There’s a problem for EVERY ‘way of knowing.’

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy...

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy of the Imperial Period (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most famous questions in logic is the Problem of Induction, the difficulty of ultimately justifying the use of inductive reasoning in the sciences, the problem being how to logically validate the conclusions we draw from it.

The main criticism is that induction invokes the uniformity of nature, and this can only be justified inductively, and in so doing, we are arguing in a circle.

So what?

First, deduction itself is also, to a degree, circular. All of formal and symbolic logic is question-begging, and this is because of the very thing that also makes it truth-preserving — whatever truth you start with will automatically follow in full to the conclusion, provided the form or meaning of the argument is valid.

This makes it impossible for a deductive conclusion to be false with solid reasoning and true premises, but it also limits it in that the conclusion cannot go beyond what the premises assume or state. It can highlight or rearrange data already in the premises, but cannot tell us anything that is not already there at least implicitly.

Seeking deduction to discover the undiscovered without data is a mistake, for formal reasoning isn’t designed to work like that. It is a misapplication of an otherwise useful and powerful tool.

This is why the unaided reason has consistently failed in the history of attempts to prove the existence of various gods to those not already convinced of this.

To discover truth, reason needs data. And it needs to admit error. We need reason and experience working as one. I do not think it overbold to say that this is how we get the vast bulk of our knowledge of the world.

But we do not know reality as it is, but through the contributions we bring to our observations via our prior beliefs, our biases, heuristics, expectations — our often flawed interpretations of reality created by our brains and central nervous systems.

That’s the reason induction is so widely used in the sciences; it can tell us new and wholly unexpected things, which deduction cannot. It can go beyond the premises, letting us chart new worlds of understanding.

Induction renders conclusions that follow probably, according to the data and the reliability of the chain of argument we use. Induction thus isn’t deductively certain because it doesn’t need to be. That’s not what it’s intended for.

There are other ways alleged to be alternative, even superior to scientific reasoning and methods in general. These include religious faith, intuition, revelation, inspiration, mystical experience, and authority to note a few.

To invoke these is to imply that conclusions arrived at by any one of them are more reliable for understanding things as they really, really are, and therefore more accurate than other means.

We can then ask the questions,

“By what criterion is this way of knowing better, more reliable, and in what way superior to method ‘X’?”

“What ultimate grounding does THIS method have that makes it more effective in gathering knowledge? How can we correctly say we KNOW it is better?”

If ANY one way of obtaining knowledge needs ultimate grounding, then they ALL do, even your personal favorites.

But maybe none of them actually do. Maybe some are just better than others when they ALL have limits.

Yes, there’s a Problem of Intuition, a Problem of Revelation, a Problem of Authority, a Problem of Faith, in fact, one for every way of knowing that one can bring to mind. All are limited, often severely so on matters of objective fact.

If you say that one way of knowing is superior to another, you are implying in the strongest sense that it is more objective, more likely to lead to knowledge than a competing method, more “truthy” in its factual content.

There’s no way to get around that, even if you openly deny the value of objectivity.

The history of human knowledge, in those areas where progress has been made, shows that the most reliable way to see if an idea works, and reliably answers our questions, is to test that idea or an implication of it against experience, and see how that matches with our expectations or not.

To try it out and see if it works as hoped.

Intuition, revelation, mystical experience, and a variety of other attempts at obtaining knowledge all have one problem. None of these alternates to rational empiricism has any way of showing its own errors, and so steering the one using it nearer to the truth.

You have no way of getting at the truth if you cannot tell if something is false.

Instead, with most of these, there is often only the subjective feeling of certainty, and as someone who has intuitive experiences frequently, I’ve learned — from experience — to not trust my feelings of subjective certainty.

It’s best to test my impressions out before giving them too much weight.

Alleged alternative ways of knowing may indeed be free from doubt, but that doesn’t make them free from error.

For each claim by an alleged authority, there is a counter-authority who says differently; every intuition has its rival somewhere, somewhen, in someone’s mind; and every revelatory experience is often mutually inconsistent with the revelations of others; every faith-claim in one religion contradicts those in another.

Without falling back on empirically testing our claims, experiences and impressions, there doesn’t seem to be any real way around the problem of justifying our claims of fact save through science.

So far.

I submit that there is no ultimate grounding in first principles for any way of knowing, but that it is also doesn’t matter.

It simply will not do to require ultimate grounding for rival means of gaining knowledge while ignoring the lack of the same for one’s own. It’s fallacious, and an illegitimate presumption to demand it when one’s own means fail the same criteria.

That won’t even get into orbit, much less onto the launchpad.

This is why I don’t need a leap of faith to accept science. It’s why I’m suspicious of my own subjective impressions. It is why I am wary of my flashes of insight. It is why I’m skeptical of authority.

But I can see for myself that science works, even when it makes and admits mistakes. Hell, because of that, time and means being available for me to look.

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