Epistemological Nature of Scientific and Religious Knowledge


Nature of Scientific and Religious Knowledge

Knowledge acquisition in all aspects of life, especially in the field of studies is a necessity and so cannot be negated. But in order to ascertain the falsification and truthfulness of such knowledge, there is the need to probe critically, the foundation, justification and reliability of such knowledge, which epistemology tries to do. This research work is an attempt to Examine the Epistemological Nature of Scientific and Religious Knowledge. The researcher tries to look at the concepts of knowledge, epistemology as theory of knowledge, science, religions before proceeding to look at the epistemology nature of scientific and religious knowledge respectively, after which a conclusion is made that though, scientific and religious knowledge suffered criticism from Popper who asserted that scientific knowledge, from its method, is falsification; and the atheist who said that rational belief in God requires adequate evidence. But such knowledge is to some extent still evidential enough to be relied upon in their respective domain.

INTRODUCTION

The importance of knowledge acquisition as far as man is concerned cannot be overemphasised, as was echoed in the Sacred Book of the Christians, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” Hosea 4:6. The essence of knowledge in the life of a man cannot be denied, hence the need for knowledge becomes paramount. In seeking this knowledge, however, it is pertinent to ask the question as to what kind of knowledge should be sought; which must come to the fore so as to ascertain which knowledge is true, and that which is false. In achieving this, the need for philosophising becomes a necessary tool for critical probing into how such knowledge claims come about. In order to achieve this, we will take a look at what philosophy means, Epistemology as a Theory of Knowledge; its background and meaning, the concept of religion and science, Scientific and Religious knowledge and their epistemological nature, which will be followed by a conclusion.

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

Philosophy is believed to have started from Greece, where the Ionians, Thales of Miletus, Anaximander and Anaximenes, refute and refused the existing religious beliefs of the judgements of their god in punishing those who violate the tradition of their people after which he began to probe deeply into such beliefs.

The word philosophy has several definitions by different scholars in their respective field. For James E. White (1989) philosophy “The critical examination of the basic assumptions of ordinary life and science, and the attempt to justify these assumptions or replace them with more justifiable beliefs”.

Nwala (2010) says, “philosophy could either be understood as a worldview or as a critical discipline. According to him, philosophy as a world-view represents the basic ideas or beliefs a person or group of persons have, while philosophy as a critical inquiry, is a critical and conscious effort to understand the universe, its origin and purpose”. Nwala (2010:7-8). Also citing Omoregbe (1990:3), in his view, said philosophy is a “rational search for answers to the questions that arise in the mind when we reflect on human experience”.

Okorie (2011) in his definition, sees philosophy as “that rational, critical and reflective discipline which raises fundamental question bothering human existence”.

Connections between Philosophy and Development

EPISTEMOLOGY AS THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE

The word epistemology was derived from two Greek words Episteme and “Logos”, which means “knowledge” and “theory” respectively. The word was introduced into English by the Scottish Philosopher James Frederick Ferrier to describe the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. (G&C. Merriam Co. (1913) Noah Porter Ed: Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary), Retrieved 29th January 2014.

To say Epistemology is the theory of knowledge is to say that it is an intellectual activity which probes into nature, origin, foundation, method, validity, extent, limit and reliability of human knowledge (Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, New York, 1901, S.V. Epistemology). As a branch of philosophy, epistemology investigates the process of human cognition. In doing this, it makes attempt to look at all the problems that are associated with the acquisition and justification of knowledge claims. What this means is that Epistemology tries to justify and refute knowledge claims.

Epistemology asks questions like “what can we know?” How did we know we know what we know?”, How true is what we know?”, “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?”, “What do people know?”, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge?”, “What is its structure, and what are its limits?”, “What makes justified beliefs justified?”, “How we are to understand the concept of justification?”, “Is justification internal or external to one’s own mind?”

Epistemology is therefore concerned with the idea of knowledge in the following areas:

  1. It is interested in understanding the process which is involved when a human being becomes conscious of another external world around them. This means that epistemology is interested in the discussion and analysis of the interaction of the human mind with the external world.
  2. Epistemology is also concerned with distinguishing knowledge from mere opinion. In other words, how do we differentiate knowledge from opinion or belief that cannot be justified?
  3. It also concerns itself with the knowledge that is produced in other disciplines.

