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. 7.25.2008

What is knowledge?

coglanglab's picture

There are a number of good reasons to want a definition for knowledge. For instance, you might be a lexicographer. Or you might be a philosopher, wondering what knowledge is.

Either way, you're out of luck, because knowledge turns out to be a tricky beast.

Know vs. Believe

The easiest way to start is to compare know with believe. What is the difference between:

I believe it's Friday.


I know it's Friday.

The latter is more certain, but that's not all. It's possible to believe it's Friday on a Thursday. It's not possible to know that it's Friday on a Thursday. So we might be tempted to define

knowledge = true belief

That's not going to be enough, though. Suppose John just woke up from a coma. He knows he was in a coma, and he hasn't seen a calendar. Still, his intuition tells him it's Friday. Can he say he knows that it's Friday?

Well, he can say it. But even if it turns out that today really is Friday, we still would be uncomfortable saying John knows that it's Friday, unless we believe in ESP or some similar phenomenon.

Similarly, I might say that I know Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. Even if it turns out that I am right and Obama does become the next president, it's a little weird to say that I knew it. It seems better to say I strongly believed it.

So we might try the following definition:

knowledge = justified true belief

The idea being that it only counts as knowledge if I have sufficient evidence.

Unfortunately, that won't work, either, though it took some fancy philosophizing to prove it. Consider the following example.

Suppose I am watching the Red Sox play the Yankees. Unbeknownst to me, there has actually been an electrical outage at Fenway, so the cameras aren't working. NESN quickly substitutes a tape of a previous game in which the Red Sox played the Yankees, but I don't realize it.

In this rebroadcast, the Red Sox beat the Yankees. At the same time as I am watching the taped game, the Red Sox are actually beating the Yankees. So if I then say, "Today, the Red Sox beat the Yankees," my statement is true (the Red Sox really did beat the Yankees) and justified (I have every reason to believe what I am saying), but still it seems very strange to say that I know that the Red Sox beat the Yankees.

Where does this leave us?

You might try to save justified true belief by fiddling with justified, but most philosophical accounts I've seen just stop there and claim there is no definition. I am inclined to agree, and this is just one more reason to suspect that words just don't have definitions.

As I've pointed out before, Greg Murphy has a pretty good explanation of why it makes sense that words don't have definitions. The original post is here, but in short, words are used to distinguish objects, but it is always possible to come up with a new object (or idea) that is midway between two words -- that is, fits both and neither, just as the baseball game example above seems to fit both knowledge and belief and neither.

I find this pretty convincing, but if he is right, it raises the following question: why do we think words have crisp definitions? Even more, why do we really want words to have crisp definitions? It seems generations of philosophers would have saved a lot of time.

Philosophy is Subjective

I am not indicating that philosophy is unrelated to science. Yet the question, "what is knowledge", is on the one hand obvious, and on the other conditional. What is not made clear is the reference that understanding, or knowledge points to. In other words, is the information or knowledge presented well established and verifiable, or viewed from a philosophical, theoretically, or speculative angle. Again, the issue of belief is at play. Knowledge is inherently conditional, and provisional, that is precisely what is at issue here. The singular fact that all knowledge is conditional and provisional, does not devalue the veracity of knowledge. This fact simply imposes conditions and limits, as to the way such knowledge is judged and evaluated. As well, perception, and grounding, determines the quality of that which is considered. With proper grounding and training, I might consider certain information as knowledge. With less grounding and training, I might judge the same information as speculative or to difficult to evaluate. Moreover, depending on the area in question, information must be subjected to accepted standards and criteria, before such can be adjudged as knowledge. Therefore, knowledge does indeed have an objective component. Subjective knowledge is at question herein. Objective knowledge is, as well, provisional and conditional. History makes clear the inadequacies of many certitudes. As well,"knowledge" in a particular discipline is not necessarily applicable in certain other distinct discipline. In conclusion, all knowledge is provision and conditional, even if true. Therefore knowledge, when grounded in the best understanding, constitutes relative truths; the best working knowledge for understanding to proceed. At the same time, I argue that knowledge does indeed exist; though conditional and provisional, and constitutes the best, established reference for evaluating the information under consideration.

Without philosophy, no science

It is true that my post was about discussions in philosophy. That doesn't make it irrelevant to science.

