Broadly defined, epistemology is the study of the of the nature and origin of knowledge. In these terms epistemology is the search for truth. Epistemology is best understood in terms of its goal. The goal of epistemology is to understand and explain the universe and how it works. Like science, epistemology begins by seeking answers to our practical needs. Meeting our basic needs gave birth to science, as we know it. When a need presents itself, the natural instinct is to find a way to meet that need. Meeting needs and solving problems is the essence of science and the reason we seek the truth. Science is problem solving.
Generally science is defines as obtaining knowledge of the physical world either directly or indirectly through our five senses. In this regard science becomes limited to the physical world. Epistemology goes beyond science by including metaphysical topics. By definition, certain things, such as God and the origin of the universe, exist outside of science. Topics such as these rightly fall within the realm of epistemology. Epistemology began with addressing the question of existence and soon moved on to consider if any universally valid statement was possible.
Historically, truth has been known in several ways. In the ancient world, the discovery of truth (often through science) was closely linked to the religious leaders of the day. In Egypt, for example, the scholars were mostly priests (Durant 179). These priests both declared what was true in the physical and metaphysical realm. In the first century A.D. the Christian church arose. The early Christian Church included in its teachings the authority of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:15). Eventually, church authority took precedence over the authority of the Bible. Ultimately this shift led to the Reformation. At the same time, the Renaissance gave birth to the modern scientific method of discovering truth (Schaeffer (1976), 32). Over the centuries, the knowledge gained about the physical world has been organized in such a way that it becomes useful in understanding nature. The process of gaining knowledge about the universe and organizing that knowledge is what we call science (Taylor XV). The scient ific method is closely identified with the use of reason. The rise of the nuclear age demolished the rationale approach demanded by the scientific method and gave rise to postmodernism. Postmodernism teaches that one can only know from a certain perspective. Postmodernism essentially rejects the concept of universally acceptable truth.
Over the centuries, man has fine tuned the use of his senses and developed a very specific system for observation. Science seeks “… to reduce the observable world to comprehensible terms…” (Williams 1178). These “comprehensible terms” are called fact or the truth (Burke 307). Science has moved from the use of the five senses in a passive pursuit of knowledge (observing natural phenomena) to an active pursuit of knowledge (observing experiments). In spite of all the advances of science, it is still limited to the physical world. Understanding the metaphysical lies beyond the scope of science. All quests for truth, weather in the physical or metaphysical realm are ultimately guided by the observers’ worldview. One must first understand the nature and functions of a worldview before one can successfully undertake a quest for truth.
Science then is limited to observing the physical world is a systematic manner resulting in the scientist best guess of the truth. At first glance, this would appear to be a rather simple task. This systematic manner of observing the natural world even has its own built-in guidelines for what is acceptable as fact. The experts question anyone who dares to simply state facts (Yockey 197). This is especially true when facts being stated run contrary to established theory. The systematic manner in which science is conducted is called the
The scientific method is essentially the product of rationalism developed during the Renaissance. This rationalism assumes that man is capable of discovering truth purely by his own rational thoughts through the use of the scientific method. Reality is seen as existing independent of man’s consciousness. The task of man’s consciousness is to perceive reality, and not create or invent it. At its core, this type of objectivism must reject the supernatural – and any claim that individuals can create their own reality (Rand 1082). The rational and objectivist approach to epistemology is inherently materialistic (limited to what can be sensed).
In actuality, A scientist must know much more than “the facts”. The scientists must discover what a thing really is. They must determine why a thing is like it is. Often a scientific discovery is the key to understanding given situation and can set the direction of future research. The scientist gives meaning to the facts by moving beyond using the five senses to using the mind and will (Auer 80). Facts only become significant when they are given meaning. Giving facts meaning is an epistemological and metaphysical act.
