My Epistemology – Part 1: Evidence

The ThinkerEarly in this truth-seeking journey it occurred to me that if I’m going to compare the interpretations of the evidence for and against competing worldviews then I am going to have to establish what it means to have evidence and how to relate that evidence to truth. When I first formulated my methodology I was working under the presumption that there is some common ground; that there would be a set of data upon which competing worldviews could agree. After all, those who hold to these worldviews share a common mechanism for gathering data (our five senses) and have the potential to access the same stimulus from the outside world (by putting ourselves in the position to experience it for ourselves). I later came to learn that this is known in the philosophical world as empiricism.

But is that a fair playing field? Have I biased myself toward a naturalistic worldview by assuming that our data is acquired from sensory experience? Empiricism clearly does not preclude arriving at a theistic worldview; certainly God could reveal himself to us solely through these means. However, when we consider religious experience and divine revelation it appears that there is a claim that the acquisition of information is not always dependent on our senses (at least in the original form, before it is relayed to others). Certainly we can still include this information in our data set; the question is how to treat it. Similarly, there is also the question of innate knowledge, in which logical reasoning and mathematics are sometimes placed. Could that really be a product of sensory experience?

Disclaimer #1: I have no formal philosophical training, so forgive me if I abuse the terminology and/or overlook well established points and counter-points. My goal is not to educate others on philosophy, but to work through and explain my own epistemology in its current state. This is armchair philosophy.

Disclaimer #2: I am trying to avoid using complicated and confusing language, but that is not always easy in these types of discussions. I apologize in advance if I have failed in that endeavor.

I think, therefore…

It is in this discussion that we find the relevancy of philosophy’s most famous dictum, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. This simple statement is the end result of Descartes’ attempt to find the foundation upon which all other knowledge is built. I do not disagree with his conclusion. Ultimately, everything that we know is for us a thought and we cannot begin our formulation of reality from anything less. So it is from this first principle that I too will begin my own attempt to unpack my epistemology. Grab a cup of coffee. This is a long one.

Disclaimer #3: My hope in this discussion is to put aside the mind-body problem and focus on the nature of knowledge. That is, I am intentionally addressing the content of thought and ignoring the substance of thought. To accomplish this, I will treat thoughts as if they cannot be reduced to something else and exclude discussion of whether or not that is really the case. That is a topic for another day.

The foundations of reality

I think, therefore I am. In the course of thinking, I often acquire input that appears to come from something external to myself. We call this perception. I sometimes perceive other bodies who appear to operate in a manner consistent with my understanding of myself, and so I conclude that they also think and exist in the same sense. When another thinker informs me of something external to both of us and I go and experience it, I usually find general agreement with their description of the experience. So from this I conclude that there is an external world which I share with other thinkers [1].

On many occasions, I perceive things in the external world of which others have no information and I am often given new information about the external world that was likewise revealed to me by others (i.e., testimony). It is also the case that we sometimes discover objects whose state was known at one time, which was then left unobserved by all thinkers for some time and then perceived to be in a different state at a later time. From these, I conclude that there is an external world which exists and acts independent of all thinkers (I recognize that some views of quantum mechanics cast doubt on this conclusion, but these seem to misunderstand the definition of an observer).

To summarize, the most reasonable explanation of reality is that I am one of many thinkers experiencing a world that exists independent of our consciousness.

Becoming a thinker

NewbornIn my explanation of reality I concluded that we are thinkers existing in an external world. Furthermore, it is apparent that we are associated with a body and that this body has grown and developed over time, starting from birth. I, like others, have no recollection of the first couple years of my life. Why is this? One explanation is that we are still learning how to think. We are still training the faculties to process sensations, form beliefs and make choices. This seems correct.

In his book, The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson makes a strong case for the idea that the development of thought is deeply rooted in the interpersonal interactions that occur early in life. He draws upon an extensive set of clinical data with particular attention to the detrimental cognitive effects observed in those with autism, in children with mothers who have relational problems (borderline personality disorder) and cases where children are deprived of the full interpersonal experience. The gist of the theory is that engagement with others and the relational observations that occur in those interactions is the foundation for the development of perspective. Furthermore, it seems that a key method for assigning meaning to those relational observations occurs through the recognition of emotional cues during interpersonal engagement. These emotional cues arise from an innate mirroring reaction, which then triggers an internal emotional response. The resulting ability to assign meaning from multiple perspectives is then the groundwork for symbolizing and imagination, which are foundational to language and thought.

In short, coherent thought is dependent on our sensory experience. This says nothing about the underlying potential that must preexist; but that itself is not thinking. It is clear that we are born possessing the capacities for thought and that we have inherent tendencies and personality traits. Those, however, are properties of the mind and are again, not a form of thought; they do not constitute knowledge, there is no informational content.

One only needs to look at the outcome of the most extreme cases of neglect and deprivation (see one, two, three) to see just how critical our interpersonal experience is to our cognitive development. You can’t help but recognize the animal tendencies of these children and realize just how fragile the mind is and how dependent we are on the social aspects of our upbringing. If our sensory experience, and in particular our experience of other persons, is not the lone originator of comprehensible, conscious thought then it is at the very least a dominant influence in shaping it.

Innate knowledge

The previous section suggested that coherent thought itself arises from experience, but the debate over whether or not there is such a thing as innate knowledge has been raging for centuries. When it comes down to it, however, the contention between the rationalist and empiricist views typically centers around a fraction of all that we can know. There is no disagreement that the vast majority of our information is acquired through empirical means yet it is also fair to say that the disagreement is pervasive because it pertains to some of the most fundamental forms of thought. The types of knowledge which are most commonly asserted to be innate are logical reasoning, mathematics and grammar, so I will focus on these (and there are three categories of logical reasoning, and so I will address each separately).

Disclaimer #4: I think it’s questionable whether these should even be considered to fall in the domain of knowledge. These might be better categorized as capabilities rather than knowledge (of the “know how” variety). Regardless, I think it’s still worth examining their relationship to the empirical world.

Deductive Reasoning

One of the most common examples of deductive reasoning takes the form: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Somehow we recognize the truthfulness of this arrangement and perform this type of reasoning on a regular basis. The explanation, some say, is that this recognition is independent of our experience.

To examine this, let’s take a closer look at the example. How do we come to know what it means to say that “all men are mortal”? It goes without saying that we are not born knowing what it means to be mortal. Instead, we encounter “mortal” in different contexts and, from those contexts, we come to associate it with the class of things which die. The word “mortal” becomes a symbol for the collective experiences which have shown us that there are some things which die. So, when we say that all men are mortal we are effectively saying that men are among the things which have informed our definition of the symbol “mortal”; that is, the group “all men” is a subset of the set of things which die. In the same way, the statement “Socrates is a man” is equivalent to saying that Socrates is a member of the set of men. It is the relationship between these groupings which then yields the conclusion “Socrates is mortal”. To clarify, here is the logical progression as a sequence of Venn diagrams:

Logic as sets

Rationalists and empiricists agree that our association of labels and properties with objects in the external world arises through empirical means. Our recognition of similarities, or patterns, in that information is then equivalent to the grouping of those items together. In other words, properties are the result of pattern recognition on empirical data from a set of experiences. As we can see in the diagram above, logic is synonymous with the expression of sets and subsets. If logic is thus reduced to pattern matching on empirical data, then one might argue that it is pattern matching which is innate; and in fact this is widely accepted. The question then is whether pattern matching is a form of knowledge. I’m not sure how to answer that, but it’s not difficult to see why we might suggest that it is not. A strainer effectively performs pattern matching when it separates noodles from water but few, if any, would suggest that a strainer is applying knowledge in doing so. This view also infers that deduction does not reveal any new information. Since the properties are based on our experience prior to the act of reasoning, the deductive process is only raising our awareness to the associations that were already established through pattern recognition and the formation of properties.

