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Which is more Certain, Moral Knowledge or

Scientific Knowledge? Which is more Important?

The chief difficulty in regard to knowledge does not arise over derivative knowledge, but over intuitive knowledge. So long as we are dealing with derivative knowledge, we have the test of intuitive knowledge to fall back upon. But in regard to intuitive beliefs, it is by no means easy to discover any criterion by which to distinguish some as true and others as erroneous. In this question it is scarcely possible to reach any very precise result: all our knowledge of truths is infected with some degree of doubt, and a theory which ignored this fact would be plainly wrong.

Bertrand Russell (from The Problems of Philosophy, 1912)

All knowledge must be built up upon our instinctive [i.e. intuitive] beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left.

Bertrand Russell

[This assertion from Bertrand Russell is extremely controversial, for it strikes at the heart of empirical theories of knowledge. Because so much hangs on the acceptance or rejection of the primacy of intuition, it might be a useful exercise to discuss which of the following seem to be intuited (i.e. immediately known or directly perceived) and which seem to be inferred (i.e. known indirectly by means of a deductive, inductive, or common sense inference): 1) matter; 2) yellow; 3) that a dog itches when we see it scratching; 4) that every thing is what it is and not another thing—historically known as the first principle of logic, the ‘Law of Identity’; 5) the minds of other people; 6) one’s own mind; 7) the self or soul; 8) being]

[The following three passages come from Bertrand Russell’s illuminating book, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948]

It is clear that knowledge is a sub-class of true beliefs: every case of knowledge is a case of true belief, but not vice versa. It is very easy to give examples of true beliefs that are not knowledge. There is the man who looks at a clock which is not going, though he thinks it is, and who happens to look at it at the moment when it is right; this man acquires a true belief as to the time of day, but cannot be said to have knowledge... There is the lucky optimist who, having bought a ticket for a lottery, has an unshakeable conviction that he will win, and, being lucky, does win. Such instances can be multiplied indefinitely, and show that you cannot claim to have known merely because you turned out to be right.

What character in addition to truth must a belief have in order to count as knowledge? The plain man would say there must be sound evidence to support the belief. As a matter of common sense this is right in most of the cases in which doubt arises in practice, but if intended as a complete account of the matter it is very inadequate. “Evidence” consists, on the one hand, of certain matters of fact that are accepted as indubitable, and, on the other hand, of certain principles by means of which inferences are drawn from the matters of fact. It is obvious that this process is unsatisfactory unless we know the matters of fact and the principles of inference not merely by means of evidence, for otherwise we become involved in a vicious circle or an endless regress. We must therefore concentrate our attention on the matters of fact and the principles of inference. We may then say that what is known consists, first, of certain matters of fact and certain principles of inference, neither of which stands in need of extraneous evidence, and secondly, of all that can be ascertained by applying the principles of inference to the matters of fact. Traditionally, the matters of fact are those given in perception and memory, while the principles of inference are those of deductive and inductive logic.

There are various unsatisfactory features in this traditional doctrine, though I am not at all sure that, in the end, we can substitute anything very much better. In the first place, the doctrine does not give an intensional definition [an intensional definition of a term specifies all the properties required to come to that definition] of “knowledge,” or at any rate not a purely intensional definition; it is not clear what there is in common between facts of perception and principles of inference. In the second place, as we shall see in Part III, it is very difficult to say what are facts of perception. In the third place, deduction has turned out to be much less powerful than was formerly supposed; it does not give new knowledge, except as to new forms of words for stating truths in some sense already known. In the fourth place, the methods of inference that may be called in a broad sense “inductive” have never been satisfactorily formulated; when formulated, even if completely true, they only give probability to their conclusions; moreover, in any possibly accurate form, they lack self-evidence, and are only to be believed, if at all, because they seem indispensable in reaching conclusions that we all accept.

The conclusion to which we seem to be driven is that knowledge is a matter of degree. The highest degree is found in facts of perception, and in the cogency of very simple arguments. The next highest degree is in vivid memories. When a number of beliefs are each severally in some degree credible, they become more so if they are found to cohere as a logical whole. General principles of inference, whether deductive or inductive, are usually less obvious than many of their instances. Towards the end of our inquiry I shall return to the definition of “knowledge,” and shall then attempt to give more precision and articulation to the above suggestions. Meanwhile let us remember that the question “what do we mean by ‘knowledge’?” is not one to which there is a definite and unambiguous answer, any more than to the question “what do we mean by ‘baldness’?”

