Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What We Know (Part I)

As a number of clever people (a group among whom I flatter myself to number) have observed, one of the problems that causes a great deal of the heat in the Intelligent Design vs. Evolutionism vs. Creationism debate is that a great many people on all sides have a poorly formed understanding of the types of knowledge and their relative sources, weights and degrees of surety. I'm convinced that what we need far more than teaching ID (or materialism) in grade and high schools it to begin teaching (perhaps around the junior high level) some very basic philosophy of the "what do we know and how do we know it" variety.

Of course, I say this, but I have to admit that my own philosophical formation is not what it should be. I may have read more Plato and Aristotle than your average bear, but the more I flounder about in matters philosophical the more I realize that high school and college (during which period I did most of my reading on the topic) are periods at which one is very young to make the best possible use of philosophical primary source material. And nowadays, I spend much of my spare time chasing small bablets around the house and keeping up the side business and blogging and such. Naytheless, I've never been one to shrink from speaking about things that I don't know as much about as I should, so I'm going to take a stab at a series of posts on the topic, partly to clear my own thinking, and partly in the hopes of getting some good feedback from our readership -- which includes certain people who know lots about philosophy whom I shan't name except to say that they are called Scott and Bernard and David and others whom I'm sure I'm shamefully forgetting. If it seems like there's interest in continuing to tinker with such a work, I'll set up a wiki once I feel I've nailed down a couple questions that would determine the overall structure.

So without further ado...

There are many things which we may claim, with various degrees of accuracy to know.

I know that 2+2=4
I know that I exist.
I know that the sun will rise tomorrow.
I know that killing another person without good cause is wrong.
I know that, when dropped, objects tend to fall.
I know that my wife loves me.
I know that I love my wife.
I know that God, our creator, is eternal and unchanging.
I know that Christ was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, died, and was buried, but rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
I know that Socrates died in 399 BC.
I know that there are seven continents.
I know that I am currently typing on a Dell Latitude.
I know that it is sunny outside.
I know how to drive a car.

All of these are true statements I could make about my knowledge, and yet they represent a number of different types of knowledge derived from a number of different sources.

The two most basic divisions of knowledge seem to be knowledge which one may know from within one's self, and knowledge which one may know from the outside world. Of these, the former category is smaller, but contains the knowledge which one may know with the greatest surety. For the purposes of brevity (and do feel free to suggest better terms for these categories as we move along) I'd like to call the first of these internal knowledge and the second external knowledge. I'll discuss internal knowledge in the remainder of this post, and start on external knowledge in Part II.

Within the category of internal knowledge, some things we know irrespective of any experience of the outside world at all. (I'm not sure what the name for this category should be, so if anyone has any ideas, let me know.) Within this sub-category fall mathematical knowledge and self knowledge, represented in the above list by:

I know that 2+2=4
I know that I exist.
Self knowledge is both the most certain and at the same time the least useful area of knowledge. As Descartes observed, it may be known with certainty that "I think, therefore, I am" and yet in a sense this mere knowledge of existence gets us no where.

Some people might question whether mathematical knowledge properly belongs in the category of things which may be known withour reference to the outside world. Certainly, as children we learn to think about mathematics by dealing with concrete examples. (You have three pennies and I give you four more, how many do you have now?) However, I think that the mathematical concepts are knowable separately from any material example of them. That is because mathematical entities exist by definition, rather than being discovered by observation. We know what "two" is by concept. We do not need to examine numerous examples of two to see what two really is, and add two objects together repeatedly to see if they always equal four. Rather, two is two by definition, and one finds "two" in nature to the extent that material things conform themselves to the concept. Indeed, some mathematical concepts (a point, a line, a circle, two parallel lines, etc) exist only as mental constructs and are never found in perfect form in the physical world.

The other sub-category within internal knowledge consists of that which we may know internally, but do so only with reference to the experience of the outside world. Within this category fall the following statements:

I know that I love my wife.
I know that killing another person without good cause is wrong.
The first of these constitutes knowledge of an action which I which I myself perform, and thus I am able to observe it first hand and know it internally. I suppose one might call this knowledge of action. One performs an action in relation to the outside world, and so this knowledge requires interaction with the world, but the knowledge itself is internal.

The latter statement is an example of moral knowledge. Again, I think this would inspire a certain degree of controversy. Many people assert that morality is a learned system of culturally determined regulations. Certainly, one finds different moral standards in different cultures. Nor, as any parent can attest, are children naturally moral. Far from it, they often seem naturally selfish and willful. And yet there are certain basic moral norms which do seem to be inborn (in some sense) in human nature. Among these is that innocent life should not be taken without cause. Also that property, rightfully owned, should not be taken by another. That parents should care for children, and that the young should in turn care for the elderly. Plato held that such moral laws (which are known, though perhaps incompletely, but all human beings) are imperfect memories of the perfect forms of Good, Justice, etc. with which we were acquainted before birth. Christian tradition has normally assigned this knowledge to an innate understanding of certain elements of God's will through natural means -- natural law. Either way, it seems to me that the idea that such basic laws are inborn in us comes so naturally that it should not lightly be discounted.

I have put moral knowledge in the category of internal knowledge which we know in reference to the outside world because all of these moral norms deal with our interactions with other persons and things. If one has no knowledge of other people, one cannot know that killing them or stealing from them would be wrong. Still, I'm not fully satisfied with the classification. If anyone has suggestions, I'm open to them.

Next time, the major sub-categories of external knowledge...


Kevin J. Jones said...

Your Internal vs. External division of knowledge sounds eerily Cartesian. I'll try and catch your follow-up.

Anonymous said...

Having just finished a test on such, I was having flashbacks to Kant's a prior/a posteriori knowledge. But then I'm an English major, so what do I know...