What knowledges lie within reach? Does there exist a singular truth? Or does each hold true to their own? The principles of knowledge: Setting rational standards and clarifying irrational beliefs.

Barry Barnes and David Bloor (hereafter: B&B) argue in their text Relativism, Rationalism, Sociology of Knowledge, that the rationalist’s arguments are insufficient and cannot withstand the grounds of relativism.11 Implicated in the text is the indispensability of relativism in order to understand scientific knowledge. B&B specify a need to establish basic principles of knowledge, rather than employing a relativist approach to truth alone.

In the interest of determining principles of truth, B&B emphasize the significance of the equivalence postulate, stating: “Our equivalence postulate is that all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility.2

Determining scientific knowledge requires a symmetrical approach. In order to do so, any conviction of any given person must be treated with equal importance. The roots of certain convictions must be deduced by means of empirical inquiry. Are we assessing sociological evaluations that are truthful and rational, or are they false and irrational? The scientist must investigate the root causes of these convictions.

Outdated scientific opinions can be explained sociologically—i.e. why a certain group might maintain an erroneous historical narrative on thunderstorms and the gods of the weater—and generally agreed upon. However, when sociological explanations are deployed against a (yet) prevailing conviction, they will hastily be dismissed with fact-based clarifications. Sociological explanations thus appear sufficient to counter false or irrational opinions; against accurate and rational convictions however, they fall short.

The reasons for a conviction are distinguished from the causes for a conviction; they stand apart as separate issues. 3 Generally accepted principles are deployed to rationalise legitimate convictions, whereas false convictions are clarified through local and context specific factors. It is as such that we can permit ourselves to employ generally accepted principles of rationality in order to explain what constitutes legitimate and rational convictions, and refer to local convictions as well as context specificity in the case of an irrational conviction.

According to B&B, rational convictions that are not context specific do not exist; there is no overall rational standard for rational convictions. Instead, all rational convictions depend on local acceptance. The terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ are therefore not separate entities, nor do they require separate definitions.4 Hence, any explanation for any given conviction is always context specific, as the methods for inquiry that are applied to a conviction are, likewise, fully dependent on culture.

And I although I relate to this position I can’t let go of the thought that certainly there must exist some kind of basic structure for convictions that is culturally overarching. How else can it be possible for certain generally accepted opinions to endure? Or to communicate across differences with those that hold worldviews wildly differing from our own?

In my opinion, a monistic approach to explaining convictions is not conducive to scientific progress. Facts of existence are obtained through systematic observation. Said observations found the base for legitimate theories. The precedents of scientific methodologies play a key role within this process. Methodologies enable rational learning processes, which in turn lead to increasingly detailed knowledge of both nature and society. 4 In this process, what are considered true and rational convictions can be justified by the causal relation between human assumption and the presumed veracity of any given conviction. Irrational convictions, on the other hand, can more readily be clarified through psychological and social causes, placing responsibility with the person in question—the upholder of such convictions.

Rationalists argue that we must rely on reason in determining methodological rules for scientific research. But even if we were to distance ourselves from our cultural heritage in favour of setting scientific standards, science itself can never serve as a representation of reality. Science constructs its own reality in the form of a paradigm. The search for universal objective truth, therefore, seems futile; what one observes is wholly contingent on one’s prior knowledge and personal worldview, 5 and we are, after all, not able to detach ourselves from either. The veracity of knowledge does not take up residence in dogmatism, yet neither does it dwell within subjective relativism.

In science, it is not a question of passing judgement on the convictions of others, but rather a question of understanding why certain convictions are credible to the people that maintain them. It is therefore of lesser importance to obtain insight into the world itself than it is to understand the ways in which we experience and think the world.6 Perhaps then it becomes possible to unearth those universal principles that are culturally overarching. In doing so, we can set rational standards, and clarify (!) irrational convictions.