ways of knowing: academic versus experiential

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  • Tuesday, August 21, 2018 5:02 AM
    Message # 6585449

    Hi all,

    I have a question regarding the tension between different ways of knowing that was brought up at the recent conference. How have we come to see the academic way of knowing at odds with experiential ones? I find that a bit, well, odd.

    Here's my train of thought:

    Academic knowledge is based on empirical evidence and scholarly methods, right? Looking 'empirical' up in the dictionary it tells me that it means: based on experiments or experience rather than on ideas or theories, the opposite being 'theoretical'. As synonyms are given: observed, seen, factual, actual, real, verifiable, experimental, experiential, practical, pragmatic, hands-on, applied. To me that seems to imply that empirical is basically rooted in experience?

    'Theoretical' (as opposite to empirical / experiential) according to the dictionary means: concerned with the ideas and principles on which a particular subject is based, rather than with practice and experiment. Opposite: experimental and practical.

    To me that looks like the academic/scholarly method combines the two as empirical evidence is needed to support scientific theories. So, lots and lots of experiences are looked at in a very structured way (scholarly methods worked out on the basis of experience plus logic) to make sure that the theories constructed by academics give us a picture of reality that goes beyond our individual subjective experience of the world and thereby provides a more comprehensive orientation in the world, knowledge of a shared reality so to speak.

    'Experiential' according to the dictionary means: involving or based on experience and observation. Which leads back to empirical, only that empirical also involves experiments. Yet, what are experiments other than structured and controlled experiences? Certainly, academics conducts all sorts of experiments that go way beyond the experiences of daily human life. Is that perhaps the point at which the two ways of knowing academic(empirical) and experiential diverge so that we no longer perceive them as having the same basis?

    I got a little confused about that reflecting the conference and would also appreciate it if someone could provide a mind-map or table of all these different ways of knowing that I seem to be unaware of.

    Thanks, Yvonne

    P.S.: I know that dictionaries don't tell the whole story of what a word means, but if they were completely useless, we wouldn't make the effort of compiling them.

    Last modified: Tuesday, August 21, 2018 5:14 AM | Anonymous
  • Thursday, August 30, 2018 1:49 PM
    Reply # 6646590 on 6585449

    Interesting question. I know of a tension between anecdotal versus scientific: Anecdotal would be "my grampa smoked till he was 96" versus scientific would be "statistically, smoking cuts 10 years off your life expectancy".

    I also know of a tension between subjective and objective: For example someone may have subjectively experienced God, but acknowledge the lack of any objective data to support God's existence.

    I also know there is a tension between intuition and reason: For example, someone may feel in their gut that a bungie jump is unsafe, despite all reason.

    So when people talk of a tension between experiential and academic ways of knowing, maybe they mean some combination of the above.

    With respect to Big History, some people may have a subjective, intuitive, gut experience that life is more meaningful, purposeful, important, sacred than the scientific, objective, logical Big History narrative would dictate.

    Last modified: Friday, August 31, 2018 11:52 AM | Anonymous
  • Sunday, September 09, 2018 8:56 AM
    Reply # 6660896 on 6585449

    I believe that most would agree with what Karen has stated. In short: the scientific way of knowing involves an interplay between reason or rationalism, and experience or empiricism - and sometimes with a dash of creativity (e.g. see Einstein, Feynman, others). In the past, there was a tension between these ways of "knowing" as exemplified by the disagreement between Plato and Aristotle. The former gave reason primacy, and the latter gave it to experience. Eventually, various thinkers like Francis Bacon and Galileo realized that knowing based on an authority like Aristotle, the church, etc., pure reason, or pure individual and even collective experience by themselves had severe limitations. What eventually became known as science definitely becomes the interplay between both - almost in the way that spacetime affects how matter/energy behaves, and matter/energy affects the geometry of spacetime. 

    For example, Galileo showed that Aristotle's assertion that objects of different weights fell at different rates (makes sense!) was wrong as he apocryphally is said to have proved when he dropped a cannonball and a musket ball from the leaning tower of Pisa, and they both hit the ground at the same time. Centuries later, Einstein conceived of general relativity and the concept of spacetime (versus space and time) through rigorous reasoning. His astounding theoretical claim wasn't widely accepted until Sir Arthur Eddington showed that general relativity theory was supported by the bending of starlight that had to go very near past the massive sun, as the theory predicted, during a solar eclipse which occurred 4 years after Einstein published his theory in 1915. 

