2012: Advent Philosophy: Knowledge for Beginners

by on December 3, 2012

Hi folks. I’m going to be attempting to write an Advent Philosophy series, and I’ll be starting with a bit of “Epistemology” – that is, the study of knowledge. I thought that getting a basic idea of what “Knowledge” is would be a good starting point for Advent Knowledge (even if I am coming in a few days late). But first, to get you in the proper mood for Doing Philosophy, please watch this short video. Extra credit if you can sing along.

Now! The most popular theory among epistemologists is that Knowledge is “Justified True Belief”. Put another way, an epistemologist would tell me that to actually “know” something, I need to believe that it’s true, I need to have justification for believing that, and it needs to actually be true. If any one of these parts is missing, I don’t know the thing. I have something that looks a lot like knowledge, and might act a lot like knowledge, but really isn’t knowledge. To illustrate these situations, let’s say that my friend Horatio gets a call from his boyfriend Tyler, letting him know that Tyler just signed for a parcel with Horatio’s name on it. The parcel is waiting at home. How exciting!

Happy Horatio!

If I ask him for justification of his belief, Horatio will probably tell me about the call he got. This is a pretty good justification. So maybe Horatio really does know that he has an exciting parcel waiting. On the other hand, if he said “I just really feel like it’s been delivered, I can’t wait, I’m so excited”… well, maybe the parcel is there. But if so, Horatio made a lucky guess. He didn’t really know that his parcel had arrived. He just hoped it had and he was right.

But maybe, being a very suspicious fellow, Horatio greets Tyler’s call with surprised incredulity. He only placed the order the day before. Maybe it isn’t really there yet, and Tyler is enjoying a prank at his expense, or an unexpected, different parcel has arrived. He doesn’t really believe that his parcel is waiting for him. In this case, even though Horatio has justification to believe it, and it’s true that the parcel has arrived, Horatio is missing the Belief component. He can’t know something if he can’t believe it. Certainly if you asked him, Horatio wouldn’t say that he knows the parcel has arrived. “I guess it might have,” he says, shrugging. “Or maybe Tyler’s just being a jerk.”

Incredulous Horatio

What if Tyler was just being a jerk, and Horatio fell for it? Horatio has great justification – a call from his beloved telling him the parcel is there – and no trouble believing it. But Tyler is kind of a prankster. He’s being a bit of a jerk to his naive boyfriend, and it isn’t true that the parcel is waiting for Horatio at home. Maybe they will have a row, maybe they will laugh about it over a bottle of wine, but either way, Horatio doesn’t know that the parcel is there. He would say he does, but that is only because he believes it is true. Horatio doesn’t have knowledge, he just has a misguided belief. Poor guy.

awww, Angsty Horatio

Okay, let’s be nice to Horatio and say that he actually does know that his parcel has arrived. He has knowledge of this because he has:

  • Justification: Tyler gave Horatio a call to let him know that the parcel arrived.
  • Belief: Horatio trusts Tyler and believes that his parcel has arrived.
  • Truth: Tyler is not being a jerk. The parcel actually has arrived!
Hooray for Horatio! Maybe it’s a nice new sabre. Tomorrow: super-lazy philosophers massively trolling all the epistemologists who agree with this definition.

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