THE CONCEPT OF KNOWLEDGE

The term knowledge has so many definitions, but we shall concern ourselves only with a few. The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines knowledge as “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of subjects”. Knowledge is, therefore, the awareness and understanding of particular aspects of reality. It is the clear, lucid information gained through the process of reason applied to reality. The traditional approach is that knowledge requires three necessary and sufficient conditions, so that knowledge can then be defined as justified true beliefs.

  • Truth: Since false propositions cannot be known – for something to count as knowledge, it must actually be true. As Aristotle famously (but rather confusingly) expressed it: “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.”
  • Belief: Because one cannot know something that one doesn’t even believe in, the statement “I know x, but I don’t believe that x is true” is contradictory.
  • Justification: as opposed to believing in something purely as a matter of luck.

How is Knowledge Acquired?

Propositional knowledge can be of two types, depending on its source:

  • a priori (or non-empirical), where knowledge is possible independently of, or prior to, any experience, and requires only the use of reason (e.g. knowledge of logical truths and of abstract claims); or
  • a posteriori (or empirical), where knowledge is possible only subsequent, or posterior, to certain sensory experiences, in addition to the use of reason (e.g. knowledge of the colour or shape of a physical object, or knowledge of geographical locations).

Knowledge of empirical facts about the physical world will necessarily involve perception, in other words, the use of the senses. But all knowledge requires some amount of reasoning, the analysis of data and the drawing of inferences. Intuition is often believed to be a sort of direct access to knowledge of the a priori.

Memory allows us to know something that we knew in the past, even, perhaps, if we no longer remember the original justification. Knowledge can also be transmitted from one individual to another via testimony (that is, my justification for a particular belief could amount to the fact that some trusted source has told me that it is true).

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There are a few main theories of knowledge acquisition:

  • Empiricism, which emphasizes the role of experience, especially experience based on perceptual observations by the five senses in the formation of ideas, while discounting the notion of innate ideas. Refinements of this basic principle led to Phenomenalism, Positivism, Scientism and Logical Positivism.
  • Rationalism, which holds that knowledge is not derived from experience, but rather is acquired by a priori processes or is innate (in the form of concepts) or intuitive.
  • Representationalism (or Indirect Realism or Epistemological Dualism), which holds that the world we see in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality replica of that world in an internal representation.
  • Constructivism (or Constructionism), which presupposes that all knowledge is “constructed”, in that it is contingent on convention, human perception and social experience.

What can People Know?

The fact that any given justification of knowledge will itself depend on another belief for its justification appears to lead to an infinite regress.

Scepticism begins with the apparent impossibility of completing this infinite chain of reasoning and argues that, ultimately, no beliefs are justified and therefore no one really knows anything.

Fallibilism also claims that absolute certainty about knowledge is impossible, or at least that all claims to knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken. Unlike Skepticism, however, Fallibilism does not imply the need to abandon our knowledge, just to recognize that, because empirical knowledge can be revised by further observation, any of the things we take as knowledge might possibly turn out to be false.

THE CONCEPT OF SCIENCE: WHAT IS IT?

The word “science” is derived from the Latin word scientia, which is knowledge based on demonstrable and reproducible data, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. True to this definition, science aims for measurable results through testing and analysis. Science is based on fact, not opinion or preferences. The process of science is designed to challenge ideas through research. One important aspect of the scientific process is that it is focused only on the natural world, according to the University of California. Anything that is considered supernatural does not fit into the definition of science.

The Scientific Method

When conducting research, scientists use the scientific method to collect measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis (often in the form of an if/then statement), the results aiming to support or contradict a theory.

The steps of the scientific method go something like this:

  1. Make an observation or observations.
  2. Ask questions about the observations and gather information.
  3. Form a hypothesis – a tentative description of what’s been observed, and make predictions based on that hypothesis.
  4. Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment that can be reproduced.
  5. Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary.
  6. Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory. “Replication of methods and results is my favourite step in the scientific method,” Moshe Pritsker, a former post-doctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School and CEO of Jove, told Live Science. “The reproducibility of published experiments is the foundation of science. No reproducibility – no science.”

Science consists of two things: a body of knowledge and the process by which that knowledge is produced. This second component of science provides us with a way of thinking and knowledge about the world. Commonly, we only see the “body of knowledge” component of science. We are presented with scientific concepts in statement form – Earth is round, electrons are negatively charged, our genetic code is contained in our DNA, the universe is 13.7 billion years old – with a little background about the process that led to that knowledge and why we can trust it. But there are a number of things that distinguish the scientific process and give us confidence in the knowledge produced through it.

SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AND ITS EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURE

The Social Dimension

Philosophers who study the social character of scientific knowledge can trace their lineage at least as far as John Stuart Mill. Mill, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Karl Popper all took some type of critical interaction among persons as central to the validation of knowledge claims.

Mill’s arguments occur in his well-known political essay On Liberty, (Mill 1859) rather than in the context of his logical and methodological writings, but he makes it clear that they are to apply to any kind of knowledge or truth claim. Mill argues from the fallibility of human knowers to the necessity of unobstructed opportunity for and practice of the critical discussion of ideas. Only such critical discussion can assure us of the justifiability of the (true) beliefs we do have and can help us avoid falsity or the partiality of belief or opinion framed in the context of just one point of view. Critical interaction maintains the freshness of our reasons and is instrumental in the improvement of both the content and the reasons for our beliefs. The achievement of knowledge, then, is a social or collective, not an individual, matter.

Peirce’s contribution to the social epistemology of science is commonly taken to be his consensual theory of truth: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth, and the object represented is the real.” (Peirce 1878, 133) While often read as meaning that the truth is whatever the community of inquirers converges on in the long run, the notion is interpretable as meaning more precisely either that truth (and “the real”) depends on the agreement of the community of inquirers or that it is an effect of the reality that it will, in the end, produce agreement among inquirers. Whatever the correct reading of this particular statement, Peirce elsewhere makes it clear that, in his view, the truth is both attainable and beyond the reach of any individual. “We individually cannot hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it for the community of philosophers.” (Peirce 1868, 40). Peirce puts great stock in instigating doubt and critical interaction as means to knowledge. Thus, whether his theory of truth is consensual or realist, his view of the practices by which we attain it grants a central place to dialogue and social interaction.

Popper is often treated as a precursor of social epistemology because of his emphasis on the importance of criticism in the development of scientific knowledge. Two concepts of criticism are found in his works (Popper 1963, 1972) and these can be described as logical and practical senses of falsification. The logical sense of falsification is just the structure of a modus tollens argument, in which a hypothesis is falsified by the demonstration that one of its logical consequences is false. This is one notion of criticism, but it is a matter of formal relations between statements. The practical sense of falsification refers to the efforts of scientists to demonstrate the inadequacies of one another’s theories by demonstrating observational shortcomings or conceptual inconsistencies. This is a social activity. For Popper, the methodology of science is falsificationist in both its logical and practical senses, and science progresses through the demonstration by falsification of the untenability of theories and hypotheses. Popper’s logical falsificationism is part of an effort to demarcate genuine science from pseudo-science and has lost its plausibility as a description of scientific methodology as the demarcation project has come under challenge from naturalist and historicist approaches in philosophy of science. While criticism does play an important role in some current approaches in social epistemology, Popper’s own views are more closely approximated by evolutionary epistemology, especially that version that treats cognitive progress as the effect of selection against incorrect theories and hypotheses. In contrast to Mill’s views, for Popper, the function of criticism is to eliminate false theories rather than to improve them.

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The work of Mill, Peirce, and Popper is a resource for philosophers presently exploring the social dimensions of scientific knowledge. However, the current debates are framed in the context of developments in both philosophies of science and in history and social studies of science following the collapse of the logical empiricist consensus. The philosophers of the Vienna Circle are conventionally associated with an uncritical form of positivism and with the logical empiricism that replaced American pragmatism in the 1940s and 1950s. According to some recent scholars, however, they saw natural science as a potent force for progressive social change. (Cartwright, Cat, and Chang 1996; Giere and Richardson, eds., 1996; Uebel 2005) With its grounding in observation and public forms of verification, science for them constituted a superior alternative to what they saw as metaphysical obscurantism, an obscurantism that led not only to bad thinking but too bad politics. While one development of this point of view leads to scientism, the view that any meaningful question can be answered by the methods of science; another development leads to an inquiry into what social conditions promote the growth of scientific knowledge. Logical empiricism, the version of Vienna Circle philosophy that developed in the United States, focused on logical, internal aspects of scientific knowledge and discouraged philosophical inquiry into the social dimensions of science. These came into prominence again after the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962). A new generation of sociologists of science, among them Barry Barnes, Steven Shapin, and Harry Collins, took Kuhn’s emphasis on the role of non-evidential community factors in scientific change even further than he had and argued that scientific judgment was determined by social factors, such as professional interests and political ideologies (Barnes 1977, Shapin 1982, Collins 1983). This family of positions provoked a counter-response among philosophers. These responses are marked by an effort to acknowledge some social dimensions to scientific knowledge while at the same time maintaining its epistemological legitimacy, which they take to be undermined by the new sociology. At the same time, features of the organization of scientific inquiry compel philosophers to consider their implications for the normative analysis of scientific practices.

