Sunday, September 13, 2009

On How We Know: Introduction

This is something that I have been thinking about for some time now, but until now I have not tried to write it all down. I had even chosen the current title for this work that I have been planning to write, but I could not find a proper way of approaching it until I recently came across a talk (mp3) by Truman G. Madsen, which coincidentally had the same title (and subject) of my current essay. When I heard that talk it was as if I were listening to the words that I had been trying to say for some time but could not quite find the correct way of expressing them.

In approaching this topic I will focus on what Brother Madsen referred to as "five main modes" of knowing "that have been appealed to in all the traditions, philosophical or religious". These five modes or ways of knowing and the emphasis that each one gets, by and large are what distinguishes and differentiates different philosophical or religious traditions. This is to say that a particular philosophy or religion can be defined by which of the five modes that tradition either promotes or dismisses as invalid. I find it interesting that as Brother Madsen points out, "I can report, too, that from my judgment those five modes are harmonized and balanced in our living tradition more effectively than in any other tradition I know." I find this statement particularly important to understanding not only our LDS tradition but also in understanding all other traditions. In this respect I will cover topics not addressed by Brother Madsen and mention specific traditions and how they relate to these five modes. This post is intended to be an introduction to which I will later take a more in depth look at each one of these five modes of knowing.

As explained by Brother Madsen the five modes of knowing found in all of philosophical and religious tradition are: "an appeal to reason, an appeal to sense experience, to pragmatic trial and error, to authority--the word of the experts--and, finally, to something a bit ambiguous called 'intuition.'"

First, appeal to reason. As a formal tradition this goes back to the Greeks especially Plato, but the most modern and widely known tradition founded on appeals to reason is that of Kantianism, or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. To put it briefly, an appeal to reason insists that we know or gain knowledge about the world by "using our minds", or "philosophical reflection" as Plato put it, to figure out how things are. A more common name for reason would be "book-learning". This is to say that if it can be read in a book, and learned from a book then it can be used as an appeal to reason. This is particularly evident in our schools as they are inherently geared towards a reasoning environment. We should not misunderstand and think that this means reason is simply reading enough books and being able to repeat back verbatim what is written, but that reason has its basis in the written word, or in the "Great Conversation" that has been going on for several thousand years now. Those that hold strongly to this tradition are known as Rationalists.

The key here is that we are attempting to use reason to figure out how the world works, and that includes both finding out facts about the world and being able to fit them together in a way that makes sense.

Second, sense experience. This mode of knowing encompasses the five senses, or as some in religious traditions might say the six senses, with the sixth sense frequently referring to the feelings of either the Spirit or one's spirit. This aspect of knowing focuses on one's personal sensory experiences, and has been the subject of doubt, debate and inquiry from the likes of Rene Descartes, David Hume and other skeptics.

To give a simple example of the different approaches between an appeal to reason and an appeal to sense experience I will use an example of a triangle. An appeal to reason would teach what a triangle is by saying that it is a three sided figure made up of three straight lines. An appeal to sense experience would show a drawing of a triangle and say, "This is a triangle." The merits and problems of both these approaches forms the basis of many of the great philosophic debates on how we know. I will not dwell on those debates here, but I will point out as I mentioned before that the purpose of this essay is to show how all five modes are harmonized and balanced in the LDS tradition.

Thus to put it succinctly, and appeal sense experience is anything that deals with the five senses.

Third, pragmatic trial and error. Those that hold strongly to this tradition and that of sense experience are known as Empiricists. This method of discovering the world is the foundation of modern science. In science, no matter how good an idea is, there is no support for any idea, theory or reasoning until there is "empirical evidence" to prove it. This means that the ultimate recourse of our knowledge is founded in the real world and that something is not true simply because it is "logical" or even because it is a good idea. It must stand up to a trial or comparison to what we observe in the world. Of necessity this is related to sense experience but is distinct from it in that pragmatic trial and error does not begin with sense experience but rather with reason. This is to say that a pragmatic approach begins in the same way as an appeal to reason but ultimately it differs from it in that there must also be agreement with sense experience which is the "ultimate court of appeal" for the pragmatic approach.

This difference is the defining characteristic of the endless debate between Rationalists and Empiricists. On the one hand Rationalists argue that all things must be reasoned out in one way or another and that therefore reason is the foundation of knowledge. Empiricists counter that thinking is useless (or even impossible) without sense experience and that ultimately all things must be brought back to sensory data and thus sense experience is the foundation of knowledge.

