The Difference Between What We Know & Ways of Knowing

To clarify the difference between what we know and ways of knowing: what we know is what we have taken to be true. For example, “the grass is green” or “I love my cat” are things that I know. How I came about that knowledge is a way of knowing. I know the grass is green based on observation. I know that I love my cat based on the emotions I feel when I interact with him.

The empirical method of knowing: consists of observing, experimenting, replicating and hypothesizing to acquire objective knowledge about the natural world.

Primary “ways of knowing:” sense perception + reason

We value empirical knowledge because there are several steps involved to ensure the data collected is unbiased, accurate and precise. Some of these steps include; peer review and designing a clear research method that anyone can recreate to achieve specific results.

The empirical method of knowing supposes that the way that we gain knowledge is primarily by sensory experience. Although this may seem to be self-evident to those who have been scientifically trained, this is a relatively new feature of human thinking that was only explicitly formulated three centuries ago by John Locke (Uzgalis, 2022). The empirical method is especially useful for creating and distributing knowledge systems (e.g. sciences) that delineate the specific properties of the natural world.

In 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a cataclysmic cosmic event. Two black holes with 30 times the mass of the sun had collided in the distant universe. This collision caused detectable ripples in spacetime, which were independently observed at the LIGO observatories in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington in the United states. This observation aligned with a theory postulated 100 years ago by Einstein that gravitational waves exist (LIGO, 2016). The empirical evidence is strong: the “fingerprints” that are left behind by the collision were measured in Livingston and Hanford, and they are nearly identical when superimposed. Astrophysicists can now confidently declare that gravitational waves exist, thanks to empiricism and the scientific way of knowing, or method. Framing the truth to be what is observable is a powerful tool for understanding the physical world.

Limitations of the Empirical Method

Science does not provide a framework for making value judgments. Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume noted the difference between descriptive and prescriptive statements (Cohon, 2018):

Descriptive statements can be directly observed
Prescriptive statements describe what will happen

There is a significant difference between what can be observed and what ought to happen. While making predictions/hypotheses (prescriptive statements) they must be justified with observable evidence (descriptive statements).

Consider this statement: “Our human ancestors ate the meat of domesticated and wild animals, so vegetarians should really be eating meat.”


Statement Statement Type Assumptions?
Our human ancestors ate the meat of domesticated and wild animals. Descriptive No assumptions, a statement based on historical evidence.
Vegetarians should really be eating meat. Prescriptive Assumes that what is "appropriate" is more important than a vegetarian's choice to abstain from meat. This statement on values pertains to ethics and cannot be inferred by scientific observation.


Questions whose answers fall partially or fully outside the realm of science have far-reaching implications in the ways we structure societies. Engineers are entrusted to make decisions on behalf of populations with highly variable values and belief systems. If engineers are to suit the project to the user or group of users, we must understand what other ways the users have come to understand existence. Our designs better serve people when we accept different ways of knowing as being valid.


Cohon, R. (2018). Hume’s Moral Philosophy: Is and Ought. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). (2016, February 11). Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein’s Prediction [news release]. LIGO, Caltech & MIT.

Uzgalis, W. (2022). John Locke. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from



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Decolonizing the Engineering Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Wolf, Ben Harris, Nika Martinussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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