Tag Archives: academic

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.

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com

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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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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