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

Thursday, February 09, 2006

What We Know (Part II)

Last time around, I proposed that knowledge might be divided into two categories, internal and external, and I proposed some basic sub-divisions of internal knowledge.

External knowledge took some time to get my thoughts organized to put up even a first pass, but I think I've come up with something that's ready to propose.

As mentioned previously, external knowledge is that knowledge which one acquires from some source outside one's self. There are, it seems to me, two sub-categories within external knowledge: received knowledge and sub-created knowledge or knowledge by analysis.

Received knowledge is essentially "data" which we receive from the outside world. Received knowledge is thus best divided into categories according to the source of that data. The categories that seem readily apparent to me are:

Knowledge by observation -- This would include everything we perceive via our senses. However, it seems important to me that we be clear on the what it is that we perceive, vs what we conclude about the nature of the world ( sub-creative/analytic knowledge) based on those perceptions. Thus an observation might be "when I let go of the ball, it appeared to fall towards the ground" while the most basic level of analysis is "when I let go of the ball, it fell" and one might eventually add to that a further level of analysis: "all dropped objects fall".

Knowledge by testimony -- This compromises knowledge of the outside world which we receive, not directly through out own senses, but rather through the spoken, written, or visual testimony of others. So, for instance, I know by testimony that Washington DC is the capital of the US, but I've never actually been there. So in an observational sense, I have no knowledge of DC, even though I know a fair amount about its past and present by testimony. One might know by testimony something that someone else found out by observation or by revelation or relationship (see below). One may also receive by testimony the analysis made by some other person. This gets a little tricky, but I'll try to touch on it more later.

Knowledge by revelation -- Certain things cannot be derived strictly from observation and analysis thereon, but can be revealed to us from an outside source. Religious mysteries such as the trinity and the Eucharist fall into this category. I imagine that all the readers here are like me in that they have not directly received knowledge by revelation, but rather have knowledge by testimony (received from Tradition and Scripture) of these revelations. However, it's important to remember this is a possible source of knowledge.

Relational Knowledge -- There may be a better name for this, but my purpose here is to capture elements of knowledge which find their source not in observation of events through the senses but rather through a direct personal relationship with someone. Thus, I know that my wife loves me not because she cooks dinner for me, or because she kisses me, or because she tells me that she loves me, but rather through a direct experience of our relationship. Certainly, one can be wrong in one's understanding of what the information one receives in this way means (thus, I might believe based on relational knowledge that my wife loved me, but it might in fact be the case that she only wanted my money -- more fool her...) but I think it's clear that there is a form of 'data' that we receive in this way -- separate from any information we gather through our senses.

Sub-created knowledge or knowledge by analysis consists of those conclusions that we draw about the world based on the information we receive into our minds via the above means.

We sub-divide sub-created knowledge into fields of study or knowledge based on both the subject matter and the means of analysis used (theology, metaphysics, science, history, economics, etc.) However, I think the truly important thing to understand about knowledge by analysis is that it is sub-created knowledge. What do I mean by that?

In his Republic, Plato describes a cave in which prisoners mistake shadows for real creatures. Plato meant the image to represent the difficulty of discerning the nature of the forms form their imperfect instantiations in the physical world. The image is apt, but it might well also describe our attempt to gain accurate knowledge of the outside world based on the evidence of our senses.

There is, outside of us, a real world containing real things that work according to real laws. And yet, our knowledge of it is limited not only by our ability to perceive the outside world accurately (say, the inability of a colorblind man to fully appreciate the color of a rose) but also by our ability to understand what we perceive. Sometimes this failure to perceive is based on poor or incomplete observation, as in the story of the blind men investigating the elephant. (Each of them experiences only a small part of the whole elephant, and forms a mental construct of the elephant in his mind, based on that incomplete perception, which bears little resemblance to the real elephant.)

Having accurate knowledge of something consists not merely of making accurate observations via the senses, but of constructing within one's mind a working model of the thing observed which successfully matches the real thing.

Thus, my understanding of how a manual transmission works is good or bad depending on how closely the image I have in my mind of how a manual transmission works (and why it is making that peculiar grinding sound) matches the actual makeup of the transmission I am dealing with.

My understanding of the structure of the solar system is good or bad to the extent which the model of the solar system (both the bodies in it, their makeup, and their motion and interaction) matches the real solar system that exists outside of me.

This holds true not just for physical objects but for supernatural objects, forms and systems of thought:

My understanding of God is perfect or imperfect to the extant that it resembles or does not resemble the God whom I shall meet upon departing this mortal world.

My understanding of what 'Justice' is accurate to the extent that the ideal of justice which I have in my mind matches the universal form of 'Justice' -- of which each of our understandings is but an incomplete and imperfect copy.

The purpose of different types of analysis is thus to provide a set of techniques for producing certain kinds of sub-created understanding/models successfully. Science is meant to provide one with the best set of methodologies possible for determining the physical causes of a physical process. Metaphysics is meant to provide the best methodologies for coming to an understanding of being, essence and teleology. Psychology is meant to provide a structure for coming to an accurate understanding of why other people think and feel the way they do. Economics attempts to provide a set of tools for developing accurate models of how people will spend their money. Etc. Each methodology uses different modeling techniques and is meant to be applied to different sorts of systems. And in each case, the goal is to produce a sub-creation within one's own mind which as closely as possible mirrors the real world outside oneself.

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