How Can You Know #2

So the other day I posted something brief that I feel could do with unpacking, and I’m going to try and do that in a series of posts, because I feel there’s quite a lot to unpack. Because I’d like to help people understand what I’m talking about. As someone who spent a large chunk of her life as an agnostic bordering on atheism, I feel I can relate to the questions that agnostics have. And as someone who, once upon a time a long long while ago, studied philosophy, I fondly remember the fascinating discussions we had about epistemology: how can we know stuff? and what do we even mean when we say we know stuff?

I think I’m going to start from that last question: what do we mean by phrases like “I know that X” or “she knows that Y”?

The definition I remember we were given on the philosophy course as the generally accepted definition amongst philosophers (even though someone did find an example showing a hole in that definition – I did an essay on that, which was fun) was that knowledge = justified true belief. In other words: you can say Person A knows that X if and only if A believes that X, A has good reason to believe that X, and X is true.

Of course you could then get into interesting discussions about what it means to say X is true, but… actually I will get to that, but later on in the series. Not now. Right now I want to look at this definition of knowledge.

First of all, for those who have never thought about this stuff (which is probably the majority of the world population, as most people seem to survive pretty well without pondering what it means to say we know stuff, and many other questions that philosophers enjoy playing with) let’s have a look at the different components of that definition, and why they need to be there.

“A believes that X” isn’t enough on its own. A person can believe stuff but not know it – a policeman may strongly believe that the murder was done by that shifty-looking guy who has no alibi, but knowing is stronger than that. To know, you need good reasons, you need justification for your belief.

And if X isn’t true, then we wouldn’t say you know it, we’d say: that’s what you think, or that’s what you believe. Which is where it gets kind of interesting when you look at what different people might say about the same thing, depending on their point of view: if you’re sure that X is true, you might say “I know that X”; but if I think X isn’t true, then I might say “you think that X” (implying: but you’re misguided).

Going back to the “justification” bit – that’s also interesting, because: who says you have good reasons? who evaluates that? When you’re sitting in philosophy class discussing these things in a detached way, it sounds good – of course if you don’t have good reasons to believe that X then it wouldn’t make sense to say you know it, the policeman going with his “nose” is only going with his intuition, which is quite fallible…

And yes, it is quite fallible. But what isn’t?

Staying for a moment in the realm of my philosophy studies (don’t worry, I won’t do too much of this, there’s only a little bit I remember), let’s say hello to Descartes, who is sitting in front of the fire and thinking about stuff. He is thinking about the question of: how can we know anything?

His senses tell him that he is sitting in a chair in front of a fire – he can see the fire with his eyes, he can feel the warmth, he can probably smell the burning wood. But what if he’s dreaming all this, and in fact he’s lying in bed and there is no fire in front of him and no chair underneath him? Or what if he’s hallucinating? For all he knows, he could be sitting on a beach in Hawaii drinking cocktails mixed with some interesting pills (I hasten to add that this beach scene is my own addition, not from Descartes’s writings).

That’s when he came up with that very frequently quoted phrase: I think, therefore I am. Which isn’t anything to do with what people very often take it to be saying, and is everything to do with putting his hands up and saying: I can’t really rely 100% on what my senses tell me, I can’t really know for certain that what I see or hear or smell or feel is true, I could be dreaming or hallucinating, so what can I really know for certain? Only this, that there is some “I” who is thinking about this stuff. That “I” person may be completely misguided about stuff like where he is and whether there’s a fire in front of him, but there is an “I”.

So I find it kind of interesting when I talk about my conviction that the Bible is God’s true word, and people respond with a demand for proof through the use of sensory perception – as though that’s the only way to find out what’s true, even though it clearly is a fallible way of finding stuff out and it does sometimes mislead us!

I think it goes back to what I was saying in my earlier post – that’s the set of glasses we’re familiar with, those are the lenses through which we normally look at the world. We may know, somewhere in a corner of our minds, that they’re not 100% reliable, but we’ve been conditioned to think that this is the best we’ve got. We’ve been taught to believe that the only reasonable way of reaching conclusions is through using our sensory perception, our rational thought process, and corroboration through what other people have observed. We (at least we in the West these days) have been taught to despise beliefs that can’t be proved through those means.

I submit to you that if you keep thinking like that, you’re missing out. There is much more out there, much more than your sensory perception can tell you. And, as our friend Descartes reminds us, what your sensory perception tells you might not always be true anyway.

I will come back and say more another day.

p.s. so I did come back and say more:

How Can You Know #3

One thought on “How Can You Know #2

  1. Pingback: but how can you know? | Meirav's Blog

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