There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.
He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:
“What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”
“The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts—that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”
“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”
“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”
Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results. However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.
So how do the different methods rate?: