2.1 The Kinds of Knowing

One of the most important of philosophical questions has to do with the meaning of "knowing" (epistemology). That is, what does one mean by such statements as "I know this is true", or "We hold these truths to be self-evident"? The answer to meaning questions like these depends very much on culture, on discipline, and the thought system of the one who is the alleged "knower", for there are a variety of ways to regard this concept.

In the tradition represented by certain of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, and as later reinterpreted by such as Rene Descartes (16th century), the highest and most reliable form of knowing was the most abstract (including the mathematical), for knowing is equated with the result of reasoning.

True ideas, once appropriated from the realm of the divine and put into the transmittable form of words by logical argument and rhetoric, were termed "logos," and this too had an element of the divine about it. Taken to extremes, the science of this philosophy consists of logic alone and logic judges everything else, including the physical world. What cannot be brought into this process is either uninteresting or suspect. Applications of the pure science of thinking to the physical world, including the development of technology, was regarded as unimportant, and even beneath the notice of the philosopher. Knowledge is thought of as an end in itself rather than a means to develop physical products.

For instance, in this view, the god who created the universe was not just unknown, but unknowable, unless he would deign someday to send to mortals a logos (word) to reveal himself--a task that John assured them had been fulfilled in Christ (John 1).

An example of this kind of knowing is the statement "two plus two equals four." The truth of this statement seems to depend on universal ideas independent of language or the notation in which they are written and so this truth is knowable absolutely (within the context of the usual real numbers). This is true regardless of whether it is written this way, or 2 + 2 = 4 or II + II = IV, or deux + deux = quatre.

Such knowing also includes lines of reasoning such as:

All women are mortal.

Nellie Hacker is a woman.

Therefore, Nellie Hacker is mortal.

The conclusion is held with confidence (given the premises), because the rules for such a logical process are regarded as infallible.

Logic is important in itself, and its study worthy as a prerequisite for all disciplines, for all scholars need to be able to think clearly and correctly. However, taken to extremes, there is no truth but logic alone, and it judges everything else, including the physical world. In this view, anything else is at best uninteresting, perhaps suspect, and may not be knowledge at all. In the most radical view, applications of the pure science of thinking to the mechanics of the physical world, including the development of science technology, are unimportant, even beneath the notice of the philosopher. Knowledge is thought of as an end in itself rather than a means to generate practical applications or products. Why should the Greek thinkers have built steam engines? Did it not suffice to demonstrate their theoretical possibility?


Another kind of knowing is that derived from experience, or, as Aristotle would have said, from the substance a thing has (including its potential properties) rather than from its abstract form. That is, this kind of knowing is practical, not just theoretical. Such is the knowledge derived when the scientific method is applied to the physical world.

One could also express this in terms of data and information. Data consist of the raw facts of a matter, so far as these can be ascertained; information is the meaning attributed to those facts by some community of appropriately informed experts.

o That Canada has a $700 billion debt might be a fact; whether one should conclude that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy (and what to do about it) is a matter of interpretation.

o That a political leader has been pursuing secretaries sexually may be factual; whether anything can or should be done about the matter is a consequence of interpretation within a value system, including the values of political priorities.

This (empirical) kind of knowledge depends utterly on the ability to gather and interpret evidence from the physical world. It also depends on the ability to give meaning to that data and communicate that meaning reliable to other people. That is, the data and the consensus on the information it conveys together constitute "knowledge" in this realm.

o The fossils dug from the earth provide a factual record of dead organisms; the meaning of that record depends on its interpretation, for no human alive has actually seen the creatures who left those bones. This is true of all history, the moreso if sufficiently removed from the present.

It is important to realize that the consensus of experts that is at some point called "knowledge," is always in process and may be wrong. Indeed, "knowledge shifts" are not at all uncommon. A theory might be taught as universally accepted fact for many years, only to be later (and perhaps suddenly) replaced by a contradictory one. However, as long as one realizes that what is called knowledge in this data/information sense is an approximation and a moving consensus, it is still possible for those involved in a particular field to say they "know" a lot of things. With some refinements, this is the model for knowledge actually used in the sciences today.

While modern scientific thought has roots in the rationalism of ancient Greece, it owes its current form to modifications made first by Renaissance humanists and later by the materialists and logical positivists of the nineteenth century. The sphere of modern science is the systematizable, the organizable, and the empirically investigatable. It is not always possible to tell what belongs in this sphere, nor is it always possible to induce knowledge of absolute truth from instances investigated by the senses (Because stones fall to the ground more quickly than feathers does not mean that it is the nature of heavy objects to fall faster than light ones). Thus, there must always be an element of doubt and incompleteness to science. Karl Popper believed that doubt expressed the very essence of the scientific method: "It must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience" (The Logic of Scientific Discovery) Absolute verification was not the issue to Popper, but potential falsifiability by empirical means was. Scientific results could be thought of in terms of probabilities of truth, but this was the best knowledge a scientist could have.

