Theology and Knowledge: Observational and Disciplinary Knowledge

This post is part of the series Theology and Knowledge.

This post uses a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as a jumping off point. The conversation is titled Something From Nothing? and you can find a transcript here.

Let me begin this post where I left off in the previous one:

Let’s return to the model of knowledge that I discussed above, the model that I believe is fairly common and that appears to be accepted by Krauss. Under this model, knowledge stems from our observations of the universe – which are themselves always limited by the state of the universe at the time, which determined the possible observations – and results in overarching narratives that account for as many of those observations as possible. Such knowledge is, of course, always somewhat tentative: we cannot know that other possible observations – which we may or may not ever encounter – won’t force us to alter or abandon our current narratives; we cannot be certain that our current narratives actually match reality.

What I am suggesting – and here I am in line with any number of philosophers and social theorists – is that while this model tells us some things about knowledge that appear to be true, it does not account for knowledge as a whole. It is itself an inadequate narrative because it does not account for knowledge as a cultural phenomenon and disciplinary – which is to say: life-ordering – institution that constructs, maintains and is influenced by dominant social apparatuses like schools, marketplaces, corporations, governments, etc. Knowledge is power, as they say, but power is in part the power to legitimize certain narratives as ‘knowledge’.

The core of my statement is that there are at least two kinds of knowledge: observational knowledge and disciplinary knowledge. Observational knowledge is the kind of knowledge that Krauss – and Dawkins – are describing in their conversation. I think that we can safely divide observational knowledge into at least two levels. One level is the knowledge in the form of simple descriptions of observations: this ball is red, this bone is one meter long, etc. On a higher level, we have narratives that tie together a variety of observations. This can most easily be seen when we think about historical narratives: none of us can observe the big bang, but the narrative of the big bang ties together enough observations that it provides a satisfactory account of those observations.

Importantly, many of the narratives provided by observational knowledge have implications beyond the observations they account for. They make predictions. In the sciences, we can use these predictions to falsify various narratives. So, for example, the standard model of particle physics predicted the existence of some elementary particles called the W bosons. These were discovered, but if they had not been then the standard model would have required revision. As Krauss points out, however, we can never be certain that such a narrative is entirely accurate. Even if we make all possible observations and all of those observations are accounted for by our narrative, we cannot be sure that there is an observation we are unable to make (for whatever reason) that would require the revision or discarding of our narrative were we able to make it. This means that all observational knowledge narratives that make predictions can conceivably be falsifiable – there is an imaginable observation that would ‘break’ it – but none are entirely verifiable.

It is the case though, there is no reason that a narrative must imply additional observations; there is no reason that a narrative must make predictions. In principle, a narrative can fully account for all of our extant observation without suggesting or demanding that any additional observations be made. And this is true even if the narrative does not fully account for reality as it actually is. So, for example, we can imagine a situation in which we are all part of a simulation being run on a computer in a vastly different universe than our own. This simulation might be so coherent that we are able to develop a narrative of our world that accounts for all of our observations without suggesting that we live in a simulated world even though it is the case that we do, in fact, live in such a world. So not only can we never be certain that our narratives are true (there always may be another observation lurking out there that would require us to modify or abandon our narrative), we also can never be certain than our narratives are comprehensive.

This is obviously not a complete account of observational knowledge. However, I think it is safe to say that this is the kind of knowledge that Krauss – and, I think, Dawkins – has in mind when he issues his challenge: “give me a single example of a contribution to human knowledge that theology has provided in the last 500 years”. What he is suggesting, I think, is that theology has not accounted for an observation or predicted an observation that has subsequently been made. This may or may not be true. What I think Krauss is missing, however, is any cognizance of the other kind of knowledge listed above: disciplinary knowledge.

What I mean by disciplinary knowledge is that kind of knowledge that is concerned with ordering human society. This sort of knowledge does not stem from making observations and then reporting on them, nor does it produce narratives that tie those observations together. Rather, disciplinary knowledge involves the act of producing narratives in which people live.

An easy example here is ethics. It is possible to imagine a version of ethics that is descriptive and therefore a form of observational knowledge. This descriptive ethics might take statistical data on what people believe to be morally good and morally bad and formulate various narratives accounting for those preferences (e.g.: an evolutionary narrative accounting for transcultural moral preferences in terms of natural selection). This is clearly different, however, from a prescriptive ethics that suggests that some act, set of acts or general rule is morally good or morally bad regardless of how many people currently agree with that assessment. This prescriptive ethics does not observe some sort of ‘the good’ and then formulate a narrative that accounts for those observations. Rather, it formulates a narrative of ‘the good’ – or, perhaps, a ‘vision-of-the-good’ – and suggests how we might live under that vision. The very act of formulating the narrative, in a sense, creates the thing that the narrative is about.

This is not isolated to ethics, however. Disciplinary knowledge functions in any space where human life is ordered. While there are often both descriptive and prescriptive forms of various academic disciplines, it is a simple matter to see the disciplinary function at work in economics, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, etc. Medical fields, especially, provide rich illustrations. The power of the psychiatrist – and even more so when combined with the power of the judicial system – to identify someone as having a mental disorder and prescribe treatments that may include mind-altering medications and highly disciplined regiments in their daily lives (including admittance to a psychiatric treatment facility) is astonishing. And it is based on the fact that the psychiatrist has a specific kind of knowledge. Not simply the knowledge that so-and-so exhibits behaviors consistent with descriptions of schizophrenia, but the knowledge necessary to determine whether and how to treat that disease, the knowledge necessary to determine when the treatment is adequate and – along with the rest of the field – the knowledge necessary to classify schizophrenia (or autism or attention deficit disorder or what have you) as a disease in the first place!

