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The Study of Knowing

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

"Mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled" -- Plutarch

Here is a good word you can use to impress your friends at the bar: "epistemology."

It means the study of how we know.

To start our discussion on sociological research, we review the topic of epistemology.

We have to know what knowing is in order to critically examine the studies that social scientists do.

We have four ways of knowing:

  • observation (empirical);

  • logic (reason);

  • faith (belief); and

  • authority (Momma said so).

Each of these has strengths but is imperfect.

Many scientists romanticise the importance of observations.

They think that theory gets in the way of obtaining the genuine facts.

They are sometimes called "empiricists" because they exaggerate the importance of observations.

Sociology tells us, however, that we are bombarded from birth with a huge number of sensory bits of information, in all five senses.

Our learning to be human, socialisation, means learning a language, and that means we learn to categorize that huge bombardment of senses, and put them into boxes of meanings called words.

The apparently simple event of seeing a "cat" walk into the room, for example, which means we must process thousands of bits of sensory information, is already a process that involves our assumptions and expectations.

We categorise them into cat and walking.

There is nothing intrinsic in the animal or its actions that warrants the use of those symbols as words to generalize, categorise and describe our observations.

It is all in our heads, in the meanings we have learned since childhood.

We have no way of knowing that when you see something that you identify as a red sweater is something that I may see as red.

I may see a sweater that is blue to me, but I call it "red" because that is the label I have learned as I learned the language.

Speaking of colours, there is a further problem in that in nature colours do not exist.

If we study physics we learn that light is broken into slightly different frequencies when it bounces off or travels through different substances.

They do not have colour; they simply bounce light off them with slightly different frequencies.

It is the physiology of our eyes and brains which converts those varying frequencies into what we call colours.

The second way of knowing things is through our logic or reason.

The symbols we use to communicate our logic are artificial, and do not occur in nature.

The number "two" for example is a human construct.

When we see what we call two oranges, the number "two’ is not in the oranges but in our minds.

So, when we say that two plus two is four it is a product of our reasoning, not a product of observation.

If we start with an incorrect supposition, and make an arguments of logical statements from that, we have no way of confirming that our conclusion is correct.

Faith and belief are more or less the same thing for our purposes here.

We all have beliefs.

They may vary, but we have them.

They are not based on logic or observations, they are what we think is correct.

Faith is the main way of knowing if God, Santa Claus and elves exist.

Faith is not science, and science can not prove or disprove things believed.

The final way of knowing, authority, is more or less the way we learn and know most things.

We take from our parents, others who socialize us, like older siblings, teachers and religious leaders, what we accept as true.

Sometimes we learn to disbelieve authority, as when we find out the monster in the basement, as explained to us by our older sister, is not really there, but sometimes the suspicion haunts us well into adulthood.

Very often we link the various ways of knowing together to form arguments.

As in, "God created evolution but the creationists wouldn’t believe it."

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© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2013.01.09

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