Every once in a while, you will get to hear the phrase, “other ways of knowing” – almost invariably, it will be in defense of some topic that is sorely lacking in demonstrable evidence or repeatable results. But this doesn’t matter, because science isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, since there are other ways of knowing. While, not surprisingly, it is used most often to defend religion (most especially religious revelation,) I have seen it also used to excuse astrology and psychic powers, and philosophers have even blurted it out as a rebuttal to the loathsome demon of empiricism. I’ve never been able to take it seriously, always considering it a blatant dodge, but I finally decided to see if there was a more rigorous definition than the common usage; to see if I was selling it short, in other words.
The first thing to note is, ‘knowing’ is clearly a wildly subjective term. While most people are likely to consider this to refer to information that we not only have confidence in, we can also use it to predict or explain something about our world, this is rarely what anyone is referring to when they use ‘other ways of knowing’ as their trump card. Like ‘Truth™,’ knowing seems to only refer to something self-validating, supportive of a pre-existing view. No one ever points to someone else holding a view counter to their own and concedes the argument to them because of other ways of knowing – it is, strangely enough, only used in a selfish way.
Which makes it a little surprising to me to find that there are courses that examine ‘other ways of knowing’ as a defined topic in the theory of knowledge. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising; theology still exists after all, and some pretty esoteric and pointless schools of philosophy. But it does make it a little easier to post about a specific approach rather than anyone’s personal usage. It also demonstrates that people have tried too hard to justify it as a viable topic rather than consider whether it really is a viable topic.
Am I being harsh? Well, you can judge that for yourself, since four of the other ways of knowing are emotion, faith, intuition, and memory. Naturally, faith had to get in here, since that’s the prime thing that people try to justify in the face of stubbornly nonexistent evidence, but can we honestly consider it a way of knowing anything if whatever is ‘known’ is wildly different the world over? Is something known because it is defined by how someone grew up and who placed emphasis on it, or is it simply culturally defined as important? If we can consider faith as a way of knowing something, then knowing has virtually no meaning whatsoever – you might as well say I know I am a brilliant scientist. Should I list this on my résumé?
Even the other three – emotion, intuition, and memory – are well known as being ridiculously inaccurate. In fact, it is the very scientific method that these attempt to dodge which demonstrates this, as if the huge success of any gambling establishment wasn’t enough. Perhaps we’re not talking about gambler’s intuition, or failed relationships, or even the low accuracy of eyewitness testimony when we speak of ‘knowing.’ But then again, if we’re allowed to pick and choose only the bits that support the concept, are we establishing any value to other ways of knowing at all? The scientific method was created because of these, because what people ‘knew’ wasn’t really producing any accurate answers. Falsifiability and replicability are the foils of false confidence.
What about imagination, and the role it has played in theoretical sciences and sudden insights? Does this make it worthy of consideration? Certainly, it’s an important part of scientific endeavor, but again, let’s not count only the successes – for every breakthrough achieved by imagined scenarios, there are a few thousand failures, since we need to remember that every crackpot and garage inventor is also relying on imagination. As is every child when playing, and every creator of fiction or art, and so on. So, how much is this contributing to our base of knowledge, versus how much is going off on unrelated or unproductive tangents? And does it even count if every breakthrough that was achieved through imagination also had to be backed by solid evidence and repeatable results, the hallmark of science in the first place?
So we get the question of whether language is a ‘way of knowing,’ instead of considering the rather obvious influence it has on how we approach things. It only takes a moment’s thought to realize that culture, quite naturally, has an affect on how we learn, and what we consider important, but that’s a far cry from considering it a method of obtaining knowledge in the first place. And of course, since we’re purposefully avoiding the hoary old empirical methods in this pursuit, we must therefore ignore the rather telling evidence that those speaking Portuguese do not produce more, or less, knowledge or insights than those speaking Farsi.
We come to sense perception, and are now starting to delve into the realm of the ridiculous. Everything that we ever learn comes through our senses, so they cannot be considered any ‘other way of knowing,’ but the functional apparatus that permits us to do so in the first place. Even imagination is considered to be mere reconstruction of sensory experience; we are not believed to be able to imagine something that has not been experienced, and if you don’t believe that, imagine what it’s like to see in infrared without using any resemblance to any other form of vision that we have. Meanwhile, questions about whether our senses can be considered accurate or skewed are philosophical at best, and tackled long ago, with the utter lack of value established back then as well. Certainly, we do not perceive everything that exists, and almost certainly, much of what we do perceive is individually colored. But this is as valuable as whether a computer has produced the answer to a mathematical formula by using Windows or Mac OS as the operating system; who cares? Is the answer accurate? What more do you need?
Finally, we get to reason, and you might think I’d have a hard time arguing against this. Yet, reason is only as good as the information it uses as a base. A few hundred years ago, it was certainly reasonable to believe that lightning and volcanoes were evidence of a god’s wrath; they were impressive and violent and, of course, everyone knew gods existed. Look as hard as you like, and try to find the people who determined geothermal activity through reason, intuition, emotion, faith, imagination, or even sensory perception. Dig out the people (and, since other ways of knowing shouldn’t be sporadic or rare, there should be a lot of them) who announced the true nature of pathogen-borne illnesses before the age of microscopes and culture dishes.