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is nothing more than deductive reasoning in reverse. The inductive version of the proposition given above would be “Socrates is mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore all men are mortal”. The reliability of inductive conclusions is dependent on having multiple supporting cases (i.e., adding more and more of the little pink circles – John is mortal and a man, Paul is mortal and a man, George is mortal and a man, etc…). Regardless, the view I presented for deduction still applies when considering whether inductive reasoning is innate; it all comes down to pattern matching on empirical data. Furthermore, if my description of how we come to form properties is correct (through multiple associative experiences) then deduction is only possible after induction has already occurred. Induction is effectively the process by which groupings are established in the first place.

Abductive Reasoning

Logical ThinkingAlso called “inference to the best explanation”, abduction is what happens when you arrive at the middle circle in the Venn diagram by way of a combination of the bigger and smaller circles. Going back to the example with Socrates, the abductive version would be: “All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal, therefore Socrates is a man.” As with induction, the reliability of such statements is dependent on additional data. In the case of abduction, this additional data would serve to constrain Socrates into more and more of the outer circles that overlap with the “all men” circle (e.g., Socrates and all men speak, Socrates and all men are mostly hairless, Socrates and all men use tools, etc…). This narrows the possible space into which Socrates fits and leads to the conclusion that Socrates is a man. As with deductive and inductive reasoning, this seems to be reducible to pattern matching on empirical data; albeit across many sets which don’t necessarily fully overlap.

As I end the discussion on logical reasoning I must concede that perhaps this is all a bit too dismissive. I am not blind to the allure of ascribing transcendence to the process which calls our attention to the associations between the data we have acquired. That said, I also see no reason to believe that logical reasoning cannot be reduced to simpler, less “thoughtful” processes that are fully empirical in nature. Perhaps the best explanation is that we have an evolutionary adaptation for generating patterns from sensory information and then matching them in ways which produce logical relations that accurately represent the outside world, so that our faculty for logical reasoning is still empirically derived yet also largely innate.


Some argue that there are certain mathematical constructs which have no empirical basis. I do not wish to dive into the details of those more complex elements here, but I will say this: the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the mathematical calculations that we perform can be reduced to counting. What is the first mathematical construct that a child learns? Counting. How do we learn to count? By associating numbers with the sensory experience of distinct objects. How do we learn to add? By counting groups of objects separately and then counting them when they’re together. I could go on to higher and higher levels of abstraction but the point is this: our development of mathematical knowledge is fundamentally based on empirical data. We learn to use numbers by seeing them as symbols for the empirical world, regardless of whether they represent quantities or magnitudes. This symbolizing fits the description of logical reasoning, where association is accomplished through pattern recognition. Does this mean that all knowledge of mathematics is empirical? I have no compelling reason to think otherwise, but I confess that I have not sufficiently investigated the opposing views and my authority for such a claim is limited.


I have suggested that both logical reasoning and mathematics can be seen as a system of symbols representing relationships between sensory experience. Conscious thought is predominantly an act of symbolizing and most often takes place in the form of an internal dialog according to our primary language. In considering our remarkable capacity for language acquisition, Noam Chomsky proposed that humans uniquely possess an innate universal grammar. However, language acquisition theories are hotly debated and some claim that the Pirahã language serves as a counter-example to Chomsky’s theory. The chief competitors to his theory imply that both the structure and content of language arises from the relationships and patterns in the context of our experience (see the distributional hypothesis and the combination of distributional semantics with experiential data). It is clear to me that these alternative ideas bear strong parallels with the theories of cognitive development and logical reasoning that I have presented above. These theories all fit together very nicely and, when taken as a whole, describe the formation of knowledge through wholly empirical means. Regardless, the acquisition of language is truly remarkable and I can appreciate why one might be persuaded by the idea of a universal grammar. In fact, as with logic, I am inclined to favor something of a middle ground – a evolutionary adaptive faculty that specifically facilitates language (or group communication) without dictating the exact form that it takes.

Non-empirical information

So far I have suggested that all of our information, all of our evidence, is acquired through sensory experience. Many would argue that this is still not a complete picture. In the secular world, it is generally only information about our internal state which is postulated to be non-empirical. However, we must also consider the means by which some thinkers have claimed to acquire religious information. For my purposes here, I have identified six potential sources of non-empirical information (“know what”) to discuss: intuition, emotion, invention and, in the Christian realm, sensus divinitatis, divine revelation and the inner testimony of the holy spirit. I will address each in turn.


