single person to study, observe, speculate, and ultimately make conclusions about them.

A note on leaving comments

Finally, when leaving comments on this blog about metaphysics, one should not disparage the observations or comments of others that have already been widely accepted as true.  We are all in different stages and chapters of life.  What is apparent to a 50-year-old will not be so apparent to a 12-year- old.  Then again, what may be apparent to a particular 12-year-old may be news to a 50-year-old. We can all stand to learn something from each other.

This blog’s comments and eventual forum are meant for the young and old, experienced and inexperienced alike.  Because all humans are literally in different places in life, the general attitude should be one of openness to our differences both in our lives — both good and bad — and the level to which each wants to explore this topic and those which fall under its umbrella.

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Metaphysics defined… or not

Today, I’ve decided to write for the readers who want me to go into more detail about metaphysics and the branches of philosophy under which it falls.  If you are like me, you always want terms clearly defined in order to prevent misunderstanding and enhance communication.  On the other hand, others are  not as obsessive as I am and are content with a general definition of terms.  If you are that person, you may be bored with my next entry, so please re-visit me later in the week.

I should point out the term “metaphysics” has a long and complicated history.  It is unruly and it is almost impossible to pin down its precise all-encompassing definition.  However, that should not prevent us from talking about it.  If we never endeavored to know more about something simply because we know from the start we will never comprehend its totality, then no progress could ever be made in anything.

On my blog, I will be using the term “metaphysics” and “metaphysical” in a general sense.  Metaphysics includes, but is not limited to, four main branches of philosophy.  They are: ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and etiology.

Both the online version of Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com provide similar definitions, but I personally prefer dictionary.com’s definition for metaphysics and its related branches.  I see no need to write out their full definitions here, when you can click on the links below; they will open in a separate window.  I use:

For those who are not philosophy majors, all of this may seem a bit overwhelming.  The main point I am trying to establish here is that metaphysics is a broad and large part of philosophy, that raises important questions about how we think about the universe — or more relevant and closer to home — about ourselves and the world around us.  The conclusions we draw from our metaphysical views of the world shape our framework of beliefs, or what I will call from here on a worldview.

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My metaphysical journey

My metaphysical journeyFor the sake of clarity, I want to loosely define how I will be using the word “metaphysical” and “metaphysics” on this site.  I am using it in the most general of senses – anything concerned with the nature and origin of existence and the limits to our knowledge of that existence.  If you want a more comprehensive definition, the online version of Merriam-Webster provides it here.

Since this is my first entry, I guess a decent place to start is the beginning.  My metaphysical journey began around the age of five, when I realized that I am a unique, autonomous being expressed through my consciousness inside my body.  Although I lacked the vocabulary to put it that way at that time, I remember having that thought, or better yet the curiosity and wonder of what that meant, what my purpose for existing was and is, and who or what made this happen — more clearly, why do I not only have a body, but also a non-corporeal element that makes me who I am.

It is my opinion that such questions about reality and our existence affect all human beings at one point or other and in different ways.  I also believe that because we live in a world that most positively and regularly yields cruelty, horror, and disappointment (with intervals of or relative fleeting moments of happiness), we all long for something outside this world for relief from the suffering and injustice we either experience directly or observe.  Most people will agree they long for something this world cannot provide them, something otherworldly, even if they are unable to explain just what that longing consists of or is.

These common human experiences have inspired me to write about them with the hope that others will join the conversation and provide more insight.  Most curious people have questions, which continuously circle around in their heads, for which there will never be an answer, but I do not think that fact should prevent discussion about metaphysics — discussion that could possibly help others on their metaphysical journey and ultimately the conclusions they draw about the world from their metaphysical beliefs.

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