    I've probably said enough about this interactive dichotomy, and I suspect that nearly everyone in IBHA understands this assertion intuitively, if not even more rigorously. For example, there would be no sense in David Christian and others speculating about the future if we used only empiricism - it's a rational or even creative theoretical exercise since we cannot write about our experience of the future!

    I suspect that the well-regarded IBHA member who stated that we must base our knowing on "empiricism" stated this on a rather ad hoc basis given the context at the time. For me at least, I would parse the challenge of either improving or dividing conference presentations and the big history "project" as a whole as follows:

    1. It might be helpful to parse the presentations into those which are denotative of big history versus those which are connotative. The former is based on rigorous reason and objective empirical evidence, and is the core of that which big history is concerned. The latter is subjective like the wonderful oratorio at the conference, or presentations concerned with the aesthetics of some aspects of big history. Pedagogical focused presentations might straddle both the denotative (e.g. this teaching strategy increased knowledge retention the best) and connotative (e.g. students subjectively most enjoyed a story-telling narrative at the high school level).  Both denotation and connotation is needed as the Romantic movement asserted against those who proposed a purely rational/empirical enlightenment.

    2. I strongly believe that we should have fewer, but better and sometimes longer presentations e.g. it is tough to introduce information theory and its relevance to complexity in 20 minutes!  Admittedly, a nice feature of IBHA is that it attracts people with very diverse backgrounds - so diverse in fact that many have no formal background on their presentation topic. Indeed, I fit in that category. I'm a physician and bioethicist, but gave presentations that were concerned with thermodynamics, information theory and complexity science - where I'm largely self taught. I admittedly don't know the full conference presentation review process, but I would recommend that a completed presentation, rather than just an abstract, be reviewed by an "expert" in a given field, especially a presenter with no formal training, or no well-established history in that area. I regret to say that too many of the lectures I attended were of bereft of rigor, depth, or new insights. 

    In conclusion, I might say that it's also not just a matter of knowing, but how well we come to "know." I'll leave deeper epistemological discussions alone unless someone else brings it up. 

    (We also need more interactions like those on this discussion board, so thank you for your many previous entries. )

  • Tuesday, September 11, 2018 7:25 AM
    Reply # 6664043 on 6585449

    Thank you Karen and Ken for your thoughts.

    So, to answer my original question, I would say that empirical (and hence academic) and experiential ways of knowing may appear to be different, but fundamentally they are not, but as always it is a little more complicated than that.

    The thing is, and thanks again Ken for providing a short history of this, Plato and Aristoteles' and all the others afterwards have based their thinking on what they knew about the natural world at their respective time, but this knowledge has grown, and so I have been wondering for quite some time now, what would their thinking have been had they known what we know about nature now? This of course is just a thought experiment, but I guess it is fair to say that their philosophies would have been different. Don't you think?

    About the other two points you raised, Ken (it was nice meeting you at the conference, by the way): I am writing an article for Origins in which I want to reflect the conference experience since for me it was the first conference and my first time in the US. It would be good to have some more reflections of this conference, also and especially from more experienced conference attendees. And you basically already started ... with raising these two points!

    My impression at the end (and actually really only after watching the video of the wrap up session on facebook again) was that we need a lot more discussions and we cannot only have them at conferences. These are deep issues and I personally need time to think about things before I can say something substantial. Also after two and a half days packed with presentations and lectures and small talk in between, I was rather tired. That is why (back at home and refreshed) I made notes of the wrap-up session from the video recording and they have been uploaded to the conference presentation folder on Google Docs. So, we can follow up and make the conference worthwhile in the long run.

    I will raise some more issues and epistemology/theory of knowledge is one of them. Even though I may only ask questions and at the risk of sounding naive to those within Big History that know it longer and better than I do for now.

  • Wednesday, September 12, 2018 1:34 PM
    Reply # 6666337 on 6585449

    Thank you Yvonne. It was also especially good to meet a young person like you. I am now 60 years old,  and inquisitive, sharp new minds like yours is always needed in any field that hopes to grow. The philosopher/physicist/historian Thomas Kuhn would point out that new paradigms, or novel ways of thinking in a field, are usually propelled by the younger generation. 

    Somewhat similarly, I'm sure that historically very intelligent people like Plato and Aristotle would have shifted their thinking if they knew then, what we think we know now.  Even the best of minds have their blind spots that they have difficulty seeing through due to their culture, deeply held religious beliefs, personal biases, etc. For example, Plato thought that something close to a philosopher dictator would be the best leader (ok, Marcus Aurelius did pretty well, but he was an exception), Aristotle thought that slaves and women were "naturally" inferior, Newton spent more time on alchemy than physics, and Einstein never accepted the "ontologic" uncertainty of quantum mechanics.  If these great minds had such blind spots, I worry about the size of mine, which younger generations will likely expose, i.e. your perspective and others are invaluable.

