Brother Blackford on “other ways of knowing”

November 19, 2011 • 11:38 pm

In a nice piece at Talking Philosophy called “Is science so limited?”, Russell Blackford takes up the perennial question of whether there are “other ways of knowing” beyond those involving science.

I’ve always maintained that there are no other reliable ways of knowing beyond science if one construes science broadly—as meaning “a combination of reason and empirical observation.” Some people don’t like definition, and prefer to take science as “the practices of working scientists.”  I don’t have any great objection to that, as it’s largely a semantic question.  The real question is whether there’s any way beyond empirical observation and reason to establish what is true about the world.  I don’t think so, and I believe Russell agrees with me.  And we both agree that religion, insofar as it doesn’t rely on empiricism and reason but on revelation and self-confirming dogma, doesn’t produce truth.

Russell sees, as do I, science not as something absolutely distinct from traditional empiricism, but simply as a new and more refined “way of knowing” that is not discontinuous with how people found out stuff before science came along:

Consider the rise of science in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and beyond. This produced a new breed of empirical investigators – the breed who eventually came to be known as “scientists” – and they developed a range of techniques to high levels of precision and sophistication. These “scientists” used, for example, increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, rigorously controlled experimental design and apparatus, and new instruments that extended the human senses. They were able to engage in unprecedentedly precise and systematic study of various phenomena that had previously resisted human efforts, particularly very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena, very small phenomena, and phenomena from very deep in time – before human beings and written records. This enabled them to develop a radically new image of the cosmos and our place in it. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was starting to come together in a way that is still broadly recognisable, though far more has been discovered since, and it’s clear enough that far more remains to be discovered in the future.

What is often forgotten is that the distinctively scientific techniques that were refined and extended so much over the last four to five centuries were continuous with what had gone before and that, to the extent that they were new they added something. Nothing was subtracted from the tools of rational inquiry available to scholars (or to ordinary people).

We part company only in one respect: Russell seems to consider science itself unable to answer some questions that do have real answers. As he says:

It’s not a matter, then, of science being limited. Science enables some questions to be given reliable answers for the first time (the age of the Earth, for example, and composition of our solar system), but it in no way prevents answers to other questions, such as what is outside my window; how to translate Tasso into English; or what might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House. Science did not render us helpless to answer these questions, though it certainly added to what we know about, say, very distant, small, or ancient phenomena.

What is outside his window can indeed be answered by empirical observation (especially if it’s verified by Jenny and others), but I’m not sure there is one definitive answer for “how to translate Tasso into English?”, or “what is the most convincing interpretation of Bleak House?” (Convincing to whom?)

Those questions, unlike factual questions about the world that can be answered by science or observation, have a multiplicity of answers that will never be agreed on by everyone. Therefore they are not questions that have a definitive empirical answer; their answers are not “facts.”

When I regard the issue of “ways of knowing,” then, I look at it as “ways of knowing that are agreed on by everyone who is not perverse” (that’s Gould’s definition of “fact”).  That’s a scientist’s definition of fact, of course.  If ways of knowing vary from person to person, as would the best translation of Tasso, then we elide into the realm of religion, where each faith swears that it knows what is true, but those ways differ among religions.

Russell and I also have some differences in what we regard as “facts”; see our exchange of comments here and here.  But for those of you who have accused me of dissing philosophy, let me affirm that I think Russell’s brand of philosophy is very useful in helping superstition and separating what we can know from what we can’t. And I also see much value in ethical philosophy, such as that of Peter Singer.

36 thoughts on “Brother Blackford on “other ways of knowing”

  1. “Therefore they are not questions that have a definitive empirical answer; their answers are not “facts.””

    But they are answerable in empirical ways when you define the proper criteria for correctness. They are only unanswerable to the extent that they’re vague. This is true for every challenge I’ve ever heard that starts like “Science can’t show …”.

    1. For instance, the convincingness of an interpretation could be measured by observing someone’s brain in an MRI or maybe giving a survey to groups of people to whom an interpretation was provided.

      Easy peasy.

  2. What is outside one’s window is indeed a tricky question. Depending on the exact scope of the question, it could include just one’s yard or the entirety of the universe not within one’s house.

  3. Science is limited. But as for anything that is knowable — there is literally nothing that science can’t know in principle. There are plenty of things that can’t be known in practice, though. There’s so much confusion about this in all of this discussion on this site lately.

    Science is the best method we have for uncovering what is knowable. Do any of those questions have knowable answers? Of course. They all do. Insofar as they have answers, science is the best tool to answer them.

