Saturday, April 5, 2014

Other ways of knowing

What are "other ways of knowing", and are they any good? 

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
This is a favorite Shakespeare quote for religionists of all stripes annoyed by skepticism from the new atheists, or others who do not understand how anything called knowledge could come from non-empirical sources.

It is a basic question in philosophical epistemology, but also in practical life. Do we trust new age clairvoyants and clairsentients? Why not? Do we trust anecdotal miracle cures in medicine? Do we trust the traditional patriarchial "discernment" at the heart of main-line religions, which insists that however mysterious and unknowable, somehow, somewhere, god exists, and "his" pastors & priests know what is best?

When I discuss religion, at even the most tenuous level, with believers, they frequently resort to this kind of statement, that science doesn't know everthing. The corollary is that their form of "knowledge" is therefore valid, or at least reasonable, and one should respect "other ways of knowing".

An interesting podcast recently spoke about a class of self-certified midwives- the Midwives Alliance of North America and allied groups internationally. This is a new-age-y group who favor home births, natural childbirth and no medical intervention. The results are obviously not very good on a statistical basis, though complications are rare enough that most births come out fine, and everyone can be lulled into complacency. They have a very antagonistic relationship with the medical establisment, being mutually shunned and distrustful. And their rationale for all this is not only that they have sufficient training for what is *usually an uncomplicated and of course natural process. Rather, it is that they have "other ways of knowing" that are not only appropriate to their task, but superior to the cold and sterile knowledge of the medical profession.

It is a sad and alarming story, but very common all over the alternative medicine and new age fields. But it is central to normal religions as well, since at their core, they posit that their prophets, if not many or even all of their practitioners, have some mystical connection with reality and perhaps a deity, which grants them special knowledge of a "true reality" transcending the mundane day-to-day, whatever that might be.

The skeptic assigns this to obviously psychological sources, and would prefer to ignore it entirely. But unfortunately, this way of thinking is so common that it has enormous effects on our world in practical ways, both doing harm and preventing rational planning and other good works from being done. James Frasier's The Golden Bough is a classic catalog of such superstitious and magical thinking, from all corners of anthropology.

So what do we know, what don't we know, and why are we so strongly tempted to claim knowledge we don't actually have? I think it does come down to psychology- the strength of intuition and other psychological propensities (narcissim, confirmation bias, optimism) that induce us to make up stories and then stick to them out of pride. This has been well covered in recent popular books.

It must be said that the scientific corpus is hardly perfect in this regard. Even this most respected class of knowledge is rife with out-of-date theories, bad papers, and biased research. Scientific history is always changing and throwing out the old in favor of the new. While there are bedrocks of knowledge, from the Newtonian system to DNA, there are always frontiers of hypothesis if not ignorance, and whole areas like medical research rife with sloppy and self-interested practices.

This has caused a lot of well-deserved criticism. But what else have we got? That is the big question. The scientific process, of competition, of public description and discussion of results and theories, and of ultimate empiricism, is one designed to defeat the principle ills of bad epistemology, which are claims to private knowledge and failure to judge one's knowlege by the yardstick of reality.

Another fascinating interview, with anthropologist Tanya Luhrman, takes a more positive view of religion and magic, especially of guided imagery- the common religious practice of praying, engaging imaginatively with theological concepts, talking with god, and related practices. This happens in all kinds of religion, from witchcraft to new age to hippie-influenced evangelicals, buddhists, and beyond. If you try hard enough, you can talk to god ... and even get a reply. It can be a powerful experience, and leads people to very deep belief, as well as to significant psychological health.

We all have voices in our heads. Many different "selves" who compete to guide our lives and nag and pester without end. Some of our better voices are perhaps a little shy and need a bit of encouragement. Sitting down and sorting through this in a calm way, perhaps with a institutional template and communal support, doubtless can be a great practice.

