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Tag Archives: Knowledge

What knowledge is and how it is obtained

The hierarchy of knowledge

The physical sciences, especially physics, are considered nowadays to be the pinnacle of knowledge. They are given credit for modern technology, which has far surpassed any other civilization. Maximum deference is given to the physical sciences, which then function as the paragon of all knowledge. “Physics envy” pervades the study of knowledge today.

But it is a mistake to put the physical sciences at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge. They are very limited in scope, and their methods are not appropriate for all disciplines. Instead, the most general disciplines should be at the pinnacle of knowledge. For secular universities this would be philosophy, and for religiously-affiliated universities this would be theology.

The humanities should be returned to their place of seniority above the sciences. Philosophy, great art and literature, classical studies, and mathematics should regain their seriousness and their cultural significance. To some extent mathematics still receives respect, but it is considered an arcane subject, which happens to be useful to arcane specialists.

The social sciences and history should be next in the hierarchy of knowledge. They are dependent on the higher disciplines but are more general than the physical sciences. They provide the context for the physical sciences, which has been weakened by over-reliance on physical knowledge. This extends to all studies of humanity, including those that intersect the physical sciences such as biology. We must never forget that we are humans first, and animals second.

The physical sciences and the practical arts such as business, engineering, medicine, and technology should complete the hierarchy of knowledge. There’s no discredit in coming at the bottom for that is where we mostly live our lives. We are accustomed to extensive physical knowledge as a resource for solving the complex problems of contemporary society.

This is a return to the old academic hierarchy. It was abandoned out of fear that narrow-minded clerics and philosophers would limit the ability of scientists to discover new realities. That is a lesson of history that bears remembering – but only as a genuine history, not as a prejudice against philosophy and theology. We should also be wary of the Whig histories of those who misread the history of ideas.

General and special knowledge

General knowledge is based on common experience and is available to everyone. No special training or vocabulary are necessary for general knowledge. It is also called ‘general revelation’ and ‘common knowledge’. This is the knowledge that realist philosophy builds on.

General sciences are the areas of general knowledge. In philosophy these are ontology, epistemology, and ethics. Since the existence of God and creation may be demonstrated from general knowledge, there is a general science of theology. General creation is general knowledge of creation.

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Special knowledge is based on uncommon experience that is available only to those who make a special study of them and learn their special vocabulary. The special sciences such as chemistry and physics are forms of special knowledge. They begin with general knowledge but then add special studies of particular aspects of general knowledge. This is the knowledge that anti-realist philosophy builds on.

Special revelation is another form of special knowledge; it requires knowledge of revelatory texts and faith in their message. Special creation is special revelation or knowledge about creation such as the special status of humanity.

Special knowledge in the light of special revelation is different from special revelation in the light of special knowledge. Here is a diagram of their relationship:

General knowledge/revelation ⇒ special knowledge1 ⇒ special revelation2 vs.

General revelation/knowledge ⇒ special revelation1 ⇒ special knowledge2

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Examples of general revelation in the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19:1

Examples of special revelation in the Bible:

Genesis 1:2 – 3:24; Romans 16:25; I Corinthians 14; II Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 3:3; Revelation 1:1

Textual realism and anti-realism

Anti-realists always begin with reality – and reject it. Because, they argue, it is obscure, misleading, and subject to different interpretations. So anti-realists begin again, this time with an idea of theirs. Even materialists begin with an idea, the idea of materiality. Thus anti-realists substitute their ideas for reality.

In contrast, realists begin with reality and accept it. Because, we argue, it is reality whether we like it or not; it is sufficiently perspicuous; careful observation and reflection can overcome misleading appearances; and interpretations should be based on reality.

All of this applies to writings as well. Anti-realists turn away from the inherent meaning of the text in favor of their interpretations of the text. Realists accept the inherent meaning of the text, yet are also free to discuss its significance and application.

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Event-structure metaphors

This continues the posts here and here and here based on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999).

The Location Event-Structure Metaphor
Locations → States
Movements → Changes
Forces → Causes
Forced Movement → Causation
Self-propelled Movements → Actions
Destinations → Purposes
Paths (to destinations) → Means
Impediments to Motion → Difficulties
Lack of Impediments to Motion → Freedom of Action
Large, Moving Objects (that exert force) → External Events
Journeys → Long-term, Purposeful Activities

The States are Locations metaphor has a dual, the Attributes are Possessions metaphor, in which attributes are seen as objects one possesses. The difference is a figure-ground shift. Grounds are stationary and figures are moveable relative to them. The Attributes are Possessions metaphor combines with Changes are Movements and Causes are Forces to form a dual Event-Structure system.

