Does Knowledge Come from Experience or from Other Sources as Well?

 In Building Knowledge

In an earlier post, I explained the different forms of skepticism.  Doubt-skepticism involves withholding judgment, whereas constraint-skepticism involves putting constraints on our ability to know things.  Constraint-skeptical arguments can often be self-defeating, and doubt-skepticism can’t be universally applied, but there is still plenty of room for doubt to be applied very broadly.  We can even doubt that we could know much of anything such that we would be unsure of almost everything in life.  However, such a mindset would not be very reasonable because there is an abundance of evidence that we come to know quite a bit about reality, and this is made possible by our cognitive capabilities.

There is a very basic and important question of where our ideas, beliefs, and knowledge ultimately come from.  The most intuitive answer is that it comes from experience, but does this apply to everything that we might think, believe, and know?  Or perhaps does some of this come from the innate nature of our minds?  Seventeenth Century philosopher John Locke said that the mind is, by nature, a blank slate that can be molded according to whatever stimuli comes into it.  Immanuel Kant refuted Locke’s theory by providing arguments that humans have an innate understanding of certain fundamental concepts, such as time, space, and causation.  More recently, Locke’s “blank slate” theory was thoroughly debunked by Steven Pinker in his book The Blank Slate, where he presents evidence showing that the human mind actually has many specific instinctual qualities.  According to Pinker, the list of innate qualities of the human mind includes a basic understanding of logic, space, time, and causation, among other things.  Pinker’s list of innate human knowledge is similar to Kant’s, but there are significant differences.  Pinker’s conclusions are based on the findings of modern science, and thus it is far more reasonable to accept his list rather than Kant’s.

All knowledge that is innate to the mind must be known prior to experience, also known as a priori.  Humans seem to exhibit an innate capacity for reasoning, and the product of the mind’s reasoning operation is another form of a priori knowledge.  Reasoning allows people to interpret sensory and emotional data, to understand what is logically implied by existing ideas in the mind, and to come up with entirely new ideas.  This is an innate capacity, but the knowledge derived from reasoning is not innate.

Knowledge of abstract concepts such as mathematics or complex logic are possible through one’s reasoning capacity and these are considered to be a priori because they are not dependent on experience.  It might seem, though, like all knowledge that is not innate is dependent on some form of experience.  While people do have the innate capacity to learn math because it is fundamentally based on simple logic, it is certainly the case that one must learn even basic mathematical concepts such as addition, and this learning depends on experience.

If a priori knowledge is restricted to only knowledge that in no way depends on experience, then it would have to be limited to knowledge that is innate to the mind.  But knowledge is a priori if it is not dependent on sensory or emotional experience, and so this includes both that which is innate to the mind and that which is logically entailed from innate knowledge, including mathematical concepts and conclusions.  While people do need certain kinds of experiences in order to bring out the full potential of their minds, this does not mean that knowledge of complex logical concepts such as mathematics actually depend on specific experiences.  When one knows how the mathematical function of addition works, for example, this knowledge is implied by the rules of basic logic that are innate to the brain.  This knowledge is associated with adding quantities and not with the events early in life in school where these skills were learned in the first place.

We can refer to the knowledge that is logically derived from existing knowledge, and derived independently of any specific experiences, as analytic.  For example, knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 is said to be analytic because it is logically implied by the premise that we are adding 2 and 2 together, and someone using their reasoning capacity could figure this out.  Another common example of analytic knowledge is in the statement “all bachelors are unmarried” because the definition of “bachelor” implies someone who is unmarried.  This contrasts with a synthetic statement like “all bachelors are young” because “bachelor” does not have any age implications.

Empirical knowledge, also known as a posteriori, differs from a priori in that it is dependent on experience, perhaps with the assistance of logical conclusions that can be entailed from certain experiences.  When one sees an event occur, such as an apple falling, knowledge of this event is dependent on this experience and is thus empirical.  Any information that one has about the world in some way is empirical, and this includes anything that is measurable or quantifiable and also anything that has unique qualities.  In addition, if our observations lead us to discern patterns and categories of things in the world, then this is also empirical knowledge.  When a person sees several horses and several dogs, perhaps of different sizes and shapes, they can understand the basic concept of a horse and of a dog.  Since this would be the product of the discernment of patterns from experience, this understanding could be considered empirical knowledge.

We could also recognize understanding of the correlation of causes and effects and the laws of nature to be empirical.  Isaac Newton famously came to understand the nature of gravity by observing falling things such as applies falling from trees.  If one sees enough apples and other objects fall to the ground and concludes that these events happen because of the law of gravity, then this knowledge is also empirical, since this conclusion could not have been made without experiences of this type.  This type of inference relies on inductive reasoning, which will be analyzed in a future post.

There are several types of experiential functions through which one could gain new information, including the senses and emotions.  The traditional list of senses includes sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, though some scientists have argued that one or more of the following should be added to this list: pain, balance, acceleration, temperature, and proprioception (the relative position of one’s body parts), among others.  Through the senses one may come across information in the form of signs, symbols and language.  This often takes the form of claims made by others, perhaps from what is written in the text of a book or what someone else says.   If claims can be evaluated as true, then they can potentially lead to the development of more knowledge than anyone could directly experience.  Empirical knowledge can be formed from any of these phenomena because they can all be caused by actual states of affairs and events in the world that can then result in one having true beliefs about such states and events.

For example, let’s say Sally gets her wallet stolen by a thief and then recounts vivid details of the incident to the police.  They can then listen to her story and read her facial expressions and observe her frantic tone of voice and other subtle cues.  This information that she gives, along with the contextual clues that they observe, lead them to judge her story to be highly credible.  Since they believe her story on the basis of evaluating information and contextual evidence and since it happens to be true, they have gained knowledge of the incident and they have done so despite not personally observing it.  Much of our knowledge is developed this way, and this will be analyzed in more detail in future posts.

We can consider the most reasonable way of categorizing types of knowledge.  We can consider the categorizations a priori, analytic, innate, and empirical, but others have been proposed as well.  Kant, and many philosophers since him, identified a category of knowledge called synthetic, which includes anything that isn’t analytic.  This would essentially mean that synthetic knowledge would be a combination of innate and empirical knowledge, but this is an unnecessary conflation so we can recognize that this notion of synthetic knowledge is not very useful.  Also, the term a priori can be seen as an unnecessary conflation of the distinct notions of innate and analytic knowledge, and thus this isn’t very useful term either.  The only time that it is still useful to categorize something as a priori is if it is known to not be empirical but where it is not known whether it is innate or analytic.  In past generations, it was extremely difficult to make reasoned and well-educated guesses regarding the innate capacities of the mind.  With modern science, we have better ways that usually allow us to sort out innate concepts from analytic conclusions, so we won’t often use the notion of a priori going forward in this book.

We can split the concept of a priori into innate and analytic and we shall prefer the term empirical over a posteriori.  As such, our taxonomy of knowledge can then be reduced to three distinct notions: innate, analytic, and empirical.  Each of these is made possible through different cognitive functions.

What theory of knowledge makes the most sense to you? Let your voice be heard in the forum.

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