In fact, if you’re looking at the info in those provided links (1, 2,) you might notice something: they’re not really demonstrating that any knowledge is being produced by these topics, but instead asking if we can consider these as contributing. This is not only philosophy, but weak philosophy at that; soliciting essays on opinions isn’t exactly establishing the viability of the approach, is it? Especially when ‘knowing’ isn’t even defined, nor any goal set. Despite the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, I have yet to see any example of knowledge gained in this manner, even when I’ve specifically inquired. One would think, if it were a recognized phenomena, an example isn’t too much to ask – a lot of them isn’t too much to ask.
This has been tackling the defined, structured definitions of ‘other ways of knowing,’ which is saying nothing at all about revelation, or extra-sensory perception, or cosmic connections, or drug-induced insights, or all of the other aspects people seize onto when they feel there must be something else. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t we expect knowledge gained through whatever means to be consistent, and extending beyond the personal experience? Shouldn’t the millions of psychedelic drug users who claim they have reached a different plane of consciousness be producing similar experiences? Shouldn’t religious revelation the world over be pointing to the same concept of gods, whatever they may be? Isn’t that how we actually define knowledge?
All of this has been ignoring a simple, yet wildly misunderstood fact: that the pursuit of science is not a structured ritual, but only a method to try and eliminate mistakes and human influence – exactly as noted above. There is nothing that prevents us from finding some previously unknown trait of humans, or clouds our judgment of such; if we can detect it ourselves, then ‘science’ can certainly find it. It’s not like it has to fit into a test tube or anything, and our methods have determined some pretty subtle and curious things. We discovered that numerous species can not only orient to the Earth’s magnetic field, they can read it to extremely fine degrees, something that we neither knew from experience nor expected. Many other species see portions of the electromagnetic spectrum (light) way outside of what humans can see, and possess abilities to detect distress in other species or the turbulence of the water. ‘Other ways of knowing’ are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ruled out by scientific investigation, or ignored, or even discouraged, and some of them have even been researched (and found lacking, imagine that.) It’s the scientific approach that lets us test the intuition, the imagination, the revelation or insight, to determine if they really are valuable. And, more often, shows us that they aren’t – for every right answer in science, numerous wrong answers have been ruled out by the same method. The ability to determine that something really is wrong, instead of just wondering or, even worse, ignoring the possibility wholesale, is also the strength of the scientific method.
Yet, there’s an even bigger disservice that ‘other ways of knowing’ inflicts upon us. As noted earlier, many of the potential other ways are known for their inaccuracy – something that is often poorly recognized by many people, when it’s not outright ignored. We have vast amounts of evidence that emotions, for instance, are simply mechanisms to provoke survival behavior – not at all a way of knowing, but a way of reacting, like the slap of a beaver’s tail onto the water when danger threatens. At times, we must ignore the emotional provocations, for the sake of polite company or traffic safety or avoiding a stay in prison. The supreme functionality of a brain that handles abstract thought and nuanced decisions is its ability to override emotions, to recognize that intuition is perhaps just wishful thinking, to see that faith is a cultural attempt to deny that evidence is thousands of times more dependable. Rather than finding facile, superficial ways to promote self-indulgence, we could be expending effort instead towards recognizing just how our thought processes work – and how they can go wrong. Might that be considered a bit more useful than self-gratification? I’d like to think so, anyway.
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When looking up web resources for “other ways of knowing,” I came across this article. Lilian “Na’ia” Alessa has interpreted the phrase differently from the linked sources above, and indeed from most uses of it; her version, contrasting traditional Native American practices against the structure of “Western science,” is one of the few times I’ve seen the phrase used in a coherent and plausible manner. The point she makes is that her grandmother, lacking the benefit of any structured education, nonetheless possessed the skills to thrive in her environment.
I have no argument with this, but is this really another ‘way of knowing,’ or simply a culture clash? I haven’t run across anyone who’s ever said that people did not learn anything before the scientific method was adopted, or that current educational practices were the only ones that were effective. Alessa herself admits that her grandmother did not obtain her traditions through intuition or some kind of unknown ‘connection,’ but through the trial-and-error, long experience and observations that, in a more structured form, underlie ‘Western’ science itself (I perceive a certain snarkiness in her use of this compass distinction, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.)
Then, too, we must consider the other aspects found in the same culture, of personifying plants and the land and crediting amotken with the creation, as well as their belief that they have occupied the land since the start of time. While some of the rituals are undeniably useful, what are we to make of the lack of belief in amotken elsewhere in the world, or the significant evidence that the ancestors of the Salish entered this continent less than 20,000 years ago? How much accuracy is needed to consider something an effective ‘way of knowing?’ Because I have a special coin sitting on my desk that, for simple true/false questions, is correct 50% of the time.
But I can only determine this, of course, if I already ‘know’ what the correct answer should be through other means…