Philosophy of Science

Working scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; (3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation. Philosophy of science seeks a deep understanding of what these underlying assumptions mean and whether they are valid.

The belief that scientific theories should and do represent metaphysical reality is known as realism. It can be contrasted with anti-realism, the view that the success of science does not depend on it being accurate about unobservable entities such as electrons. One form of anti-realism is idealism, the belief that the mind or consciousness is the most basic essence, and that each mind generates its own reality. In an idealistic worldview, what is true for one mind need not be true for other minds?

There are different schools of thought in the philosophy of science. The most popular position is empiricism, which holds that knowledge is created by a process involving observation and that scientific theories are the result of generalizations from such observations. Empiricism generally encompasses inductivism, a position that tries to explain the way general theories can be justified by the finite number of observations humans can make and hence the finite amount of empirical evidence available to confirm scientific theories. This is necessary because the number of predictions those theories make is infinite, which means that they cannot be known from the finite amount of evidence using deductive logic only. Many versions of empiricism exist, with the predominant ones being bayesianism and the hypothetico-deductive method.

Empiricism has stood in contrast to rationalism, the position originally associated with Descartes, which holds that knowledge is created by the human intellect, not by observation. Critical rationalism is a contrasting 20th-century approach to science, first defined by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. Popper rejected the way that empiricism describes the connection between theory and observation. He claimed that theories are not generated by observation, but that observation is made in the light of theories and that the only way a theory can be affected by observation is when it comes in conflict with it. Popper proposed replacing verifiability with falsifiability as the landmark of scientific theories and replacing induction with falsification as the empirical method. Popper further claimed that there is actually only one universal method, not specific to science: the negative method of criticism, trial and error. It covers all products of the human mind, including science, mathematics, philosophy, and art.

THE CONCEPT OF RELIGION: WHAT IS IT?

The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social”.

The word religion is derived from Latin “religio” (what attaches or retains, moral bond, the anxiety of self-consciousness, scruple) used by the Romans, before Jesus Christ, to indicate the worship of the demons. The origin of “religio” is debated since antiquity. Cicero said it comes from “relegere” (to read again, to re-examine carefully, to gather) in the meaning “to carefully consider the things related to the worship of gods”. Later, Lucretius, Lactantius and Tertullianus see its origin in “religare” (to connect) to refer to “the bond of piety that binds to God”. Initially used for Christianity, the use of the word religion gradually extended to all the forms of social demonstration in connection with sacred.

A religion is, therefore, an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life, the origin of life, or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
Many religions may have organized behaviours, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, holy places, and scriptures. The practice of a religion may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of a deity, gods, or goddesses), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. Religions may also contain mythology.

RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE AND ITS EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURE

Belief in God, or some form of transcendent Real, has been assumed in virtually every culture throughout human history. The issue of the reasonableness or rationality of belief in God or particular beliefs about God typically arises when a religion is confronted with religious competitors or the rise of atheism or agnosticism. In the West, belief in God was assumed in the dominant Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions. God, in this tradition, is the omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good and all-loving Creator of the universe (such a doctrine is sometimes called ‘bare theism’). This article considers the following epistemological issues: reasonableness of belief in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God (“God,” for short), the nature of reason, the claim that belief in God is not rational, defences that it is rational, and approaches that recommend groundless belief in God or philosophical fideism.
Is belief in God rational? The evidentialist objector says “No” due to the lack of evidence. Theists who say “Yes” fall into two main categories: those who claim that there is sufficient evidence and those who claim that evidence is not necessary. Theistic evidentialists contend that there is enough evidence to ground rational belief in God, while Reformed epistemologists contend that evidence is not necessary to ground rational belief in God (but that belief in God is grounded in various characteristic religious experiences). Philosophical fideists deny that belief in God belongs in the realm of the rational. And, of course, all of these theistic claims are widely and enthusiastically disputed by philosophical non-theists.

