The Source of Knowledge

PB wrote a letter to criticise my epistemology.

He stated that my basic assertion was that knowledge can be reached only by scientific and rational methods, and that is patently untrue unless knowledge is defined that way; and such an attitude is self-blinkering insistence on limited tools and far from expanding or developing one’s consciousness. He continued that getting more and more of the same kind of knowledge cannot give enlightenment, and that my kind of “19th Century” rational and scientific thinking has brought tremendous technical progress, is still essential for practical tasks such as making salt cellars, but is “woefully inadequate for enquiring into the nature of reality and our relation to it, or for opening the mind.”

PB (Tableaus, April 1995) stated that my theory of knowledge, as propounded in Philosophical Reflections , is “blinkered” and “patently untrue” in asserting that knowledge can be reached only by scientific and rational methods.

That is not quite what I have said. I have said that knowledge is gained by the interplay of sensory information, memory, reason and experiment. The scientific method is based on these, and indeed is the codified pinnacle of the last. However, the youngest child, who by reaching out his hand discovers that the patterns on his retina derive from solid objects outside of himself, is also following the course I describe.

Nevertheless, I cheerfully admit that my basic position is that knowledge can be reached only by rational methods. This is precisely how we learn how to interpret our sensory inputs, as by the nature of reality we must. In reality, a thing is itself. In reason, A is A. This correspondence, that contradictions can exist neither in reality nor in logic, is why reason is our primary tool of knowledge.

Even if we have merely learned from someone else, someone had to use their senses and reason to discover the knowledge in the first place, and we in turn have used ours in learning it from them.

It is strange that PB describes my thinking as “19th Century kind (pre-quantum, pre-relativity )”, when quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are both products of the scientific method and rational thought!

Which leads me to the obvious. What isn’t? What exactly is the knowledge you have gained independent of senses, reason and experiment, PB? I’d like you to name just one thing! If you have any evidence for it at all, then you are of necessity appealing to both sensory information and reason. If you have no evidence for it, then on what basis do you claim it as “knowledge”?

Knowledge is the understanding of facts of reality. The nature of reality is Duality: the world out there and our consciousness in here, looking out at it. Because of that, the only way we can get information about the world is through our senses. And because contradictions cannot exist, the way we find out what our sensory inputs mean , to turn our perceptions into knowledge , is by applying the rules of reason, and testing our ideas against reality (i.e., experiment). Of course, creativity is a critical component of reason: it is how we generate the ideas to test.

Hence far from being “inadequate”, reason is the only way to determine the nature of reality and our relation to it. If you still don’t believe me, I leave you with an oxymoron: prove otherwise.

For further debate with PB, see Knowledge without Rationality. 
© 1995, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.