But is it knowledge? That is the question. Other ways of knowing (or OWOK) can generally be brought under the umbrella of intuition and experience. Shamanic experience with herbs, practical psychology, sweat therapy.. the list of significant knowledge is truly extensive. But all that can be validated empirically, and much of it has been. The central issue that OWOK raises is whether intuition is itself a significant source of knowledge that can be claimed against the now-traditional and dominant model of normal science.

I will try to answer "no", though there are caveats. Firstly, there are infinitely more questions than anyone has time to answer on a scientific basis, and indeed questions that can not be answered. Yet people have a real (psychological) problem with saying something as simple as "I don't know", and of course we typically have to act with incomplete knowledge. That leads us to make up stories when we are faced with a hole in our world view / model. Religion is full of such fanciful stories- the older, the more mythical. These stories of course tell us a great deal more about our psychological contents than any "knowledge" .. which I will take as meaning some aspect of a mental model of reality that is correct.

Secondly, intuition is indeed a powerful way of knowing. Much of our intelligence seems to have evolved to meet the social demands of dealing with each other- an arms race of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Our social intuition is thus a finely honed instrument, far more sensitive than any questionaire or brain scan. The home-brewed midwives above believe that they have intuitive approaches to their clients that beat the antiseptic hospital battlefield, and in some ways they are doubtless correct.

But firstly, this knowledge is not explicit and transferrable. One can't institutionalize intuition. We can nurture it, but in the end, either you have the bedside manner and personal touch, or you don't. And secondly, a real danger is in thinking that the your intution is always correct. We know that is not right, even though we are psychologically inclined to put a great deal of faith in our personal convictions. So how can you tell when your hunch about some situation is correct or not? By experience, of course ... which is the same as the emprical test.

Thirdly, intuition is not at all effective for precisely the non-human-scale questions that are such grist for the magical and theological mill- where did the world come from? How does biology work? Do we have souls? Do voodoo dolls work? Is there a god? Or many gods? Insofar as these are not questions of inner psychology, they are scientific questions which religion has done abysmally poorly in answering. I mean.. they have gotten nothing right on this score, ever. As a way of knowing, the track record is simply not there.

The reason is clear enough- that this kind of traditional magical thinking patterns the outside world on our social intelligence, assuming that everything of significance to us, from trees and rocks to the weather and the cosmos, is part of a kind of social world, and has spirits of some intentional essence, singular or collective, which have attitudes, occult forms of communication, and above all, respond to our thoughts. The ESP and psi fields of research are relict representatives of this form of thinking in the fringes of the scientific community, but without any discernable success.

So one can conclude that OWOK is a thoroughly humanist, psychological, and interpersonal concept. It does apply to a high degree in settings of caring and therapeutic support not to mention art and literature, and to business, politics and warfare, as more adversarial settings. Formal science has but scratched the surface of this kind of social knowledge that humans naturally gather and use daily. That is probably what people are instinctively thinking about when they give credence to the OWOK mantra.

But conversely, OWOK is AWOL when it comes to its stabs at scientific explanation and practice. The midwives above evidently do not know or care about the painstakingly empirical, critical and statistically supported wonders that have been instituted by modern medicine to deal with rare but catastrophic cases, learned systematically over long, bitter experience, sometimes quite contrary to what intuition (and pleasant bedside manner) might instruct. And more generally, the kinds of stories and rationalizations that myth-makers, mystics, and theologians traffic in are entirely valueless as ways of explaining the non-human world. While humans are born with some basic (Kantian a priori) implicit knowledge about the world, (vision, gravity, language, smells, etc.), this is a very far cry from "knowing" about reality in any rigorous way. There is simply no way of getting this knowledge without looking outward and doing the work of empirical science.

"We’re on our way from Lesterland to Sheldon City — from a democracy where about 150,000 Americans are the relevant funders of campaigns (the same as are named “Lester”) to a world where about 40,000 Americans are the relevant funders of campaigns (the same as are named “Sheldon”)."
  • Another quote of the week, from Charles Koch:
"The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means. ... ... despots ... ... Those in power fail to see that more government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American. Love of liberty is the American ideal." This, while he crows about all the awards he has gotten from the EPA for meeting or exceeding regulatory standards!

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