On Varieties of Knowing

October 12, 2016

Humans are susceptible to any number of cognitive biases that lead us to false beliefs. We are well aware of those that lead people to superstitious or religious beliefs. These are well documented and we have made a point of calling attention to them here and in the pages of our journals. But no discipline is immune to the effects of cognitive biases. Science falls prey to error caused by false beliefs, though unlike religion it is a self-correcting rather than self-sealing institution. Over time, science corrects for errors by ever-challenging firmly held beliefs and changing over time the set of accepted theories about the way nature works.

I teach and research about scientific integrity and research ethics, and have written here and elsewhere about notable lapses by science, such as the “N-Ray” debacle, caused by a common cognitive bias. Hundreds of such examples exist, and we must be ever mindful to teach the public and scientists about these failures and limitations that humans suffer that cause us to go down fruitless paths. One error often attributed to “scientism” is the belief that science is the only and ultimate way of knowing, which is a form of reductionism. While science is certainly the most successful means of understanding nature at its most fundamental levels, and is self-correcting and progresses steadily over time, there are a variety of ways in which we confront the world and attain understanding besides science, some of which are quite successful pragmatically.

For quite some time I have attempted to delve into the philosophical foundations of ethics and specifically “justice,” which is a very useful term but troubling analytically. There are numerous competing theories posed by philosophers that attempt to explain how laws may or may not be “just.” Most secular institutions and states have abandoned supernatural conceptions of justice, such as natural law theory as posed by Aquinas, which held sway for quite some time. The more enlightened notions of Locke and other enlightenment figures attempted via a sort of deism to move the source of justice away from a specific god and his commandments. Finally, positive legal theory seems to have replaced even Lockean notions, suggesting that the justice of law is mainly in its form of enactment. But this remains troubling when what seem like unjust laws are validly enacted by democratic bodies.

Another difficult concept to come to grips with analytically is “love.” Aristotle, Plato and others have attempted to understand it from a philosophical standpoint, and provided interesting analyses. Modern science has attempted too to understand it, analyzing brainwaves and hormones, and doing historical and evolutionary studies to describe it and the role it plays in both individuals and societies. In so reducing a concept like love or justice to analytical scrutiny, or scientific dissection, it seems likely we are missing some important element of the experience of such phenomena. Certainly the natural world is experienced much more richly than any one manner of knowing can allow.

I have written here about the important role of the humanities in the academy, and for humanism. There is value, it seems, in fields other than analytic philosophy or science for that matter for understanding both ourselves and our experiences of the world.  A non-reductionist approach to the world should view as potentially fruitful fields other than science for understanding experience at various levels. It is an error of “scientism” to expect science to provide a complete picture of complex social and experiential phenomena. In the past years we have convened successful and stimulating seminars on existentialism and experimental philosophy, each of which takes a very different approach to understanding phenomena, and which expands our collection of tools for understanding the world. This year we have invited a couple philosophers and artists to discuss similar notions that also add to our quiver. Consistent with my recent interests in the role of aesthetic judgment in our perception of justice and ethics, these scholars’ approaches to human experience are varied and derive from multiple fields and interests. I will discuss my emerging notions of the aesthetics of justice and my guest teachers will discuss their own interests in varieties of knowledge and manners of inquiry. This year, our two-day seminar will take place November 4-5 at CFI-Los Angeles. You can read a bit about the event and register here, and we will update it shortly with a more detailed program. In the spirit of free inquiry, we expect disagreement and discussion that will hopefully be enriching for its diverse topics and scholars involved.