Also known as “gut instinct”. There are, as always, varied philosophical positions on intuition. It seems fair, however, on all accounts to say that intuition is something like “the default strength of a belief”; it is our initial feeling of the truthfulness of a claim before we have taken the time to review the reasons for believing that the claim is true. But now it appears that I have gotten ahead of myself. My intent was to discuss my epistemology as a progression from evidence, to belief, to truth and here I am talking about belief and truth in a discussion of the evidence. This is actually a very important point. This infers that intuition is not some new source of information that can be used as evidence itself. It is instead our current default view on the evidence that we have already collected.

Some may disagree with me here. Some may argue that intuition can give us new information by informing us of the truthfulness of a claim in ways that are not accessible through rational reflection. I agree that this is possible, but I also contend that there are no good reasons to identify this as anything more than an alternative way to access the evidence we have already acquired. Conversely, there are good reasons for viewing intuition as a by-product of experience; namely that we can often explain our intuitions by reference to prior experience and feel that it is appropriate to do so. We can also recognize changes in our intuition as a consequence of experience. For now, I will say nothing more than to note that I will discuss our use of intuition later, when I tackle justification and truth.


TearsThe potential categorization of emotion as non-empirical is not at all obvious. It is often unclear where our feelings end and our sensory experience begins. When we feel sad, is that a sensory experience? Clearly it is not the same as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or touching; but it is similar in that it informs us of our current state and has known physiological correlates (i.e., neurotransmitters and brain regions). It is also clear that emotions are greatly influenced by our sensory experience (and vice versa). Another example worth consideration is pain. Often pain is closely tied to our sense of touch and has its roots in some stimulus from the outside world, but pain can also be entirely internal, with deep ties to our psychology. Really, the only obvious distinction is that emotions do not tell us about the outside world, only about our internal condition.

I am obliged here to also briefly address morality. Regardless of whether there are objective moral standards, it is clear that our emotional response most often dictates the moral property that we assign to a situation. It is generally the case that a feeling of disgust, sadness or anger (among others) leads us to identify something as bad and that a feeling of appreciation, joy or love (among others) leads us to identify something as good. These feelings may arise directly or indirectly through empathy. If this holds, then we are informed by our morality in much the same way that we are informed by our emotions. You can superimpose an external moral standard, but that is a different source of information and a different topic altogether. When we limit our consideration to the question of a moral law that is “written on the hearts of men”, I find it difficult to see why this should be considered distinct from emotion. There may be some outliers, but in general they seem to be congruent. Again, this is a much larger topic that will warrant much more discussion.

In the end, it seems to me that the question of whether or not emotion yields empirical data comes down to the direction of causation: are emotions caused by the physiological correlates, or are the physiological correlates caused by the emotion? I have yet to do an in-depth study on the topic, but the data which I have encountered so far seems to best support the former – that emotional sensations are the output of physiological processes, which are themselves responses to stimulus. The most compelling evidence on this front is the efficacy of drugs which promote or inhibit these physiological processes. These drugs effectively alter emotional states and this implies that the emotion follows from the physiology. In short, emotion is a valid source of information about ourselves, and how we respond to the outside world, but is likely also rooted in the empirical world.


In Descartes’ dualistic worldview, he postulated that one category of idea was that which was his own invention. We might also call this imagination. Descartes placed sirens and hippogriffs into this category. The claimed distinction is that these ideas are not sourced by our experience, whether that be via our current experience or recollection from memory. It seems to me, however, that this distinction is artificial. Taking Descartes’ examples, it is obvious that the definition of these imaginary creatures is nothing more than a composite of properties of actual creatures that have been experienced by the inventors. I am hard pressed to identify any situation where this is not in some sense the case.

