Epistemic communities

Where collective knowledge is generated

Re-Assembling Reality #12.

Our rose garden (Photo credit: Chen Li)

In Re-Assembling Reality #4, we described religion as a domain concerned with questions about the core relationships that structure our existential engagement with the world.

People who ask themselves questions, discuss them and try to find answers, are generating collective knowledge. A group of people who do this form a community of knowledge, or an epistemic community.

An epistemic community is a group of people who are engaging in asking those questions, seeking answers, sharing their answers with each other, and acting in accordance with that knowledge.

Epistemic communities include an infinite variety of groups of people who are learning and generating knowledge.

My wife’s hobby is growing roses in our rooftop garden. She seeks information about different varieties of roses, the specific needs of each, how to grow them, how to treat them when they are indisposed (and roses are very picky and demanding creatures! Their prickliness is not only physical: they are very difficult to grow). She learns from various sources published online, she tries things out, and she shares her experience in an online community, in which she gives advice to other rose gardeners. Sometimes they disagree on certain techniques, and have arguments. They send each other pictures of their roses to demonstrate the results of different ways to trim, to graft, to feed, and otherwise different ways of tricking the roses to grow in a particular direction or in a particular size. This group of people, who generate, share and discuss knowledge of rose gardening, is an epistemic community.

Epistemic communities include such small groups which are loose and informal, but also more formal or large groups such as associations and networks in any given field, whether it be marketing, cosplay, fantasy gaming, insect collecting, solar energy, badminton, acupuncture, Calvinist theology, organic chemistry, church organ music, Shi’a jurisprudence, clinical psychology, Bororo shamanism, comparative literature, electronic engineering, vodun statue making, or robotics.

To the extent that people in these fields talk together about learning, generating and applying knowledge about their field, they constitute epistemic communities. This random list includes some things that are usually classified as science, some things that are usually classified as religion, some things whose status as “science” or “religion” is a subject of contention, and some things that are rarely if ever considered as relevant to either. In this essay, we completely move away from “two-listism” by considering all of them on the same basis, as epistemic communities.

We will show some elements common to all these epistemic communities, including all religious traditions, all scientific disciplines, and all other forms of knowledge. By doing this, we are not suggesting that they are all the same — that a community of physicists is the same thing as a community of Christians, of violinists, of chess players or of Amazonian shamans. All of these epistemic communities are different, doing different things, and concerned about different types of knowledge.

Nor are we suggesting that they are all exclusively or even primarily epistemic communities. Knowledge for its own sake may be the ultimate goal of some communities of scientists or religious thinkers. Rose gardeners share and read knowledge about roses for the purpose of enjoying roses rather than for the purpose of knowledge about roses. But, regardless of how central and how conscious knowledge generation is to the community, they are involved in generating, discussing and applying knowledge — and it is this dimension that we are concerned with here.

There are a few characteristics of all epistemic communities. They are:

  • communities of people
  • who are engaged in purposeful action
  • who talk with each other about what they know
  • who may have disagreements about their knowledge, but have mechanisms for reaching agreement on what consists of true knowledge.

Knowledge, here, can be understood at several levels: data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

Data comprises 1s and 0s. Easy to get, and signifying nothing.

Information places the data into context and gives it meaning.

Knowledge is what happens to the information between your ears, or in your body. A book contains information, but only people can have knowledge. Knowledge can be compared with knowing how to walk, how to swim, how to speak a new language… One can try to list all of the information that constitutes this knowledge, including all the steps required to learn how to speak — but ultimately, it is true knowledge only when it has been so thoroughly internalized and embodied that we follow it without even knowing, and are unable to even explain what or how.

Understanding is what happens when you take the knowledge and make sense of it.

Wisdom is knowing what to do, appropriately, with what you understand.

When we speak of knowledge, we speak of knowledge at all five levels. All five come into play when people are engaged in an epistemic community. Scientists and religionists use all of them — more or less well and sometimes badly — as do pianists, engineers, carpenters and videogame players.

So, communities of knowledge are made of people who have such knowledge, are acquiring and sharing such knowledge, and through working together, are building the community’s collective knowledge. Scientists and religionists are all, each in their own ways, talking and acting within such communities.

Source: towardsdatascience.net

Characteristics of knowledge in epistemic communities

Let’s compare the knowledge generated by three different types of epistemic communities: communities of indigenous hunters; communities of academic scientists; and religious communities.