As I pointed out in the beginning, an emphasis of any one (or more) of these modes of knowing at the expense of or in lieu of any of the others is what distinguishes and differentiates different philosophical or religious traditions. We can see this with the debate between Empiricists and Rationalists, but as Brother Madsen pointed out in LDS thought all modes of knowing "are harmonized and balanced", meaning that the distinctive feature of LDS theology is an acceptance of all of the modes of knowing. The importance of this mode of knowing in LDS theology is seen in our emphasis on having our own experience and also why it was necessary for Christ to gain experience through the atonement.

Fourth, "authority--the word of the experts". This mode of knowing is fairly self-explanatory and it would be more illuminating to show how it is and is not used. From an external point of view all of religious knowledge would be authoritative, or being derived from authoritative sources. This has a lot of truth in it due to the authoritative nature of scripture, and thus the need to cite scripture tie everything back to some authoritative statement. In some cases this is a major criticism of religious thought because an appeal to authority, especially religious authority, does not allow for debate, criticism or dissent.

In contrast scientific inquiry is filled with appeals to authority but with the oft stated caveat that even the authorities and experts can be wrong. In fact, in science classes when ever a scientific principle is taught authoritatively it is always tempered with the reminder that the current theory replaced a previously authoritative theory. This is the principle of scientific progression. The equivalent "progression" is apparently lacking in religion, and this is the main source of criticism of the authoritative nature of religion.

Thus to an outsider religious doctrine takes on the appearance of being authoritative because it was said by someone who had authority, and they had authority because they made authoritative statements. In stark contrast with this is LDS thought which readily accepts and uses appeals to authority but with the critical difference that the statements can be proven and are open to independent and personal verification. The key here is that the authoritative statements are fundamentally related to our interaction with reality and thus are subject to all the other modes of knowing.

And last, intuition. This is a difficult one as it is so hard to define and to predict. As Brother Madsen says it is "a bit ambiguous". It would seem that the reason for this ambiguity would seem to be that one must have an intuitive understanding of intuition in order to understand it. The circularity of intuiting intuition has been the source of many headaches in philosophy. I will not cover intuition to any degree here (I will cover it later) but I will mention how it comes up in LDS theology.

The general view is that intuition is all of the accumulated knowledge that we possess prior to our birth. This view requires the understanding that we lived, learned and grew as spirits before we were born. With this perspective it is natural that the ideas and principles that we knew prior to this life would continue with us here and that so much of our learning is just relearning, or re-cognition of what we have previously known. One manifestation of intuition is where we hear something said or explained and it instantly makes perfect sense to us. It is as if we are hearing the word that we have been trying to say for some time but have been unable to find the correct words to say it. That happened to me when I first heard the talk by Truman Madsen on how we know, and it was that talk that gave me a framework in which to place my thoughts to begin this process.

So those are the five basic ways of knowing. I should stress that I do not consider these five ways to be fundamental, or that the fact that there are five is fundamental, but rather this framework is just convenient for explaining how we know things. The purpose of this and future essays is to show that the five modes of knowing are harmonized and balanced in LDS thought and that all are valid forms of knowing. Also it is my intention to show that much of the philosophical and religious confusion that exists is due to the fact that different traditions tend to over-emphasize one or more of these modes at the expense of the others or even actively disparage one or more of these modes. It is my assertion that none of these modes of knowing can be ignored without denying yourself some aspect of how we know.

On How We Know: Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Reason

    1. The Prerequisite of Reason

  3. Sense Experience

    1. "Why do you doubt your senses?"

    2. The Sixth Sense

  4. Pragmatic Trial and Error

  5. Authority

  6. Intuition

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Empirical Basis for Honesty and Morality

The other day I came across an interesting talk at The subject matter I found very enlightening.

There are several implications to what Dr. Ariely has shown here. I will start with the one that he explicitly mentions, the stock market. Based on his work it would imply that stock markets would always contribute to dishonest behavior. Because stocks, bonds and securities are a step away or more from actual money or commodities people will naturally try to cheat at trading them. This point was made with his test where subjects were given tokens in reward for answering questions right. As he pointed out, that one additional step lead more people to cheat. This would seem to imply that an unregulated stock market will always fail due to dishonest and unethical practices.

