This week’s discussion is just as fundamental: What is knowledge?
Since I cannot be there but have some time to write, I’ll offer some thoughts on the subject.
One typical way to divide the fields in philosophy is to break it into four major fields – those being ethics, logic, metaphysics (study of being), and epistemology (study of knowledge). A lot of the history of philosophy has often centered on the issue of whether metaphysics or epistemology is more important. For instance, can you know that something is unless you first identify that something is there? Or, can you identify that anything is there without first knowing it? Does knowledge follow from existence, or does existence follow from knowledge? Does “How do I know this is true” constitute the first and most important question, or is it “What is this that I claim to know?” Or, do we find a way to meld the two as the famous German philosopher Hegel did and say that “the rational is the real, and the real is the rational”?
That sort of discussion leads in many directions; one thing it leads us to ask metaphysically is what exactly knowledge is. One of the more common definitions proposed is that knowledge is “justified true belief.” That is, perhaps you are interested in predicting the outcome of the presidential race. You note that in 17 of the last 18 presidential races that the incumbent’s party has won the election when the Washington Redskins have won their final home game prior to the election. You base your prediction on the fact that the Redskins eked out a rare home win. What’s more, the president’s party wins the election. We can say you held a “true belief.” However, it was an unjustified true belief. Whatever the strong correlation between the facts, it’s not justification for the prediction. You didn’t know the outcome. You had a belief about it that happened to be true.
Yet, if we probe the issue further, thinking of knowledge as “justified true belief” is problematic. If you offer a justification for something you know, as when your child asks you, “Why is the sky blue?” You may say, “That is the color that the sky reflects.” Your child is likely to ask you, “Why?” You may proceed to give a further justification. She asks, “Why?” You keep going. At some point, you are likely to become exasperated and say, “It just is,” or you may even say, “I don’t know why.” Either you have to provide an answer that you cannot justify, and you’ll either insist that you know it in spite of there being no further justification, or you’ll give up and tell your child that you don’t really know anything at all.
Your child will then ask, “Why?” Now, you are answering the question not about the sky but about the question of why you don’t know anything. You must know that, right? However, you’ll end up in the same place. You’ll reach a point where you are either giving justifications forever (what philosophers call an infinite regress), or you’ll stop and insist on knowing something without justification or that you don’t know at all, which means you failed to answer the question. In that case, you will not even know how you don’t know.
It gets worse than that because you will never be able to explain why knowledge is “justified true belief.” You will end up not knowing what knowledge is.
This would be a ruinous state of affairs for knowledge if it actually means the same thing as “justified true belief”, at least if justification means that you must provide a further reason infinitely in order to show that you know anything.
Now, one way around this has been to provide what’s called a reductio ad absurdum type of argument. In a reductio argument, you assume that the opposite is true and show that it would produce contradictions. As an example of such an argument, consider the one I provided where knowledge is “justified true belief.” You were forced to admit that if this were the definition of knowledge that either there was something you knew that couldn’t be justified, which is a contradiction. Or, you were forced to admit that you knew you didn’t know anything, including the definition of knowledge that you used, which is self contradictory. However, all of this depends on the truth of contradictions being false and knowing that contradictions are false. And, if you tried to use a reductio argument to show that holding contradictions are true leads to contradictions, you would be engaged in a circular argument.
So, where is knowledge, then, if it isn’t “true belief” and it isn’t “justified true belief”? How do I know that anything is true? Let us start with the issue of contradictions. One of the laws that many philosophers have held as a fundamental (first) principle, is something called the law of noncontradiction. One way to express the law is to say, “It is not possible for a thing to be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” That is to say that contradictions are impossible. How do we know this? We have admitted that we cannot prove this principle; we are in a place where we are saying that “it just is.” Yet, we can take this a step further. We can attack the question: “How do we know this?” Does such a question even make sense to us in a world where contradictions can be true? If “How” and “Not How” could be true, if “do” and “not do”, etc.? We simply cannot make sense of the possibility that what is defined as impossible could be true. If what is “true” and what it means to be “true” could be its opposite, we don’t have intelligent talk; we only have utterances.
Thus, there is a point where the question “why” or “how” actually makes no sense as a question. When the question must presume (not assume, but presume) the truth of what it proposes to deny, then the question is nonsensical. If you are asking how you know a contradiction is impossible, you need the truth that contradictions are impossible to make your question seem to make any sense.
Thus, sometimes, it is appropriate to answer the question, “How do you know?” with “It just is.” Perhaps, it’s even better to say, “Your question at this point makes no sense.” Questions and therefore justification have limits; they are limited by what is and what is possible. You can keep asking questions forever, but knowledge does not require people to keep giving justifications forever.
So, knowledge is not “justified true belief.”
What then is it? If you take the sum of what I’m saying and consider my discussion on contradictions, we can say something about knowledge. Knowledge is the making distinct of one thing from another in a way that does not produce a contradiction. The “making distinct” does open a huge discussion, but that’s where philosophy finds its life. You can make something distinct by saying that “this font is not red”, but you can keep going. You can keep going and going and going. Yet, so long as the distinctions you make don’t produce contradictions, you are expressing something knowingly.
Knowledge then is the process of making distinctions with varying degrees of specificity and clarity.
This suggests, then, that epistemology follows from metaphysics. The process of knowing depends on there being something to know, that indeed knowledge arises in the case of fundamental principles independently from any need for justification. So long as we speak meaningfully, we speak knowingly (which would also suggest that knowledge is, if not innate, is there prior to any learning). In that sense, metaphysics is primary to epistemology.
Nevertheless, in another sense epistemology is prior. Few are born knowing (realizing) that they know. In the context of our lives, philosophy often begins with epistemology, by asking – as the girl does – “Why?” or “How?” Only later do we discover that those questions had a root in our existence. Thus, from the standpoint of our lives, epistemology often comes first, as the means by which we discover who in fact we are and why we started asking these questions. The question provokes the answer, which it turns out can be found somewhere within the question itself.
Thus metaphysics and epistemology are like twins; you will not find the one without the other (or without the logic that weaves through the considerations of them). In an absolute sense, metaphysics is first. In a practical sense, epistemology is. Ultimately, though, the ethical lover of wisdom will consider questions of what is in terms of what we can know about it, and will consider questions of what we know in terms of what is and what can be.
That is, to know this lamp, do we need to be able to identify it in some circumstance? Or, do we need to be able to identify it in every circumstance? For instance, if I had a lamp but then saw it under a microscope, maybe I wouldn't recognize it as the same lamp. Would you say that I didn't know the lamp? Or, let's put this in terms of a famous philosophical riddle. The planet Venus is the morning star; it's also the evening star. Some people know that Venus is the morning star; some people know it is the evening star. However, some of those same people who know one or the other don't know that the evening star is the morning star. Are we to say that people who know that Venus is the morning star or that Venus is the evening star don't really know Venus because they don't know everything there is to know about Venus?
That would be paradoxical; or is this what you mean by "know" v. "Know." But, then what is the relationship between the two? How does this avoid the third man argument I told you about the other day?
I'd say that knowledge is simply the making something distinct; however, there are all kinds of contexts where we are unable to know. You know me in some senses; in other contexts, you don't know me at all. When we say we don't know someone well, we only are saying that we only know someone in a limited number of contexts - that is, we can only identify them here and here, but not there and there and there and there. But, I don't know what it adds to say that we "Know" them or merely "know" them. Each sort of knowing is the same; all we are doing is making a note about contexts or about how well we can identify in a particular context. After all, the morning star isn't really a star at all. In that case, we are using a different fuzzier notion of what a star is. But, that isn't a failure to know Venus as the morning star; that seems complete to me. What's not complete and is never complete is fully grasping what the statement means in every possible context.
Anyhow, perhaps you can make your notions of knowledge more distinct for me. I want to know what you mean such that the two notions you identify are actually two; i.e., don't produce a contradiction like the one produced by the third man argument.