  • Thursday, September 20, 2018 9:08 AM
    Reply # 6680532 on 6585449

    Ken, don't worry about your blind spots. Since everybody has them, we are all in the same boat so to speak. I think, acknowledging the fact that one has blind spots is the first step. Then one is more open, for other people will show us our blind spots. If we let them! The question is whether we are willing to listen to them and think about what they say.

    Well, at 46 I wouldn't consider myself young, but I am certainly new to big history and very inquisitive.

    So, I am still wondering what these other ways of knowing are, when as you said:

    "the scientific way of knowing involves an interplay between reason or rationalism, and experience or empiricism - and sometimes with a dash of creativity" 

    and: "that it's also not just a matter of knowing, but how well we come to "know.""

    I have become kind of fond of the scientific way of knowing, I must admit, so I am certainly biased. However, shortly before I discovered big history, I had come across Deanna Kuhn's Education for Thinking project. She asks the questions: Why do we send our children to school? and What do we want schools to accomplish?

    Her answer in very short is that they should teach students to use their minds well, in school and beyond, so that they develop the skills and values needed for lifelong learning. She uses research from developmental psychology to pedagogy. Especially interesting I found part 2 Knowing about knowing where she explains several levels of epistemological understanding, and the fact that what we call scientific thinking actually originates in what children do when they try to make sense of and try to organise their experience. Only that the children are not aware of these processes of theory revision. They think with their theories, not about them. That comes later, when we become aware of that, and then it is no longer effortless. 

    Also, I learnt from her that scientific thinking, though essential to science, is not specific to it. It basically is any instance of purposeful thinking with the objective of enhancing the thinker's knowledge.

    So, that's my foundation for ways of knowing, and since I have started this entry by stating that everybody has blind spots, I'd like to invite readers to make me aware of mine.

  • Friday, September 28, 2018 12:27 PM
    Reply # 6697217 on 6585449

    What are our blind spots? Well, I've heard other people complain that the Big History narrative reveals a blindspot of its creators: Elizibet Sahtouris says that science has a 'naturalism' philosophy of reality - which is believing that nothing exists except natural (as opposed to supernatural) phenomena, laws, forces, entities. Sahtouris and many (probably most) other people don't have that philosophy of reality. They believe that the supernatural also exists.

    Sahtouris complains that there are a lot of knowledge gaps in the Big History narrative that are filled with the assumption that there are natural causes, while the authors are blind to the fact that there are gaps, and the fact that they filled it with a naturalism assumption. I think she would like us to be explicit about where there are gaps and allow people to fill them with assumptions from conceptual frameworks other than naturalism if they so choose. God of the gaps.

    For example, I think she believes in a living universe, or a conscious universe, or something like that. 

    Last modified: Friday, September 28, 2018 12:27 PM | Anonymous
  • Friday, October 05, 2018 5:36 AM
    Reply # 6708431 on 6585449

    What are our blind spots? Basically, I would say that whenever we make assumptions but are unaware of them.

    The grand thing about the scientific approach, I think, is that in collaboration with philosophy, the underlying assumptions can be made explicit and questioned from time to time. In so far, it is reasonable to assume that with scholarly methods we can prod reality and reality answers us back. That kind of naturalism indeed must be the foundation of the academic enterprise. For, unless we assume that there is a natural world and we can find out how it works, there really is no point in discussing anything. 

    As far the the knowledge gaps are concerned, I am going with Cynthia Stokes Brown who said that they will be part of the natural world too. So, there indeed is no need to assume something supernatural, just to fill in the gaps. (See Origins VI 1 for Cynthia's article on The Meaning of Big History - philosophically speaking)

    Moreover, this position has the advantage that we surely can all agree on that the natural world exists and we are able to investigate it, but it does not at all require us (big historians) to agree on whether the natural world is all there is to know. (See my own article on Origins VIII 4 - Reflections on Religion and Big History) It simply ensures that we have common ground for our exploration and development of big history.

    Finally, I think it is a rather bad idea to mix big history with religion. Religion cannot serve as a way of knowing when within any particular religious belief system it is not allowed to question the underlying assumptions. Take God for instance: that is just as much an assumption as the methodological naturalism is an assumption of science. Only that God is an assumption that empirically can neither be proven nor disproven. So, is this really a reasonable assumption to make when our aim is to work towards making the unknown known, to fill in the knowledge gaps? Bringing god into the discussion to me seems more like a way to end the discussion, or get lost in trying to figure out what is meant with god.

