Just two days ago, I had a completely different view about knowledge, and it’s crazy how quickly our perspective can switch. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and I decided to explore the topic of how knowledge is acquired. At first, I believed that knowledge came from experience, because that is what made the most sense. However in that one day, a few conversations with Jamie and Emma Field left me switching from an empirical view, to fully rationalist.
The Empirical Argument
All knowledge comes from experience. This was a conclusion that initially made a lot of sense to due to its straight-forwardness and practicality. We see, hear, and smell the world around us, and the experiencing the physical world gives us knowledge. We know how to ride a bike by first riding a bike. We know what grass is by looking at grass. We know how heat feels by touching something hot. Simple enough. We even interpreted the word ‘experience’ to include the experience of the species. This means the experiences over time by the species, can be passed down as knowledge, to explain how we know certain ‘intuitive’ things like the flight-or-fight response, or simply just knowing how to breathe.
Take a second and think: do we breathe when we sleep? Stupid question— of course we breathe. Can someone prove it empirically? When we are unable to sense (we are unconscious), can we still gain experience? Maybe now with technology we can empirically see ourselves, but that means that this knowledge could only be as old as video cameras. Surely it is our reason, being able to put 2 and 2 together that we NEED to breath when we sleep.
One large problem I was struggling with, was trying to define what knowledge was. In peer discussions, knowledge was used as a blanket term for everything; what we sensed, what we reasoned, what we thought. I believe the KEY to the soundness of my syllogism, is the definition of knowledge. Immanuel Kant breaks it down into two ideas: sensibility and understanding, which are two different and independent constructs. Senses provide sensibility. They give us observations about the world. Understanding, is using these observations to create explanations and concepts which translates to knowledge. Senses merely relay information of the world around us. It is our conscious mind, that is able to take all this data and use reason to create knowledge.
Take for example a pear. Through Kant’s logic, all the senses can provide is the observation that the pear is observable and existing in the physical world. However knowledge of the pear, is created when the mind reaches the rational conclusion that the object is indeed a pear, and it does exist based on its sensibility.
Another example is gravity. Gravity is not ‘sensible’; it has no smell, touch, sight. Instead, gravity is knowledge which was created through reason, to explain why the apple falls from the tree. This knowledge cannot be gained by merely observing an apple fall. All we sense is the apple falling, but reason is what tells us that something is causing this. Gravity is knowledge that is created to explain the physical world.
Premise 1: Our senses are able to make observations about the physical world.
Premise 2: Our mind creates reasonable explanations to understand our observations of the physical world.
Premise 3: Knowledge is created when we understand our observations of the physical world.
Conclusion: All knowledge is created through reason.
Where does this knowledge originate?
Although the syllogism shows how knowledge is created, the bigger question may be how does knowledge originate. The empirical argument states that any knowledge that is created (whether through reason or not) is originally based off the experiences of the physical world. Meaning, we cannot know that an apple exists, without first observing the apple. We cannot know of gravity until observing the effects of gravity in the physical world. Our experience comes first.
However, Kant proposes the argument of a priori knowledge, which is rational knowledge humans are born with. Kant states that even before we are able experience the world, we are born with some innate understandings like the idea of ‘substance’ and ‘time’.
“In order to learn about things outside of me, I need to know that they are outside of me. How can I locate something outside of me without already knowing what “outside of me” means? Some knowledge of space has to be assumed before I can ever study space empirically.”
So even before we can observe, Kant shows there are some basic reasoning and assumptions being made.
This is becoming more and more subjective, but I believe consciousness is the factor that ties in our senses and rational knowledge. I like to think that consciousness is what allows us to use our senses to experience the world. Our consciousness is what separates from the pencil, the water bottle, or the flower. In moments when we lose consciousness (sleep, blacked out, dead), it does not matter if our bodies are interacting with the world; we cannot continue to experience. When a person dies, we would assume they would stop experiencing the world around them, even if their physical body still exists.
I also think one can not hold knowledge without being conscious. I do not think a newborn can have knowledge (such as primitive instincts) until they are conscious beings. In that sense, knowledge begins manifesting when one gains consciousness, and knowledge ceases to exist when consciousness is permanently lost. This means that knowledge is constantly being created and destroyed.
Transcription and Common Knowledge
It is a hard thought to accept that knowledge is constantly being destroyed; we cannot even imagine how many incredible, impactful ideas were lost since humans existed. I think transcription, especially language was the game-changer in gaining common knowledge. Being able to take the knowledge in our mind, and transfer to the physical world is beneficial for many reasons. Not only does it allow us to share our knowledge with others and find common truth, but once put in the physical world, the knowledge which it represents can now live past the creator’s existence. Sharing knowledge with the next generation, is in my mind, how humans have been able to progress. It gives us a way to determine truth by looking at what is most agreed upon. It also allows us to use old pieces of knowledge, and find new connections and understandings among them.
No one can, nor will know everything that Einstein knew except for Einstein. All we could know is the parts of his knowledge, that has been represented in the physical world (books, speeches, symbols, drawings).
A personal fear of mine was how I would be remembered (or not remembered) in the future. I value knowledge very highly, and one thing I want to keep when I’m older is the thoughts and ideas I’ve had throughout life. I love learning. I love gaining new knowledge, and reflecting on my experience. The majority of my knowledge isn’t written or recorded anywhere, but left in my memory. Of course it is easier to remember while I am young, but as time goes, I wonder how much of my knowledge I will keep. If the thoughts were lost in my memory, how will I know what I once knew, and how will others know what I knew? I look back 17 years, and I cannot remember a lot. But when I look back at the journals we had to write in the second grade, it feels so good to see how I thought as a kid, compared to now; that is what I want in the future. Recently, I’ve began to make a conscious effort to document my thoughts, whether it is through journal entries or a quick snapchat. Each word document and photograph is one I will be thankful to have in the future.
I would like to give a special thanks to some of my fellow philosophers, Jamie Fajber, Emma Field, Emma Juergenson, Lyle Hendriks, as well as Mr. Jackson, Immanuel Kant, and Descartes for helping me come up with some of these ideas.