It is important to note, however, that doubt implied by potential falsifiability is not of the existence of the reality being investigated. Rather, it is doubt that current descriptions of that reality constitute the final and most accurate word on the subject.

Extremes of Empiricism (1)--Positivism

Some of its most radical philosophers have taken empiricism to other conclusions. They have held that the experience of human senses suffices to describe the entire knowable universe. For them, the supernatural is specifically defined out of existence, as is everything not approachable with the standard methodology of science. In short, if it is not science, it is not knowledge. That is, while such moderns do not disdain practical applications of their intellectual achievements, some tend to scorn anything not achieved through a particular kind of mental discipline.

Extremes of Empiricism (2)--Deconstructionism

In a departure from the classic Greek reverence for knowing as a pure abstraction, knowledge is sometimes today held to be almost totally experiential--even to the point that material phenomena are held to exist only as they are perceived. For example, some modern philosophies of physics hold that if a tree falls in a deserted location, and there is no one to hear it, not only is there no sound, but the tree continues to exist in both fallen and not-fallen states until an observer comes along to trigger it into one or the other condition. Should a century go by meanwhile, the second state could exist in an instant, complete with old, decayed wood as soon as the first traveller came that way. That is, human observation is not only necessary to give the physical world meaning; it actually creates the physical reality to observe--the very existence of an objective reality is radically doubted; no objective truth exists; and its place is taken by whatever a person perceives to be the case or wants to be the case (deconstructionism again).

Empiricism and Practical Science

Whether they believe experience describes real-world phenomena (most practising lab scientists), or that observations create the events they purport to describe (some theoreticians), there is still a general belief among scientists that all data is acquired through the senses, and becomes knowledge only as it is filtered by the intellect. This approach is useful, provided everyone involved realizes the relative truths it produces are determined by specific intellectual filters, with not all views equally valued or listened to in the process. Every society has certain dominant, ruling, or control paradigms that set its intellectual agenda and provide it with its characteristic way of looking at the world. When these reigning paradigms undergo a shift, some old knowledge ceases to be, and other things come to be placed among the "known" (The false becomes true, and vice-versa).

o Scholars once "knew" that the earth was the centre of the universe; today they "know" otherwise.

o Intellectuals once "knew" that God created the world, but most today say they "know" it came about by chance, evolution, and natural processes.

There is another problem with taking radical doubt too far. Is the proposition "nothing is real" itself real? David Stowe (Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists) makes the following points about this approach to knowing:

(1) It implies that human knowledge has not been increasing--a proposition that seems at variance with actual recent experience.

(2) It implies that all of the potentially infinite number of world views are equally valid, and so every kind of physical law or theory is equally as improbable as, say, a logical self-contradiction. Thus knowledge is impossible. This, says Stowe, is irrational, and neither can nor does provide a working philosophy for scientists.

However, the scientific method does depend on the idea that knowledge gained by application of the senses has to have its truth content measured by reliable standards and that its acceptance depends upon informed judgements. For example, the statement "objects released in air fall to the Earth's surface" is universally attested as true by the experience of every human being. The statement "the sun will rise tomorrow," is very nearly in the some category. However most people must accept "the Earth is an oblate spheroid" on the basis of evidence gathered by others, for they have no means of performing the relevant experiments. Likewise, only a few can verify "napthalene has a molecular weight of 228.30." That is, the reliability of all these knowledge statements is subject to human judgement. Yet, they all seem to imply that there is an objective reality to judge. Other factors also influence the truth value of statements made from empirical evidence; these will be discussed in more detail in the next sections.

The Contrast with other Fields

The arts and the humanities of the Western World, by contrast, are based on a more subjective tradition. Their heritage is culturally characterized by a strong Judeo-Christian influence (as redefined by the Reformation thinkers) and influenced to a somewhat lesser extent by materialism. Though humankind is still given central place in modern Western versions of these philosophies (again, most notably in the humanities), humanity is not regarded as a mere observer, evolving by chance and whim in a purely mechanistic universe. Rather, humanity is part of a whole that is greater than the human mind or senses can comprehend and may therefore obtain and use that which may legitimately be termed "knowledge" quite apart from experience as an observer in the scientific sense of the word. An artist, musician, or writer (fiction or non-fiction) also uses reality filters to make a statement about the world and a personal response to it, but these filters are not identical to those of the research scientist, though they are of a similar kind.

