The contemporary scholarly climate is, I hear, one of scientism and naturalism. Thinking peoples do not currently believe that there is any way to know anything but by means of touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, or seeing. Scientists are the only arbiters of truth.
I would like to propose a simple challenge to this view.
If there is a single object of knowledge that I can show is not known empirically, then it will open a Pandora’s box of sorts for these thinkers, and the possibility of non-empirical ways of knowing will be accepted and discussed among intellectuals (as it has been, incidentally, for the last 2,500 years or so.)
I think there is such an object, and, I will begin the demonstration with a question: Who is reading this post?
“I am,” you might say.
“Who are you?” I ask. Or, better, “What are you?”
“I am a human being, of course, you silly blogger,” You might respond.
“Well, have you, reader, ever seen, smelled, touched or tasted yourself?”
“Good. Now have you ever seen, smelled, touched, tasted your consciousness?”
“No, but I see where you are going. You are going to say consciousness is non-physical or some such nonsense. That is simply not the case. We have not done enough neuroscientific research to discover how it is that the brain produces consciousness, but we will, so your silly argument falls flat,” you might say.
“You are getting ahead of me. Let’s start here: Have you ever seen your brain?”
“Not mine, not personally.”
“Yet you say that your thoughts are physical events in your brain, correct?”
“Do you say that you are aware of and have some knowledge of your own thoughts, and, more generally, of yourself?”
“Yet you have never seen your thoughts, or ‘yourself’, that is, your conscious self?”
“We do not understand enough about consciousness.”
“I agree. But we understand enough to say that we are aware of our thoughts and our personal identities, right? As you read this, you can close your eyes and think about what you had for breakfast, how you feel, what you are thinking.”
“Is there any reasonable doubt that at least these two things: my thoughts and my personal identity, are things of which I can be aware non-empirically? Do you not assume that you are knowable to yourself? That when you say, ‘I,’ you are referring to something to which you have direct access, rather than by way of your brain?”
“I do assume it, but we do not understand enough about consciousness to say one way or the other. It is perplexing, I will grant that, but there is no reason to jump to such unlikely conclusions as that we are metaphysical ghosts.”
“You say this conclusion is unlikely. Is it unlikely for this reason, or some other? That we are assuming the ‘metaphysical’ does not exist. An assumption that, if true, makes any assertion of non-physical substances absolutely silly and impossible…?”
“That is the reason,” You might say.
“Why are we assuming that?”
I do not know what you might respond here. If you have a response, please share it in the comments. I will conclude with an invitation to consider this assumption in light of the fact that the most reasonable explanation we have at this point in time — it may change with the research, I will grant that — is that conscious identity is non-physical. If this is the case, then there is at least one way of knowing that is non-empirical, namely introspection, or something like it.
If I have made some mistake in reasoning, I would be pleased to have it pointed out to me that I may be refuted and change my beliefs. If not, I want to explore the nature of ways of knowing, empirical and otherwise. And rather than fear what else might be in Pandora’s box, let us search for the truth and rejoice in the identification and rejection of falsehood, no matter how dear to us it once was.