What philosophy does, when it is done well, is to clearly lay out the phenomenon of study. One of the most pressing issues in the study of language is what is the nature of word meaning.

Without a good theory of word meaning, more "scientific" studies (like neuroscience investigations looking out how word meaning is stored in the brain) are difficult if not pointless.

Please try my web-based experiments

A Question for Philosophy, Not Science

I am not persuaded by the mere fact we can ask the question, "what is knowledge", signifies an important, significant, or relevant question for science. In my view knowledge is information of various kinds. It could relate to various fields of study, current events, personal relations, self-knowledge, gossip, job skills, and so forth. The quality of this knowledge is variable, and subject to change, with respect to ones mind set. Belief is how one interprets this knowledge. As well, belief is variable and influenced by ones present mind set. Could this issue be as simple as described? How does the dictionary definitions of knowledge or belief figure in this thought experiment? The article clearly limits these definition to the particular, rather that the general definitions or meanings. There are many such examples, and speak to the limits of definitions, and not to the argument presented. Yes, that is what I am indicating. Endeavoring to answering the question, "what is knowledge" is no more that a thought experiment, with not practical utility. If such a practical utility exist, please enlighten me. Further, what other useful knowledge is gained by pursuing this question. In my view it is not a valid question for scientific inquiry. A better question might be what constitutes knowledge, or what constitutes belief? These are philosophical question, as is, "what is knowledge", and fits well within the domain of thought experiments, and philosophical discourse.

It has to do with viewpoint

"Justified true knowledge" fits all the examples so far if you take point of view into account.

The ancient thought they knew Earth was flat, because from their point of view, Earth's apparent flatness justified that belief. From our point of view, they believed in it, because from our point of view, Earth is round.

Now for the Red Sox example. You thought you knew, because there seemed to be good justification. I say you believed, because I know your belief wasn't really justified. The example is confusing because I am aware that you had good reason to think your belief was justified.

It is interesting that this point-of-view subtlety is part of the meaning of the word. It is not obvious: It's conceivable that in some other language there can be a word, say, "thnow", that means "to think one knows". So "he thnows" means that his belief is justified in his own eyes, not mine. (I believe such words exist in English, too, but I can't think of an example.) This is an aspect of a word's meaning that is not usually included in dictionary definitions. It can be formulated, as I just have, but only in a roundabout way.

I'll add...

Do you even know knowledge exists? It could be that not only is the world constantly changing but the very laws that we believe govern the world are constantly changing too. The best you can hope for is a high level of confidence.

I still contend that knowledge is confident belief

Take irrational numbers in mathematics. The Greeks essentially founded modern mathematics by formalizing proofs. In fact, Euclids, The Elements, was still used as the basic geometry text in U.S. schools well into the 1900s. Well, for a long time, the Greeks "knew" PI was a rational number. Why? Because the concept of irrationality (in numbers) didn't exist. They eventually discovered it. This was a matter of pure reason, not a scientific theory, yet they still had it wrong for centuries. For a long time we "knew" Newtonian physics described the universe--until we started to observe flaws in the theory. Give me an example of something that we really know? There's a good chance that, at the very least, it'll have to be revised within a hundred years. Do you "know" for sure that the world wasn't flat back in 1492? I'm pretty damn sure, but I really wasn't there.

People did not know that the world was flat

Doubt Preacher:

I am going to stand by my claim that to know something, it has to be true. You can certainly coerce the meaning ("Bush knows he is acting out the Divine will"), but it feels forced.

In fact, I think that when one uses "know" to mean "strongly believe something which is not true," that feeling of coercion carries some of the meaning. Compare the previous sentence with "Bush believes with absolute confidence he is acting out the Divine will." The sentences mean different things.

Please try my web-based experiments

Know verses Believe

This is just an idle comment, but I think most people--laymen, not just philosophers and scientists--assume that "know" really just means "believe with absolute confidence". Even in the dictionary, "know" and "believe" are almost identical. For instance, from (I'm cherry picking my definitions):

know: "to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty"

believe: "to have confidence or faith in the truth of (a positive assertion, story, etc.); give credence to"

People used to "know" that the world was flat. I think we should talk more about confidence in our beliefs--individual confidence and societal confidence--and the basis of that confidence, rather than arguing over the definitions of "knowledge" and "belief". I have some philosophical ramblings of my own at:

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