[WDYL] Ways of Knowing

In my one of my favorite classes in college, I learned about the concept of different Ways of Knowing — a formalized structure in the Theory of Knowledge that describes how knowledge becomes accessible to an individual. And while this framework is interesting to me, I am also far from formally trained or even extensively researched in this field. As such, I hope to use the general thrust of the idea of Ways of Knowing to appropriate the term within the societal context as different “ways of knowing” (lowercase).

So, what are the ways we learn new information as humankind? It would be pointless to count because they’re…innumerable. But we can enumerate a few to get us started: mythology, artistry, storytelling, philosophy, mathematics, religion — all ways of creating and disseminating knowledge with different goals and priorities. Quickly, though, I’d like to focus on democracy and science.

First, to make the case that both are ways of knowing —

Science, clearly, is a way of knowing. Its primary ethos promotes the creation of knowledge in the context of our universe. The abstracted view of science sees a process of knowledge creation in the form of a cycle: problem → question → research → evidence → explanation → correction. In other words, when a problem arises, so does a question (or set of questions). From the question, research is conducted, which provides evidence for an explanation that answers the original question. Crucially, this explanation is critiqued and corrected as is necessary, as other, new understandings provide evidence that outweighs the credibility of the original.

Democracy can also be interpreted as a way of knowing. While the primary purpose of democracy is to organize and govern a body, it can also be viewed as a method through which knowledge is created, maintained, challenged, and dispersed. In fact, a democracy can be seen as an instantiation of the scientific process with a less strict implementation than science proper.

In democracy, the cycle looks like this: a problem arises in society, followed by a list of questions that proliferate. (How do we balance the needs of one party against another? How do we account for this need in the presence of limited resources? How do we allocate money and power?) The governing body, the people, research these questions and weigh the evidence to create explanations that answer these questions. Finally, if enough support exists, or the tides of democracy change direction, the explanations are corrected.

There exist several differences in these processes, but the most glaring must be in the space between explanation and correction: the distribution and certification of knowledge.

Here, in science, knowledge is certified through publication and thorough peer review. In theory, given an infinite timescale or infinite research power, you could argue that all finite knowledge discoverable within the bounds of time would be discovered through this process…which is pretty damn awesome. The slow, continuous, and measured march of science works to produce a body of knowledge that is accurate, precise, and useful.

But in democracy, the scary truth is that knowledge is certified by the people. The priorities of humans change as time progresses and the Overton window shifts, stretches, and shrinks. If you believe in moral absolutism, then you might argue that democracy, like science, marches slowly toward truth (and thus justice). But if you don’t…then you’re in for a ride.

We are all responsible for everything our government does. And that’s terrifying.