In this tradition there is a tendency to view the material world as a limited and incomplete or even flawed manifestation of realities that go beyond physical perceptions of the physical universe. This is certainly true among religious thinkers, though such a view is found in other disciplines as well. For instance, modern art and music--perhaps in partial reaction to the success of the sciences--have both moved away from interpretations and depictions of the physical world, and have come to concentrate on representing the emotions of the artist or releasing raw emotions from the audience. In common with the deconstructionists of the written literary work, these practitioners have moved to the notion that there is no reality in their work apart from the experience of responding to it. Thus, their connection with the physical world has diminished even as the threshold of artistic activity needed to release the raw emotions of the audience has gone up.

It is important to realize that a statement such as "this is the best piece of writing (art, music) of the year" is a true observation about the speaker's own interaction with the work. Even if no other person agrees, the statement is no less true. That is, some knowledge can be highly personalized. Even the box office success of a work is not a statement of absolute merit. Rather, it is the aggregate of many such instances of personalized knowledge, or to use the common term, of "taste."

Intellectual Multiculturalism

C. P. Snow in a 1959 lecture later published as The Two Cultures, postulated there had come to be a division of intellectual activities into two distinct categories, with scientists in one, and almost everyone else in the other. Snow detected deep and sometimes bitter animosities between the two groups. Each had its own view of what constitutes knowledge, how it is obtained, and what are the ethics of applying it. What is worse, the depth of division between the two camps is directly proportional to the sophistication of the technology developed by the one, and to the despair of the other that it will never have the power to control it. There were people who could travel in both circles, but they almost had to become different persons when they moved from one culture to the other.

Some fourteen years later, Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society) expressed a more comprehensive view of the situation. He saw the technological mindset (if not strictly the scientific one) becoming overwhelmingly powerful, sweeping all other forms of thought away--becoming not just dominant, but the only way of thinking. Technique (i.e., efficient method) is in his view irresistible. Every task or discipline has a most efficient technique that eventually emerges, develops fully, and destroys anything of lesser efficiency. All humanity will ultimately be caught up in a kind of amorphous technological totalitarianism extending over every aspect of life--one that cannot be avoided because of its claim to maximal efficiency.

Meanwhile, a group of intellectuals known as deconstructionists promoted the radical rejection of the idea that objective truth and meaning exist. They claimed both were lacking even in written words because only at the experiencing of interaction with a text was meaning generated in the reader, and because this could never be shown to be universal, the text had no meaning in itself, even if one was intended by the author.

What antinomians did for the study of morality, deconstructionists in general did to epistemology (the theory of knowledge), for there was nothing that could be said to be known any more.

With despair over the perceived dominance of technique reinforced by the parallel deconstruction of truth itself, many intellectuals were left viewing humankind as shorn of purpose, hope, and values--its very humanity simultaneously deconstructed of meaning and sold for a technical lentil stew.

Attempts to liberate technique by reconstruing it within a framework of meaning--such as Schuurman's 1972 book Technology and the Future--underscore the feeling among philosophers that the technological boat had set sail for destinations unknown and left both them and the human spirit behind on the shore.

Indeed, by the mid-1980s, Allen Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) could lament that the battle seemed lost. In their obsession with technology, he believed that Americans had entirely lost sight of the humanities, but especially of philosophy and even of logical thinking. For Bloom, philosophy had become a voice crying in an academic wilderness: no one was interested in hearing it, and none were qualifying themselves to do so. Even science had given way to the demands of the marketplace, relinquishing its claim to be a pure discipline. He recommended returning students to the rigor of the classical Greek thinking as an antidote to the sloppiness he detected in modern approaches to knowledge. His critics have not been certain that Bloom's criticisms are valid, or whether any such return is possible. (The sharpest opponents of an important role for philosophy in education claim it is irrelevant to economic reality, adds no understanding of the physical world, and thus is not worth studying.)

In like manner, Charles Sykes (Profscam) claimed that the university become captive to professorial vested interests, neither doing research nor teaching well, and offering a form of education that had little value for any but foreign students. A spate of similar books joined the attack on the relevancy of the university enterprise in the eighties and early nineties.

In more recent years, as high technology has become easier to use, artists and writers have embraced the new machines as a means to their own ends, and are now among the most enthusiastic and demanding users of computers. It is interesting to ask whether this phenomenon is a refutation of Snow, a vindication of Ellul, a further point of lament for Bloom, et al, or something else altogether.

It is also worthwhile to observe that an atmosphere of despair is rather unstable, for it presents opportunities for new infusions of hope into the mix, perhaps from unexpected directions. This observation may explain the increase in interest in spiritual answers being given to the truth and meaning questions by the end of this period.

As noted in Chapter 1, some optimists see no loss at all in becoming an overwhelmingly technically-oriented society, for there are manifest benefits to many technologies. Still, doubts and questions remain--are there no other valid ways of "knowing" other than by science? Must not empirical (scientific) sense-based knowledge forever remain an approximation or interpretation of a reality of which it cannot be known that it is absolutely known? Finally, is a technological society rich or poor in human values?


