Philosophy has separate branches for going more in depth into these two key terms, with Epistemology clarifying what we mean by knowledge and how to verify that it is what it claims to be (which we'll get into in coming posts), and for the aspect of causation I'm most interested in, the Ethics clarifies how you should respond to Causes in your life (whether from external circumstances or what you internally come to understand), and while Aristotle goes into more depth on both in other books like his Nichomachean Ethics, Analytics, and even the Physics, in the Metaphysics he looks at their foundations, and as it's a safe bet that a better understanding of that can have a sizable impact on your day to day doings and possibly even the entire course of your life, it's worth taking a closer look at those basics, and we'll begin that in this post with Knowledge.
book VI of his Nichomachean Ethics,
"...it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous…But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable...", highlights what is missed by not understanding how differently chance and uncertainty affect what we know and how to apply it, and failing to do so can result in our being harmed by, rather than benefiting from, the knowledge we acquire - truly: 'A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing'.
To illustrate, beginning with the extreme end which Aristotle includes the categories of mathematics and theology in, we know that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle in a Euclidean plane (an important caveat) will always be 180* - and that knowledge is as true today, as it will be true tomorrow, just as it has been from the beginning of time, and as it will be to the end of time. No chances of context or material configuration need to be allowed for in that invariable truth - there is nothing to deliberate about, no judgements to be considered and weighed - for once it is understood by observation, that knowledge only needs to be identified, to be known and applied, and we'd be rightly concerned about the person who continued to deliberate upon and 'fact check' the sum of degrees in every possible triangle (it's worth noting, because it is so often misused & abused, that Math & Geometry are not pure truths somehow existing apart form and unsullied with reality and experience - their is no concept of a line, or a number, except through experience and inferring from quantities of it. Dualism is false, even on that level).
OTOH, every other form of knowledge outside of mathematics and theology, contains some variability of chance and context to be considered and deliberated upon, so as to make a worthwhile judgement about it. How well your knowledge can serve the good you are aiming at, depends a great deal upon how well you recognize the nature and variations within it. With that in mind, let's take a look at how Knowledge can be generalized into three basic categories, varying in degree from that which requires the least judgment in attaining and applying that knowledge, to the most :
Those differences in the nature of knowledge, in how it is gathered, learned, and applied, can be glimpsed in the differences between knowing how to identify the molecular nature of water, knowing how best to package and convey, and/or sell water, and knowing to bring extra water when crossing a desert or to boil it when traveling. Being aware of those distinctions, and how best to form judgments from each of those perspectives, is what lays behind the now nearly forgotten ideal of getting a general and 'well rounded' education.
- Empeiría/Epistemé - often translated as only one word or the other, what we call Empirical, refers to the facts and data of experience, while Epistemé refers to the principled methods of Science;
- Tékhne - what we today call Technology, is the “art” or “technique” of putting the facts and data of experience to use;
- Sophía - Wisdom (Philosophy, philo-Sophia, being the love of wisdom) goes deeper and sees farther into how to turn the experiences and arts of living, towards having lives that are worth living
Those who lack (or ignore) that understanding, tend to embody the old joke about 'if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail' - or the equally appalling "You should only believe a truth that is scientifically verifiable". By having some depth and dimension to what you know about what you know, you are less likely to mistake what is appropriate with one form of knowledge, as also being appropriate to another - our knowledge of the molecular structure of water and how it interacts with what contains it, is not known in the same way as how best to convey that water, or whether or when water should be charged for or provided free of charge - and not knowing those distinctions, implicitly degrades the quality of all of what you do know, and what you might attempt to do with that knowledge.
