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Module/Week 3 Presentation: What is Knowledge? Transcript
Hello welcome back to my laboratory.
Today I want to talk about the question of knowledge. We’re now in our third week where we’re discussing epistemology, which is the philosophy of knowledge. And it’s important, before we really get too far into it, that we actually define exactly what knowledge is. I mean what are we talking about when we say we know something? What does that really mean?
Well, the first thing we need to do is, we need to distinguish the way we’re using the word “know.” We can use the word “know” in a number of different ways. For example, in one way we can use it is what we call knowledge by acquaintance, like for example, “I know Bill” or “I know where the school is” or I know how to get to someplace. That’s knowledge by acquaintance. I am acquainted with that in some way or another.
Another way we use the word knowledge, is as a skill. For example, if I say “I know French” or “I know how to play the trumpet.” Here we’re not really saying knowledge in the sense of knowing something, but as much as it is a skill we’re able to do.
A third way though we use knowledge is as truth claims. We make claims about things. For example, “Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States,” “Chicago is in the state of Illinois,” “Two plus two equals four,” and “The chemical compound of water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. We call this knowledge propositional knowledge. It’s because we place knowledge in the form of a proposition. Now what’s a proposition? Well, a proposition is a kind of a statement or a sentence, that basically has two aspects to it. First of all it makes a claim, a claim about reality. For example, my car is blue. I’m saying something that is true about my car in reality.
The other element of a proposition is it has what’s called truth value, meaning it’s true or false. The proposition “My car is blue” is true if in fact, it’s really true that my car is blue. It’s false if my car is red or green or some other color. Well, propositional knowledge is specifically— that’s the kind of knowledge that we want to talk about in the area of epistemology. What exactly is this? How do we know when have this thing called knowledge, or propositional knowledge?
Well the traditional definition of knowledge goes all the way back to a Greek philosopher by the name of Plato. Plato’s a very important philosopher. In a matter of fact, Vickenstein, a twentieth century philosopher made the comment that, “All of philosophy is just a footnote to Plato.” It’s very true. Now Plato actually wrote about another philosopher. He wrote about Socrates. He wrote whole stories on Socrates and conversations Socrates had with a lot of other people. Each of his stories is actually named after the particular person that Socrates had a conversation with.
So for example, the story Crito is named about a conversation of philosophy Socrates had with a guy by the name of Crito. Well, in one of his stories called Theaetetus, we’re told that Socrates was going along one day and bumped into this guy by the name of Theaetetus, a young man who seemed to be very intelligent, specifically in the area of mathematics. And they had a conversation and he was very impressed with Theaetetus’ knowledge. He was impressed with how much he knows. Theaetetus made the claim, “All I want to do in life is just to know things and to have knowledge.” Well that got Socrates wondering. He asked Theaetetus, “What is knowledge? What is this thing that you want to know?” That was a very common way Socrates would begin discussions with them. He would ask them a question about what exactly is this and try to see if they figured out what exactly it was.
He asked Theaetetus to find knowledge for him. Well, Theaetetus started off by saying, “Knowledge is perceptive. Knowledge is what we see.” And Socrates thought, “Well okay, that’s an idea maybe.” But he thought that was problematic. He said, “Knowledge is more about reflecting on what we see than the actual perception itself.” He also said, “Well, animals perceive things, but we wouldn’t say animals have knowledge, at least not in the sense we normally think of humans having knowledge, being able to reflect and reason about things.” So he didn’t think perception was quite it. It was on the way, but it wasn’t quite there. So he asked Theaetetus again and Theaetetus came up with a different definition. He said, “Knowledge is true beliefs, believing something, and in fact it being true.”
Well, Socrates thought this was a much better definition. We’re very much closer now to what knowledge means. Certainly if I say I know something, well that would mean A) I must believe it and B) it must be true. And that works out pretty well. However, Socrates had a problem with that definition as well. It’s pretty good, but it’s not quite adequate. It’s possible for me to have a true belief and arrive at it purely by accident.
For example, if I were to ask somebody, “What movie do you think won the Academy Award in 1966 for best picture?” The person might simply say “I don’t know,” and I would give them a list of them. And you say, well, Pebbles was one of the movies in 1966, and A Man for All Seasons was one of the movies in 1966. And they would go, “Well, I think maybe A Man for All Seasons, I guess. I don’t know. A Man for All Seasons?” Guess what? That’s the one that did win that year. He had a true belief, but we wouldn’t say he had knowledge. He kind of guessed at it, just as a coincidence that he arrived at the right one.
Knowledge is more than just simply believing something and for it to be true. So said Socrates. So he asked Theaetetus again and Theaetetus finally said, “Well, maybe it’s a true belief with an account for why we believe it.” We call that in philosophy, justification.
Socrates thought, “Ah, this is probably the best definition of knowledge.” He thought it still had some problems, but not nearly as much as the other definitions. And he thought, “Maybe that’s what knowledge is. Knowledge is having a true belief and having good reasons for holding that true belief, that’s it’s justified.”
Philosophers today, then, see knowledge being justified true belief. And this definition of knowledge, has lasted for thousands of years until fairly recently challenged, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. But it’s been lasting for a long time.
Now what exactly is justified true belief mean? Well, it basically means: the sufficient and necessary condition for knowledge are 1) I believe something as true, 2) that it in fact is true, and 3) that I have good reasons for believing—I’m justified in believing. That’s what we mean by justified true beliefs.