Although these four types of groups generate very different kinds of knowledge, their knowledge has a few things in common:

(1) They are all based on faith.

The members of the epistemic community are committed to the knowledge they are learning and generating, because they have faith that the knowledge is reliable and will serve the purpose for which it is produced.

(2) They are all based on a set of core assumptions about the world and about how one can know the world. This includes:

An ontology. All of the knowledge within the community is based on some core assumptions about what the world is made of. What are the basic ingredients of the world? What are the basic relationships between those ingredients?

An epistemology. All of the knowledge within the community is based on some core assumptions about what counts as true. How do we know if something is true or not?

An axiology. All epistemic communities have implicit shared assumptions about what is good or what is bad; what is valuable and what is useless; what is ethical and what is unethical. They want to avoid what they consider to be bad, useless or unethical, and do more of what they consider to be good, valuable and ethical. They all have an implicit system of values that orients everything they do.

(3) They are all generated and validated by a community of practitioners.

The generation of knowledge follows a methodology. The knowledge within the community is based on some core assumptions about how knowledge can be acquired. What is the method for acquiring true knowledge?

Assessment of new knowledge takes place in reference to a tradition. The received body of knowledge, which has been accumulated by the community over time, often going back several generations, is the tradition. Even when they try to modify or to overturn certain statements that are generally accepted as true within the community, the tradition is the basis in relation to which such controversies are framed. The tradition is a source of authority and, as long as the members of the community continue to operate within that framework, they have faith in their tradition.

(4) They are all concerned with reading signs in the world.

This involves a hermeneutics. Knowledge involves reading signs in the world — both observing the world, and interpreting the words or texts accumulated within the tradition. What do these signs mean? How do we interpret them? How do we connect them to other signs?

(5) They are all concerned with the way knowledge is communicated and expressed. This involves:

A common language. The epistemic community’s knowledge is based on the communication amongst its members. Shared knowledge isn’t simply the discovery of something out there but a communicative process about which words or expressions we should use to communicate about new things or new understandings. Much of the communication involves resolving differences of understanding and different ways of naming things, until everyone agrees on a common way to talk about things. There are rules of communication. Since much of the communication revolves around differences of understanding, there is a rhetoric — styles of communicating that are considered to be persuasive, so that others can be convinced to accept certain statements. There are authorities who make judgements about statements, and whose judgements determine if some statements become generally accepted knowledge or not.

An aesthetics. In some knowledge communities, the pursuit of knowledge involves seeking and discovering the beauty of what is known, or judging about the ugliness of what is discovered; while other knowledge communities stress the irrelevance of such considerations. But in all knowledge communities, there are standards of beauty in the way true knowledge is communicated. What counts as beauty in the expression of knowledge, and how important is that?

(6) They all require the cultivation of certain attitudes, dispositions and capacities.

The sign of mastery of these capacities is when they become our embodied habits, that we use well without even being conscious of it.

This habitus includes not only specific abilities required to acquire specific types of knowledge, such as the ability to handle complex lab instruments, the ability to understand mystical texts in archaic language with rich metaphorical meanings, the ability to take a pulse or to detect the presence of a medicinal substance. It also includes all of the other things we’ve listed above, from ontology to axiology. Our mind assumes the world is made in a certain way (ontology) without even thinking about it; we act according to a system of values (axiology) even if we’re told that our values are irrelevant to what we do. To the extent that we have high ability in any community of knowledge, it is because we have become so deeply habituated to all of these underlying assumptions that they have become our second nature.

The habitus is related to a praxis. Some epistemic communities focus on purely practical knowledge, while others focus on purely theoretical knowledge; and some combine the two. But in all cases, there are expectations or debates about the relationship between knowledge and practice; how does our knowledge influence the way we actwhat should we do about our knowledge? How do we put the knowledge into practice? How does practice influence our knowledge?

Most people in most epistemic communities have never heard of such jargon as ontology, epistemology, axiology, methodology, hermeneutics, or praxis. And if they’ve heard of those words, they’d probably assume those are things only academic philosophers or theologians talk about: let them meditate on those abstruse concepts while the rest of us pray, make measurements in our lab and go out and do things in the world.

But such things exist in all epistemic communities, including scientific and religious ones — even if, in most cases, they are unconscious. What we think, what we know and what we do is shaped by those things, even if we’ve never thought about it. It’s important to understand those important implicit core assumptions; otherwise our minds are controlled by these things without us even being aware of it.