    Everything that can be known can be known by science. If you are to say that science can not determine human values (for example), then you are saying that human values do not exist. If you are saying nothing about dark energy is knowable, then you are saying dark energy does not exist. What we know of dark energy, for example, is what we have derived empirically — which as of yet is very little. We know some force exists that’s causing our universe to expand and it takes up 73 percent of the mass energy of the universe. We call it dark energy.

    “Those questions, unlike factual questions about the world that can be answered by science or observation, have a multiplicity of answers that will never be agreed on by everyone. Therefore they are not questions that have a definitive empirical answer; their answers are not ‘facts.'”

    Jerry, be careful here. You’re giving their argument more slack than is deserved. Knowledge is only relative in this way insofar as your goal is to answer it from a certain perspective at the exclusion of others. From any given perspective, there is only one objective answer.

    And do you know who’s job it is to push at the limits of science? Theologians? Philosophers? Haha. Get real. It’s cosmologists like Sean Carroll and theoretical physicists like Lawrence Krauss, Steven Hawking, and Brian Greene. These guys and the consortium of physicists at CERN are looking into Dark Matter, quantum physics, and the edge of the known universe (picoseconds after the big bang) all using science up until the point where they have to guess and then they’re making the best inferences they can possibly making given reason, logic, mathetmatics, and the laws of nature as we _know_ them. Even hypothesis have an empirical basis in science.

    As soon as these answers knowable in practice, scientists will tell us. Not quacks postulating about imaginary figures and common sense facts not being accessible to empiricism. You can’t escape the long arm of empiricism. Even your thoughts are empirically derived. That’s why the concept of free-will needs to be understood for what it is – an illusion. We have will. We do not have will that floats separate of the causal chains of the universe or needs to be somehow redefined so that it fits with determinism.

    I’m rambling now. Done :p

  4. Let me rephrase. If you are to say that science cannot determine human values (in principle), then you are saying human values do not exist.

    If it is not testable or sensible is it not by definition non existent? It’s kind of like imagining a square circle, I can imagine the _concept_ of it, but I can’t actually imagine a square circle. I can imagine the _concept_ of something that exists that is not in any way testable or sensible, but I can’t actually imagine it.

    1. I’d say not that it’s non-existent if it’s not testable (were the number of existent galaxies non-existent before they were discovered or before we knew that their existence was testable?), but that for all practical purposes (within whatever scope we define) we can act as if it doesn’t exist.

      So, we can act as if God does not exist. And, in every day circumstances we can act as if limit of the speed of light does not exist (that it’s instantaneous). For the former there is no evidence at all. For the latter there is evidence, and details, that need only be used when necessary.

      I agree with your distinction between concepts and the actual (and assuming by imagination you mean visualisation – you are already imagining when you think of the concept). An argument I often have with theists who mistake the existence of their belief (in God) for the existence of the content of their belief (God).

      1. Ron,

        “I’d say not that it’s non-existent if it’s not testable (were the number of existent galaxies non-existent before they were discovered or before we knew that their existence was testable?), but that for all practical purposes (within whatever scope we define) we can act as if it doesn’t exist.”

        It is non-existent if it is not testable _in principle_. Galaxies have always been testable in principle. That is the point I wanted to drive home most of all but I danced around too much. So let me correct myself:

        Everything that can be known *in principle* can be known by science.

        And yes I meant visualize rather than “imagine”, that distinction is key and thanks for pointing it out.

        “An argument I often have with theists who mistake the existence of their belief (in God) for the existence of the content of their belief (God).”

        That is a cute one. I used to think the same thing of my fantasy worlds I invented to play Role Playing Games in. Then I ran an experiment where if the universe I created exists in any way that I can suppose I’ll suppose it enters our universe and destroys our planet. It was a brave experiment :p, But we’re still here. I realized, then, that these worlds do exist but only in my imagination. To claim it exists externally of my mental system is incoherent. Why? Well that leads us full circle — because such a universe/God is not testable, is no way sensible (literally), and thus can be said not to exist until it shows itself as something more than a concept in our imaginations.

        1. “It is non-existent if it is not testable _in principle_. ” – Point taken.

          Your role play example along with the ‘act as if’ policy reminds me of the distinction between solipsism (and brain in vat, matrix, etc.) and what we take for reality. Which we choose is arbitrary. I could assume solipsism, but in that world view everything that is imagined appears real and unimagined – i.e. indistinguishable from what we call physical reality. So, why not act as if it is all real. This to me seems the correct use of the principle of parsimony, or even occam’s razor. The theist could try to make some similar move: everything is most parsimoniously explained by God – except it isn’t, because they have to do a hell of a lot of shuffling theology to account for how God doesn’t show up in any of our experienced reality.

