Three ways of gaining knowledge
Published on 14 March 2020
Today I would like to talk briefly about the three ways that we generally acquire knowledge and arrive at conclusions. The three ways under consideration are experience, reasoning and revelation. Each is important and each is inseparably linked to the others. The first two are subjects of an eternal battle between empiricists and rationalists.
Let's start with the two easy ones.
The empirical, tangible sensation of a particular phenomenon or entity using one's own senses is what we call experience. Experiences are useful because if they are associated with strong emotions, they are easily remembered. Also, if we have first-hand experience of a particular phenomenon, that usually means we can apply the knowledge gained from that experience best in other situations.
If I get burned once by the flame of a match, if I light another match I will burn myself as well.
We can also use analogy applied to experience in order to form further conclusions without the necessity of verifying the outcome empirically. For instance, if I get burned by the flame of a match and then see flame of a campfire, I can guess that the flame of the campfire will also burn me.
Experience is invaluable in our society, so much so that forms the basis of our job market. An employee with three years experience within a particular field is much more valuable and better paid than one with half a year or none at all.
It is also a relatively quick way of arriving at conclusions, especially in familiar situations. In contrast to reasoning, which is usually quite time-consuming, or revelation which is not as reliable.
The creation of new facts from the already existing ones using logic is what we might call rational reasoning. I've already written about certain flaws
that rationalism has and I doubt those are going to go away any time soon.
Regardless of those though, rationalism is still useful, even though it may sometimes lead us astray, especially in absence of the correct facts (which are fundamentally gathered through experience). It forms the foundation of the scientific method and while in the real world it can rarely be used to prove things definitely, it can be used to disprove and eliminate wrong hypotheses until we are left with something that's good enough.
An example of flawed reasoning that is good enough is in the history of our understanding of free fall. Initially, Aristotle suggested that heavier objects fall to the ground faster than light objects. That view was challenged a few hundred years afterwards, among others by a Byzantine scholar John the Grammarian, who noticed that certain heavy objects do indeed fall faster than light objects, but that could not be attributed to weight only. Later we had Galileo and his famous Tower of Pisa experiment and Newton, who formalised the laws of free fall. And then Einstein came along with the theory of relativity and flipped everything again.
I struggled to find a good name for this because it's observed widely among spiritual and non-spiritual people. A revelation is a spontaneous discovery that does not immediately appear to come from experience or reason. It's a creative idea, a shower thought, a message from above. One might call it a random short circuit in the brain that accidentally produces knowledge that we did not have before.
It is a bit disingenuous to call it random, though, because it seems to most commonly appear during periods of boredom or meditation. You rarely come across good ideas randomly when you're occupied by something else. Note though that you can still come across good ideas while working on something, but those will most likely be a product of reasoning (for instance, "if I worked a bit on improving this tool, that would help me finish my current task").
Rational people tend to discard the value of boredom or meditation because they do not appear to yield immediate results. Meditation is only seen as a last resort — the thing to do when any attempt to reason out of a situation has failed and none of one's experiences can be applied to the problem, either directly or through analogy.
From my (admittedly shallow) understanding of Zen and Eastern philosophies it does indeed seem that they have figured out that there is value in meditation and through the Western fascination with Orient we have started applying these practices as well, although I would imagine it is very rarely done properly. On the other hand though, I think we finally start to understand that addiction to smartphones and the permanent distraction they generate does nothing good for our general state of mind, because it robs us of boredom and the spontaneous opportunities for revelations.
Revelation is Archimedes's "eureka!". The moment when unrelated facts "click" together and form a coherent outcome. Sometimes it's logical — based on what we already know. Other times it might not be so, requiring more thorough experimentation and reasoning to retroactively fit it within the structure of our understanding of the world. Other times it might be completely unreasonable and after a moment of consideration should be discarded as worthless.
Whether you are religious or not, spiritual or not, a scientist or not, a humanist or not, any or none of those, it is good to consider each of those ways as they seem to be common among all humans and each is important.
One cannot base his entire life on experience (as it would inevitably end in his swift demise), on reasoning (because there are limits to human understanding) or on revelation (because it would inevitably lead to madness).
Instead, a golden mean should be sought in gathering knowledge from each of these sources.
Coda: about prayer
Effective prayer is not easy. Indeed, for some prayer is just a mindless recitation of a memorized text. However it is much more than that.
Prayer, for me, should be the combination of all three of these methods. It is meditation, an attempt to clear your head and listen to the transcendent, listen to God. It is also consideration of past experiences and, to a degree, look for solutions to problems.
It is of course much more than that as well, but it's definitely a good start to understanding it.