On Knowing (More on Religion vs. Science) 25 March 2006Posted 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 Susan Haack, "Pragmatism, Old and New" in Contemporary Pragmatism Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2004), 3-41.