Epistemology and the problem of knowledge


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Epistemology and the problem of knowledge

  1. 1. Epistemology and the problem of knowledge<br />By Noel C. Jopson<br />Among the major philosophical problems that are of supreme importance is the problem of epistemology. Man’s search for knowledge and his desire to understand the essence and basic features of knowledge are perennial tasks. Everything about which we philosophize depends on our knowledge. If knowledge likewise is called into question, then that concerning which we claim to have knowledge is called into question. Surely no other area of philosophical inquiry could be more important than that which examines the very foundations of all knowledge—namely, epistemology. Thus, the task of epistemology is crucial.<br />Definition of Epistemology<br />The term epistemology comes from the Greek episteme, meaning knowledge, and logos, meaning, roughly, study, or science, of. It is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions concerning the nature, sources, validity, and scope of knowledge. Epistemology is also known as the theory of knowledge, in fact it is interchangeable used, for instance, in college course catalogues. Studying epistemology will expose to such questions as: what is knowledge? What can we know? How do we know if what we know is true? And is there a limit to what we can know?<br />Kinds of knowledge<br />We can classify knowledge according to the three ways in which we use the word “know.”<br /><ul><li>Knowledge by acquaintance or knowing people, places, and things.
  2. 2. Practical knowledge or “know how” refers to whether we have the ability to perform an activity in question in an appropriate environment.
  3. 3. Propositional knowledge or “knowing that” refers to the traditional analysis of knowledge. It is more commonly known as factual knowledge.</li></ul>Nature and definition of knowledge<br />A primary concern of epistemology is the very definition of knowledge itself. The traditional definition, since Plato, is that knowledge is justified true belief. This means that knowledge has three individually necessary and jointly sufficiently conditions: truth, belief and justification. Something is necessary condition of knowledge when there can be no knowledge in the absence of such a condition. The condition, however, works in conjunction with the other necessary conditions to constitute sufficient condition for knowledge. Whenever the three conditions of knowledge are present there is knowledge. If any of these conditions are absent there is no knowledge: <br /><ul><li>Belief. Knowledge requires a cognitive contact with reality, a representational mental state, or a certain attitude toward what we know. Knowledge is a kind of belief. If one has no beliefs about a particular matter, one cannot have knowledge about it.
  4. 4. Truth. Not all beliefs constitute knowledge. Belief is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. We are all sometimes mistaken in what we believe; in other words, while some of our beliefs are true, others are false. As we try to acquire knowledge, then, we are trying to increase our stock of true beliefs (while simultaneously minimizing our false beliefs). Note that we are assuming here that there is such a thing as objective truth, so that it is possible for beliefs to match or to fail to match with reality. That is, in order for someone to know something, there must be something one knows about. Recall that we are discussing knowledge in the factive sense; if there are no facts of the matter, then there’s nothing to know. We can say that truth is a condition of knowledge; that is, if a belief is not true, it cannot constitute knowledge. Accordingly, if there is no such thing as truth, then there can be no knowledge. Even if there is such a thing as truth, if there is a domain in which there are no truths, then there can be no knowledge within that domain.
  5. 5. Justification. Knowledge, then, requires factual belief. However, this does not suffice to capture the nature of knowledge. Just as knowledge requires successfully achieving the objective of true belief, it also requires success with regard to the formation of that belief. In other words, not all true beliefs constitute knowledge; only true beliefs arrived at in the right way constitute knowledge. A belief is said to be justified if it is obtained in the right way. The requirement that knowledge involve justification does not necessarily mean that knowledge requires absolute certainty, however. Humans are fallible beings, and  HYPERLINK "http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallibil" fallibilism is the view that it is possible to have knowledge even when one’s true belief might have turned out to be false. </li></ul>The purpose of the tripartite definition is to provide an adequate account of our conception of what knowledge is. Specifically, it claims that knowledge is a sort of belief, that this belief is of something true, and that one must have a good reason for holding such a belief.<br />Sources of knowledge<br />The second important issue in epistemology concerns the ultimate source of our knowledge. The two contending schools of thought explaining this is issue are empiricism and rationalism.<br />Rationalism<br />Rationalism holds, that it is reason, not experience, that is most important for our acquisition of knowledge. There are three distinct types of knowledge that the rationalist might put forward as supporting his view and undermining that of the empiricist.<br />First, the rationalist might argue that we possess at least some innate knowledge. We are not born, as the empiricist John Locke thought, with minds like blanks slates onto which experience writes items of knowledge. Rather, even before we experience the world there are some things that we know. We at least possess some basic instincts; arguably, we also possess some innate concepts, such as a faculty for language.<br />Second, the rationalist might argue that there are some truths that, though not known innately, can be worked out independent of experience of the world. These might be truths of logic or mathematics, or ethical truths. We can know the law of the excluded middle, answers to sums, and that the difference between right and wrong, without having to base that knowledge in experience.