Philosophy Forum - Part 4

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. What is truth? How do we know? Important and difficult questions that will be debated as long as there are humans with the ability to debate them. The two questions that I have to answer today are a subset of this larger topic.


Here are the two questions that I have to tackle.

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'If knowledge is not justified true belief, is it justified true belief that meets also some further condition?'

'Is saying "I believe that p" just an alternative way of saying "p"?'

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I'm going to give myself one chance to move through these questions. It's a unique way of trying to tackle an answer. In a way it's a bit conversational. My conversations often end up on similar types of issues, at least at similar foundational levels. And, when the conversation has gotten there I do usually switch from a rapidly exchanging dialogue to a short monologue. The difference with doing it in writing is that I can give myself a moment to come up with a basic plan.

For the first question my plan of attack could be to give a simple explanation of what justified true belief means, why it doesn't fully work, what a solution could be, why that also doesn't really work, and a new perspective to take. Without being able to look at references while doing it adds to the challenge greatly, especially when I get to those middle three steps and want to include examples that will be hard for me to remember, but would be easy to look up. Nevertheless, I will work with what I'm carrying in my own mind.

For the second question I think there's a simple demarcation between the statements. One is a claim about the world, the other is a claim about knowledge. It's the difference between that which is known and that which knows.

I don't really want to do the first question, so I'm going to have a go at that one first.

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'If knowledge is not justified true belief, is it justified true belief that meets also some further condition?'

Justified true belief is a claim about what knowledge is. The idea is that knowledge is an intersection of three things: a person with a belief, a belief that is true, and a justifiable reason for the belief. For instance, I can say that my cat Jack is in the living room. I believe that Jack is in the living room, he is actually in the living room, and I believe that because I just saw him there a moment ago.

There are various problems with this definition. A person could have a belief, that belief could be true, and they could have a reason for believing it, and yet the reason may be false, even if it may appear to justify it. Do they then not have knowledge? Many people would say that they do not. Others claim that they do.

There are two common approaches to trying to solve this problem. One is to add a fourth thing to the three parts that knowledge has been reduced down to. Something like justified true belief plus true-justification. Another option is to simply increase how much justification is necessary. This can work to a certain extent, but I think they continue along an erroneous path.

There are different levels of resolution from which we can view problems. From this level I think it's useful to compare this train of thought with the process of science. In science a hypothesis is proposed. It's a conjecture, a guess. A test is made. The test can potentially show that the hypothesis is wrong. If the test doesn't show the hypothesis to be wrong, it's verified; it's true.

And yet, this idea of verificationism will lead to greater errors in the future. The hypothesis must be accepted not as verified, but as verified for now, and still open to question and doubt in the future when another test with potentially more sensitivity is devised. Thus, rather than being verified as true, the hypothesis has been not-falsified, and may be treated as true for now.

What we know has a context, and part of that context is what is trying to be achieved. More or less accuracy, more or less justification is necessary in different circumstances. The level of knowledge that we need about a thing is different when we are trying to act it out, or if we are representing it in images, or if we are representing it in words.

Propositional knowledge in itself is stagnant, but it exists because it is used for something. And if it works, then it was true enough for the given situation. If it does not, then it was inadequate for the situation.

Knowledge could then be considered belief that works, or belief that is useable in a given context, or belief that is justified enough to be acted upon as true.

For more information along the lines that I've discussed here see Endel Tulving and Jerome Bruner on levels of knowledge, Karl Popper on falsificationism, James Gibson on affordances, and Charles Sanders Peirce on pragmatism and pragmaticism.

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Well, I doubt that will be received well in academia. And, it is kind of scattered. My brain attempts to bring a wide variety of information to bear upon a given problem and generate a creative solution. Academia isn't looking for solutions, they are looking for regurgitation. Alas, let's have a go at question number two.

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'Is saying "I believe that p" just an alternative way of saying "p"?'

Let's say that two people are having a conversation. Jack points at a painting on the wall and says, "That painting is twelve inches tall." Jill looks at the painting and squints, looks at Jack with a smile, and says, "It's eleven inches." with a small twang of superiority in her voice.

In both of these propositions a belief is implied. Jack believes that the painting is twelve inches tall. Jill believes that the painting is eleven inches tall. Neither needed to say that they were expressing their belief, they made declarative statements about the external world. And both of their statements were purely that, declarative statements about the external world.

Here's another way that conversation could go. Jack points at a painting on the wall and says, "I believe that painting is twelve inches tall." Jill looks at the painting and squints, looks at Jack with a smile, and says, "I believe it's eleven inches." with a small twang of superiority in her voice.

This set of propositions appears to be the same, but expressly stating that there is a belief does change things. Let's take the two statements from Jill and compare them. In the first she says, "It's eleven inches." In the second she says, "I believe it's eleven inches." The first statement is a declarative statement about the external world. The second statement could be taken in that same way, or it could be taken as there being some doubt, and thus there could be the sense of it being an inquisitive statement; as in, "I believe it's eleven inches?" with her voice rising at the end of the statement for the inquisitive tone. We now have a range going from declarative to inquisitive statement about the external world.

Expressly stating that something is a belief adds something beyond an air of doubt about the declarative or inquisitive nature of a statement. Let's use Jack's statement as an example. In the first instance he says, "That painting is twelve inches tall." Any simple question will focus on the object, the painting. For instance, "That painting is twelve inches tall." "Why?" "Because whoever made it, made it that tall." But when we use Jack's statement from the second instance things are different, "I believe that painting is twelve inches tall." "Why?" "Because that guy over there told me it was." The focus is not on the external world, the focus isn't on the measurement, it's on the statement that Jack has made about himself, about his belief, about his internal world.

In a statement where the belief of the subject is explicitly stated, that belief then becomes a focus. Both the external world and the internal world are having statements made about them. In the second instance Jack is making two statements. One, that the painting is twelve inches tall. Two, that Jack has that as a belief. In the first instance that idea has been left out of the conversation, it has not been brought up for discussion. The object is the focus of discussion in the first instance, both the object and the subject are potential focuses of discussion in the second instance, with a slight emphasis toward a discussion of the subject. This is a significant difference.

That which we choose to bring forth in our conversations has the potential to change the trajectory of our discussions, and the trajectory of our thoughts. To articulate that which is implied in a statement changes the statement itself. We wield the power of words with each change we make.

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I like the last paragraph in that one.

Philosophy, an important subject often ignored.

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