Lay Epistemics and the Generation of Knowledge

23 April, 2021
How do you generate knowledge? The answer isn't simple. In fact, it depends on what we actually understand to be knowledge. The theory of lay epistemics offers some clues.

Where does knowledge come from? How do you know if something is true or false? These are difficult questions to answer. Even more so today, when you’re constantly flooded with new information via technology. The theory of lay epistemics explains how you choose the information you subsequently convert into knowledge.

Firstly, you need to understand that all information is data. However, it isn’t all knowledge. In fact, it’ll only become knowledge when you believe it. Nevertheless, the information doesn’t necessarily have to be true for you to believe it.

For example, take the tooth fairy. You consider the information and decide for yourself if the story’s true or not. Then, if you decide you believe in a fairy that exchanges baby teeth for money, you’ve generated knowledge. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe it, it’s just information, “false information”. Therefore, knowledge is the information you accept as the truth.

Man talks about everything, and he talks about everything as though the understanding of everything were all inside him.”

-Antonio Porchia-

A wooden figure.

Empiricism versus lay epistemics

You gain knowledge through perception via your senses. In other words, seeing is believing. For instance, if you see or hear the tooth fairy, you’ll generate knowledge about it being real. It’ll also influence your reasoning. Because if you hear a noise and think it might be the tooth fairy, you’re going to think about whether that noise really indicates if the tooth fairy exists or not.

On the other hand, there are other methods of generating knowledge. To date, the most useful method is the scientific method. Science generates knowledge with the use of hypotheses that it then attempts to confirm or deny.

For example, the drugs you take have undergone series of experiments in order to prove their efficacy. However, alternative therapies don’t undergo these processes. In fact, whether you believe they work or not and whether you generate this into knowledge, is up to you.

What’s epistemology?

As you’ve seen, there are different ways of obtaining knowledge. The branch of science that studies knowledge is epistemology. In other words, epistemology studies the criteria used to ascertain that something is true. As we mentioned earlier, there are different ways to validate that knowledge, from your senses to the scientific method.

Consequently, there are different types of epistemological knowledge. However, this article focuses on lay epistemics, which concern the way you obtain your subjective knowledge. This is the knowledge that belongs to you, regardless of whether it’s true and whether others agree with it or not.

A man thinking, generating a hypothesis, exhibiting lay epistemics.

Lay epistemics

Assuming that knowledge is what you know (or believe you know), lay epistemics proposes that knowledge arises from the generation of hypotheses. Therefore, in your own life, you generate different hypotheses. You then value the relevance of each one based on the evidence you have.

For instance, if you eat a food that you’ve never tried before and fall ill the next day, you’d probably generate different hypotheses. One hypothesis would be that the food made you ill. Another hypothesis would be that the food had nothing to do with your illness.

Although these two hypotheses aren’t the only possible ones, this example illustrates how a hypothesis works. In this particular case, to work out if the food did or didn’t make you ill. These two hypotheses are direct opposites and would, therefore, cause you uncertainty regarding the cause of your illness. Consequently, to eliminate that uncertainty, you’d have to choose one of them. This would lead you to form knowledge.

Therefore, in this situation, you’d have two options. You could either never know what made you ill. Or you could accept either of the hypotheses and form knowledge about your illness. Whatever option you choose would depend on the benefits and costs of you achieving the knowledge. For instance, if it was really important to know what made you ill, you’d probably choose the first hypothesis.

  • Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum.
  • Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). The psychology of closed mindedness. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: “seizing” and “freezing”. Psychological Review, 103(2), 263-283.