Perhaps I can use a diagram or an illustration to prove my point. We’re going to take this cake here. Look at this nice beautiful cake. Let’s suppose that this cake represents all the possible beliefs that you can have. Every belief that’s here, every proposition you believe is represented by this cake. Well, we can divide the cake in half. We can say [cuts cake in half] that some of these beliefs are things that you believe are true and others are these propositions that you don’t believe are true. We’ll put the “believed” ones on this side and the “don’t believe” ones on this side here.
For example, some propositions you can have here is “Los Angles is the capital of the United States.” Well, most people don’t believe that. Or if I was to tell you, “Little green men are living inside the moon, eating the moon from the inside out”, most people don’t believe that either. In other words, the first thing we can say about knowledge is, knowledge doesn’t concern things that we don’t believe. Knowledge only concerns things that we do believe. It would be kind of silly to say, “Well I know this is true, but I don’t believe it.” Of course, if you know that it’s true, one of the aspects of knowing it’s true is you believe it. So therefore, we’re going to take half of this cake and we’re going to trash it [proceeds to throw one half of the cake away], cuz we don’t need this half over here. We’ll take this whole big half here and take it off and dump into this bag, just trash all that. There we go, get all that in there, alright? Cuz knowledge doesn’t concern those. Knowledge only concerns these, the things we believe.
Now, we could take the beliefs, the things that we do believe that are true, and we can further divide that. One part of the things that we believe are true, really are true. And some of the things that we believe to be true [cuts remaining half of cake into another half] are not true. So we’ll say the things that we believe are true. That’s really are true, we’ll put here, and the things that we believe that aren’t true, that are false, we’ll put here.
Now what do I mean by that? Well it’s possible of course for you to have a false belief. I mean, that’s certainly possible, something that you believe is true, but in fact it’s really not true. You know, for example, you might think, “Abraham Lincoln was the fifteenth president of the United States.” And in fact, that’s not true. He really was the sixteenth president of the United States. Or maybe you think the capital of California is San Diego, and that’s not really true. Actually, Sacramento is the capital of California. In other words, it’s possible to have beliefs and those beliefs turn out to be not true. I’m sure many of us had many things that we believe, that in fact, if we’re to research it or look into it, we would find out that we’re probably wrong about that. Okay, so we can divide our beliefs that we have into two types: those beliefs that we have that are true, that really are true, and those beliefs that we have that are false. In other words, I’m drawing a distinction between knowing if a belief is true or false, and the belief being really true or false. We’re talking about if the belief really is true or false. Well again, where does knowledge lie? Well knowledge doesn’t lie within the things that we believe that are false. Obviously, we wouldn’t believe them if they were false. We wouldn’t say they were knowledge.
If I said to you for example, “Well I believe that my wife is right now working. She works at a hospital here in town. She’s working there,” and we find out later on that she’s not working right now at the hospital, she went home early, she got the day off. Well you wouldn’t say “I knew it” at that point if it was false. Knowledge has to deal with true beliefs.
So we’re going to take those things that don’t, those beliefs that we believe, but they’re really false, and we’re going to throw them away as well. And I’m going to open up our bag here, so that we don’t make a big mess, and we’ll just trash these as well. This is also not knowledge.
So now we have this last part here. These are the true beliefs, but there’s one more step we can further divide this. We can say of the beliefs that I have to be true, there are some that I’m justified in believing, and some that I’m not justified in believing. It’s possible that for example, I can sit here and say, “My wife is at work at the hospital here in town,” and I don’t really know that. I’m just guessing, and guess what? It happens to be true, but I didn’t really know that. A belief that I guess at, that’s true, but is just a guess, isn’t really knowledge. We don’t have knowledge until we can say, “I have good reasons to say that that belief is true.”
So for example, if you were to ask me, “How do you know your wife is at work?” Well, this is the day that she normally does work, I saw her leave the house this morning and go to work and I called her there at the office a little while ago, she was there working and she told me she was going to be there throughout the day. Well, now I have good reasons to say I know that my wife is there at the hospital working away as she normally does—I have reasons for that. That’s what constitutes knowledge. If it’s true that she’s there, if I believe that she’s there, and if I have justification for that belief, now I can say that I have crossed over having a belief to now having knowledge. But if I didn’t have justification, if I just kind of guessed at it, well, we wouldn’t call that knowledge at all.
So therefore we can take our final piece of cake here. And we’re going to say that those things that I know to be true, some of them I have good reasons to believe, and some of them I don’t. The ones that I don’t have good reason to believe, they don’t constitute knowledge. So here we go. Out of this entire cake now, we have this small piece left here that constitutes what we call knowledge. Justified true belief. It’s true, I believe it’s true, and I have good reasons for believing it’s true. That’s the traditional definition of knowledge. Now like I said, this definition has been challenged. Skeptics, for example, don’t believe that we can have knowledge at all. And we’ll talk a little more about skepticism later on in our discussion about epistemology.
There’s also someone by the name of Edmund Gettier who came up with a whole problem with this definition. We’re not going to get in to The Gettier Problem right now, but for the most part, philosophers are pretty well settled that at least knowledge has something to do with this idea of knowledge being justified true belief.
Well I’m going to sit here and have my cake and eat it too. You have a good day.
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