Monday, August 06, 2007

Knowledge is subjective experience

In an earlier post, I discussed the problem of religious epistemology. This came up again this morning.

An indirect acquaintance recently died. During the hospice stage (which apparently was very well managed), she wanted to reconcile with her husband about some difficulties they had experienced over the long life of their marriage. (Overall the marriage was apparently fine. But there were some outstanding issues between them that they had never resolved.)

Since this person was associated with a religion to which she was committed—one that believes in an afterlife—I wondered why it was important for her that the reconciliation occur before she died. Why couldn't it wait until afterwards? The answer from someone with a sophisticated religious perspective is that one doesn't know what's going to happen after one dies. It may not be possible to have the sort of reconciliation that one can have beforehand.

Given the volume of religious conservatives in this country today—who seem to be so sure about all their religious beliefs—this struck me as strange. Why wasn't she sure about the afterlife and what it would be like? The answer was that we know nothing about the afterlife except what is written in the Bible—and the Bible is not always clear about it. That's why I came back to the previous post about religious epistemology.

But this seems to raise a larger issue. If religious belief if based on an algebra that one performs on propositions found in the Bible—one decides which of them are to be taken literally, which are to be taken figuratively, etc.—then that sort of knowledge is very symbolic. It's all about propositions and deciding which ones are to be taken as true.

But I don't think knowledge is like that. When I say I know that the keys on my keyboard are black with white lettering, I'm talking about direct experience. That sort of knowledge is subjective. Even knowledge that I accept as a result of hearing or reading words only becomes knowledge when I internalize it and make it equivalent to subjective experience. This is something like what is called the "maker's knowledge" position, which is that one doesn't really understand something unless one can make it. (This came up over the weekend also. See, for example, "Skepticism and the Philosophy of Language in Early Modern Thought.")

I don't have time now to explore this in detail, but it seems to me to be the same sentiment that says that students aren't demonstrating something if they just parrot back an answer. To prove they know something, they must be able to use the information. But to do that means that the knowledge is in some sense internalized and not just a bunch of memorized propositions.

So the bottom line here is that for something to be called knowledge it has to be internalized either as direct subjective experience or an equivalent memory-like phenomenon that we have evolved to be able to produce in ourselves. Some of that internalized indirect subjectively experienced knowledge is what some religious people call faith.

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