Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reflection: Where Does Knowledge Come From

I recently heard a debate between scientific skeptics and spokespersons for a theological position in which the issue of the source of knowledge came up. On the one side, the scientists were suggesting that value of "scientific knowledge" which was characterized by observations under controlled circumstances, published in peer reviewed journals, replicated by other scientists, and informed by theory. Even assertions so supported are seen as potentially incorrect, and subject to future validation or challenge by new observations or theory.

An alternative suggestion was that there are many ways of knowing. One interpretation was that the religious person was suggesting that revelation was a way of knowing. Without denying that assertion, the scientist suggested that it is difficult to know if a person asserting revealed knowledge is right about that assertion.

I have been wondering about other sources of knowledge.

Obviously, direct sensory perception is a source of knowledge. I know I am sitting here typing. There is also tacit knowledge, which I can not (easily) make explicit, but which I possess. There are skills which I would classify as a kind of knowledge, but not "scientific" knowledge.

Still, there seems to be a realm of knowledge about the world, involving facts and theories in which both scientific and non-scientific institutions are involved in the social construction of knowledge. (Thus the judiciary process construes knowledge about crimes, the legislative process construes knowledge about social and economic issues, the bureaucratic process construes knowledge all of which may be informed by but are different than the scientific processes construing knowledge about the same things,)

In that realm, there are epistemological issues as to the quality of the purported knowledge so construed. Is the evidence convincing? Is the assertion supported by theory? Are the proponents of the assertion credible?

Spanish has two words, "saber" and "conocer" that are both translated into English as "to know". Thus Spanish speakers divide the realm that English construe as that of knowledge into two areas. It seems to me that we might need a new concept in English to reflect the realm of assertions that are susceptible to scientific verification. Such a concept might help to develop an epistemology that would help to evaluate the assertions construed in different institutional settings.

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