That said, we must also consider the underlying faculty which enables this melding of multiple experiences into a coherent description of something which has never been experienced. Does the act of combining disjoint experiences qualify as the creation of new information? If we return to the section on logical reasoning and consider the Venn diagrams and the formation of properties, we can see how mixing and matching of properties might naturally arise from the associations and pattern matching that connect our experiential data. In that sense, invention is not creating new information but rather reformulating existing information in a way that does not match the original experiences. This can be intentional or unintentional. Sometimes it can be productive, or entertaining, or misleading but, whatever it is, it is still empirical.

Sensus divinitatis

First, a definition is in order. The formal concept of sensus divinitatis was popularized by John Calvin, where he presented it as follows:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.

Anybody with any exposure to apologetics recognizes the relationship between the sensus divinitatis and the undisputed fact that nearly every human culture which has ever graced the face of the planet has believed in some sort of divine agency. The cross-temporal, cross-cultural belief in the divine would seem to support the notion that this innate sense does in fact exist.

However, when I go further and reflect on the nature of sensus divinitatis, it is not clear to me why this sense should be considered as something different than intuition. In my discussion of intuition, I proposed that our intuitions are by-products of experience. To evaluate whether this also applies to sensus divinitatis, I would like to revisit my brief summary of cognitive development. There we find two striking observations: First, it was proposed that thinking itself arises from interactions with other agents. That is, our cognitive development may very well be dependent on the detection of agency. The implication is that we may be prone to attribute unexpected observations to external agents even when none are present (regardless of the evolutionary argument, anybody with children can clearly see how this actually plays out). Second, cases of extreme neglect and deprivation result in distinctly unfamiliar and animal-like behavior. It is unfortunately very difficult to see where those individuals espouse a sense of the divine. Furthermore, with the recent increased prevalence of non-religious cultures we find that children who are raised in those cultures do not seem to attain a natural sense of the divine. So, while I cannot reject the possibility of a sensus divinitatis I also recognize that there are indications that it may be nothing more than a culturally reinforced intuition that arises, in part, from a tendency to assign agency. This alternative is reasonable and so the claims of sensus divinitatis are subject to scrutiny.

Divine revelation

BibleTo start this discussion I must first clarify that I am referring to a very specific form of revelation. Clearly the visions and voices claimed in Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation and the like are empirical – supernatural, yes, but also empirical because they rely upon the senses of the recipient to convey the information. It is clear, however, that this is not always the means by which divine information is claimed to have been revealed. It would seem that numerous old testament prophets spoke on God’s behalf through something akin to “thought injection” and the doctrine of inspiration seems to imply that information was somehow transferred from God to the strokes of the author’s pen; whether you wish to see that as some sort of circuitous and mysterious process or blatant mind control.

I’ll keep my thoughts on this short and to the point. This type of divine revelation, where information from God is revealed through the injection of unique mental content, seems indistinguishable from the notion of invention that I discussed above. If Moby Dick, Battlestar Galactica and any other work of fiction can arise through an inventive composite of our experiences then we cannot deny the possibility that content in the Bible is any different. To contend otherwise, one must be able to demonstrate that the information is both true and could not have arisen from the experiences of the authors. Nevertheless, I cannot prove that there has never been divine revelation, nor can I explain why such an event would be impossible. In the end, we are forced to evaluate and judge the merit of such claims just as we would any other evidence. If Moby Dick had billed itself as a true story, would we not also afford it the opportunity to prove itself true?

Inner testimony of the Holy Spirit

The concept which most closely aligns with the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” is what many would call conviction. Unfortunately the dictionary definition doesn’t really capture the way we actually use the word. Conviction, as I understand it, goes beyond a strong belief and adds emotion into the mix. You may not be able to dissuade me that 2+2=4, but I wouldn’t consider it a conviction. I am convicted, however, that the lives of my children are precious, or that Hitler was evil. I hope that the difference is clear, even if it is just semantics.

So when we consider the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, what we find is something like a combination of intuition and emotion. In those prior discussions I argued that both of these were empirical constructs. The resulting implication is that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit may be explained on purely experiential grounds. The story is concise: religious experiences are deeply emotional. The recurrence of those experiences develops our intuition and associates that intuition with the emotions correlated with the experiences. The result is a conviction regarding the source of those experiences.

