Thursday, March 11, 2010

Other ways of knowing: Law?

When people say the phrase "other ways of knowing", they almost always refer to spirituality or religion as an alternative to science.  I don't think spirituality or religion are valid ways of knowing.  That doesn't necessarily mean they have nothing to offer, it just means that among the things they offer, truth is not one of them.

But of course, that doesn't necessarily imply that science is the only way of knowing.  I recently took a class that compared evidentiary practices in different disciplines, and I have been firmly convinced that science is not the only way of knowing.

Case in point, a court of law is a way of knowing whether the defendant is guilty of some crime.  A court of law involves lawyers to present the evidence, juries to make inferences from the evidence, and judges to oversee the whole process.  The evidence consists of testimony, writings, and objects.  None of the people involved need be scientists.

Some of you may feel that the imperfections of law somehow disqualify it as a "way of knowing".  Think of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder, even though we're pretty sure he did it.  But who among us is so naive to say science is perfect?  Personally, I feel that the scientific discipline follows higher standards than law, but it would be quite arbitrary and self-serving to pick a standard which is just low enough to qualify science as a "way of knowing", but just high enough to disqualify law.

Another possible objection is that a court of law is merely practicing a kind of science, if not the formal discipline of science.  Perhaps so.  But we say this in the same sense that we say toddlers are "natural scientists" whenever they tear wings off flies to watch their reactions.  As much as I love framing kids as little scientists, as if all humans had a natural capacity for science, it makes about as much sense to call them "little lawyers" or "little jurors".  Everyone has the natural capacity to be a juror.

So if anyone asks you if there are other ways of knowing besides science, you can say, "Yes.  A court of law is another way of discerning truth."

Now that we have a specific example of "another way of knowing", we can get the ball rolling and think of more examples.  How about history?  And journalism?  As much as we may criticize journalism, it is surely better than random guessing.

I propose that skepticism is another "way of knowing", strongly influenced by science, but different from it.  Skepticism has informal rules about how to find evidence, how much weight to give different kinds of evidence, and how to make inferences from that evidence.  Unlike the other disciplines, skepticism is a discipline for lay people.  You don't need to be a scientist to do it, except in the sense that we're all scientists... in our hearts.

5 comments:

DeralterChemiker said...

I feel that the primary virtue of the rule of law is that it brings contentious issues to a final and usually peaceful conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusion is not always correct.

Jeffrey Ellis said...

I would say there are no "ways of knowing" -- there are only ways of forming opinions and making decisions.

I would agree that skepticism is slightly different than science as a "way of forming opinions" only in that skepticism is a bit more broad.

I suppose legal proceedings does qualify as another "way of forming opinions and making decisions" but not as good a one as science or skepticism. Too much spin doctoring and playing on the cognitive biases of the jury.

Jaden said...

I'm curious - what would it take to convince you that spiritual and/or religious explanations are valid ways of knowing (at least certain things)?

Also, do you think philosophical methods, which seem unscientific in the strict sense of the word, are valid ways of knowing things?

I think there is a common thread between hard science and law - both disciplines rely on evidence. Empirical, circumstantial, whatever. And I think evidence is a good way of going about finding things out. I'm not so sure, however, that science and scientific ways of finding things out (law, history, even philosophy...all evidence-based) are the only valid ways of knowing.
I don't mean to say that medieval religious mystics spoke to God and received knowledge about the world. I'm just suggesting that perhaps there are more immediate, non-evidential ways of knowing (although it would be hard to verify that these ways are valid and actually generate true discoveries or facts about the world).

For example, I had an unexpected and profound experience of love a while back. I interpreted this to be a religious experience ("God's love"). Not too many religious people like to admit this, but it's likely that this experience has a psychobiological explanation that leaves little room for the veridicality of my religious experience. Naturally, I'm concerned about this issue and am split between competing explanations for my experience.

Just an interesting thought that might provoke conversation :)

miller said...

I suppose there are (at least) two ways of validating a "way of knowing". One is through logical justification. The other is through cross-validation with other ways of knowing.

For example, we know that reading history can tell you truths about the past because history was written by people who were there to see it. That's a logical justification. We also know that history is valid because we can compare its results with scientific evidence (eg looking at the debris from Mt. Vesuvius).

I'm simplifying a lot, but you get the picture.

An apologist would tell you, BTW, that a psychobiological explanation is not mutually exclusive with a more religious explanation.

The Barefoot Bum said...

All these ways of knowing, however, have something in common, something important: they are all processes to determine the simplest explanation for some empirically obtained evidence. This is an essential property common to all useful ways of knowing things.

The strategy of the epistemic pluralists is to assert that if there are eight skitty zillion ways of knowing, then why exclude religion or spirituality merely because they do not resemble one or two or even all of those ways of knowing? After all, if there are already many different ways of knowing, then each necessarily differs from all the others in some respect.

A purely pragmatic argument is much less useful. First, you have to actually collect massive amounts of data to prove or disprove pragmatic utility. Second, who says pragmatic utility ought to be the sine qua non of an epistemic method? What's the pragmatic utility for me personally to know that the Milky Way is ~100,000 ly across?

The pragmatic argument for science is indirect: we establish the essential feature of science using the pragmatic argument: only the general evidentiary, empirical method ever gives pragmatically useful statements. Therefore we can argue that all the statements established by this method are epistemic (although potentially mistaken*), even those statements that don't happen to be pragmatically useful.

*Whether an epistemic method can ever give incorrect results (i.e. we can think we know something that's actually false) is a subtle philosophical issue in its own right, and beyond the scope of this comment.