Empirical and Rational Knowledge: What Does it All Mean?

We all remember English philosopher John Locke from high school history or government classes. His social contract provided the foundation for the Declaration of Independence and subsequent American government. However, Locke also supported the idea of “tabula rasa,” which is translated as “black slate.” This would come to define empirical epistemology: Humans gain knowledge through experience. When we are born our minds are blank, and as we grow we attain knowledge through the senses. This was reiterated by David Hume who stated,

“A blind man can form no notion of colors; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects.”

Our experiences would amount to a justified true belief. If this is not already too broad a hypothesis it is certainly a subjective one. Even if a blind man cannot form notions of colors, are not colors still universal? Just because the blind person cannot see Matt’s red car, does not mean that the car is not red, despite him not having the capacity to forge a “justified true belief” on his own. Empirical epistemology necessitate universal truths, which deeply troubled Rene Descartes and his own rational considerations.

Descartes, “I think therefore I am,” was troubled with the idea that there was no universal knowledge. This would contradict the empirical thought of Locke and Hume. In fact, Descartes found that knowledge gained through the five senses was fleeting and ultimately unreliable. Humans are prone to doubt themselves, so how can knowledge gained through themselves be fundamentally true? Descartes even postulated that mathematics cannot ALWAYS be certifiably trusted; theorems and statistics can be deceptive and consequently manipulated for private gain. So where did this leave him? Well, he thought so therefore he was.

Translation: All that he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing.

Consider it as I think, therefore I know that I am. Experience and human invention can provide justified yet uncertain beliefs. Humans can only gain knowledge through thought and consideration because it is impossible to doubt that we are thinking beings. This is rotational epistemology in a nutshell.

So where does this leave us? How can we acquire knowledge in a digital world, and how then does that knowledge become profitable? After all, we need only consult Reddit to read opinions that are disguised as facts. (However, this is simultaneously entertaining and disheartening. I am sure you all know what I mean.) Do we just leave it up to our own experience and incredulity? Perhaps. After all, we have been told that data exists on a continuum that transitions from statements of fact to wisdom. From our own experience, we can assume that statements from a Craigslist discussion forum should be taken with a grain of salt, at least in relation to a scholarly journal article that has been peer reviewed by the proper subject authorities. But how do we gain knowledge? Well that is difficult to define, but ethnographer Wendy Hsu has concluded that “research data and method design are best when they are informed by an empirical perspective.” Hsu also conceived the idea of “augmented empiricism” which is basically the idea of documenting social and cultural processes with empirical precision. To achieve augmented empiricism, “we can use data and new informational discoveries to extend of our field-based knowledge.” This strikes me as fluid and “actionable.” We can study information beyond text and consider it a broader sense which can lead to “unanticipated findings” as well as interesting conceptual analyses. What do you all think?

Considering that rationalism is predicated upon people thinking for themselves, the digital sphere does not present certainty beyond the binary and lines of code which power our devices. I would say the rationalist would have to maintain empirical tendencies searching for knowledge in the digital sphere. That is, a certain level of trust is required when reading “certain factual statements.” We assume that peer reviewed journal articles in JSTOR have actually been vetted by appropriate authorities. But again, how do we rationally acquire knowledge from digital sources? We think, and then consider whether or not the information presented can be justified. Proper justification can be procured through the scientific process and basic experimentation. There are no easy answers, but we can at least think about it. This is the best I can offer. Thoughts?

Knowledge is truth, quantifiable, and how we make the world a more fulfilling place.

Sources: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/3-1/digital-ethnography-toward-augmented-empiricism-by-wendy-hsu/


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