Spheres of Knowledge: The Tools for the Job
As I begin the new semester, I’m starting to see the things that will occupy my mind for the next few months and I can tell that one of those this semester will be “How do we learn things? What methods are appropriate to learn? Does science have supremacy/give us objective knowledge? Are there other ways of knowing?”
Ok. This sounds really woo woo. But let me explain a little bit more clearly. Often religious proponents suggest that science is overstepping its bounds when it tries to comment on God, religion or the supernatural. Science is the how and religion is the why. While I don’t necessarily think this is true, I do believe that there are areas of our lives that science isn’t really qualified to reach. Personally I think these belong to the sphere of philosophy. Philosophy can answer the “why” questions logically instead of through revelation.
This topic has come up in a few places. First, my Hinduism class. An interesting tidbit that I did not know is that Hindu tradition does not say their sacred scriptures are sacred because they are revealed. It says that they are sacred because they provide a source of information about a sphere that other sources of information don’t touch, and that it doesn’t contradict other sources of knowledge (if it does, they discard or ignore that piece of scripture). In many ways I think this takes the fangs out of religion. Science can continue pushing further and further into religious territory until false beliefs and harmful behaviors are gone. However it does offer some protection to false beliefs: science can’t comment upon God because that is a separate sphere. Religion can’t move into scientific territory (no evolution debates) but science can’t move into religion. Are separate spheres a coherent or good idea?
I tend to think that this way of thinking is dangerous. It puts religion out of the reach of real, deep criticisms. It supports the concept that there are “facts” that cannot be supported through observation or logic but must simply be accepted from authority. I also think that it opens the door for any number of separate spheres that have different kinds of knowledge (see my last post about the role of morality in the political sphere).
Instead I propose that there are two main ways of knowing: logic and observation. These have shown themselves time and again to be reliable. Mathematics may have its own sphere, but I would argue it’s part of logic. That being said, science relies far too heavily on observation. Theories are immediately changed if the observations contradict them. Our perception is given the highest credence. However we are also highly aware that our perception fails us quite often. We are aware that our perceptions contradict each other and lead to some difficult questions. We are also aware that some of our guiding principles do not and cannot come from observation (values do not come from observation).
So we turn to logic. This is where we create our schemas for understanding the raw sensory data. I tend to think of this as the philosophical realm. What does it mean when we have two contradictory data sets (a table exists in this space, but the atoms that make up the table also exist in the same space…two objects cannot exist in the same time and space…what does this mean for the definition of an object and its constituent parts)? It means that we have to step back and use rationality. Often I see scientists getting upset at this suggestion. If a philosopher says that perception is not necessarily a certain way of knowing the reality of an object, a scientist says “LOOK. I can see it. It’s there”. But the thing about empiricism and rationalism is that they go hand in hand. We can use them to bolster each other and when they contradict each other we have to change one or the other to find the truth. This is what is missing in the religious sphere: it does not support and expand on the knowledge we have in other spheres. It contradicts that knowledge, it is entirely separate from those spheres and it does not want to have that dialogue.
I really want more people to rely on a duality of learning and knowledge. Perception is grand, but it means nothing unless you can interpret it.