Tag Archives: forms of knowledge

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?

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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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Reason as a Source of Knowledge

Reason as a source of knowledge continues our series on obtaining knowledge.Atheism based on reason sign

Because many atheists base their beliefs on reason, I decided to use their claim to both illustrate how we obtain knowledge from reason and ultimately whether atheism is reasonable at all.

Many times, our view on atheism is determined by what we take for granted to be true about reason — many times without realizing it. So, let us begin there.  (If you don’t have time to read this entire post, skip down to the sections below entitled Reason as a Source of Knowledge, Is Atheism based on Reason?, and The Origin of Reason and the Matter of God.)

Whether you agree or disagree with the reasonability of atheism, you must first believe in:

  1. brain scanthe existence and validity of reason
  2. our ability, by way of our thoughts, to access reason
  3. that knowledge is possible

It follows logically that if you disagree with any or all of these presuppositions, than you have no legitimate grounds to make any type of justifiable claim about the reasonability of atheism or the universe, whatsoever.

These three assumptions make the debate possible and provide the common ground for both theists — those who believe in God, or a supreme being or beings and atheists — those who do not believe in the existence of God or a supreme being(s).

But to prevent any confusion about such an important issue, we should first define reason, then explore its nature. 

The Definition of Reason

The term reason is unwieldy and has multiple definitions, so for the sake of brevity, I will again refer to a common definition found in the Merriam Webster’s online dictionary.  Throughout this post, by “reason” I mean both:

  • that thing that makes a fact, theory, or principle comprehensible
  • the power of comprehending and inferring in rational ways

Reason as a Source of Knowledge

Declaration of IndependenceReason as a source of knowledge occurs when we draw logical inferences i.e. you know something to be true because it is self-evident (Lewis 31).

For example, if I have one dollar and you give me a dollar, then I will have two dollars.  No one needed to tell me that because it is evident to me.  I can look in my hands and see that I have two dollars.  Another common example is: If a equals b and b is equal to c, logically, it must follow that a is equal to c.

Therefore, if reason necessitates that we draw inferences, and if both the atheist and theist alike agree that such inferences must be possible and valid (Lewis 31), then it follows that we should draw logical inferences to determine the reasonability of atheism.

Reason and Emotion

As humans, we all, at one point or another, have made decisions or drawn conclusions based on our emotions or desires rather than reason.  That is not to say, however, that our reason, emotions, and/or desires cannot also be working in tandem either.

human desireRegardless, if we have the capability of employing reason or disregarding it in any given situation, then we must infer and hold to be true that reason does not cease to exist when we do not use it to make decisions or claims.

Reason is there at our disposal, but we do not contrive or invent it.  Therefore, reason must exist on its own — independent of human beings and/or what we choose to believe about it.

People who believe reason is a human construct will, of course, disagree with me but wouldn’t the reasonable conclusion that 2 + 2 = 4 still remain true even if all 7 billion people on the planet believed 2 + 2 = 3?

The Nature of Reason

Reason not only exists independently, it is a constant force or thing that is accessible at all times, in all places, to all healthy minds simultaneously.  Reason outlives us.  Reason is something we “tap into,” for lack of a better term.

But reason is immaterial, even supernatural — not in any religious sense, but as defined in my previous post Do you believe in the supernatural? — in that it lies outside nature.  Therefore, reason is separate from nature.

If we are dependent on reason to live, even survive, (it certainly does not depend on us for its existence) then we must infer that reason is, at least in one way, superior to us or supreme.  Time and time again we realize the constant, unbending superiority of reason, over our natural feelings and desires particularly when we suffer the consequences from a bad decision.

overweight peopleThe classic example: how many people struggling to lose weight walk past a few Danish pastries, and comprehending with all the reason in the world that eating one takes them further away from a slimmer body, still proceed to eat them?

The next day they berate themselves for not using reason.  In this scenario, the decision based on reason — abstaining from eating the pastry to prevent weight gain — is superior to the decision made based on desire.  This is a very trivial example, but the point is to illustrate that reason is supreme and unyielding, but beneficial if we use it to guide our actions and decisions.

So, based on the inferences we’ve draw about reason itself, is it reasonable or unreasonable to believe in the validity of atheism, as the sign above claims?

Is Atheism based on Reason?

By denying the existence of a supreme being, atheism (at least in the West) implicitly posits that nature is all that exists — that it is one self-contained system (Lewis 6, 31).  This view of the world seems congruent to me, until you try to base it on reason.

beautiful natureTo claim nature i.e. the material world is all that exists, and then base it on reason — this independent, supreme, constant, omnipresent, immaterial, even supernatural thing that is separate from nature — seems very unreasonable, and even contradictory.

We’ve established so far reason is separate from nature and does not have its origin in it.  After all, nature does not reason, human minds do.  But if reason exists independently of human beings, regardless of how we feel or want, then where does reason come from? Better put, what is the origin of reason?

The Origin of Reason and the Matter of God

To draw a probable, though, not certain conclusion about its origin, we should do what reason tells us to do — begin to draw rational inferences.  So, I will start…

Kona,HIIs it reasonable to say reason came from nothing and fell out of the sky to be ready at our service? No.  Then, it must be more reasonable to claim it most likely has a source. If that source is not nature and if reason is not a human construct or invention, then like reason itself, wouldn’t this source also exist separate from nature i.e. that it also must be something supernatural? Yes.

Also, like reason itself, wouldn’t that supernatural source also possess the supremacy reason seems to display over our carnal wishes and emotions? Yes, that is reasonable.

If reason has a supernatural and supreme source, and if we access reason by using our minds, by way of our thoughts, can we not then conclude with some rational probability, that this source also has a mind? Otherwise, how could this source, if it did not have a mind, provide the very “thing that makes a fact, theory, or principle comprehensible to our minds,” as defined above?

Based on the rational, though not certain, inferences we’ve drawn above, we conclude that the source, or origin of reason appears to have the following qualities:

  •  that it is supernatural (existing outside nature)
  • supreme over our natural desires, emotions, and basic instincts 
  • most likely has a mind, and if it does have a mind, then it must be a being with a conscious, animate existence.  And, if it follows from examples in our own world that beings (from human beings to dogs and cats) are alive and active, then this being must also be alive and active.

If these three characteristics of the origin of reason are reasonable to assume based on the rational inferences that lead us here, then we have to concede that what we just described is a God, not the absence of one…  because, the definition of God is a supernatural, conscious, supreme being.

Mauna Kea Hawaii

Therefore, this question of the origin of reason seems to present a problem for people who positively deny the existence of a supernatural, supreme Being.  Do the characteristics of reason made by the inferences above, point to a larger probability that God exists rather than that God does not?

monotheistic religionsAnd, if atheism seems more unreasonable than reasonable, would it not logically follow that it is more reasonable and thus, more probable, to believe in a God, based on reason alone, not on the scientific method or even any study of religion?

One thing should be clear in all of our minds — the issue of atheism vs. theism (in whatever form) is not a question of certainty — it is one of probability.  Neither side can ever prove their claim in the scientific sense of the word.  So, when determining our belief and claim on such an important matter, we should dispense with the language involving certainty and draw our conclusion based on what is more reasonable and thus, has a greater probability of being valid.

References

Lewis, C.S. Miracles.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

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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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