Authority, however we may value it in this or that particular instance, is a kind of evidence. All of our historical beliefs, most of our geographical beliefs, many of our beliefs about matters that concern us in daily life, are accepted on the authority of other human beings, whether we are Christians, Atheists, Scientists, or Men-in-the-Street.

C. S. Lewis

Kant believed that for us to have the experiences we do have, objects must exist as their causes which are in some sense metaphysical. Locke also believed this, flagrantly though it breaches the fundamental principle of empiricism (which is that nothing about the world can justifiably be postulated that is not checkable by experience.)

Bryan Magee

Empiricism, as a theory of knowledge, is self-refuting. For, however it may be formulated, it must involve some general proposition about the dependence of knowledge upon experience; and any such proposition, if true, must have as a consequence that [it] itself cannot be known [empirically]. While, therefore, empiricism may be true, it cannot, if true, be known to be so.

Bertrand Russell

There is not a single science that has not been radically revised or extensively added to within living memory; and every well-known philosophy has familiar shortcomings. If we really do absorb into our thinking the fact that only fragmentary knowledge and partial understanding are available to us we shall stop making the mistake of supposing that everything can be explained in terms of categories of understanding that happen currently to be available to us.

Bryan Magee

When we know something, we bring it down to the level of our intelligence.

Fulton J. Sheen

Thoughts about Knowledge & Evidence

Everyone tends to assume that one’s pre-existing world view leaves the strength of the evidence, as it appears to us, unaffected. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t think [the fine tuning argument] proves anything, but it is entirely reasonable for people who already have a belief in a creating God to regard this as confirming evidence. It’s a point of argument which I think very important: to see that what is reasonable for people to do in the face of new evidence depends on what they previously had good reason to believe.

Anthony Flew

He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.

Lao Tzu

I find myself believing...that truth and knowledge are different, and that a proposition may be true although no method exists of discovering that it is so.

Bertrand Russell

I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Immanuel Kant

The best years of my life were given to the Principia Mathematica, in the hope of finding somewhere some certain knowledge. The whole of this effort, in spite of three big volumes, ended inwardly in doubt and bewilderment.

Bertrand Russell

If the plausibility of the evidence for a theory varies with one’s metaphysical beliefs, then there is good reason for supposing that the theory is in some sense metaphysical.

The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness is for me powerful evidence that there is ‘something going on’ behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming.

Paul Davies

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

W. K. Clifford

To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence. No person is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved.

C. S. Lewis

Man is the interpreter of nature, science the right interpretation.

William Whewell

Knowledge is a paradox. It is both subjective and objective; subjective because it requires a subject, the knower; objective because it requires an object, the thing known. The meeting and marriage of subject and object, of a receptive mind and a strange fact is what we mean by the word knowledge.

Most of what we take for granted is exceedingly difficult to validate, and much of it impossible.

Bryan Magee

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

Samuel Butler

We demand strict proof for opinions we dislike, but are satisfied with mere hints for what we’re inclined to accept.

John Henry Newman

Everyone weighs certain kinds of evidence differently according to what they want or don’t want to believe.

What a man knows at fifty which he didn’t know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable.

Adlai Stevenson

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Mark Twain

What is more wonderful than the delight which the mind feels when it knows? It is the satisfaction of a primary instinct.

Mark Rutherford

There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.

Bertrand Russell

When you have the proof or disproof of something it is no longer believing, but knowing.

C. S. Lewis

Ever since becoming a socialist in childhood I had believed, as most socialists in those days did, in the inevitability of socialism. Indeed, there were quite a lot of non-socialists who believed in the inevitability of socialism. But one day, at the age of twenty-one or -two, I was sitting reading about Lenin in the history library at Oxford when suddenly the thought invaded my mind with almost traumatic clarity: ‘It’s never going to happen. There just isn’t ever actually going to be socialism.’

Bryan Magee

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