Indigenous epistemic communities

Let’s first consider indigenous knowledge systems. In your modern education, you have likely learned that, before the scientific revolution, people lived in wretched ignorance and in fear of nature. So, we learn that indigenous tribes who live in the forest or in the desert live in wretched ignorance, lacking scientific knowledge.

But in fact, they form epistemic communities, just as scientists do.

You might admit that they might form communities of knowledge, but their knowledge is incomplete and wrong, while scientists have more complete and correct knowledge. You might say that the epistemic communities of scientists produce better knowledge than indigenous knowledge. But this is not true.

Would you be able to survive in the Arctic? I come from Canada. There are millions of square kilometres of Arctic lands in the far north — but the vast majority of Canadians, including myself, have never been there. If I were to try to live in the Arctic, away from modern amenities, I would die — and, in the winter, probably die within less than 24 hours.

But the indigenous Inuit people survived in the Arctic for thousands of years, without any modern technology. They could live there thanks to their deep knowledge of the Arctic environment. I can find a lot of information in scientific journals on conditions in the Arctic, but I have no knowledge of it. But the Inuit could survive without scientific journals.

Similarly, the Bedouins and other nomadic tribes have survived in the deserts of North Africa without modern science or technology for centuries, where modern people would be unable to. They have an incredibly deep knowledge of thousands of species of plants, insects, and signs of water.

Oasis in the Sahara desert south of the village of Mhamid El Ghezlane, Morocco. Photo credit: Anderson Sady via Wikimedia Commons

In the jungles of the Amazon, children, after spending years in the forest without receiving modern education, can name hundreds or even thousands of different species of plants, insects, and animals, and how they may be useful or dangerous to humans. Many of these species have never been catalogued by biologists or botanists. But if these children are sent to the city to receive a modern education, it’s likely that they would lack this knowledge, and would be unable to survive in the forest.

These examples describe the epistemic communities of people who work with indigenous knowledge.

Let’s consider how these forms of indigenous knowledge share the characteristics that I mentioned earlier.

First, their knowledge is based on faith. They would say that, “over the generations, our forefathers have transmitted to us the way of living in the forest. If we follow this way, we will survive and flourish; if we don’t follow this way, we die.” Their ancestors learnt how to live there, and their parents taught their children how to hunt, how to identify plants and animals, and so on. They learn this from their parents; their parents learned it from their parents, and so on. They trust this system of knowledge and learn it very carefully from their elders.

This system of faith is based on a set of core assumptions. For them, one of the core assumptions is that the whole world is animated. This means that all things — plants, animals and physical features of the environment — have their own spirit, with consciousness and intentions. They expect to be treated like persons. And because we need to treat them like persons, we need to know them exceptionally well — otherwise, we may offend them and put ourselves in danger. But if we understand them well and treat them well, they will treat us well too. This is one of the core assumptions that underlies the knowledge of many indigenous epistemic communities.

When they go out hunting for prey or foraging for plants, they always try to observe signs in the forest. What signs can we read in the ruggedness of that tree, in the smell of that clump of earth, in the squawk of that parrot? What are the trees telling us? Is there a message in these signs? Do they tell us where the jaguar has been, or where fresh berries can be found? The ability to pick up myriad signs in the forest and understand their meaning is the basis of a highly sophisticated system of knowledge.

This knowledge is not “scientific” since it hasn’t been published in academic journals. But it doesn’t consist of random subjective beliefs, either. Nor is it a book about the ecology of the Amazon, that one could memorize and understand.

This is the living, shared body of knowledge of all the hunters, the gatherers, the women and the men. It has been generated by them through their experience, which they have been sharing with others for generations. This knowledge is generated by a community of people who are always talking about what they know and what they have learned. They talk about their hunting trips, about their gathering expeditions, about what they saw and heard, sharing experience and knowledge with each other.

Amazon forest. Photo credit: James Martins via Wikimedia Commons

Knowledge is generated by them, and validated by them — they don’t blindly believe each other. For instance, one boy says, “There was a jaguar above the falls this morning. I saw it shifting behind the trees when I was gathering plants.” But others might doubt it. His uncle might say, “What you saw can’t have been a jaguar. They don’t come to these parts in this season.” But another person says, “Well, I saw a jaguar little further off a few days ago.” And one older man is thinking that these young men don’t know what they’re talking about. “I’ll only believe what an experienced hunter says”, he thinks. So they are doubting and arguing with each other. It is through these conversations that the knowledge gets tested and validated.