This story may be simplistic but it captures the essence of how we might see that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit can be the result of prior experience. As with the claims of non-empirical religious evidence, however, I cannot prove that this interpretation is correct. I can only point out that the possibility is there. From there we must rely on a deeper exploration to uncover the truth.

I am

I am an empiricist in general and a skeptic of rationalism. It seems probable that both thinking itself and the content of our thoughts ultimately arise when innate pattern recognition and mirroring functions are applied to our sensory experience and to evolutionary predispositions and faculties which themselves were formed through empirical input. That said, I cannot rule out the possibility of other sources or that my empirical reductions may be incorrect. My challenge will be to operate under my current understanding of the evidence while simultaneously accepting the possibility that I am wrong and will need to revise my perspective. Regardless, I can at least explain my foundations for the acquisition of evidence – that all information is most likely dependent on sensory experience. Now I just need to figure out how to discern the truth from amongst all this data. That will have to wait for the next post.


6 thoughts on “My Epistemology – Part 1: Evidence

  1. “In his book, The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson makes a strong case for the idea that the development of thought is deeply rooted in the interpersonal interactions that occur early in life. He draws upon an extensive set of clinical data with particular attention to the detrimental cognitive effects observed in those with autism, in children with mothers who have relational problems (borderline personality disorder) and cases where children are deprived of the full interpersonal experience.”

    I am not sure if you are saying lack of interpersonal experience causes autism or if you are just saying interpersonal experience is helpful for children’s development.

    While I agree that all children benefit from interpersonal experience, I would also note that autism is strongly linked to genetics.

    In either case I tend to generally agree with much of what you say but do not think we can draw this conclusion from it:

    “In short, thinking is birthed out of our sensory experience.”

    Just because our development is aided by sensory experience it does not prove all our thinking is derived from it.

    Maybe you are not claiming all our thinking but just some of it is birthed out of our sensory experience. I would agree with that.

    • “I am not sure if you are saying lack of interpersonal experience causes autism or if you are just saying interpersonal experience is helpful for children’s development. While I agree that all children benefit from interpersonal experience, I would also note that autism is strongly linked to genetics.”

      The research in the book showed that children who are deprived of interpersonal experience during their development tend to exhibit behavior which has autistic correlates. The implication is not that autism is an entirely external phenomenon but rather that the physiological roots of autism may be related to a deficit in the brain’s ability to engage in those interpersonal experiences. As you alluded to, a small minority have taken this correlation too far and blamed parents for creating autistic children through their parenting style, but the research is clear that this is not the case.

      “In either case I tend to generally agree with much of what you say but do not think we can draw this conclusion from it:
      “In short, thinking is birthed out of our sensory experience.”
      Just because our development is aided by sensory experience it does not prove all our thinking is derived from it. Maybe you are not claiming all our thinking but just some of it is birthed out of our sensory experience. I would agree with that.”

      Yes, that should probably be reworded. It’s possible that “thinking” can be interpreted more broadly than I intended. The focus here is on the idea that the content of our thoughts is derived from our sensory experience. That said, I can’t even conceive of what it would mean to have a thought without any content. Can it still really be called a thought?

  2. Nice thorough examination of this topic. I kinda see this area of philosophy as one that not for the faint of heart. It can feel like a black-hole of uncertainty and confusion. But you and I agree as Empiricists. Your application of Occam’s razor was spot on. I think that principle is the only one which can put these matters to rest. Yet I hadn’t really thought about that until now.

    • Yeah, but it was also reassuring to see that even after I had taken the time to think through it I pretty much still ended up with a “common sense” view of knowledge. Thanks for chiming in.

      • Yeah, I think a temptation in philosophy is to move too far away from common sense. I know we’ve discussed that within the area of free will. I agree that the empiricist view is just common sense; it’s hard to debunk a rationalist (impossible actually) but it’s easy to show why it’s the less pragmatic view.

  3. Pingback: You’ve reasoned your way away from belief in God… but are there are other ways of “knowing”? | My Journey - Questions & Observations of a Skeptic

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