PhilosophyReligion and SpiritualityUncategorized

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.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. September 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm —

    “a table exists in this space, but the atoms that make up the table also exist in the same space”

    This represents a flaw in definition. A table is the name we give to a collection of atoms (or subatomic particles, however you choose to refine the definition) that occupy a specific volume of space. It is not an object independent of its component particles. Therefore, there is no contradiction.

    • September 20, 2011 at 11:38 pm —

      You’re taking an essentialist position, which is one way to go, but it does seem a little bit wrong to deny all of our common sense. Do we really want to say that none of the objects that we see in the world REALLY exist? How do we then define where one object ends and another begins? How do we then define persistence parameters? I mean that is one way of answering it, but you’re opening a HUGE can of worms by saying that objects as we see them don’t REALLY exist they’re simply a name. That’s why I think philosophy is important because science only tells us that the subatomic particles are there. It doesn’t tell us about the logical implications of that.

      • September 21, 2011 at 1:42 am —

        That can of worms is mostly all about language, though, innit?

        I like the idea that what we’ve actually got is just a big soupy mess of stuff. Then we use language to slice that stuff apart into different things, “table” vs. “air”, and to find systems of explaining the relationships between those things, “the air is around the table”. And not just the physical things that make up the “stuff” like tables and air, but also the weirder, metaphysical things too, like “self” and “other” and “metaphysical” and “the” and “five” and “zero”. The table is just an idea we have about what’s there, but so are the atoms. SOMETHING is definitely going on, yes, and we’re doing our best to figure it out, but figuring it out requires making words for it and ideas about it and stuff, and that all gets very screwy and weird and awesome.

  2. September 21, 2011 at 1:37 am —

    I’m not sure that logic and observation are really the only ways of “knowing”. I think there are definitely other, murkier, more subjective kinds of knowing too. Every neuro-typical human being knows right from wrong, in an ethical sense, but the rationalizations and explanations always come after the fact. It’s not like we had absolutely no ethics until people started designing ethical systems and rules. The sense of ethics, the “knowledge” of it, came first…and is based on neither logic nor observation.

    How do you know when you love someone? How do you know that Wild Strawberries is a better film than Scary Movie 3? How do you know your gender identity (yes, this applies to cis people too… how do you know you’re Gender X if you have no basis of comparison?). How do you know that a given emotion you’re experiencing is “anger” or “sadness”? How do you know you enjoy playing the drums?

    All of those are things belong to the realm of the weird, hard-to-explain, subjective kinds of knowledge. I think this is one of the good justifications for the idea of different “spheres” of knowledge… that there’s things we can articulate through art, poetry, myth, etc. that can’t really be articulated through science.

    And aren’t there aspects of each of our experiences that we could never expect someone to understand without experiencing it themselves? Things that you felt couldn’t possibly be described in logic and prose? Things that even if totally accurately reproduced on film or something still can’t convey the actual sense of it?

    And also, logic is only one of the many ways our brain processes its perceptions. There’s also all the strange right-brain “gestalt” or “big picture” processing. When we look at a typical, non-abstract painting, we can usually “know” right away what the painting is “about”, which details are “important” and which ones are the “background”, and what sorts of general conclusions we’re supposed to draw, what the “theme” or “narrative” is. Most of this happens right away, without recourse to logic. Same when we look at a face. We don’t analyze the details and draw a conclusion about what emotion is presented there. For neuro-typical people, it happens instantly and intuitively. Like “this person is getting bored with me nattering on about processing”. That doesn’t mean there weren’t mental processes going on, just that there are mental processes other than logic.

    I’m rambling a bit. But one last thing: we also always, each of us, take a certain amount of things on faith. That’s necessary in order to function or have any sense of continuity to life. We all assume on faith that the world we’re in is the same one we’ve always been in. That the self we inhabit is the same self it’s always been…even when that’s actually not the case, what with the constant death and rebirth of cells, and the reconfiguration of the brain with every. word. you. read. 🙂

    So… you know. We subjectively decide what kinds of faith are reasonable and objective and reflect empirical reality and what kinds of faith don’t. Faith in God is not empirical fact, but faith that I am really here typing this horribly long, horribly self-indulgent comment is. But where we draw that line is actually subjective… but we “know” when something is on one side of it or the other anyway. And I love that. I love how in making any kind of sense of the world and our experiences we simply can’t solely rely on objectivity and empirical fact. We always eventually get to some murky grey area or another. In order to make sense of ourselves, we have to use all of ourselves. I think that’s cool.

    • September 21, 2011 at 1:46 am —

      P.S. I also think some of the other “spheres” CAN actually inform rationality and logic, science and philosophy, rather than contradict them.

      The former can say that the thing on the table is a knife, and talk about what a knife’s properties are, what a knife is for, and how a knife can be used. But it can’t tell us what a knife means, how a knife feels (in the non-tactile sense), what we ought to do with the knife, what we ought not do with the knife, what a knife symbolzies, and what about the knife is or isn’t important.

      I really, really need to STFU now. Sorry!

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