  5. Brother Blackford, I believe, would argue that certain propositions about, say, critiquing a novel are not, strictly speaking, scientific. But these critiques/interpretations can approach some sort of objectivity if we can agree on the initial assumptions about, for example, what constitutes a good novel (plot, drama, character development, dialogue, pacing, etc.). Of course, different genres of fiction will have different assumptions (mystery, sci-fi, realism, naturalism, magical realism, etc)

    If the other person doesn’t accept these assumptions, you can try to explain how they work to make the story better, really.

    And if ultimately they disagreed we’d want to know why they did so.

    There may be room for reasoned argument here.

    But I wouldn’t want to presume to speak for Brother Blackford.

  6. Just a little quibble. You are subtly changing Blackford’s meaning in your second quotation regarding Bleak House. According to Blackford, science, broadly construed, can tell us “what might be a ‘thick’, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House. [emphasis added]” In your second quotation, though, you seem unconvinced that science might tell us “the most convincing interpretation of Bleak House. [emphasis added]” You have changed Blackford’s words, and the change from the indefinite to the definite article and the addition of the word “most” changes the meaning of his statement. Blackford’s original sense is, I think, easier to support than your restatement.

    You have, of course, simply made an honest mistake.

  7. You did a little cheat here. Blackford writes:

    or what might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House.

    Jerry paraphrases:

    or “what is the most convincing interpretation of Bleak House?” (Convincing to whom?)

    Eh, no. You see the switcheroo there? Blackford wasn’t claiming that the most convincing interpretation is a knowable fact. And there’s a very important distinction here.

    Jerry is creating somewhat of a false dilemma here by dividing all claims neatly into those which are factual and those which are not. It’s really rather a continuum. Whether a given interpretation of Bleak House is convincing is partially subjective and partially objective. If I were to interpret Bleak House as a raucous send-up of the buddy-cop-movie genre, surely we could agree that I would wrong in that case, don’t you think? (And not solely because the buddy-cop-movie genre didn’t exist then; even without the anachronism, it’s still clearly a false interpretation)

    You could say much the same about how to interpret Tasso into English. There is room for disagreement, but some answers are clearly and objectively better than other answers. There is still “factiness” here if you will, even if it is not the type of hard facts that — I think we all agree — can only be determined by reason and empiricism (“science broadly defined”). Subjectivity comes into play, but you can’t just make stuff up willy-nilly.

    I have a separate, less important objection:

    We part company only in one respect: Russell seems to consider science itself unable to answer some questions that do have real answers.

    The way I parse that sentence, I don’t see how anybody could possibly disagree with it. I think there is an intended implication that these questions with real answers are knowable by other means, but if I we don’t assume that, well then this seems quite likely to me. Surely there are a great many things which are true but which are unknowable to us, even in principle.

    The exact world population of orangutans at 11:43 AM July 17th 1276 AD, for example…. Assuming none of the apes were in the process of being born or dying at that moment, which might muddy the waters, this question has a precise, unambiguous, and factual answer. But science (or any other epistemology) is completely unable to answer it.

    That example might be objectionable since it is a detail, and since science could in principle have answered the question if the proper resources were in place at the proper time. But it seems quite likely to me that there are other more fundamental and more interesting questions that will likely turn out to be unanswerable. One example could be (and note I’m not betting on this being unanswerable, it very well may be, but it’s an example of the type of question that could turn out to be unanswerable) the validity — or not — of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    Not only does science not claim to know everything (despite the lies told by opponents of “scientism”), but it ought not to claim the unquestioned ability to know everything. There are likely things which are true and yet unknowable, regardless of your epistemology.

    1. Sorry, yes I didn’t use the right words (I said “most convincing” rather than “convincing”), but it doesn’t matter to me. “Most convincing” or “convincing” are both subjective, and don’t have a “right” answer. And it’s not a “cheat,” it was an error, please!

      If we say that “Bleak House” is not about cop buddies, that can be ascertained by reading the text; it’s empirical.

      If one translation of Tasso is “better” than another, that can rest only on whether the words are translated correctly; the rest is subjective. And whether the translation is correct can be ascertained empirically.

      And yes, of course there were “facts” that science can’t ascertain now, like the number of orangutans, but we can’t then say that it is a “fact” that there were X orangutans on that date. All we can say is “yes, there was a countable number, but there is no way to know it.”

      But all this is beside the point, which is that the only things we can verify as facts in our universe must be verified by methods involving empirical observation and reason, not intuition, philosophy alone, or revelation.

