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What is Knowledge?

03/25/12

Permalink 11:56:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 930 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings, Building Knowledge

What is Knowledge?

Everyone seems to agree that knowledge is important, but there are many different perspectives on what knowledge is, how it can be formed, and whether we can ever know anything with certainty. This post is the first in a new category about knowledge. Before any other questions regarding knowledge can be addressed, it is best to be clear about what exactly knowledge is.

There are numerous dictionaries in which one can look up the definition of “knowledge”. Probably almost any definition of this word that one might come across will say essentially the same thing, though with differing degrees of detail. Bringing together the definitions provided in a few popular dictionaries, we can go with the following detailed definition of “knowledge”: awareness, familiarity, recognition, identification, distinguishment, acquaintance, apprehension and/or comprehension of a fact of truth through experience of study, investigation and/or learning.

In philosophical discourse, the concept of knowledge is often broken down into components. Probably the most commonly accepted definition of knowledge, which can be traced back to Plato, is belief that is both true and justified, and this definition is often abbreviated JTB. Each of the words listed in the previous paragraph can also be broken down into components, and although this exercise will not be done here, we should all be able to intuitively grasp that there is a similarity among all of these words.

The words “justified”, “true”, and “belief” can also be further analyzed. A belief is any idea or concept that one has in mind that they think is true, whether or not this actually is the case and regardless of what circumstances led them to think this way. People have the ability to have many ideas in mind, some of which they believe to be true, some they believe to be false, and others for which they accept the possibility that they might be true or might be false.

Truth can be a tricky concept because people commonly have false or hypothetical ideas in mind that function as sets of rules for other ideas to be considered “true” or “false”. For example, if one has a set of counter-factual ideas in mind, then other statements can be “true” or “false” relative to these beliefs, but still completely false in an absolute sense (relative to reality). Thus one can have beliefs that are “true” from their own point of view, but these beliefs would not be mind-independent facts. There is, of course, a reality outside the mind. Beliefs that correspond to reality are true regardless of anyone's point of view and only beliefs that meet this criteria and are also justified can be considered knowledge.

Justification is a more complex concept to define. The most common understanding of this word within an epistemological context (involving the analysis of knowledge) is that one can be justified to have a belief if they have sufficient reason for believing it. Basically, a belief is justified if one has come to this belief after considering all available evidence and figuring out what makes the most sense. In other words, a belief is justified if one can reasonably conclude that it is true after considering all evidence that is available.

There are some problems with the JTB definition of knowledge, however. There are so-called Gettier problems, named after the philosopher who popularized this form of argument, that seem to show that some justified true beliefs are not knowledge. Here is one such example, paraphrased:

Smith has applied for a job, but, it is claimed, has a justified belief that "Jones will get the job". He also has a justified belief that "Jones has 10 coins in his pocket". Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes (by the rule of the transitivity of identity) that "the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket". In fact, Jones does not get the job. Instead, Smith does. However, as it happens, Smith (unknowingly and by sheer chance) also had 10 coins in his pocket. So his belief that "the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket" was justified and true. But it does not appear to be knowledge.

Some have used this and other similar examples to argue that there should be other factors that must be met in order for a belief to become knowledge or even in some cases that concept of knowledge is incoherent.

For this example at least, the answer is simple. In this case, the problem is in matching what the person has in mind with what is spoken or written. Beliefs are essentially mental states and by extension so are all beliefs that qualify as knowledge. A straightforward literal reading of this example does not actually match the belief that Smith has in mind. When Smith says “the man who will get the job...”, he specifically has Jones in mind and not some abstract idea of some person who will get this job. So in a literal sense, Smith's statement can be interpreted as true, but as he meant it, it is actually false and hence it is not knowledge.

Now, there are other Gettier problems that have actually led me to conclude that there is at least one more condition that must be met in order for a belief to become knowledge, but this will have to be addressed in a future posting.

What definition of knowledge do you think makes the most sense? This site features a forum where you can let your voice be heard. You can weigh in on this topic here. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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