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On Knowing (More on Religion vs. Science) 25 March 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Science, Religion, Science.

Among my most ardent interests is the study of how human beings know. I had never thought too much about the question until I began studying John Dewey in 1998. For Dewey, human knowledge is necessarily embodied and experiential. He called it the organism-environment model, where the embodied individual knows only in transaction with its environment, and where for humans, environment is broadly construed to include the social (other humans) and cultural (symbolic, meaningful, and linguistic) elements of experience.

The traditional philosophical epistemology was based in what Dewey called the "Specator Model" of knowledge, where philosophers (think: Plato) knew stuff from the "outside" as a disembodied spectator. Dewey is making a key distinction between objective reality (which exists independent of human experience) and our knowledge of reality (which is necessarily experiential). In the spectator model, the reality is knowable unmediated by our bodies and experiences, thereby lending authority to the claims of philosophers who "know" it, and setting up a foil against which unreal, false, and situated knowledge could be compared. To the contrary, Dewey (and William James, and Charles Pierce, and George Herbert Mead) argued that whether you are a philosopher, a scientist, an engineer, a farmer, a hunter-gatherer, or a housewife, you knowledge comes from the same place: in a transaction with your environment—it is always mediated through experience.[1]

James called this "pure experience," where the "vital flux of life" becomes the very raw stuff with which and about which we think; and the process of thinking about it produces any number of "objects" that we create to make sense of and to manipulate and change our environment.

Recently, my good friend Matt, in responding to my "Evolution of God" post of last weekend, raised important issues in the experience of knowing:

In other words, the things that we know (in this case mathematics) do not arise out of an embodied experience but exist independent of the human mind. 1+1=2 even if humans don't exist and even if it can't be proven without some fundamental intuitions about the nature of 1.

For me, there are actually two separate issues here. First, is their an objective reality outside of human experience? And second, how do human beings know that reality? On the first issue, this is a variation on the oldie but goodie, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a noise?" Is there an objective reality of the tree falling and of the air molecules compressing and spreading outward from the event in such a way as to create noise, or does noise only exist because we hear it? It is vital to understand that there are objective realities out there which are not directly experienced by any human observer, which nonetheless exist and are real. Ironically, our own experience tells us this is so. We can come upon the fallen log 100 years later and observe the consequences of its fall. The tree fell independent of human mind.

The second issue, however, is for me the interesting question. It isn't whether or not the tree actually made noise, but how we would know one way or the other. Or to use Matt's example, the interesting question isn't whether or not 1+1 exists outside of human experience, but rather, how human beings come to know that 1+1=2 and that it exists independent of our experience.

It is the process of knowing that is of issue. What is key here in the science and religion "controversy" is that human knowledge comes from the same place, regardless or whether you're trying to figure out how to build a $1.3 billion bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island, or trying to figure out how to teach your kids to look both ways before crossing the street, or trying to figure out how mollusks breed, or trying to understand the emptiness you feel when you're home alone. From philosophy to theology to biology to parenting to engineering to athletics to auto mechanics, human knowing is necessarily embodied and experiential.

I've been reading an article on the development of American Pragmatism and its transformation into Neo-Pragmatism in the past couple of decades, and I stumbled upon this explanation of Charles Pierce's definition of belief, and I think it gives a nice summary of my points above:

[Pierce] construes belief as involving habits of action, and doubt as the unsettled state resulting from the interruption of a belief-habit by recalcitrance on the part of experience. This real, living doubt, unlike Cartesian paper doubt, is both involuntary and disagreeable. The primitive basis of the most sophisticated human cognitive activity is a homeostatic process in which the organism strives to return to equilibrium, a process beginning with doubt and ending when a new habit, a revised belief, is reached.

Peirce compares four methods for the “fixation of belief.” The method of tenacity is simply to cling obstinately to whatever beliefs you have, avoiding any evidence that might unsettle them. The method of authority is to have a church or state impose conformity in belief. The a priori method — the method traditionally favored by metaphysicians — seeks to settle belief by inquiring what is “agreeable to reason.” But the most sophisticated inquirers, aspiring to indefeasibly settled belief, will always be motivated to further inquiry, never fully satisfied with what they presently incline to think. So the culmination of that primitive homeostatic process is the scientific method — the only method, Peirce argues, that would eventually result in beliefs which are indefeasibly stable, permanently safe from recalcitrance.