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The Evidentialist Objection to Belief in God

Belief in God is considered irrational for two primary reasons: lack of evidence and evidence to the contrary (usually the problem of evil, which won’t be discussed in this essay). Note that both of these positions reject the rationality of belief in God on the basis of an inference. Bertrand Russell was once asked if he were to come before God, what he would say to God. Russell replied, “Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence.” Following Alvin Plantinga, we will call the claim that belief in God lacks evidence and is thus irrational the evidentialist objection to belief in God.

The roots of evidentialism may be found in the Enlightenment demand that all beliefs be subjected to the searching criticism of reason; if a belief cannot survive the scrutiny of reason, it is irrational. Kant’s charge is clear: “Dare to use your own reason.” Given increasing awareness of religious options, Hobbes would ask: “If one prophet deceives another, what certainty is there of knowing the will of God, by any other way than that of reason?” Although the Enlightenment elevation of Reason would come to be associated with a corresponding rejection of rational religious belief, many of the great Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists (including, for example, Kant and Hobbes).

The evidentialist objection may be formalized as follows:

(1) Belief in God is rational only if there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

(2) There is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

(3) Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

The evidentialist objection is not offered as a disproof of the existence of God – that is, the conclusion is not “God does not exist.” Rather the conclusion is, even if God were to exist, it would not be reasonable to believe in God. According to the evidentialist objection, rational belief in God hinges on the success of theistic arguments. Prominent evidentialist objectors include David Hume, W. K. Clifford, J. L. Mackie, Bertrand Russell and Michael Scriven. This view is probably held by a large majority of contemporary Western philosophers. Ironically, in most areas of philosophy and life, most philosophers are not (indeed could not be) evidentialists. We shall treat this claim shortly.

The claim that there is not sufficient evidence for belief in God is usually based on a negative assessment of the success of theistic proofs or arguments. Following Hume and Kant, the standard arguments for the existence of God – cosmological, teleological and ontological – are judged to be defective in one respect or another.

The claim that rational belief in God requires the support of evidence or argument is usually rooted in a view of the structure of knowledge that has come to be known as ‘classical foundationalism.’ Classical foundationalists take a pyramid or a house as metaphors for their conceptions of knowledge or rationality. A secure house or pyramid must have secure foundations sufficient to carry the weight of each floor of the house and the roof. A solid, enduring house has a secure foundation with each of the subsequent floors properly attached to that foundation. Ultimately, the foundation carries the weight of the house. In a classical foundationalist conception of knowledge, the foundational beliefs must likewise be secure, enduring and adequate to bear “the weight” of all of the non-foundational or higher-level beliefs. These foundational beliefs are characterized in such a manner to ensure that knowledge is built on a foundation of certitudes (following Descartes). The candidates for these foundational certitudes vary from thinker to thinker but, broadly speaking, reduce to three: if a belief is self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible, it is a proper candidate for inclusion among the foundations of rational belief.

Now let us return to belief in God. Why do evidentialists hold the claim that rational belief in God requires the support of evidence or argument? This is typical because they subscribe to classical foundationalism. A belief can be held without argument or evidence only if it is self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible. Belief in God is not self-evident—it is not such that upon understanding the notion of God, you see that God exists. For example, Bertrand Russell understands the proposition “God exists” but does not see it be true. So, belief in God is not a good candidate for self-evidence. Belief in God is not evident to the senses because God, by definition, transcends the sensory world. God cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled. When people make claims such as “God spoke to me” or “I touched God,” they are using “spoke” and “touched” in a metaphorical sense, not a literal sense; literally, God is beyond the senses. So God’s existence is not evident to the senses. And finally, a person might be wrong about God’s existence and so believe in God cannot be incorrigible. Of course, “it seems to me that God exists” could be incorrigible but God’s seeming existence is a long way from God’s existence!

CONCLUSION

From the foregoing, we can deduce that even though, scientific and religious knowledge suffered criticism from philosophers of science like Popper who asserted that scientific knowledge, from its method, is falsification; and the atheist and evidentialists who requires the evidence or arguments in the rational belief in God is not evidential enough. But such knowledge is evidential enough to be relied upon in their respective domain.

REFERENCES

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Craig, William Lane, and Quentin Smith. Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Durkheim, E. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin, p.10, 1915.
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Gutting, Gary. Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.
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Wilson, Edward O. “The Natural Sciences”. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Reprint ed.). New York, NY: Vintage. pp. 49–72, 1999.

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