Some Thoughts on the Relation between Empirical Knowledge and Metaphysical Understanding

 In Building Knowledge, Words and Meanings

Today I want to offer some thoughts on the relation between empirical knowledge and metaphysical understanding.  This drives off last week’s post on the analytic/synthetic distinction.  Analytic knowledge is entailed from existing knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions.  The structural functional relation of information can be analyzed and entailments logically derived.  Synthetic knowledge is different in that it would include immediate observations and also generalizations, abstractions, and insights into the reality behind appearances.  As such, we can unpack this to see it as a spectrum that starts with immediate and particular empirical knowledge and that flows in stages into deeper insights and wisdom of metaphysics.  This is also how we know details about the nature of time, space, substance, and causation in the universe, even though we can’t actually observe any of these things directly.  We can develop profound understandings of these aspects of reality, but it requires significant mental work.

We can see this as a process that begins with the unstructured raw information given in one’s perceptions.  Empirical knowledge is that which is dependent upon some sort of experience, either through an external sense such as sight, hearing, etc. or a conscious/mental information gathering process (internal sense) such as introspection, reflection, etc.  Raw sense data comes into the mind and is filtered in different ways through innate processing capabilities, which is the self-constituting dynamic described in Gestalt psychology and which imposes a structure of intelligibility onto what we perceive.  On one level, this takes the form of a rapid succession of particular impressions, but on another level, one can gradually identify patterns and correlations, and over time can develop insights into the overall structure of how things work in nature.

Raw sensory data does not inherently contain any meaning beyond a shade of color or a tone of sound, or something of this sort, and only for a minute instant in time.  Our computational abilities allow us to realize, discover, and understand the meaning by finding patterns and inferring from this data.  Our minds distill, compress, consolidate, synthesize, and integrate the information that is given in processes that are driven by the innate structures of the mind and are assisted by analytic reasoning and are also determined in significant ways by one’s developmental levels.  Once one has discerned the most significant patterns of their experiences, the laws of nature and categories of being can then be understood and systematized and one can begin to appreciate the overall complexity of how things work and the processes of change and interdependency.

The wisdom development process involves careful and perceptive pattern discernment of similarities and differences across lots of data and it also requires good memory and countless historical examples and the ability to find correlations and then to figure out not just correlations but deep causations and tendencies and laws, or at least formulas that are reasonable approximations of natural laws.  Sometimes this can be misleading because what you think might be a deep insight gained from carefully studying certain things could be undermined because you neglected considering other things.  As such, these sorts of insights probably can’t be reliably developed by any one person operating in isolation.  Instead, they are usually developed collectively through the certain social structures that are formed into institutions, but individual people and specific benchmarks and rough algorithms that people can follow definitely can make a difference.

This process of course relies on inductive reasoning, which in my opinion is essentially based on inference to the best explanation.  Much of this is made possible through our innate mental capacities and intuition.  Some of the deep insights that people develop can be unwound and analyzed and thus they can explain their justification for coming to the overarching conclusions that they do about the reality behind appearances and the deep truths of the world.  If the raw evidence is given and sound and parsimonious lines of reasoning are articulated, then the conclusions should be mutually understandable.  This process can be quite fruitful, but it sometimes can lead us down the wrong path.  There is a distinction between the straightforward empirical analysis of information on the one hand and the critical and speculative interpretation of information on the other.  The latter can be wise and can lead us to grasp the complexity of the world, but it can also be foolish if conducted improperly and irrationally.

This is one process through which we can develop epistemic justification, although lesser degrees of certainty are possible the further one moves away from raw data.  Utter certainty is possible probably only for direct evidence and experience, but that is only on the empirical end of this spectrum and this data doesn’t tell you much by itself.  Moving toward the metaphysical side inevitably comes with lesser degrees of certainty.  It is the interplay with the analytic cognitive process that can offer epistemic justification for our insights, which can save us from having to rely on faith for these things that are the reality behind appearances.  We can’t live our lives based on too much reliance on faith, but we probably can’t avoid it altogether.  We can’t live our lives avoiding the questions of the reality behind appearances, but we can’t pretend to have utter certainty of that stuff either.  Thus the notions of epistemic justification vs. faith and degrees of certainty vs. doubt are related to this epistemic dimension.

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