Saturday, December 22, 2012

1.1 Knowledge as Justified True Belief

I don't know many magic tricks, but I know of one card trick. I can do the card trick to varying degrees of success, depending on the audience. This is how the trick goes.

I have a deck of cards. I show the person the underside of the deck to see that the deck is not a trick deck. I then give the person the six of hearts and nine of diamonds. I ask the person to insert the cards anywhere in the deck they'd like. They do. I ask the person to tap the top of the deck and then I tap the top of the deck. I snap my fingers, and then I pop the two cards out, holding them in my left hand while catching the rest of the desk in my right hand.

Or did I?

If I can make you believe that I popped the two cards out, then the trick has worked and the magic remains a mystery. However, if you examine the trick more critically, you'll see that the 'real magic' was in getting you to accept a false premise, namely that the two cards you put in were the ones that I popped out.

The discipline of philosophy, sometimes accidentally, works like a magic trick. If a philosopher gets you to accept a false premise, perhaps one even he or she believes, then you are well on your way to accepting the conclusion. This causes unnecessary problems because if the premises were examined more critically, just as one would examine the situation more carefully with a card trick, the so-called mystery would disappear.

That a false premise would be accepted regarding the theory of knowledge is quite ironic. It is with a comprehensive theory of knowledge, finding out how we know what what know and if we know anything at all, that we would want to avoid such mistakes, it seems. But I think the problem begins right at the beginning: Plato's Thaetetus.

In the Theaetetus, the character of Socrates comes to the conclusion that knowledge is something like true belief with a rational explanation. Contemporary philosophers restate this conception of knowledge as "justified true belief." So, it would follow, a theory of knowledge would deal with the component parts of the concept of knowledge. It would ask such questions as (1) What counts as a rational explanation for our beliefs?; (2) What is the nature of truth in relation to our knowledge?; and (3) What is a belief, anyhow?

Although philosophers have not necessarily proceeded to answer each of these questions as systematically as just posed, these questions have all been issues for classical and contemporary epistemology--that is, issues for ancient and modern ideas about knowledge.

The major premise of the argument in the Theaetetus is that to know what knowledge is, or to do a thorough investigation of when we have knowledge, means to give the term full definition. Without definition, we would not know if we could or do possess knowledge. Even if not always, this is a tacit assumption of several contemporary philosophers as well. But this premise is false..

As has been explicated from readings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (but which could just as easily be argued without reference to his name), there are several instances when we know something without having to provide definition for it. Take the example of a game. There are several different kinds of activities and events which we understand as games: soccer games, chess, golf, and so on. We would never have to give the concept GAME full definition to know when we are playing a game or what a game is. If philosophers took this implication seriously, they would realize that to know what the concept KNOWLEDGE means is not to be able to provide it with full definition, along the lines of "justified true belief," or, more verbosely, as "true belief with a rational explanation," but instead perhaps be able to identify instances when the concept is applicable.

At this point, someone might object that even though for ordinary purposes we do not have to give full definition to the concept KNOWLEDGE to have an understanding of knowledge, for the sake of philosophy we do. Philosophy, it might be argued, is a discipline that applies conceptual analysis to ordinary terms and tries to imbue them with more precise meanings using logical rigor. So, to object to conceptual analysis is to object to philosophy itself, and at this point objectors and philosophers must part ways.

My answer is that if this is what philosophy amounts to, count me out. If philosophy is just the analysis and attempted clarification of common sense concepts, or at the very least that this is what analytic philosophy is, then it could still be asked why this method is being used. If what I previously said is true, it is a dead end to think of the philosophical enterprise as providing definition to what people really mean when they apply a concept to a situation since not only does no definition seem to apply to these sundry cases no definition could.

I would like to consider an analogy to the sciences. Even though people apply the concepts WEIGHT or WEIGH in various ways in daily life, physicists do not attempt to provide a definition of the various ways in which people use this concept. Rather, the concept WEIGHT has been defined as such a way that it would fill out explanatory theories relative to the domain of physics. And then weight in this new sense can be measured and help explain the way the world works.

As Paul Thagard proposed in his article "Eleven Dogmas of Analytic Philosophy" (2012), philosophy can just as easily seen as theory construction rather than conceptual analysis. And the theory would then have to be relevant to a specific domain. With the case of language, for example, it might be hypothesized that language is an innate faculty, and that all human beings are born with an innate knowledge of language. This innate knowledge would not be defined as a specific language. That would be hard to defend on empirical grounds, to say the least. Rather, the knowledge would be equivalent to or defined in terms of computational principles and parameters that allow for the acquisition of what we might call natural languages (like English, French, Korean, and so on).

Likewise, knowledge relative to other domains could be defined and revised in other terms. We might even find some unifying conception of what knowledge would be, although that might not be necessary. Anyway, the larger point is that not only will knowledge as "justified true belief" won't cut it, it's not even clear why we would want this understanding of knowledge.

Knowledge in ordinary language is an honorific term. It is a term we use evaluatively to capture a whole host of phenomena. As Noam Chomsky (2012) put it when asked what knowledge is:
Knowledge is something we seek to attain... The more we succeed in gaining some level of understanding, the more we approach some ideal [certainty]... But to the extent that we think we're approaching it, we give it the honorific term 'knowledge.' But there's no way of answering what knowledge is. It's what we hope to attain and know that we can only approach.
There is no essence regarding what 'knowledge' is. It is something for which someone could precisely define it relative to some science, if it is to have any value at all, and to which will continue to have sundry applications in ordinary speech, being applied to various phenomena. Which is just fine.

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