I’ve been pondering the source of knowledge. It is definitely a geek thing, thinking about thinking. It isn’t the first time I have wondered how we know things, or why we believe what we believe. I’m not alone, either. Philosophers and sociologists, scientists with giant clipboards and massive spreadsheets ponder this same issue. It’s the actual foundation of whole disciplines and has been studied from different angles since before the time of Christ.
I am sure this will not be the blog post to end all scientific inquiry into knowing, but I wanted to share what I’ve found and hopefully ignite a little curiosity surrounding the things we are so certain about. As a seminary student, I can guarantee my systems of carefully constructed beliefs have only begun to face the challenges of academic study.
Most of us go through life accumulating information, experience, connections to other people, and observing how the world works. We start as infants by experimenting with gravity. Will the fork always fall to the floor in the same way dropped from my highchair? What about peas? We are by nature inquisitive beings. We want to know how the world works so that we can function.
Our brains are amazing at sorting data. We were designed to evaluate experience. If we consider the reality of human existence, all of the bits of information coming at us from different sources, I am amazed we are ever able to see the forest for the trees!
One universal way we sort data is by what is real and what is unreal. Philosophy calls this ontology. We look for clues to determine if what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing is in line with what we believe to be real. We believe in our own existence. We believe in the existence of others. We tend to base these beliefs on our senses, though not always. Most of us who’ve read articles related to physics have heard of dark matter. Physicists believe it exists, and have math to point toward its existence, but have no way of experiencing or observing it.
Another way we approach knowing and belief is by compiling our experience and data with the experience and data of others. Epistemology is the study of how we arrive at the conclusion that something is a fact as opposed to opinion. Much of our basis for knowledge comes to us from our communities and connections. If I find something to be consistent, and you do as well, and someone else on the other side of the world does as well then our common experiences demonstrate patterns we give more credibility as we build our worldview.
Once we decide something is real, and factual, we still have to decide how to apply what we know. We rely on logic to help us apply our knowledge in reasoning. That may help us combine concepts or break down complexities. Even then, we haven’t scratched the surface of how to act in light of what we know. We turn to ethics to combine knowledge and action in morality. But what outcomes do we seek in our moral systems? Group uniformity? Pragmatism? Authority & power? Beauty and symmetry?
Even if the above makes your head spin, it all defines how we understand and function in the world. These processes are how we determine what works, who to trust, where we belong, and the meaning of our existence.
I was curious to see how many of my connections on social media had pondered the basis of their belief and knowing. The responses were amazingly in line with what philosophers and sociologists would list as the main sources of belief: science, empiricism, tradition, etc. Surprising answers included: freedom, joy, love, and hope.
We run into trouble when we separate knowing and believing. When we think our faith comes from somewhere different and distinct from other ways of understanding the world. Our religious beliefs are very much shaped by relationships in community, traditional teachings, our experiences, and what we are willing to consider as real or unreal.
If we separate our ways of knowing from what we believe in we begin to think that we would accept as true and right and good the same religious tenets and practices whether we live in the U.S.A. or grew up in Indonesia. We might even begin to assert that we believe what we believe because we are right, and everyone else is wrong. We believe the facts.
In reality, we are all stitching together worldviews from culture, religion, academia, experience, pragmatism, all while finding ways to embrace mystery and faith. It’s not a perfect system, but it is what we are each working with. So if you come to a different conclusion than me, if I believe something different from you, if someone else puts their faith in something different from either of us we have choices in how to respond. We can all condemn each other, or we can seek to understand.
Maybe we can find common ground in our human experience.
Maybe we can recognize flaws in our own systems.
Maybe that can be a start.