<br />Third, the rationalist might argue that there are some truths that, though grounded in part in experience, cannot be derived from experience alone. Aesthetic truths, and truths about causation, for instance, seem to many to be of this kind. Two people may observe the same object, yet reach contradictory views as to its beauty or ugliness. This shows that aesthetic qualities are not presented to us by our senses, but rather are overlaid onto experience by reason. Similarly, we do not observe causation, we merely see one event followed by another; it is the mind, not the world, that provides us with the idea that the former event causes the latter.<br />Empiricism<br />Empiricism is the theory that experience is of primary importance in giving us knowledge of the world. Whatever we learn, according to empiricists, we learn through perception. Knowledge without experience, with the possible exception of trivial semantic and logical truths, is impossible. Thinkers who follow this theory follows the claim of Aristotle that nothing that is in the mind that does not go first through the senses. Major proponents of this school of thought are John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.<br />The English philosopher John Locke claimed that the mind is a tabula rasa or an empty slate. For empiricists, when we learn or experience things, it is as if the mind is being written on. For the Rationalists, however, the mind is like a computer: the hardware already has some functions (innate ideas) before the software (experiences, specific knowledge) is loaded.<br />George Berkeley, another English empiricist presented another empirical argument. Berkeley's stated, esse est percipi, (Latin for "To be is to be perceived") that is, it is impossible for something to exist without being perceived. <br />The Scottish Philosopher David Hume is widely known for his sceptical attitudes to certain types of knowledge. As with the other Empiricists, Hume disagreed with such philosophers as Descartes that the mind contained innate ideas. He also criticized the idea that we could be certain about anything outside of our experience that it is so. Hume’s distinction of ideas and impression is among the important theme of his empiricism. For Hume, ideas are simply weaker versions of sense impressions. So, for instance, the idea of the Sun is not as vivid as actually looking at it. Furthermore, nothing can exist in the mind without either first being experienced or formed through the combination of other experiences.<br />Validity of Knowledge<br />Truth is something that can be verified. We say that something is true because of certain criteria. We shall present three common theories on the validity of knowledge namely: Correspondence Theory, Coherence Theory and Pragmatic Theory.<br />Correspondence Theory<br />The correspondence theory is historically the most popular theory of truth due to its commonsense appeal. It is also known as the classical view.<br />Correspondence theory claims that the truth of a statement depends entirely on the statement’s correspondence to what it is about or the reality outside of itself, or the facts being asserted, or the state of affairs. Statements are true by corresponding to the way the world is. The correspondence formula is as follows:<br />A statement is true under the condition that that statement corresponds to the fact it is asserting.<br />Truth is a certain relation between the statement and its corresponding fact. For example: The statement “Snow is white” is true if, and only if, the statement corresponds to the fact that snow is white.<br />Of course it should be obvious that to say that a statement is false is to say that such statement does not correspond to a given fact. For example: The statement “Snow is black” is false since it does not correspond to the fact that snow is white.<br />The correspondence theory assumes that discovering the truth or falsity of a statement simply involves comparing it with the fact it asserts. Thus a statement is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.<br />Coherence Theory<br />According to coherence theory a statement is true given that such a statement coheres or is consistent with other statements. The condition of statement’s truth is simply its coherence or consistency within a set of statements. The coherence theory shifts focus away from correspondence of statements to facts in the world to the systematic consistency of statements themselves. The coherence formula is as follows:<br />A statement is true under the conditions that such a statement coheres or is consistent with some other statements in a given set.<br />The coherence theory reveals how we arrive at knowledge, namely how we try to fit our beliefs together into a coherent whole. Dowden and Swartz (2002) illustrate the point through this example. Do we accept as true a drunk driver’s statement : “There are pink elephants dancing on the highwayin front of us? The truth or falsehood of his statement is determined by considering other beliefs that we have already accepted as true like:<br /><ul><li>Elephants are gray, not pink.
  6. 6. This place is not where elephants live.
  7. 7. There is no zoo nearby.
  8. 8. Severely intoxicated person are known to experience hallucinations.
  9. 9. Nobody else in the area claims to have seen any pink elephants.</li></ul>To establish the truth of one statement one needs to get other statements to cohere in a unified body of knowledge. This coherence makes it true. Blanshard (1941) wrote : “The degree of truth of a particular proposition is to be judged by its coherence with experience as a whole.” Truth, then, is nothing other than the interconnectedness of our various beliefs. Its test is how well it fits in with everything else we believe.<br />Pragmatic Theory <br />A pragmatic theory of truth claims that the condition of a statement’s truth is neither its correspondence to a fact not its coherence to other statements. Rather, it is its usefulness in solving problems and answering inquiries. In short, truth is, to use Pierce’s description, the end of inquiry. The meaning of truth in the practical difference it serves.<br />Truth is not a stagnant property of an idea. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true. It is made true by events.” Possession of true thoughts means the possession of invaluable instruments of action.” The pragmatic formulation of this is:<br />A statement is true under the condition that such a statement is useful to be believed in.<br />That is, granting that a given statement works this factor would make that statement a true statement. Utility, therefore, is the essential mark of truth. It follows that the statements “It is useful because it is true,” and “It is true because it is useful” mean exactly the same thing: an idea gets fulfilled and can be verified. Truth is what works.<br />