    Also, trying to include religious perspectives effectively means trying to exclude non-believers. This is what religions have always done in the past, and not only religious belief systems, also secular belief systems. After all, it is only consequent when ones major aim is to uphold a belief system based on assumptions that are not to be questioned ever!

    Science/academics should work as a dogma-prevention machine. Questions, investigations, formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality are the core of the scientific method. Belief systems defend themselves against all this by revolving around a dogma making that absolute. In a constantly changing world, this sooner or later clashes with reality.

    Since this post is about academic versus experiential ways of knowing - I'll throw in a bit of personal experience here: I grew up in the former GDR/East-Germany and was properly indoctrinated (meaning I did believe it) into the belief system of Marxism-Leninism which aimed at installing Communism, but ended up in what we called "real-existing socialism" and there was no way you could question certain things or they would have locked you up. As simple as that. After the change (I was only 17 when the Berlin wall came down) I began to learn all sorts of things which I had no access to before and soon enough I started to think about religion as well. In fact, many of my relatives are believing Christians, but my parents had decided not to send us to religious instruction. I began to see the similarities between these two belief systems, only that the religious one is anchored in the idea of the supernatural and the other is just based on a grand idea of equality. Later on I discovered German thinkers who did the same, only professionally. One outstanding example is Joachim Kahl (Marburg) who left the church after having studied theology (he simply could not go on believing the way he did before) and then, as quite a number of people in the 1960 in West-Germany, instead started to believe in Marxism. Only after the change he realised that this is just another belief system that runs counter to reality and consequently said good bye a second time.

    The answer, of course, is not to fall for an absolute relativism, meaning it is reasonable to assume that we can know about the world, and even if that knowledge is uncertain, it still is sufficiently certain to live our life.* It simply means that we have to become aware of the assumptions underlying our theories, ask ourselves if they are still reasonable to make and keep on working towards making the unknown known. We are doing ourselves a great disservice when instead we choose to simply declare the unknown to be the work of God (whatever that concept means - I still have not slightest idea). Is that what you mean with god of the gaps, Karen?

    *and by the way, this amazing technology that allows us to communicate across the Atlantic is a very convincing proof of our knowledge of the world - it is not perfect, but it doesn't have to be. Just as much as we don't have to be perfect, we just need to do our imperfect best.

    Last modified: Friday, October 05, 2018 7:45 AM | Anonymous
  • Friday, October 05, 2018 2:28 PM
    Reply # 6709178 on 6585449

    Yes, that's what I mean. In reading your post, I realize that the justification for scientists filling the gaps with nature instead of with god is that this assumption is necessary for scientists to make in order to motivate further scientific investigation into those gaps. 

    I guess Sahtouris and others might appreciate scientists being more explicit that certain types of questions cannot be answered by the scientific method. Like what meaning all these facts add up to in the big picture of things.

  • Saturday, October 06, 2018 1:42 PM
    Reply # 6710206 on 6585449

    I just read a book by Richard A. Muller, an experimental physicist called "Now - The Physics of Time." The aim of the book is to offer a different "arrow of time" than the most widely accepted one: increasing entropy. While he may or may not be correct in his proposal that it is the expansion of space-time itself causing this arrow, what I found more valuable is not only his explanation of some difficult concepts in physics, but more so, on the limitations of what science can discover.  He protests against what he calls "physicalism," and others call "scientism:"  the assertion that if science cannot measure something, then it isn't knowable or worth knowing.  He points out that this is yet another ideological based dogma, and refutes it with some well known examples.  For example, science can study and study what the color blue is by its wavelength, how those light waves are received by the retina, processed by the brain, etc. and still, science cannot ultimately claim to measure or understand what the subjective experience of blue is. He gives other important examples as well. Admittedly, I especially like him because he is the physicist that is stating nearly exactly as I have stated to others about its limitations.   For example, he points out that science has no equation that predicts or explains the phenomenon of "life" even at its most basic level, nevermind explain the phenomenon of consciousness. Hence, it is dogmatic and hubristic to proclaim that science has determined that there is no free will.   Sorry to sound boastful, but I've said the exact same thing!  When I've made these statements in the past, the typical retort was that "well, life is nature's way of trying to optimize energy flows."  That's not a true explanation, however, and one can propose and cite many other ways for the universe to expend its energy flows, nevermind it still doesn't explain this incredible phenomenon.

    End conclusion: yes, there are many flavors of dogma, not just religious, but nearly any ideology that proclaims to be the answer to the Truth.  In short, it's complex out there.   

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