That being said, it's worth poking just a little bit further into the essentials of the three basic categories of knowledge:
- Empirical/Science - these refer to two very different aspects of the knowledge being translated here. How we experience empirical knowledge typically begins with what we all have a casual and even accidental firsthand awareness of - that rocks are hard, water is wet, and fire is hot - it takes no judgment to apprehend such empirical facts, it simply is, and we perceive it. It's in observing and seeking to discover why those facts are the way they are, that leads the inquirer into discovering and identifying what makes them that way, but once those truths, principles, and laws are discovered to be behind that, they do not change and are thereafter there to be learned, and that methodical aspect of gathering and applying that knowledge - heavier on understanding than judgment - is what's usually translated as Episteme, and is more like what we recognize as Scientific knowledge today. By following Aristotle's lead and going further down paths which he only partially anticipated, we've developed that understanding into a more methodical means of applying the principle of non-contradiction to all that we know, subjecting our assumptions and biases to experimentation and verification for the purpose of better understanding the more eternal reasons for how and why it is that we experience a rock as being hard, and what it is about water that makes it feel wet, as well as how it is that the molecular composition of water can be decomposed into its explosively firey elements of Hydrogen and Oxygen, and so on, and the refinement of that process which has become the Scientific Method, has laid the foundations for the modern conveniences and marvels we enjoy today.
- Technique and Technology, bridges the unchanging and non-deliberative knowledge developed in the scientific fields of chemistry, geology, physics, etc., with the form of knowledge that requires a great deal of deliberating upon, in order to calculate how the various concerns in what we chance to bump into in everyday life, can be utilized in putting that knowledge to work, as with controling the flow of water to generate electricity, or seeing how the chemical structure of a problematic & oily substance found in the ground, could be refined into a new form that would power engines that could do work for us, and developing vehicles that can take us farther and faster on land, see, air, and even space, than was ever dreamt of prior to that understanding. The form of knowledge which scientists discover about the world we live in, the technician develops into different forms of knowledge in specialized techniques and new technologies, which commerce transforms into previously unimagined improvements to the circumstances of our lives.
The Scientific Method which has led us to understand that 'this molecule of water has two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen', involves a very different form of knowledge and judgment, than that which is involved in deliberating upon the means of conveying water to the people who need it via an aqueduct, water lines, or bottled water, which are all very different forms of knowledge, and involve different forms of judgement in applying them, than that which is involved in determining what does and doesn't justify such constructions or commercial distributions, and even laws governing access to it, and each is fostered by, and depends upon, our philosophical understanding of the nature and limits of what we can know, and how we know it, and what it is that we do, and don't know, in knowing it.
- Wisdom , specifically that part of wisdom, Phronesis, that's translated as Practical Wisdom or Prudence, looks more deeply into our available knowledge, and more broadly into our experiences, to see farther than either science or technology do or can, and is especially mindful of the degree of chance and choice that is always involved in acting on 'what we know' in our lives. The role of the wise, the (believe it or not) intellectuals, is to take note of what is common between our many experiences - the One in the Many - to discover and make known the principles behind that knowledge and how to effectively use them to better our lives. The Metaphysics notes that,"Clearly then Wisdom is knowledge about certain principles and causes...", but the person who not only has the broader knowledge belonging to wisdom, but prudence as well, focuses not just on unchanging principles, but demonstrates a knack for calculating how best to apply that timeless knowledge and experience to the ever changing circumstances of daily life; in the Nicomachaen Ethics"...wisdom is a combination of both the virtue of science and the virtue of understanding...", the prudent person demonstrates a knack for intelligently combining a knowledge of fact and efficiency that comes from science, and from technology, with a knowledge of the timeless principles governing circumstances and personalities, to make the choices of calculated judgment regarding right and wrong, life and death, that are both accurate and principled, and effective at improving not only our apparent circumstances, but the quality of the lives we're able to live (which gives you a glimpse at what a failure the Intellectual Class of modernity, is).
