Tag Archives: definitions

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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Mauna Kea Hawaii

Do you believe in the supernatural?

While there are many ways people arrive at the conclusions that form their worldview — many people determine what they believe to be true about the world based on how their life experience has led them to answer the question: “Do you believe in the supernatural?”  That is what I want to discuss today.

Mauna Kea Hawaii

For many, the word supernatural conjures up all sorts of uncomfortable, at times even embarrassing and confusing feelings.  It evokes fear and mystery in others.  Some dismiss its existence as irrational and superstitious.  Either way, most people associate the term with something mysterious — something they do not fully understand, and for those who do not believe in it at all, something silly.

But first, I want to bring the conversation down to its basic level.  Dictionary.com defines supernatural with eight definitions.  For the sake of time, we will go with the first one: of, pertaining to or being above or beyond what is natural.  This of course leads us to define what we mean by natural and nature.  Again, let’s go with the first definition listed for both.  By natural, I mean anything that exists inside nature, and by nature, I mean the material world.

Pinning down these definitions of supernatural, natural, nature, and material world, is necessary for the sake of this discussion due to their multiple meanings.  If, when we use the word supernatural, simply as “anything that is above or beyond what is natural (material)” then I believe the only logical explanation is that at least on some basic, very fundamental level, the supernatural must exist.

Painted Desert, ArizonaThe primary evidence rests in the fact that we have a consciousness — a non-corporeal element of our being that is not material, not tangible to our five senses, and is the source for our ability to exercise rationality — namely to think and to do so with reason.

Defining what comprises one’s consciousness in totality is for another blog entry.  The main point here is that this invisible element of our being that puts our thoughts and desires into material action, displays our character and personality, is not a natural (in this context more precisely defined as material) thing.  It, therefore, lies outside and beyond nature or what is natural, and therefore must be supernatural according to the definition mentioned above.

Strict materialists will disagree with me.  Materialismreferring to the second definition listed, is a philosophical theory that posits natural matter is the only “thing” which comprises the universe and its inhabitants and that it alone is responsible for actions and events.  A strict materialist would make no distinction between a person’s brain and his mind; in fact, he would deny the existence of the mind.  But I see this as illogical because to deny the existence of the mind, is to express a thought — something that is invisible, intangible, and lies outside the bounds of natural reality; it therefore must itself be supernatural.

I will conclude by taking a rather strong stand and saying it is illogical and irrational to deny the existence of the supernatural, at least on some level.  To argue otherwise is to implicitly give credibility to your opposing belief, or thought, and that thought itself is not material, lies outside the scope of the natural, and is therefore, supernatural.*  do you believe in the supernaturalIt would be like concluding: “Natural matter is all that exists , oh, except for the conclusion that ‘natural matter is all that exists, and the instruments I used to draw that conclusion (namely, my mind and reason).”’

Either way, I would say that although there are various different worldviews, most fall into two main camps — those who are strict materialists, who deny the existence of the supernatural, and those who believe in some type of supernatural element to our existence.  I will call these people supernaturalists from here on.

**This issue of the necessity of acknowledging the credibility of something not a part of nature, i.e. a person’s reasonable thoughts, as a requirement to make a reasonable claim about the universe, is explored in greater detail in chapters 3 and 4 the book Miracles by C.S. Lewis.

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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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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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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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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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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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