The Object Event-Structure Metaphor
Possessions → Attributes
Movements of Possessions (gains or losses) → Changes
Transfer of Possessions (giving or taking) → Causation
Desired Objects → Purposes
Acquiring a Desired Object → Achieving a Purpose

Perception requires a figure-ground choice. Necker cubes show that figure-ground organization is a separable dimension of cognition.

Necker cube

Figure and ground are aspects of human cognition. They are not features of objective, mind-independent reality. [p.198]

Location metaphor: Causation is the Forced Movement of an (Affected) Entity to a New Location (the Effect. Causation as Forced Movement of an Affected Entity to an Effect.

Object metaphor: Causation is the Transfer of a Possible Object (the Effect) to or from an (Affected) Entity. Causation as Transfer of an Effect to an Affected Entity.

In the Location metaphor, the affected entity is the figure; it moves to a new location (ground). In the Object metaphor, the effect is the figure; it moves to the affected party (ground).

What this means is that there is no conceptualization of causation that is neutral between these two! [p.199]

The Moving-Activity Metaphor
Things That Move → Activities
Reaching a Destination → Completion of the Activity
Locations → States
Forces → Causes
Forced Movement (or Prevention of Movement) → Causation
Impediments to Motion → Difficulties

The Action-Location Metaphor
Being in a Location → An Action
Forces → Causes
Destinations → Purposes
Closeness to a Location → “Closeness” to an Action
Forcing Movement to a Location → Causing an Action
Stopping a Traveler from Reaching a Location → Preventing an Action

The Existence (or Life) as Location Metaphor
Coming Here → Becoming
Going Away → Ceasing to Exist
Forced Movement Here → Causing to Exist
Forced Movement Away → Causing to Cease to Exist

The Causal Path Metaphor
Self-Propelled Motion → Action
Traveler → Actor
Locations → States
A Lone Path → A Natural Course of Action
Being on the Path → Natural Causation
Leading To → Results In
The End of the Path → The Resulting Final State

Each particular theory of causation picks one or more of our ordinary types of causation and insists that real causation only consists of that type or types. [p.226]

Ordinary vs. scientific perspectives: It is not that one is objectively true while the other is not. Both are human perspectives. One, the nonscientific one, is literal relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. The other, the scientific one, is metaphorical relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. [p.232]

What remains [after eliminating simpleminded realism] is an embodied realism that recognizes that human language and thought are structured by, and bound to, embodied experience. In the case of physics, there is certainly a mind-independent world. But in order to conceptualize and describe it, we must use embodied human concepts and human language. [p.233]

Modern metaphors

This continues the posts here and here based on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999).

Modern metaphors begin with René Descartes.

Knowing is seeing:
Visual Domain → Knowledge Domain
Object Seen → Idea
Seeing an Object Clearly → Knowing an Idea
Person Who Sees → Person Who Knows
Light → “Light” of Reason
Visual Focusing → Mental Attention
Visual Acuity → Mental Acuity
Physical Viewpoint → Mental Viewpoint
Visual Obstruction → Impediment to Knowing

The mind can know its own ideas with absolute certainty.
All thought is conscious.
The structure of the mind is directly accessible to itself.
No empirical research is necessary to establish certain knowledge of the mind.
The mind is disembodied. It consists of mental substance, while the body consists of physical substance.
The essence, and only essence, of human beings is the ability to reason.
Imagination is not essential to human nature.
Emotion is not essential to human nature.

Thinking is Mathematical Calculation
Mathematical Calculation → Thinking
Numbers → Ideas
Equations → Propositions
Adding → Putting Ideas Together
Sum → Conclusion

Faculty psychology:

  1. The world consists of an external realm of material objects and an internal, mental realm containing ideas, sensations, feelings, and emotions. The external realm is the objective world; the internal realm is the subjective world.
  2. The internal, mental realm contains a Society of Mind with at least seven members, the faculties: perception, imagination, feeling, will, understanding, memory, and reason.
  3. Each faculty is like a person with a particular personality.
  4. Perception is methodical and mostly reliable.
  5. Imagination is typically a reliable craftsman, who can be unpredictable at times.
  6. Feeling is undisciplined, volatile, and sometimes out of control.
  7. Understanding is always calm, sober, predictable, under control, reliable, and functions as a judge.
  8. Perception receives sense impressions from the outside and passes them to imagination, which combines them into images and passes them on to understanding, who judges how those images are to be assigned to concepts and thus produces propositions (judgments) and passes them on to reason.
  9. Reason has good judgment, is cool, controlled, wise, utterly reliable, and follows procedures explicitly.
  10. Memory is usually methodical and is expected to be reliable, though isn’t always, and functions as a warehouse keeper.
  11. Will is the only person in the society who can move the body to action. Will gets orders from reason and is subject to feeling. Reason and feeling struggle for control of the will.

Like time, events, and causation, the mind can only be comprehended metaphorically. [p.414]

Willard Van Orman Quine wanted to keep the “ontological furniture of the universe” to a minimum. “To be is to be the value of a variable.” The proper logic for philosophy is first-order logic. Logic should be extensional, rather than intentional.

Löwenheim-Skolem theorem: If a class of quantificational schemata is consistent, all its members come out true under some interpretation in the universe of positive integers.

Meaning holism: the arbitrary symbols of a formal language can only be meaningfully interpreted in an ultimately fixed way as a whole all at once, not one or a number at a time.

Consequence 1 – Ontological Relativity: Philosophical ontologies are relativized to the way that reference is fixed for an entire language.

Consequence 2 – There is no analytic-synthetic distinction. No sentences can be true just be virtue of the meanings of the terms in those sentences alone.

Consequence 3 – No part of a scientific theory can be confirmed or disconfirmed; only the theory as a whole can be confirmed or disconfirmed.

Consequence 4 – Translation is indeterminate.

Quinean formalist philosophy leads to an internal contradiction: It presupposes a correspondence theory of truth but, due to meaning holism, it leads to a coherence theory of truth.

Lakoff: The embodiment of meaning, as empirically required by second-generation cognitive science, locates meaning in the body and in the unconscious conceptual system.

Poststructuralist Philosophy makes four claims:

  1. The pairing between signifiers (signs) and signifieds (concepts) is completely arbitrary.
  2. Meaning is located in systems of binary oppositions among free-floating signifiers (différence).
  3. Meaning is historically contingent.
  4. Concepts are relative.

Cognitive science has shown all of these views about the nature of language to be empirically incorrect.

Lakoff: Most of language, however, is neither completely arbitrary nor completely predictable, but rather “motivated” to some degree. [p.464] Irony is possible (contrary to #2). Universals and meanings are widespread across cultures, but there is also significant relativism. [p.467]

Where Frege sought absolute, timeless universals of meaning, the poststructuralists … went to the opposite extreme, assuming that any account of meaning that was not timeless and universal had to be arbitrary and ever subject to change. [p.468]

Cognitive Semantics:

  • Concepts arise from, and are understood through, the body, the brain, and experience in the world. Concepts get their meaning through embodiment, especially via perceptual and motor capacities.
  • Concepts crucially make use of imaginative aspects of mind: frames, metaphor, metonymy, prototypes, radial categories, mental spaces, and conceptual blending. Abstract concepts arise via metaphorical projections from more directly embodied concepts. The metaphor system is not arbitrary, but is grounded in experience.

Syntax is the study of symbolization – the pairing of meaning with linguistic expressions. Each symbolization relation is bipolar: it links a conceptual pole with an expression pole (phonological forms).

Embodied truth: A person takes a sentence as true of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understand the situation to be. [p.510]

A complete explanation

Who, what, when, where – journalists repeat these adverbial questions to find key factors that explain things. That and the four explanatory factors or “causes” of Aristotle are needed to cover all aspects of a complete explanation.

Consider Aristotle’s example of a statue:

The material factor is what it is made from, “that out of which” it is made, e.g., the bronze of a statue.

The formal factor is the form/design that makes it what it is (“what-it-is-to-be”), e.g., the shape of a statue.

The efficient/mechanism factor is what makes it, “the primary source of the change (or rest)”, e.g., the art of bronze-casting the statue.

The final factor: the end/purpose, what is it made for, “that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., beauty as the end of art, health as the end of walking.

There are also adverbial questions to complete the explanation:

The who factor: who made the statue?

The what factor: what is it? A statue.

The when factor: when was it made?

