Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge III: An Alternative Epistemology

Before I describe the two important ways that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, I need to give a bit of philosophical background.

One of the most important words philosophically during the 17th and 18th centuries was "experience." The empiricist philosophers, such as Locke and Hume, used this word when describing how all knowledge comes from "experience." Those who teach early modern philosophy now explain that the empiricist philosophers meant "sense experience," so that students do not mistake the word "experience" for our contemporary notion of "personal experience," or "life experience." Yet even Locke and Hume had a broader conception of experience than our contemporary "sense perception" version of empiricism (and science). Locke and Hume both allowed for "internal senses" as well as the "external" ones of sight, hearing, touch, etc. By "internal senses" they were simply referring to our ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, moods, etc. Through the development of empirical science, "experience" became narrowed to just "external" sense perception, gradually expanded technologically, but still "external."

So I argued in my presentation that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of the richer, broader, original notion of "experience." While mainstream philosophy and science dropped the notion of "internal senses," the Quakers developed this idea in their notion of the "inner light." While they respected science, and participated in it, its experience-based investigations into the natural world were not sufficient. The findings of science needed to be illuminated by the inner light in order to gain a proper understanding of its significance. (Isaac Penington wrote about this in a letter to the Royal Society of London, a scientific society, in 1668.)

Describing more fully how the early Quakers understood the "inner light" could turn into a separate essay unto itself (in fact, others have written on this topic, and I am working on this too in my academic writing at the moment), but for now I just want to note that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light is an approach to knowledge very different from the scientific approach. Over time in scientific thinking, the "internal senses" became characterized as "subjective," and science was allied with "objectivity," and anything with "subjective" connotations got pushed out.

(But even this story is more complicated than it looks at first. The concept of objectivity has changed over time and only gradually did it get linked to scientific knowledge. There are excellent essays by Lorraine Daston, one co-authored with Peter Galison, that tell some of this history. While we now associate science with "objectivity," the concept is still in dispute. Some contemporary philosophers argue that the concept needs revision and clarification. Others, such as Lorraine Code, advocate "taking subjectivity into account" in science (I quote this phrase because it is the title of one of Code's essays, which can be found in an anthology entitled Feminist Epistemologies).)

In my presentation, I argued that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light did not make them rationalists instead of empiricists, because some, such as Penington, were specifically suspicious of human rationality, in part because it could be used for devious and deceptive purposes. So he took great pains to distinguish the notion of the inner light from human rationality itself. Instead, I interpret the Quaker use of the notion of the inner light as showing that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of a richer empiricism, one that develops a notion of inner sense (even if that's not what the Quakers called it) even while following the development in science of our understanding and use of the external senses.

This point is disputable, of course, and was disputed quite eloquently and convincingly by one of my students during the question and answer period following my talk. (I was so pleased!) Another student chimed into this part of the discussion as well. The point that emerged was that this question hinges on whether the inner light is regarded as a source of knowledge, or a kind of sensory mode. If the former, then it is better to think of the Quakers as being rationalists of a sort; if the latter, then the "expanded empiricism" interpretation works better. Answering this question requires going back to the early writings and looking more closely at exactly how the writers characterized the inner light -- but from what I recall, I rather suspect that "both sides" would be able to find convincing quotations to support their positions.

In addition to carrying forth this richer interpretation of "experience" into the present day (see Eddington's Science and the Unseen World, 1929. Look at how he describes "experience"), Quakers also never separated epistemology from ethics, fact from value. The "inner light" can be regarded as a methodological principle underlying both the discernment of truth (epistemology; fact), and decisions about actions (ethics; value). Quakers stayed in touch with the relationship between knowledge and human interests, needs, and action in the world, never pretending that it was possible or desirable to establish a clear division between the two. And so this is the second major way that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, which takes great pains to keep knowledge separated from ethics.


  1. I've got to comment as "anonymous" today because the system won't recognize me for some reason.

    I've always assumed that the Quaker approach was experiental rather than rationalistic so that it would naturally fall under the empiricist tradition. Your student's point is a worthy one but I still agree with you. The distinction of inner light as source of knowledge (rationalism) vs. source of experience (empiricism) seems off to me. Both rationalism and empiricism are after knowledge. The essential difference between the two (in my opinion) lies in the rationalists thinking that there are sentences whose propositional content is self-evident as opposed to the empiricists denying that (except for math and tautologies) and instead relying on knowledge gained through experience. There is also the universality/particularity dimension. Rationally self-evident truths are universal while experience always gives knowledge of particulars with universal coming in as generalizations from these particulars.

    You are right that religious experience doesn't fit the empiricist paradigm, especially as it developed over the years. But the problem lies with the narrowing of perspetive of the empiricist tradition not with religious experience itself. In philosophy of religion there has been some good recent work on religious experience. One of the tendencies has been to recognize that religious experience isn't only fringe or extreme experience had by a few people on rare occasions. There is a growing recognition that religious experience is part of the stuff of ordinary lives of ordinary persons. These ordinary religious experiences are not so totally divorced and different from ordinary sensory experience of objects (part of the meaning of "objective") as once assumed. I should also note that ordinary religious experience is often quite particular--like sense experience and unlike mathematical thinking. People are given the knowledge in leadings that they are to go to this particular place or talk to this particular person. The specificity of leadings is another way that they are similar to standard empiricist grounding of knowledge in sense experience.


  2. Thanks for responding and sharing your thoughts.

    You said, "The distinction of inner light as source of knowledge (rationalism) vs. source of experience (empiricism) seems off to me. Both rationalism and empiricism are after knowledge."

    I agree. The distinction I was trying to make was a distinction between claiming that the inner light is a source of knowledge vs. the inner light is almost a kind of sensory mode. Both are still about knowledge, but in different ways. This way of looking at it then harmonizes with the rest of what you said very well.

    Does this help clarify/explain?

  3. Again, it seems to not want to recognize me as RichardM. Makes me feel like one of those old guys who isn't comfortable around technology and I'm sure my kids would agree.

    It's about different modes of knowing. How is sensory mode different from rational intuition mode? Once that question is answered then one can ask whether religious experience is more similar to sensory mode or to rational intuition mode. Much of the philosophical literature (not written by Quakers) assumes that religious experience is very unlike sensory mode. They will say that if two people are both sitting in the same room and can both see then both will more or less see the same physical objects in their environment but religious experience lacks this kind of objectivity (perhaps better called intersubjectivity, that is, mutual confirmation from multiple points of view). Moreover, the propositional content of the religious experience tends to lack the richness of detail of visual experience (as I glance around the room I take in facts about my environment in such a flood that I would be unable to articulate them) whereas religious experience (supposedly) issues in bland metaphysical statements like "we are all one" or "God is love." This makes it sound like mathematical intuition wherein I can just see that parallel lines never meet. And when I do see it there is no reason to think that the person sitting next to me sees it as well.

    Enough for now. This is better done step by step.

  4. I'm so glad you mentioned "intuition," because what you said towards the end of your posting points in the direction I am getting at in the claim that religious experience is a sensory mode.

    As you know (but other readers may not know), the word "intuition" in the modern period of philosophy (and earlier) basically meant something like, "you can just see it," and so referred both to sense perception and the kind of "picturing in the mind" that mathematicians do when working out, e.g., geometry proofs. Immanuel Kant distinguished these two kinds of intuition into "empirical intuition" (sense perception) and "pure intuition" (mental picturing).

    So (now to address the earlier part of your posting): the reason it doesn't really matter that people may not have simultaneous intersubjectively verifiable religious experiences is the same reason it doesn't matter that people can work on math proofs at different times and reach the same conclusions. What makes a geometry theorem verified is not that three people happened to work it out on the chalkboard together and so verified it by observing it at the same time. In fact, one person can work it out while another watches it and fails to "get it," but it can still be true.

    Since even the empiricists allowed mathematical knowledge into their theories of knowledge without fearing that they were giving way to rationalism, it is in this sense that I claim that the Quaker understanding of religious experience counts as an expanded version of empiricism instead of a kind of rationalism.

  5. CS,

    I see your point. We don't really disagree but I'm a bit more radical I suppose. I would say that the usual philosophical assumption that religious experience lacks intersubjective verification is dubious. Quakers have the experience of a covered meeting in which they can feel the presence so strongly that they feel that others feel it too. Moreover, the specific content of the experiences had in a covered meeting shows intersubjective validity. It is common Quaker practice to go to a Friend who has given vocal ministry and confirm that what their ministry "spoke to my condition." This doesn't mean, as would be natural for nonFriends to suppose, "I agreed with what you said." Instead it typically means that I came to meeting with a problem or issue on my heart asking God for guidance and your vocal ministry was the answer I was hoping for. So the whole process is a bit more empirical intuition than philosophers have supposed.

  6. Yes, I too doubt the standard philosophical claim that religious epxerience is not intersubjectively verifiable. But I went with that hypothesis in my previous comment in order to show that even if it were true (that there's an important disanalogy between religious experience and sense perception), one can still argue for the veridicality of religious experience on analogy with mathematical proof. While this does not re-establish the analogy between religious experience and sense perception, it does re-establish an analogy between religious experience and this older usage of the concept of "intuition."

    But you and I, because of our Quaker backgrounds and the experiences we've had in corporate worship, do have good reason to question the supposed disanalogy between religious experience and sense perception. And so this provides another avenue for developing the alternative empiricism I have been discussing -- and in fact my favored approach is to work at this in both of these ways.

    Thanks so much for keeping this discussion going! I am finding it very helpful!