The study of how we come to know things, I think, is THE most important thing to keep in mind when sharing your faith, preaching, casting a vision, and communication in general. As you are communicating, the question in everyone’s minds is: “how do you know that?”
You are thinking it right now! This question is especially prominent when the person talking to you, is saying something you disagree with. You will look for any possible flaw in their message, so you don’t have to deem it as true. Keep an open mind as you read through. This post is long, and some what technical. Let’s get plugged into leadership and look at the knowing of knowing.
Empiricism is the belief that knowledge about what is real is obtained through the five senses. When we are born we have what Philosopher John Locke called a blank slate or tabula rasa. There was nothing there at our birth and it is only through us using our senses and experiencing to world around us that we being to gain knowledge about the world. Every one of us is on this journey through life in a world of real things. What do ‘real’ things mean? It means that objects have properties. For example, the chair that I am sitting is made of wood, has padding on the top and takes up space in the room or has volume, to be more technical. I can only know any of this because I am using my senses to experience the chair. The chair has those characteristics whether or not I am experiencing them or not. It as if the chair is impressing its properties on my mind as I experience it.
Other philosophers in the past, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, would believe that we are born with the idea of chariness already in my mind. In another realm, the perfect realm of being, there is the perfect chair that all other chairs get there chariness or share the essence of the chair with. The objective things that we seek are in that other realm, and we are born with those ideas in our minds. Plato called them forms or ideas. So this world that looks so real to us is constantly changing. Philosophers like Plato would then claim that we cannot have knowledge about anything if everything is continually changing. The bread in the drawer is brown one day and green the next. It is not the same bread as it was before and cannot be known. Plato claimed that you could only have knowledge of the unchanging, pure, and perfect thing. If we think of our mind as a box, for Plato when we are born there would be something in the box. The ideas of all of these natures or essence of all of the things in this world that it got from the other reality. It would be filled with doggieness, treeness, tableness, chariness, and so on. When saw a dog in this world we would know it is a dog because of the doggieness in the box.
Aristotle and Aquinas shared this belief in universal forms or ideas but for them when you are born the box is empty. It is then through your senses that you experience dogs, chairs, trees, and so on. Through the multiple experiences of similar things that have the essence of dogs, you then have the universal form or idea. The object is impressing its essence or nature out of the thing you sense and put it in the box. The impressing is what is know as an abstraction of the forms. The more things that you experience, the more things are in your “knowledge” box. Once you have something in the box, you can now say that you have knowledge of that thing and the essence it shares. It is important to note that Aristotle and Aquinas believed that you knew not just the idea of the thing in your mind, but the thing itself as it was in reality.
Empiricist like Locke, whom I mentioned before, and Hume would reject the belief in forms and ideas. Locke would agree if we continue the analogy of the mind being a box, which we are born with an empty box. John Locke was a late 17th-century philosopher who heavily weighed in on the debate on about how someone can know reality. Locke believed that things in the material world would impress themselves on our mind through our senses, and then we would have a picture of it to put in our box, not the essence or nature of the thing. Locked believed that the mind(box in our example) and the material part of us made up a person. He would say that all a person was able to do would be to reflect back on the pictures in the box and experience through the senses more of the outside world. Locke would still claim that we had knowledge of the outside world, though. Locke came up with this idea of what he called Primary and Secondary qualities of things in the material world(our world). Primary qualities are the qualities that the physical objects themselves have, not what is in our box. The quality was in the thing itself and belonged to the thing itself. And Secondary qualities are the qualities something has in our box or the picture of it in the box. They aren’t objective in any sense, just our representation of the thing in our box or mind. Think of the color, taste, texture, and sound of the object and you will have the secondary qualities. The trouble with these to qualities was when you tried to imagine something with none of the secondary quartiles you also had no primary quartiles left. The object would still have them, but we would not have any concept of them. There would be nothing in the box. You can’t have a colorless, tasteless, textureless pineapple as those are its secondary qualities and only have the primary. You are left with no distinguishable thing at all.
Hume was another British philosopher doing this thing around the early 18th century. Hume was also considered an empiricist, and like Locke he ultimately rejected the belief in innate or inborn ideas. The major different between Hume and Locke, with regards to what we are with when we are born, is that Hume would say that one didn’t even have a box in the way we are thinking about. He stated that you couldn’t even have a box because you never experienced a box to have a concept of a box. Without an analogy, meaning you cannot have a mind in the way we were thinking about it because we have no experience of a mind, to begin with, and for Hume, all knowledge comes through sense experience. So no sense experience of a mind, at all separate from the senses, no mind. Using our analogy, you don’t have a box to put anything in; you are just a series of experiences. Hume also denied that knowledge cannot be gained by drawing out the logical consequence of the ideas in our minds. For Hume sense data was all only data that existed, so transcendent metaphysical truth claims like the existence of God were ultimately unknowable and that lead Hume to be an Atheist. Hume starting point for knowledge become the scientific method that was popular at the time and is still popular today. But this leads him to another problem. It is known as the Problem of Induction. This issue states that just because something was observed to happen in the past, like an apple falling from a tree, that we cannot assume that it will also fall from a tree. This belief seems to be a major problem for science. If the conditions of an experiment are the same, we should expect the same results, and that is what we observe then it can say that we have knowledge about that event. Hume concluded that even though it didn’t seem to make much sense, it still appeared to work.
Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Hume were all considered empiricist even though they had different beliefs about how we can know things, or how we put things in our knowledge box(or even if we have one). But do any of the empiricist ideas work and account for all the data? Well even in asking that question we are making an assumption that we have data to evaluate in the first place and we have to ask, by what method did we get that data? Was it by using our senses alone? If it was then, you are an empiricist of some type. Was some of it by senses, but some of it already there, or arrived at through reason alone? If it was, you are what is called a rationalist. Ratio is Latin for reason. Aquinas does not think that we can come ideas without any experiences at all, so he is not a pure rationalist. He also doesn’t hold to Locke belief that ideas gain only through experience are it either. Aquinas takes a middle of the road position. One where we can use our experience of the world around us, using our five senses, to then use reason through deduction to come up with knowledge of reality. I would hold this same view. A sort of soft empiricism. I too would reject inborn or innate ideas, or us being born with things in our box, but think that we can use inductive and deductive arguments and reasoning from our experience back to what is genuine and real about this world, and the transcendent world, or that which is beyond our world. For example, if all humans are mortal and I am I a human, you don’t have to observe me dying to say it is true that I am mortal. But it is our general experience that will tell us that humans are mortal. We need that first bit of data that we gained through experience to know the truth of the conclusion. We also can use our experience to tell us that I am in fact a human and that we even know what a human is. If someone held to Hume’s view, he couldn’t say for sure that I would be mortal until the day I did die. For him, that past can’t tell us for sure what the future holds. Hume just shrugged his shoulders and claims “it seems to work.” The rationalist starts with what is on the inside and works our, and the empiricist starts with what he is given from the outside to work out knowledge.