      1. Even subjective facts are facts. Even things that are sensible subjectively are sensible, thus empirical. I can’t understand how people are reaching the conclusion that some things don’t have empirical basis just because they’re subjective. I don’t think any talk about subjectivity is necessary for this argument.

        “But all this is beside the point, which is that the only things we can verify as facts in our universe must be verified by methods involving empirical observation and reason”

        I agree, but I’m not sure about the last part. Are you saying a combination of empirical observation and reason or are you saying either or?

        It seems there are three ways of understanding given the nature of our experience.

        1st is to admit we may not know anything, thus we know at least we can or can’t have knowledge.

        2nd is what I call moderate bias. We trust our senses and thus necessarily believe Hume that our degree of belief should scale with the evidence. (All science exists here. All things we have good reason to believe exist here.)

        3rd is what I call extreme bias. We trust whatever thoughts float into our heads, or we might appeal to the thoughts or authority of other people.

        Reason is not apart from empiricism. It is an acceptable extension of empiricism within the “moderate bias,” because it is just a method for comparing concepts (good reasoning then compares ideas using empirical methods).

        When reason stretches beyond empirical evidence it ventures into the realm of extreme bias where literally anything conceivable goes, but it’s important to remember that reason in this case is just playing with empty concepts attached to reality only by extreme bias and not anything observable.

        Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” I would say I think therefore I am and I also have these senses, and these thoughts, therefore I have these three methods to use to understand. Then I would categorically reject claims from the extreme bias category because they reach beyond empiricism and thus aren’t corroborated by my most effective method for understanding anything beyond the mere fact that “I am.”

      2. Excuse me, in the quote I just used it seems you are endorsing the _necessary_ dependence on empiricism for reason and a combination of the two, so I completely agree with that sentiment.

        I read that and attributed it to your previous statement: “The real question is whether there’s any way beyond empirical observation and reason to establish what is true about the world.” which is more ambiguous and thus a weaker stance on the topic.

        I’m still not sure which you mean actually haha. Knowledge necessarily depends on empiricism and reason. If that is what you mean, I agree, but we can’t accept reason that isn’t also empirically corroborated. Eg. Reasoning about faith, or superstitious reasoning.

        1. Tasso wrote poetry (mostly), so it is far from being a matter of simply translating ‘words’; one has – far more than one has in the case of translating most artistic prose – to take into account things like metre, rhythm, phrasing, the use of enjambement, Tasso’s use of archaisms and unusual words and orders of words and the effect Tasso creates by these means, and consider how, or whether, these can be brought across into another language. My favourite among the translations of La Gerusalemme Liberata I have come across remains Edward Fairfax’s 1600 translation. Translating such a work really is very different from translating a piece of factual prose (and I have translated both from the Japanese).

          1. Also, I think one needs to be very careful about saying things like ‘all the rest is subjective’ with respect to translations of complex works of literature (it is not), or suggesting (I am not accusing you of this) that judgement where the arts are concerned is ‘subjective’ and therefore arbitrary.

          2. You make good points insofar as I understand them, but like I said initially I don’t really think any of that relates to the conversation unless of course the claim is that “subjective” things have no empirical basis, in which case i responded saying that’s a poor argument (essentially). I do appreciate the insight on the challenges of translating Tasso across languages too, though.

  8. “And we both agree that religion, insofar as it doesn’t rely on empiricism and reason but on revelation and self-confirming dogma, doesn’t produce truth.”

    Thomas Paine wrote about “revelation” in The Age of Reason. Revelation is only revelation to the person to whom God actually spoke or inspired. After that, it’s hearsay.

    Even to dignify what religious people claim as revelation as revelation gives the religious argument too much credit.

    1. I’d go farther than Paine: even if it is a “true” revelation, all the person to whom God spoke or inspired has is their own interpretation of their direct sense experience. And of course it’s that interpretation which skeptics attack.

      It’s the difference between knowing that you have a headache because you and only you can feel the pain in your head — and knowing that you have a brain tumor because you and only you can feel the pain in your head. While someone else can’t tell you that your head doesn’t hurt, they can provide alternative reasons for why your head might be hurting apart from a brain tumor. You might have a pick-ax sticking out of the back of your skull, for example.

    2. The revelation discussion is useful because it is easy to imagine someone receiving revelations that give testable, repeatable, surprisingly accurate predictions. Many fiction stories have such characters.

      IOW, we know exactly what a ‘revelatory way of knowing’ would look like, if there was one.

      The reason revelation isn’t a way of knowing isn’t because it can’t be in principle. Its because in reality it doesn’t empirically work.