If you really want to learn the truth, you must acknowledge that you don’t satisfactorily know already; so the scientific inquirer is a “contrite fallibilist” (CP 1.14) ready to “drop the whole cartload of his beliefs, the moment experience is against them” (CP 1.55). In the Critical Common-sensism of Peirce’s mature philosophy — an attempted synthesis, as the phrase suggests, of Kant’s and Reid’s responses to Hume — the scientific inquirer is seen as submitting the instinctive beliefs of common sense to criticism, refinement, and revision.[2]

What the pragmatists are arguing isn't that we give up theological or philosophical debates, but rather that we move past the old and untrue epistemologies and ontologies that make us think we are pronouncing ultimate truth. In our philosophical and theological and literary and artistic debates, and more importantly, in our values and moral debates, we must acknowledge where our knowledge comes from and approach our meaningful questions—who am I, why am I here, what is the meaning of life—beginning with a "scientific mindset" (as Dewey called it) or a "scientific attitude" (as Pierce called it). This doesn't mean that we cede all knowledge production to scientists, rather it means that we approach our quests for knowledge with the understanding of the limits of our knowledge and how we get it; that when we make existential or moral or theological claims, they be made by giving reasons and arguments and evidence; that they be explicitly anchored in our experience in this world rather than in our efforts to create certainty and stability by generating knowledge that doesn't correspond to our experiences.

The human capacity to imagine and to think, to begin with experience, create thought-objects, and then imagine all their possibilities—our ability to see thought-objects as infinite possible means—allows us to imagine ourselves into cultural structures that are maladaptive, when we rely on our tenacity, on authority, or an a priori knowledge without accounting for our experience. At best, such disconnected knowledge-systems (cultures) can be merely odd; at worst they can be immoral and even violent. In the pluralistic world we live in today, nothing could be more dangerous.

[1] This is a similar mistake to that made by much of postmodernism and poststructural theory. Where both pragmatic and postmodern theories of knowledge are anti-foundationalist (i.e., deconstructed)—that is, there is no correspondance between signified and signifier—the postmodernists end up making the same mistakes as Plato and most Western philosophers. They deal with knowledge as if it exists outside of lived experiences. Derrida and the social theorists who rely on him, such as Judith Butler, all explain the change of knowledge as originating in the non-correspondance of the signifier. And in sociology, the cultural sociologists make a like mistake, assuming that 'culture' exists independent of human bodies and experiences. The pragmatists, which seeing truth as a process and as necessarily experiential, also insist on the body. The linguistic turn of the postmodernists ultimately fails to describe the actual process of knowledge production in human individuals and groups, because it treats language (discourse) as prior to and structuring experience. This gives far too much power to language and to already-held knowledge at the moment of experience: The postmodern position ignores the embodied process of knowledge production in the first instance.
[2] Susan Haack, "Pragmatism, Old and New" in Contemporary Pragmatism Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2004), 3-41.



1. Anonymous - 26 March 2006

Interesting points. I believe I agree with you and the pragmatists on about knowledge. For an interesting, but somewhat difficult, discussion on mathematics and the brain you might look at ‘Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being’ by Lakoff & Nunez.

2. Todd - 26 March 2006

oh yeah, I enjoy much of Lakoff’s work. Have you read “Philosophy and the Flesh”?

3. dave westwood - 26 March 2006

I looked through Philosophy in the Flesh once at a bookstore but passed it by for something else. I regret that now, along with many other books I haven’t made time to read. There is so much to learn! Any other recommendations in epsitemology?

4. Todd - 26 March 2006

well, I’m a bit partial to the pragmatists, of course, so I would recommend G.H. Mead’s “Mind, Self, and Society” and John Dewey’s “How We Think” (a primer on his theory) and then dive into Dewey’s complex theory of thought/knowledge in “Experience and Nature” (my current favorite Dewey book).

5. Todd - 27 March 2006

Oh, and I would *definitely* read up on some recent brain science/cognitive science. I would highly recommend Gary F. Marcus, The Birth of the Mind for an excellent introduction both to genetics and brain chemistry. Then I would again recommend Antonio Damasio, especially his most recent, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, which treats the relationship between the perceiving and the cognitive parts of the brain. Very cool stuff.