Another model for knowledge is that of a belief widely, sincerely and reasonably held. Beliefs rest on some evidence for the thing believed so have an empirical aspect. However, most people use "belief" in a slightly different way than they do "knowledge." Things "believed in" are generally considered to be less secure in their foundations, and perhaps less widely held to be true than things said to be "known." That is, a small group (or one person's) certitude that something is true, based on what others might regard as incomplete evidence, is termed a belief, while a more general consensus about something is termed knowledge. Of course, a belief, however widespread, is not necessarily true just because it is sincerely or widely held--it could be sincerely wrong in all the holders. On the other hand, scientific knowledge is not always true either--it is sometimes shown to be wrong after having been defended as absolutely true for a protracted period of time. One could even conclude that all knowledge is based on shades of belief.

The adherents of some religions, Christians included, would add yet another term, "faith," by which they would mean an absolute knowledge derived through a gift of God's revelation. Faith is knowledge that does not lose certainty because it lacks universal consensus or current empirical evidence. The idea is that God exists and knows all; humanity finds truth by paying attention to what God has revealed. As John asserts: "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God." (John1:1) He goes on in the same vein in an attempt to convince literate Greek readers that the otherwise unknowable God had now sent a revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and so had become knowable in person.

In addition, much information about the universe God has made can also be found by a sufficiently careful examination--this is sometimes expressed as "thinking God's thoughts after Him," or "knowing God by his works." In the faith context, absolute knowledge is external to the human race--it is revealed rather than being discovered or invented. Thus, empirical knowledge (of things discovered or invented) cannot in this view be absolutely relied upon, for nothing can be known with the certainty of the things revealed. Neither science nor belief are therefore qualified to judge such knowledge; they are simply tools to enhance it.

In this theory of knowledge, there is no a priori conflict between the absolutes affirmed by faith in God's revelation and the approximations obtained by the senses (scientific). However, conflict does exist in practice for two reasons.

First, there is the tendency for institutions to develop around the holders of faith. Such institutions then demand some of the faith affirmation for their own pronouncements, and these may touch upon empirical matters rather than on the revelation allegedly being safeguarded. Individuals find it far easier than do institutions to be simultaneously affirmers of the faith and seekers of empirical knowledge. Organizations can sometimes officially adhere to statements on matters peripheral to the original faith long after most of their (still faithful) members have abandoned those statements.

The second reason for conflict between faith and empiricism is that members of the scientific community often reject faith affirmation as inherently abhorrent, regardless of whether such matters are within their sphere of competence and training, and even though they themselves affirm a faith in and build institutions around a set of philosophical presuppositions.

One could summarize these difficulties by saying:

Religion attempts to answer questions about ultimate meaning; these and not the detailed workings of the physical world are its territory. That is, its theologians stray when they pronounce upon physics as much as do the philosophers of science when they speak the meaning of the universe.


The last kind of knowing to be considered here is called opinion. This has the weakest claim of to the term "knowledge," and is also the hardest to define. Opinion is commonly thought to consist of positions privately and personally held to be true, and that can be so maintained without reference either to facts or to the effect of the opinion upon other people. Determining whether a statement falls into the category of opinion is extremely difficult. To disparage a statement by another, one may say: "That's just your opinion." There often seems little rebuttal from such a judgement, for it appears to rest on the democratic notion that all personal views are of equal value and equally likely to be true. Statements such as "it's too cold," "that was a good book," "God exists," and "killing is bad" could all be disparaged as "mere "opinion.

However, the first two of these are true statements about the speaker's reality--they are matters of taste, rather than of opinion in the casual sense of the word. The third is a statement of faith, and the fourth is about moral objects. These last two statements are surely more than private opinions, for they cannot be privately held and acted upon but are by very nature about relationships, for to act on them is to affect others.

If one tries to define an opinion as a claim about knowledge of which the speaker is unsure (e.g., "I think the bum is guilty.") then the statement is not directly connected to an external reality, however strongly stated. However, a statement of doubtful knowledge of the truth is eventually resolvable as to its truth or falsity, so it is related to facts, and is not just an entirely personal and private reality. What is more, people act on their views, so what are called opinions do affect other people, and their truth or falsity therefore matters to other people. Thus, there may not be anything left for this category--what are called opinions are either another kind of knowing or else are meaningless (as far as truth value is concerned).


It would be far beyond the purpose of this book to analyse the shades of meaning of the "knowledge-terms" in any greater depth, or to present all the arguments concerning their correct use. Those interested should consult a good text on epistemology and one on systematic theology. Instead, in this chapter, a further examination of the notion of scientific knowledge will be undertaken. Comparisons with other disciplines will be made, and these may shed light on how scientific ideas develop and on the relationship between science and technology. Consideration will be given to the role of science and technology in the development of a society, and certain general technologies will be looked at with a view to their impact on the future.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises