Ways of Knowing

There are many ways of “knowing”. Each produces a different base of knowledge. We each have access to and fondness for a mix of “ways of knowing” and consequently we can “know” particular situations or problems in very different ways and all feel certain that we are correct. Absolute truths are elusive. They keep changing. Improving, we hope. Many mixtures of knowledge guide our existences. Perhaps some insights into the many “ways of knowing” could help us interpret and evaluate conflicting opinions about the same situation.


Personal observation and interpretation is a way of knowing that requires no infrastructure but does need special conditions. Possibly the most critical condition is quiet solitude. The value of this rare state is increasing as digital devices invade more time and more spaces. The fungal spread of cell phones, laptops, pads and other such interferons contaminate times and spaces where creative thought once was possible. Not just creative thought has been chased away. So has the relaxation of mental idling. As suggested long ago by Wordsworth, one must be in that blessed receptive mood if one hopes to communicate with a tree.


That receptive mental state of Wordsworth requires a blank mental state but is attuned to a range of potential incoming signals that may arise in solitudinous places. The rustling of shrews chasing under the leaf litter. The whispering of pine needles stirred by the gentle breezes. Or the snort of a doe as she tries to decipher your chemical identity. Only in that receptive state engendered by quiet solitude can such messages be fully appreciated.


Without quiet solitude an entire realm of knowing is kept from us. The richest experiential learning grows out of quiet episodes of solitude. Those revelations have longevity and depth that the loud and hurried do not. Knowing by experience is the most trustworthy knowledge for many minds.


Despite the value of solitude to some of us, a god friend pointed out that Glen Gould worked well with a cacophony of urban and technical noises in his ear.


Another way of knowing is from evidence. For barristers and judges in civil cases that means that more than half of the observations agree and all indicate only one conclusion. In criminal cases where “beyond any doubt” is invoked, the belief is that the decision is 99 percent certain. Such beliefs are impossible to test statically. Further, legal systems believe that they can prove a point. We will find that this disagrees philosophically and logically with the precepts of scientific knowledge.


The scientific method also knows from evidence but in a very different way. Rather than just a little more than half the evidence in agreement, scientists demand that 95 percent or more of the evidence agrees in order to support a conclusion. If the evidential agreement drops as low as 75 percent, the scientist will reject the argument. In addition, scientists usually draw their evidence from a very large sample of sources and if that evidence is highly variable, will reject it by statistical testing. Further, the scientific method tests the effectiveness of the evidence by using it to try to disprove a testable hypothesis. The test is not about proving something because logically that is impossible unless you have tested all possibilities including the unimagined. If the evidence does disprove the hypothesized explanation or conclusion, then the chance that it is in error is stated as a probability of being wrong. This is the closest one can get to the truth. The probability of being wrong is the best answer and will be discarded and replaced only when new and better evidence is found.


Growing out of the scientific method is another way of knowing. When many attempts fail to falsify an hypothesis, it can be accepted as well-tested and may become an accepted theory . Well-tested theoretical knowledge can be assembled into a complete theoretical explanation for a larger set of interacting processes. This theoretical understanding can be used to explain questions without gathering new evidence. So, for example, we know that long-wave infrared radiation is blocked by carbon dioxide and thus prevented from escaping from our atmosphere. This theoretical knowledge is the basis for knowing that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will trap heat. Although theoretical, this knowledge can easily be shown true by testing experimentally. This knowledge does not help understand the sources of the increasing carbon dioxide.


The combination of experiential knowledge and the courtroom rules of evidence give us another way of knowing. This is called “common knowledge” and is based on several observations of something, often a relationship between two events that is interpreted as cause and effect. But there is often no cause and effect observed, just two events and then using the “more than half” rule of the courtroom, an explanation is offered linking the two causally. If appealing to the media, such explanations become widely accepted although baseless.


In the digital age, a way of knowing has developed from search engines on the internet together with the “social media”. Both are sources of information that must be diligently screened to assess their validity. Because this way of knowing depends on information broadcast widely with variable and often unstated review of accuracy, much of the information supplied can be just “noise”. But it is an easy source of bits of geography, demographics, language, physical constants and translation equivalents. And the internet now makes widely available entire scientific papers that have already been peer-reviewed and reports from many agencies that are unabridged. This digital way of knowing is neither a process of hypothesis testing nor of production of new knowledge.


There also is a way of knowing that depends mainly on training and little on curiosity. The knowledge is directed at some specific functions that are substantially predictable, so following the training diligently and not allowing excursions guided by curiosity optimizes completion of the assigned task. Curious excursions are restricted to “time off” and may be sharply unrelated to work and training. This way of knowing contrasts– markedly with “liberal education” although both are found in university programs. The two approaches are sometimes mixed and confused in programs such as “applied science”.


Finding quiet solitude may also mean finding beauty and that may be a very personal way of knowing. Beauty has not been successfully analyzed scientifically. That may be just as well. But it may be without cause. Usually it is said that individual perceptions are too variable to analyze. That can be tested. For example, a landscape scene could be photographed. The photograph could be shown to many individuals and each could rate it on a “beauty scale” from 0 for ugly to 10 for beautiful. Further, those people could be analyzed for variables likely to affect their ranking of the photo. For example: their childhood environments, their income, their education, their type of home (country house, subdivision house, condo, apartment, etc.) If individual perceptions of beauty are too variable to study, that will be apparent in the statistical variance of responses.


Despite the lack of hard data, beauty needs to be recognized as a way of knowing. Perceptions of beauty shade our attitudes as we try to apply other ways of knowing. How well we absorb or apply our knowledge can be seriously modified by our perceptions of beauty at the time or even at earlier times. Because we commonly use our various forms of knowledge in making judgments, outcomes of many sorts can be influenced by our perceptions of beauty. For example, how much effort we expend to safeguard the natural processes in the water of a lake can be strongly influenced by how beautiful the lake appears to us. The positive feedback from our stewardship of the lake is most effective if it affect the beauty of the lake. Managing or improving conditions in the muddy lake bottom are less stimulating.


Perhaps the “safest” way of knowing is “integrative knowing”. Rather than fragmenting the subject into narrow fields that allow intense analysis, integrative knowledge has great strength by taking account of all possible types of knowledge that apply. Analysts complain that this results in complex variables that involve several interacting forces. Is that not exactly how many cultural, economic and ecological systems function?


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