The wise and prudent person understands that, contrary to popular (modern) belief, knowledge is not power, or it is at least not the obedient servant that we've been led to think of it as being, and knowledge severed from principled understanding and experience, is a blinding danger to all. Knowledge, when its variations are rightly understood, and when we are cognizant of how and why matters both large and seemingly small can lead to unexpected consequences in our lives - always mindful of the context of choice and chance - can be put to work which benefits all - but that requires the pursuit of understanding, rather than the pursuit of power.
However dazzling the improvements that the Scientific Method has brought to modernity, it's important to keep in mind that the judgments of those in science and technology, are typically concerned with much narrower calculations to improve measurable efficiencies for comfort and/or profit within their society - conveniently ignoring the fact that a society, a culture, are forms of knowledge that science and technology can neither conceive of, nor create, nor maintain - the scientific method, and the ability to apply it, is a very different thing from the weight of making judgments about immeasurable aspects of how best to live, or how best to respond in life or death contexts, and while each life is immeasurably improved by knowledge of what is wise, the wisest person cannot possibly know the manifold circumstances and context that each individual has to consider in the decisions they make every day in the living of their lives. All forms of knowledge are important, but it's even more important not to confuse one for the other.
The role of a well-rounded education is to impart how the essentials of science, technology, and the Humanities (arts, literature, history), fit into and form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, with the understanding that being able to see that whole through each part's perspective, helps to convey an appreciation of how those differences are all needed to form a solid and sound whole, and without which we are limited to seeing less of what there is to see - both in the form of better appreciating the whole, and what endangers it. Those with the interest and aptitude to delve into a particular field at greater depth, so with the larger picture in mind, as they pursued a more detailed knowledge of the part which interested them most, within the whole.
This is not to minimize or ignore the feats of ingenuity and even courage that may be involved in operating in any one of these fields, but to point out the importance of distinguishing between the varying forms of knowledge and judgement involved in scientific, technical, and intellectual fields, so as to have the depth to avoid being misled by seemingly 'obvious answers' that lead to long lasting harm. Especially today, as the ideal of a broad and well-rounded education has been displaced by a focus upon narrowly specialized skills, we too easily risk mistaking a person's abundant cleverness in their own field, as being equivalent to that wisdom they lack, and who - whether that be ourselves or the follies of the likes of a Neil deGrass Tyson that we began these posts with - see no issue with freely advising and advocating for using legislative power to order how others 'should' be made to live, because that's 'obviously' for the 'greater good', and the popular approval of that sort of thinking, spreads it, and endangers us all.
If it isn't clear to you what value is gained by making those distinctions within what you know and how you know it, which is what a well rounded education provides, the absence of that understanding is on full display in the bloody and destructive global history of the 20th Century for you to learn from (did you know that the ideal of a well rounded education was mostly gone by 1895?). There you'll find an abundance of lessons for learning hard truths from, with each one demonstrating that those paths forged for 'the greater good' of all, inevitably, invariably, have led and will lead to vast numbers of people experiencing lives rent by the greatest misery and destruction imaginable.
What drove those events, was that worst development of modernity, Ideology (conceived of in 1796 as a 'science of ideas'), which inherently targets the ideal of a 'well rounded education', preferring to reduce all knowledge to 'scientific' facts and skills, as well as in planning for, and applying them. Ideology despises chance, free will, choice, virtue, morality, art, wisdom, and all the other 'irrationalities' which make human life worth living well, ignoring and denying them in its drive to impose its certainty (of what?) upon society as a collective whole, with the presumption that individuals are little more than empirical factors to be scientifically managed through their theories.
There is nothing smart about proposals which measure all that's worth knowing by 'Science!', or that decide right and wrong by what 'Artificial Intelligence' tells us, or that justifies slighting or slandering the individual rights of any for 'the greater good!', and there is no 'progress' that can be found in going down such paths, only regress.
How science and technology get passed off as the highest of high judgment, overlooking what's essential to knowledge and the application of it, has a lot to do with how little we consider what causes us to think and do this or that, and the role of judgment involved in acting and reacting to those causes, which is what we'll look into next, with Causality.