Knowledge And How Humans Claim To Have It.

Also Aliens, To Make This Interesting

As we look about the world questions arise and we sentient humans try to answer them. I submit there are three fundamental methods by which humans believe they know things. To illustrate those methods I shall apply them to a very basic question: How many teeth does a horse have?

Theologism

This approach finds answers and truth by conferring with religious authority. To determine how many teeth a horse has one might refer to the Bible, or other religious text. Perhaps one prays to God seeking the answer. One might approach one’s priest/rabbi/minister, or other religious authority, to ask them how many teeth a horse has presuming the priest/rabbi/minister is either just wise in such things or receives special insights from God.

Historically theologism was widely used to answer many questions. From why it did, or did not, rain, to lightening and thunder, the world was explained by reference to the whims of Gods. The approach has also been infamously wrong about many things, to include the whole rain, lightening and thunder stuff. Galileo was sentenced to death (later commuted to house arrest for life) for the heresy of saying the Earth was not the center of the universe.

In truth, theologism remains widely used to this day by many. When presented the question of how old the Earth is many will say less than 10,000 years because they believe the Bible tells them so. They likewise explain the origin of humans based on a Biblical model where God created us in His image. The believers in faith healing when presented with the question of how to get better from an illness claim the answer is to pray to God for health.

Rationalism

Rationalism holds that the answer is found in thinking about the question. One sits down and reasons out how many teeth are in a horses mouth. How many teeth would a horse have? How many teeth does a horse need? For the sufficiently thoughtful the answers will come.

Rationalism is often the building block, the first step, in the next means by which humans attempt to discern reality and truth. When thought suggests that something, a new drug for example, might work one can move on to this next means of addressing the questions our universe presents us. Rationalism can form the hypothesis that is tested with empiricism.

As we shall see, even scientists often claim to know things via rationalism. For starters, rationalism can work. It is the basic means by which the entire science of mathematics was originally created.

Empiricism

Empiricism suggests that the best means of discerning how many teeth are in a horse’s mouth is to open the horse’s mouth and count the teeth. In short, observe. This is the scientific method. One might think there are a certain number of teeth in a horse’s mouth but that hypothesis is tested by actually observing and counting the teeth.

This may seem like a rather Captain Obvious approach to things but sometimes observing is not as easy as just counting teeth in a mouth. Further, under scientific empiricism even the horse question becomes more complex.

I open up a horse’s mouth and I count 40 teeth. Good for me. Under scientific empiricism is the question now answered? Absolutely not. I should count again, maybe I counted wrong the first time. Further, I should count the teeth in not just that one horse, but many horses as it is possible not all horses have the same number of teeth. Perhaps some teeth are hidden and I should examine the skulls of horses and count teeth there.

However, no matter how many horses teeth I count, in no matter how many ways, the question is still not answered. It’s not just about me. Others, following whatever methodology I used, should do the same and get the same results. If they don’t, maybe I counted wrong or am a horse’s teeth fraud.

One of the acid tests of scientific empiricism is reproducibility of results by others. If only one experimenter can get a result, and others doing the same thing can’t, we don’t have science, we have wizardry.

Do Aliens Exist?

Let’s take that question and evaluate it. Some claim to know aliens exist. The argument is that the universe is vast. There are 100 billion stars in a typical galaxy and there are two trillion galaxies in the universe. We simply can’t be so unique as to be the only life in something that big.

You have undoubtedly heard this argument before. You may well have even advanced it or believe it yourself. It has been advanced by scientists too, for example with the famous Drake Equation.

Thing is this argument is not empiricism, it is rationalism. When presented the question of whether aliens exist the means of answering it was to think about it. It concludes aliens exist without observing any aliens, or even any signs of aliens. Both the Drake Equation, and its counter the Fermi Paradox, purport this question of the nature of the universe is answered by thinking about it, and not observation.

Retired lawyer & Army vet in The Villages of Florida. Lifelong: Republican (pre-Trump), Constitution buff, science nerd & dog lover. Twitter: @KeithDB80

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store