  9. If i take Gould’s definition of a fact. I think virtually all scientists would say it’s a fact that we don’t have all the facts and that it would be perverse to say that we do. There are unknown facts to all newborns.

    Is it not good enough to just say:

    “There is no BETTER way to establish what’s true than through the methods of science and reason, because it works. And if you don’t agree, you can fuck off.”

  10. I think it’s a mistake to focus on the methods of science and leave off the significance of its social aspect. Science requires a large, free, and open community of skeptics searching for errors in the works of others — and it doesn’t draw any lines where “faith” separates insiders and outsiders. This is where the break with religion is most obvious, I think, and why you had an explosion in science when you had the printing press. The community enlarged.

    Science is a search for consensus of informed opinion by competent researchers who use methods which were designed to eliminate subjective bias as much as possible. The social group doing science then has to be as wide as possible to consider all the alternatives and catch all the mistakes.

    Religion on the other hand is a search for consensus among the biased, those who choose to commit themselves to what can’t be demonstrated on common ground. The social group can be as small and elite as possible. Only a very few need to be enlightened for a faith system to be “working.”

    Science unites because its arguments have to be capable of convincing people who don’t already agree with the conclusions. Religion divides by using “other ways of knowing” which are personal, private, and convincing only to those who find the conclusions appealing. Public knowledge vs. private knowing.

  11. Translation is a question of algorithms. Trivially, given the existence of one such algorithm (which may be hard), there are infinitely many; from algorithm 0, create modified algorithm number N by prefixing “count from 1 to N”. That the added steps are useless does not preclude the algorithm from being finally effective, merely from being efficient — which suggests where the implicit interest is more likely located. Identifying the most efficient algorithm for translation is functionally impossible in the general case, due to Rice’s Theorem and the Halting problem.

    But, more to the point… translation is a question of languages and algorithms. That makes it the business of mathematics, which taxonomically I consider the mother of sciences, but not a science itself. (Mathematics is tested purely by reasoning on platonic abstractions; any empirical evidence is relevant only to whether the particular mathematics maps to particular aspects of reality, but irrelevant to whether the mathematics is internally correct.)

    What might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of anything first requires defining the terms “thick”, “coherent”, “interpretation”, and most important “convincing”; that’s either semantics of a completely arbitrary character, or a matter of human linguistics and psychology — which are arguably sciences.

    Science is limited: it takes the validity of abstract mathematics for granted (considering choices between certain types of abstract foundation utterly arbitrary, especially where both foundations describe one another as functionally equivalent). Its inference is non-unary probabilistic. It is limited to “is” questions, being unable to address “ought” questions without the addition of an axiomatic bridge defining the ought-ordering relationship on the set of is-choices, which addition shifts one from “science” to “engineering”.

    None of these limits are particularly relevant to most theology, however.

    1. Though it’s interesting how often theological apologetics try to place the existence of God into “non-scientific” categories like values, preferences, and ‘ought’ statements in order to defend the belief as rational. Believing that God exists is like believing that love is important and hey you can’t see love with a microscope — and so on and so forth. It’s a way of taking the focus away from the nature of the claim and placing it on the character of the believer.

      “God isn’t a hypothesis — I have a relationship with Him!”

  12. It seems the basis of all these silly ideas is the core pathetic fallacy, and basis for all magical beliefs of — mind over matter.

    The infantile notion that just thinking something (consciously-using words) makes it so.

    But in fact, brain science has taught us, it’s actually just our unconscious-in-milliseconds emotional arousal.

    So feelings become facts. Well, they ain’t — to the contrary. In fact, if we look at the contra-free will data, feelings are trivial. They are always episodic, bound to the moment and very specific circumstances and often plain reactive old mating/competition/power dynamics.

    Don’t believe we even know if feelings cause behavior. Certainly they accompany behavior but are probably post hoc — a “post-play commentary.”

    Again, if all this consciousness-wordplay were so bloody important why did it take biology billions of years to develop it in one twig offshoot of one trivial species. All species are trivial, of course, and just stepping stones.

    It sure will be nice when we can stop playing “wack-a-mole” with dum ideas swatting down all this weird stuff and spend all that (now wasted) time on learning facts.

    Of course, most people still believe the world is flat. Sheesh!

  13. Russell Blackford seems to equate “facts” with true propositions. That puts “facts” on the truth-bearer side of things rather than on the truth-maker side. That’s one way of doing things, but I tend to think that using “fact” for the truth-makers rather than truth-bearers is a better way to go, and most of the time that’s the way philosophers use the term.

    1. Now that you mention it, it does seem to be an omission. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the sentence.

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