6. Nils Nilsson - 27 March 2006

You and your readers might be interested in a book I have written entitled “How Are We To Know?” It’s about how we get and evaluate beliefs (plus chapters on truth, reality, the scientific method, pseudoscience, and religion). It’s on the web and available no charge! Pointers to the chapters and to the entire book are at:


(I’m new to the blogging world, but I may return to your site. People can also e-mail me at: nilsson@cs.stanford.edu)

7. Todd - 28 March 2006

Hey thanks Nils. I’ve put your cyber-book on my list of cognitive stuff to take a look at. My blog is pretty ecclectic, but I do write up stuff about things i’m teaching/researching/reading about, so you’re sure to see more stuff on cognition in the near future.

8. mattblack - 29 March 2006

As you know, I grew up Mormon. Joseph Smith (the founder) taught the somewhat radical doctrine of personal revelation. That is, that it isn’t just prophets (philosophers?) that have access to mystical ways of knowing but that everyone can have a direct link to divine knowledge. As a kid I was taught to seek answers to prayers in the form of internal promptings (D&C sec. 9). I find that even though I no longer believe in anything resembling a Christian God I still seek answers to important and moral questions from that same internal place I once found answers to my prayers. Does this way of knowing fit into your framework of embodied knowledge? It isn’t the kind of knowledge that tries to compete with scientific facts but concerns itself with moral and spiritual issues. I would agree with you that to mistake these internal promptings as ultimate truth, extendable beyond the individual, is dangerous.

On another note, your description of Peirce’s “fixation of belief” seems to exclude my own response to doubt. Rather than attempting to return to a state of similar equilibrium where a discredited belief is either replaced or clung to, I find that I am quite content to accept a state of unknowing in areas where dogmatic belief once ruled.

9. Todd - 29 March 2006

Yeah, the Mormon thing can be difficult. One of the things that I love and an ethic I retain from my Mormon upbringing is that ethic of “seeking out and embracing all truth, let it come from whence it may.” The pragmatic position on looking “inside” for answers is simply, “of course” (here’s where you’d probably gel more with William James than I do, because his notion of ‘truth-as-process’ allows more “mystical” truth-finding experiences). In any case, it is necessarily an embodied experience because it’s your brain dealing with physical, social, and cultural input (not to make this a computer metaphor) and making sense of it, which is itself an experience. You and I were taught through language and interaction with family and a Mormon community how to seek answers. It’s a method that we have greatly modified in our agosticism/atheism, of course; and our brains experience the discovery of the answers.

I’m not sure where you’re going with the Pierce “fixation of belief.” I think he would say that comfort with doubt and unknowing is the sina quo non of real inquiry. It actually demonstrates that you have what he called the “scientific attitude.” Individuals and groups who fail to understand how our minds actually function are those who get stuck in the choices of clinging to old beliefs, transforming themselves and their environment to make them fit their beliefs, denying experience that contradits their beliefs. What is most dangerous for Pierce (and the least scientific) is moving from one dogma to another; in that case, you haven’t grasped at all where knowledge comes from.

[To be clear here, I’m actually thinking more from what I know of Dewey than Pierce, because I know Dewey’s work so much better. And I’m also mixing in my own interpretation of the implications of their arguments.]

10. L.D.W. - 13 November 2006

Anywayz, I think you are too pragamtic and so you don’t really see the truth, about any huge religion such as christianity and Islam or Judheism. The similarities and all. Religion will and always will exist and common sense tells you that there is a reason why it exists and God is real and I am very insulted about the offhand way you speak about religion “At the same time , I do think there is something to religion that is worth saving” . As if you and anyone can change or destroy religion to “save”, excuuuuuuuse me. You will find out sooner or later as well as the rest of you pragmatics. It is through ignorance or misinterpreting the true meaning behind religion that has misguided you poor people, not to mention the people who influence you. May God help you all.

11. My First Religious Troll! « Todd’s Hammer - 13 November 2006

[…] It’s an auspicious day at the Hammer. I’ve had many Mormons responding to my some of my posts, but in general, they are respectful and engage me in argument. Today, however, I got my first religious troll telling me that I’ll get mine in the end! The post was in response to one of my “religion and science” posts. […]

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