In a sense, this is little more than the famous difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. Observational knowledge and the practices that bring it about can tell us – with certain limitations – how things are. In terms of the natural sciences, this is all very well and good. But when it comes to how we structure human life, it is trivial. A Gallup poll might tell us that 40% of Americans believe immigration should be kept at its current level, but that fact gives us no information on whether or how immigration policy should be changed. Or, to take an example closer to Krauss’s and Dawkins’s hearts, a poll might tell us that 74% of Americans identify as Christian or that 55% believe that religion can answer most or all of today’s problems, etc., but it does not tell whether people ought to identify as Christian or hold that belief. The polls provide observational knowledge (answers to ‘is’ questions), but as human beings we also need disciplinary knowledge (answers to ‘ought’ questions). The challenge is that there does not appear to be a way to move logically from ‘is’ to ‘ought’.

The core of disciplinary knowledge, then, is in its power to shape human life. Where observational knowledge might simply make observations and form a narrative that accounts for those observations while having no further implications, disciplinary knowledge must have further implications. That is, after all, the point: that the individual person should live this way or that human society should be organized this way. This means, of course, that a piece of disciplinary knowledge might be overcome as observations are made; for example, if a an alteration of human life did not create the world that the discipline anticipated or desires.

Dawkins and Krauss seem to ignore disciplinary knowledge in their general discussion of knowledge. In fact, Krauss even goes so far as to say that, “by knowledge I mean empirical knowledge [what I have been calling observational knowledge], because for me that’s the only kind of knowledge.”

However, they both imply its existence when they are asked a disciplinary question:

How do we practically get people whose lives are miserable, who are struggling to survive, and who are clinging to life so perilously, to be able to come to a level where they have an understanding, at least basic understanding of the world we do live in, such that they can make their own decision and don’t have to be victims of religion and just slaves to easy reality, easy story.

In response to this question, Dawkins cites the percentage of people who are members of the National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society who are atheists as opposed to the percentage of the general population of the United States and Britain, respectively. Moreover, he states quite clearly that people may believe religious stories because they are comforting, but that people ought not believe things because they are comforting, but because they are true. The implication seems to be that (1) people ought to believe things that are true, (2) the beliefs of the majority of members of the National Academy and Royal Society are a good measure of what is true and (3) that the general population, if it believed true things, would look more like that of the National Academy and Royal Society.

Both the question and Dawkins’s response (1) move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, (2) presume that the questioner, Dawkins, Krauss, etc. have the appropriate knowledge to discern what ‘ought’ should be and (3) suggest that action should be taken to move society in general from ‘is’ to ‘ought’.

(An aside: There is a certain irony that Dawkins and Krauss then both go on to lament the fact that Carl Sagan was not elected to the National Academy “almost certainly because of jealousy… because he was popular”. This is certainly a demonstration of the kind of disciplinary knowledge that the Academy does have: the ability to determine precisely who the elite American scientists are.)

Krauss then goes on to provide a specific answer to the question that has two parts. First, that it is important to “educate people to learn to the point that science can provide a way out of poverty” because this will move people “in the direction away from superstition.” Second, that it is important to end the subjugation of women, which is “usually because of religion.” In answer to the next question, Krauss takes it even farther, suggesting that scientists need to engage in communicating partly by starting companies that “produce technologies that improve society.”

Improving education in all areas of the world, eliminating the subjugation of women and producing technologies that improve society are all laudable goals and I have no doubt that Krauss supports them for a variety of reasons. In this case, however, the first two are proposed specifically in response to a question about how to help people not “be victims of religion and… slaves to easy reality”. The third is not directly in response to that question, but ties into it: technologies will improve human life, and it has already been said that part of such improvement is a decrease in the percentage of people who are religious. The point here is simply that Dawkins and Krauss are both suggesting certain ways of ordering human life and that they and others like them know how to best order human life. This is the very essence of disciplinary knowledge.

All of this is necessarily only a sketch. One could easily write much more on observational and disciplinary knowledge and, in fact, there is no shortage of work on the subjects. Moreover, other kinds of knowledge could easily be identified; one that occurred to me while writing was performative knowledge, the kind of knowledge present in ‘knowing how’ to play an instrument, act, paint, etc. My point here, however, is not to make an in depth investigation of knowledge as a whole or these two kinds of knowledge. Rather, it is this: (1) despite Krauss’s frustration with those theologians who ask what he means by ‘knowledge’ when he issues his challenge, there are in fact different kinds of knowledge and (2) despite Krauss’s claim that he only recognizes empirical knowledge, he implicitly recognizes disciplinary knowledge. I would further suggest – and I will begin exploring this in the next post in this series – that theology has an important function in the construction of disciplinary knowledge; it formulates narratives that suggest a shape for human life tied to such ideas as ‘the good’, ‘the beautiful’, ‘the true’, etc.

But that is for the next post.

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