Monday, February 18, 2013

Philosophy 101 With EsonLinji

I'm currently taking a few online courses through Coursera one of which is Introduction to Philosophy. The following are a few of my thoughts on the topics from week two, which focused on epistemology. Since the lecture had two main parts, so to will I split this into two corresponding parts.

A few general statements first. Epistemology is looking at the question of what is knowledge and how do we know what we know (and how do we know how we know what we know (and how do we know how we know how we know what we know (and so on and so on))). My science and analytic background makes me take a very empirical view of such things (which is part of why I've tended to not look so favourably on philosophy and related disciplines. This will become very significant in the second part).

So, what is knowledge? What does it mean to know something? The initial idea that was presented was that knowledge is a belief that is true and for which there is a justifiable reason for being true. Notwithstanding a certain unease at the use of the word believe (while here they are using it to mean "an idea of how the world is" too many discussions with religious types who use it as "an idea of how the world is without explaining why" has led me to try and avoid the word. If more people used it in the first sense and then tried to justify their beliefs, I'd be happier using it), this seems to be a reasonable definition.

Unfortunately, the lecturer then went on to shoot down this definition, by poking what was considered to be a big hole in the justifiable reason part of the definition. This was done by setting up scenarios where what one believes is true, and you think you have a justified reason for believing it, but that justified reason is not true. A few amendments to the definition were considered, but suffer from the same flaw.

Now, in my arrogance, I'm going to try and do what philosophers for the last half century or so haven't been able to do, and see if I can come up with a definition of what is knowledge (or at least one that works for me). Let's consider a few important points

To know something it must be true. I can know 30 Rock is a TV show starring Tina Fey because this is true. I can't know that it is a TV show that went for 10 seasons because this is not true (however much I'd like it to be). I can think it went for 10 seasons, I can believe it, but I can't know it. So truth is essential.

All my next ideas were all just trying to finesse the justification side of things, and since a long checklist of things doesn't seem that satisfying, I'm going to throw out a new idea and see how it goes.

Knowledge is Understanding based on Meaningful Applied Data. Nope, that's Justified True Belief in different words. Dammit. This is trickier than I thought.

Actually, I like the Justified True Belief idea. The tricks they used to poke holes in that idea don't seem big enough to throw the whole thing out, more requiring more care in what can be considered a justification for a belief. So let's go with a Justified True Belief that is subject to revision as more information is learned (You can see the science background there)

The second part was on Radical Skepticism. The position of the Radical Skeptic is that since we can't be sure we're not just brains in a jar being fed sensations, a la The Matrix, we can't really be sure of anything. This I find less than satisfying mainly because it is a theory that makes no testable claims and in science when you put forward a theory that makes no testable claims you get a pat on the head and asked to come back when you do have some testable claims, and if you build your theory to completely avoid testable claims, well don't even bother. So the whole brain in the jar scenario being reason to doubt our ability to know just doesn't fly. If we have two possibilities as to how the world works, we don't just decide we can't know anything. We find out which one it is and build up from there. The Radical Skeptic is a defeatist position.

That's it for now. The next set of lectures is on Minds, so I'll probably have something I disagree with there I'll want to write about.

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