Based on his work we could conclude that there are only two ways to have a stock, bond or securities market that will not be overrun by dishonest behavior sooner or later. The first is heavy regulation (similar to the control set where everyone turned in their tests to be graded and were paid accordingly). The second is to have a consistent moral system and to constantly remind the participants of it (his example where test subjects were asked to recall the 10 commandments).

These ideas can be extended into other areas, such as corporate management, government bureaucracy, classroom administration and business transactions. On the one hand most problems with dishonesty can be taken care of through either regulation or reminding people of their moral codes. In the absence of a moral code, or a consistent moral code, it would seem that the only way to keep most people honest would be through active regulation of their actions. This of course runs into the problem of who will then regulate the regulators etc.. It would seem that the easier option would be to simply remind people of their moral code. This seems to be the route taken by the University of North Carolina.

At UNC all students are required to sign the university honor code, and also whenever they turn in an assignment they are required to write a note stating that what they are turning in is their own work (i.e. they did not cheat) and then they must then sign it. This is done on every test, paper, lab report and homework assignment (as an interesting note, this is required of all undergraduates but for graduate students this requirement is hardly ever enforced, but for graduate students there is a greater expectation of maturity, and the punishment for cheating is usually much more severe). So upon watching Dr. Ariely's talk I realized that the UNC policy of signing the honor code for everything including single page homework assignments was an attempt to remind the students of their "moral code" and to try to prevent most cases of cheating. The efficacy of this particular method is debatable and open to interpretation.

This effort to reduce dishonesty may be intentional, but after reflecting on it there are many places where this method of reducing dishonesty is used almost unintentionally. In the case of the BYU testing center there are pictures of Jesus and Karl G. Maeser along with his famous chalk circle quote. These serve as reminders of the BYU honor code and the moral system in general that inspired it. These pictures, quotes and reminders were placed with the intention of reminding people about their moral duties and thus preventing, to some degree, cheating.

This method does not prevent all cheating but it does work to prevent the majority of it, because as Dr. Ariely pointed out, the increase in cheating did not come from one or two individuals who "skewed the curve" but rather from a significant portion of the people cheating just a little bit. So the purpose of using the moral reminders is not to prevent all cheating but to prevent almost everyone from doing it. The rest of the people can be taken care of through regulation.

In the case where moral reminders are not allowed or are not permissible then the default to preventing unethical behavior must be through regulation, or enforcement of specific rules. Again to show this I turn to the honor codes of both UNC and BYU. A quick comparison between the two shows that the UNC code (known as "The Instrument") is much much longer. I think a pdf version of it is about 50-60 pages long. On the other hand the core of the BYU honor code consists of nine short statements (one line each) and then four specific policies. The whole code, including disciplinary policies and procedures is only slightly longer than the Preamble to the UNC honor code. Why the difference? Again the BYU code relies on a common and consistent moral system that is shared (or should be shared) by everyone at BYU. The main enforcers of the BYU honor code are the students themselves, they are given the duty of reminding themselves and each other about the moral commitment they have made, and in general it works.

The UNC honor code is much longer and full of lots of rules and regulations. Despite this BYU has arguably a stricter honor code. So again why the difference? The UNC code does not (and some would say could not) rely on a common moral system shared by the students and thus it (meaning the honor code and UNC in general) must create its own moral framework. In the absence of the ability to appeal to a moral code we are either left to deal with people cheating (being unethical, if only to a small degree) or have to resort to imposing systems of rules and regulations.

So now let us consider these ideas in the most general sense, that of our lives in general. Here it would seem that we have three options: 1. Live without any means of controlling unethical behavior, 2. Prevent unethical behavior by reminding people about their common moral code or, 3. Prevent unethical behavior through rules and regulations.

With option #3 rules must be made for all instances, possibilities, contingencies and situations. The problem with this option is that we eventually end up with a long document detailing all the rules as in the case with the UNC honor code, or worse the US tax code. With option #2 the resulting code of conduct may be greatly reduced (9 lines of general guidelines, or 10 commandments) but it requires that each and every person be committed to living by the code and be constantly reminded of it. This requires more personal involvement and more personal investment to learning and living by the moral system but overall the "cost" or "overhead" of the moral code is greatly reduced. Option #1 is not desirable and is the whole reason for even mentioning options 2 and 3. More later.