And in order to generate collective knowledge, they need to cultivate certain attitudes, dispositions and capacities. They have to learn how to listen and to observe carefully in the forest. They have to remember the details and have to know how to communicate to be listened to. For their hunting and foraging, they have to listen to the environment around them, to remember every little detail that they observe, wherever they go. And they need to acquire all the dispositions and abilities that are required to be a hunter or a forager.

And they need to read signs in the world — the signs being communicated by other beings in the world; the signs being communicated by spirits. If you are in the jungle, there is an overwhelming amount of information coming to you. What signs, then, will you be looking for amidst everything that can be seen and heard? The signs that will help your group to hunt, to find a location to camp in; to make decisions; to find medicines; and so on. These are the kinds of signs that you will look for in the forest.

Epistemic communities of scientists

Now, let’s consider the disciplines of modern sciences. Modern sciences are also based on some articles of faith. The basic article of faith of modern science is that there is one universe or reality that operates according to a single, consistent, rational order, and that this order can be known. If we don’t consider that the universe forms a single reality; if we don’t consider that there is order in the universe; or if we don’t consider that the universe can be known, then we cannot do science. Scientists have faith in the possibility of acquiring ever-expanding and advanced knowledge about the order of the universe.

Note that, in our previous essays, we have questioned some of these articles of faith about science. Precisely because these are articles of faith, people continue to hold onto them even when the evidence challenges them. And, after the articles of faith are challenged, we may come to a new understanding of them, or we may adjust them, and possibly emerge from the challenge with a stronger faith in its core tenets.

Another article of faith is that the sciences — be they physics, biology, botany, geology, geology, climate science, economics, sociology, anthropology, or any other discipline — are accumulating systematic knowledge of everything in the world and in the universe. The more complete our knowledge, the more we will be able to solve our problems and ensure a better future for all.

The knowledge in each of these disciplines is generated and validated by a community of practitioners. In fact, there is no such thing as a single “scientific community”. Physicists form one epistemic community, anthropologists another epistemic community, and so on. Physicists are never involved in generating and validating anthropological knowledge, and vice versa. In fact, each discipline is made up of multiple epistemic communities, known as “sub-disciplines” or “sub-fields”, which often never speak to each other. Biological and cultural anthropologists, for example, differ profoundly in their basic articles of faith and core assumptions. Each subfield has its own distinct ways of generating and validating knowledge.

The epistemic community of nuclear physicists read signs of the world with particle accelerators. They are a community that gets together at conferences, where they talk with each other and present formal papers. They chat and share their ideas, and argue with one another. And the output of their work is articles that they publish in journals in the field of nuclear physics.

A Cern simulation of a Higgs boson decaying into four muons. ‘This week came the news that there may be new particles or forces that aren’t accounted for in the standard model.’ Photograph: Science & Society Picture Librar/SSPL via Getty via The Guardian

In biology, there are also dozens of different sub-disciplines and epistemic communities. For example, we have parasitologists are an epistemic community who go into the field, picking parasites from bodies of animals. They look at these germs with microscopes. They also have their own academic association, and also publish in their journals.

Each epistemic community in the sciences also cultivates certain attitudes, dispositions and capacities. These include specific types of literacy, and different styles of writing and rhetoric. You need to have certain attitudes. You should be curious. You need to have certain problem-solving skills. You need to have critical skills. You need to have a certain skepticism. You need to be honest. You need to have a generous and collaborative mindset: scientific knowledge is not transmitted secretly from a master to disciples. In an epistemic community of modern science, you have to be willing to publicly share your knowledge with others, and to submit it to critical scrutiny. You have to be willing to collaborate with other on joint projects.

And you have to read signs in the world. Each discipline looks for different signs, and uses different methods to read and interpret them. The “natural sciences” tend to prefer to use instruments to detect signs in the world, while the “social sciences” tend to use direct perception (observing and listening to people) and the humanities tend to read signs in human artifacts, such as texts, films or works of art.