This systematic manner provides a solid framework in which the scientist can do his work. The framework used by scientist is called the scientific method. The scientific method is presented to all levels of science students. Observations of the physical world are the beginning and end of the scientific method (Krauskopf 87 – 88). By science alone, one can never reach absolute truth. The statements which scientists make based on observations are called GENERALIZATIONS. The process of making a generalization involves applying what was observed in one situation to other situations. Often, generalizations state a rule or pattern to which observations appear to conform. Once the scientist gives meaning to the data that was collected, a hypothesis may be formed. A HYPOTHESIS is another name for a scientific generalization. A hypothesis requires verification by further observations, measurements, or experiments. Often while scientists are verifying a hypothesis they may discover several other related rules. When a number of these hypothesis are put together into one large logical structure of how to think about the problem, it is called a THEORY. The distinction between theories and hypothesis is not very clearly defined by science (Krauskopf 88). No amount of testing can ever prove a generalization valid. Even though billions of observations tend to prove a generalization, a single observation that contradicts or is inconsistent with it must force a change to the generalization (Asimov 13). This same rule applies to metaphysical investigations. A metaphysical theory or hypothesis that fails to match with reality becomes invalid. One would expect that if a person experiences an event, then that event is a reality, but C. S. Lewis said, “Experience by itself proves nothing” (Macaulay 45). What we see may very well be reality, but the question is not if something happened, but what happened. Conclusions drawn by a scientist will depend on the perspective from which the data is examined. Depending on the perspective of the observer, an event or object can be perceived in different ways. For example, do we see the sun rise and set every day or do we see the earth moving so it appears that the sun is rising and setting every day? For us on the earth, both events will look exactly the same. So by mere observing of sunrises and sunsets we will prove nothing (Burke 11).
OBSERVATION is not just based on looking at something or some event. Observation also includes the element of perspective. This is demonstrated by what psychologist have discovered about how images are perceived. The way one looks at an object or event will often determine the shape that is finally perceived (Rock 72 – 73).
Pictured are three classical cases showing that the way one looks at an object determines what is seen. The first picture contains either the profile of a face or the word “Liar”. The center picture is either of a duck with its bill on the left or a rabbit with its ears on the left. The last picture is either an old lady or a young girl. Many observers of these pictures will only see one of the images at a time. It is impossible to state as an absolute fact which one image is contained in any one of these pictures. The process of giving meaning to objects or events is called INTERPRETING the data. The interpretation is based on how the observer sees the data. Scientists try to be objective when they look at data, but they most often are not. OBJECTIVE means that the facts are treated independent of the mind without being distorted by personal feelings or prejudices. The things and events that we perceive with our five senses do not have their own meaning; rather meaning is something that we give to them (Bogdan 25). The lack of true objectivity in science is often ignored when the scientific method is presented. A scientist gives meaning to objects and events based upon his worldview. When scientists or any other individuals begin to use their worldview to give meaning to data, they move from the physical to the metaphysical from the scientific to epistemological. Science is presented as a sort of priesthood capable of proclaiming the scientific “truth” which cannot be challenged. The scientific ‘experts’ are supposed to be the only valid source of scientific opinions. Having pronounced the common-sense belief of the ordinary person to be fundamentally wrong, the ‘experts’ are in the position of a ‘priesthood’ to which all must go for help (Henry 223). Even the experts are subject to their worldview when they give meaning to what they see. In many cases, the experts are much less willing to accept new ideas, especially when those ideas challenge beliefs widely held by the scientific community. Evaluation of the meaning of data is dependant upon understanding the observers worldview. Ultimately, everyone’s perception of reality is based upon his or her worldview.
Worldviews form the foundation of any study of epistemology. If one ever hope to approach a basic understanding of truth specifically and epistemology in general it is essential to fully understand worldviews. An understanding of worldviews begins by exploring worldviews in a general sense
AN OVERVIEW OF WORLDVIEWS
A WORLDVIEW is the conceptual framework that we use to give meaning to the world. We use our worldview whenever we want to interpret something that we encounter in our daily lives. A worldview in turn is constructed of a set of presuppositions. Some people will mistakenly interchange the term worldview and presupposition, but this is not a correct use of either term. PRESUPPOSITIONS are the key elements that make up a worldview (Young 1.7). The presuppositions out of which we build our worldview are obtained from our family and the society in which we live. Because presuppositions are so important, it is important to wisely consider and select the presuppositions we use to give meaning to what we observe (Schaeffer 1976, 20). With all of the people in the world, amazingly the worldviews they use fall into three major categories. The three worldview categories are Mechanistic Humanism, New Age Pantheism, and Christian Theism. Each of these worldviews has a number of variations (Young 1.11). Each of these three worldviews may be traced back to the ancient world and exist in a distinct form today. Once one has become familiar with worldviews, one can go through a rather simple process of selecting the most suitable worldview for use in every-day life.