The where factor: where was it made?

All eight of these factor are necessary for a complete explanation.

Modern natural science looks at the efficient/mechanism factors, the material factors, the what, when and where factors. The who, why, and formal factors are excluded. Thus every explanation of modern natural science is incomplete – and so should be treated as input for others to complete them, which could include changing the partial explanations of science if necessary.

Addendum: There are also what might be called causal metafactors. These come after the causal factor and ask, Why? Alternatives likely exist for each factor. Why was this material selected? Why was this mechanism/force used? Why was this design used? Why was this goal sought?

What before how

One way to express realism is that it insists on knowing what before knowing how. Why is that? Because for a realist ontology precedes epistemology, which means being precedes knowing. Something is, whether we know it or not.

A question students are asked is, If a tree fell in the forest and no one knew it, would it still have fallen? The realist answers Yes. So if we come upon a tree on the ground in the forest, what happened? We are entitled to investigate how the tree got on the ground after we have ascertained that the tree is on the ground.

This is not obvious to anti-realists, who want to know how something got there before they will agree that it is there. Appearances after all can be deceiving. If we can trace a chain of events that leads from the tree growing up, dying, and then falling on the ground, then we can be sure that there is a tree on the ground. Otherwise, maybe not.

One reason anti-realists are attracted to evolutionary theories is that they (purportedly) tell us how things got here. Now exactly what it is that got here may still be fuzzy. After all, evolutionists haven’t figured out exactly what a species is, but they are certain that whatever a species is, it got here by evolution.

Realists on the other hand want to be confident that something called a species really exists before investigating how a species came to be. Before the 19th century it was widely understood that species were created and so had exactly the properties with which they were endowed by their Creator (to use the phrase of the Declaration of Independence, 1776). This is what motivated early modern science to explore the world the Creator had made.

After Darwin, the certainty about what things really are decreased even as the confidence about how things came to be increased. The identity crisis is an invention of the evolutionary mindset. Meanwhile realists are waiting for anti-realists to figure out who they are so a real dialogue is possible.

Cumulative knowledge

While it is generally thought that science is a form of cumulative knowledge, this has meant different things. Since Kuhn, new theories are often considered ‘incommensurable’ with old theories. Essentially, a ‘scientific revolution’ occurs in which the old theory is superseded by a new one rather than incorporated into it as a special case.

But old knowledge should not be superseded by new knowledge, otherwise all knowledge is ‘defeasible’ and in danger of being shown completely false at any moment, hence we really don’t know anything. Rather, new knowledge should clarify old knowledge, show its limits and context, but not completely replace it.  We should not (and do not) trash old theories that still work. Of course, some theories are shown not to work even in a limited domain and should be rejected (astrology for example).

So science should act respectfully toward theories that have been generally accepted, and try to maintain as much of them as possible. However, this goes against the grain of a scientific culture in which revolutionary change is prized and Whig history is the norm (those who anticipated the new theory are good guys, those who held on to the old theory are bad guys).

This respectful attitude toward the past goes beyond science to modern culture which rejects old ways of doing things and exults in the new, which has become so ingrained that no matter how bad the new is, it is commonly preferred to the old simply because it is new.

We can and should dispute this modern prejudice and arrogance. In particular, we should reject any natural history that deprecates ancient knowledge such as the occurrence of a world-wide flood. This goes beyond what is contained in the Bible but the Bible acts as a kind of referee concerning what is genuine knowledge and what is knowledge falsely so-called.

Before Darwin it was well known that humans are different in kind from other creatures but evolutionists have lost this knowledge in their obsession with showing that everything is different only in degree. So it is precisely this deprecation of the old that holds science back.

There were some ancients (Aristotle in particular) who said the universe always existed (based on a lack of knowledge of a beginning). The Bible affirms that in this respect the myths and legends of many cultures are correct: there was a beginning. But the Bible says more and that is the issue today. For example, the age of the earth is the age of the universe since the earth was there ‘in the beginning’. Starlight was visible on day four, which leads to the question of how starlight got to be so far away (not the reverse of how starlight got to be here).

Respect for genuine knowledge from ancient sources goes against modernity. That makes creationism a threat to moderns and post-moderns. It also goes against the grain of an anti-tradition attitude, which is strong even among creationists. The point is that ‘tradition’ may contain genuine knowledge; it should not be discarded as a whole but sifted through to keep what is good.

December 2014