Religious epistemic communities

In the third example, I’m going to talk about religious epistemic communities. Just as in the sciences, there are multiple religious epistemic communities. Not only are there epistemic communities associated with each religious tradition, such as Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or Daoism, but even within these traditions there are thousands of different epistemic communities — people who are generating knowledge within different sects or branches; people who are generating knowledge about different areas of concern, such as liturgy, theology, healing, education or community service; or people who generate knowledge at different scales, such as a local religious community that consults on how to better serve the neighbourhood, or an international religious NGO that is learning how to better conduct large-scale development projects in multiple countries.

All of these religious groups are engaged in the generation and application of knowledge; it is in that sense that we treat them as epistemic communities. Most religious communities would probably not define the generation of knowledge as their prime goal; they might say that their prime goal is providing deliverance from suffering; offering a path to salvation or enlightenment; building a community; or other goals. But the groups need to generate and apply knowledge in order to achieve these goals; so they are always engaged in the production of knowledge. Again, the purpose of religious knowledge is usually not to make descriptive statements — it is knowledge that serves the ultimate purpose of the religion, or the practical means for the religion to carry out its purpose among the population.

The Baha’i faith is a religious community that very explicitly sees the generation and application of knowledge as an essential aspect of religious life. On the one hand, the Baha’i “short obligatory prayer”, recited daily, states that we have been created to know God. God is unknowable in His essence but the signs of God can be known through His revelation, as recorded in scripture, and through His creation, as made manifest in the world. The prayer also states that we have been created to worship God. Beyond specific acts of devotion, worship is expressed by mirroring the attributes of God, striving toward a dual moral purpose of individual and collective transformation, applying divine principles in the world.

One of the attributes of God is oneness. Reflected in the world of creation, this implies that underlying the multiplicity of the phenomenal world is an essential unity; reflected in the world of humanity, this implies that underlying the diversity of human personalities, societies, cultures and religions is an essential unity. The Baha’i teachings thus call on us to build communities, modes of social relations and modes of knowledge generation that promote this unity in diversity, including justice, the abolition of prejudice, the equality of women and men, and the harmony of science and religion, among other principles.

How can this be done? We don’t know. There is no instant formula.

We need to study these teachings, consult with others, try things out, reflect on the experience, share with others and learn from them, and keep improving. This is a process of collective knowledge generation. Over the years, the Baha’i community has gradually gained a body of learning and experience on how to apply these principles in different spheres of life and society. This knowledge system is generated and validated by a community of practitioners in which, ideally, all participate.

This process begins at the micro, local level. Individuals and families consult on how to apply these teachings in their own lives and in their locality. They meet and consult with others in their community. They learn from each other. What they learn is shared at meetings and gatherings at regional and national levels, and even up to the global level. At each level, experience from different localities is synthesized and is then shared back downwards. Knowledge is shared upwards and downwards, creating a collective body of knowledge on how to apply the Baha’i teachings to create a better society.

Among the attitudes, dispositions and capacities that are emphasized during this process is a ‘humble posture of learning’. If you have accepted or recognized a religious truth, you shouldn’t be satisfied that “now I know the truth!” On the contrary, you have to keep learning — learning from the holy writings, learning from the world, learning from others, learning from experience. A humble posture of learning requires developing certain virtues and spiritual qualities. You have to learn to consult with others in a non-adversarial way. You have to learn to read your social reality. In your village or neighbourhood, what is the social reality? What is the problem? What can we do to improve it? These dispositions and capacities do not come naturally. They have to be trained and nurtured. How to nurture these capacities is, again, a domain of knowledge generation.

Consultation in a Baha’i junior youth group in Toronto. Source: achievingcoherence.com

What kinds of signs does this approach involve reading in the world? First, it involves becoming awakened to divine attributes in the world, among others, and within ourselves. How can we learn how to read noble motives and lower motives in ourselves? How can we read how these manifest in constructive and destructive forces in society? How can we contribute to constructive forces and avoid destructive forces?

These are some of the signs that Baha’i are trying to read the signs in the world, and that they are generating knowledge about.

This is an example of one religious epistemic community. Other religious communities would do things differently. The communities of practitioners of different sciences, different religions, and indeed all forms of knowledge, form different types of epistemic communities. But their knowledge is always based on some basic articles of faith and core assumptions. The knowledge within the epistemic community is generated and validated by a community of practitioners, who develop certain capacities, attitudes and dispositions to read signs in the world, and to do something about it.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forumand the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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A dialogue between physicist Mike Brownnutt and anthropologist David A. Palmer. Insights from the natural and social sciences, Asian and Western philosophy, and theology.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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