Sunday, June 22, 2008

Quick thoughts on epistemology

Okay, so in my efforts to prepare for graduate school, I've started to look (and will continue to look) at some problems in epistemology --a field I know next to nothing about. The last time I studied epistemology (for the layman: the study of how/when we know things) was about 4 years ago in Professor Stampe's Philosophy 101 class. It's been awhile, but believe it or not, I really enjoyed what we briefly discussed (likewise when we looked at phil mind, metaphysics, and free will). A good starting point is this famous excerpt from Edmund Gettier entitled, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge." The short answer from Gettier is: no. The question is: why?

So there's the common conception (I suppose that's what you'd call it) that a person knows something IFF (if and only if) she both believes it to be true, it actually is true, and she was justified in holding her belief (iow, she had satisfactory reasons, adequate evidence, etc-- as vague as all that is). So Gettier lays it out like this:
S knows that PIFF
  1. P is true,
  2. S believes that P, and
  3. S is justified in believing that P.
Gettier gives a couple counterexamples that show an inference Q, drawn from P, that is both true, justified in the mind of S, but not true for the same reason that S believes it to be true. In other words, Gettier's talking about coincidence. Instead of using the same examples in the excerpt, I'll give the one that Professor Stampe used in class (an example that may or may not be from some other philosopher, I have no idea). And I've changed the names, because I don't recall the ones used in class.

Mindy lives in Milwaukee, and in Milwaukee there is a big clock (the Allen Bradley clock for those who care). The Allen Bradley clock has, in the past, always kept the right time, without fail. On Monday, Mindy looks at the clock and the clock reads 12 noon, so infers from that that the actual time is 12 noon. She has good reason to hold that belief (the clock keeps impeccable time). Now let's say that the time actually is 12 o'clock, so Mindy's belief is true. Let's also say that the clock is broken, and the arms of the clock were at 12 o'clock when it stopped ticking last. Mindy does not know that the clock is broken, it is merely a coincidence. Mindy fits all of the conditions above for knowledge of a proposition, however, her belief that it is noon is not what we'd think of as proper knowledge. Her belief is true, but not for the same reasons that she believes it to be true.

The problem with the aforementioned knowledge conditions is that they are not sufficent for knowledge (even if they may in themselves be necessary). The problem is the condtions don't take into account the possibility that you can be justified in believing something that's false. That could lead you to a belief that is in fact true, but what you then believe is in no way knowledge. So the above conditions are not sufficient to define when we know something; there has to be another condition. (Here's where a broader knowledge base in epistemology would be helpful, for I'm sure others have already exhausted this topic, but for my own edification I'll do some pondering)

So suppose you add some condition to the effect of: S is justified in her justification of P. Well that looks like it (as a premise) will have the same failings of the premise it's trying to rescue. What if the further justification is wrong, etc? I'm tempted to throw in the towel and say, "Well S must also know that S knows P!" Hmm. Same problem, only removed a bit further. How do you know that you know P? You'd have to know that you knew that you knew P, or something. Craziness.

My stronger temptation is to say, screw it, no one knows anything! We have a bunch of beliefs, some of which are true, and some that aren't, and we just don't know which one's we know, because we can't know a dang thing. That's a sort of defeatist, and it doesn't capture our intuition that we have some beliefs that are either more likely to be true than others, or that we have better reason to believe than others. Or do we? I'm skeptical that we can know when we know things, even if somehow we can know things. Perhaps that's because those conditions above require that P be true, but S really only believes that P is true. The evaluation of said piece of knowledge (or justified belief, or whatever) is sort done by some God-like omniscient evaluator, or not done at all. No one can evaluate the knowledge conditions, least of all S. Only some removed and all-knowing being could know whether S's justification is even justified, removed to infinity, or whatever. I must do some perusing of other epistemology works, because I know (ha!) other people, smarter people, have hashed through this before.

Last thought: what does this mean for my belief that God exists? That's a belief that plays a central function in how I order my life, so I'd like to know how I can know it to be true (if I even can). But this time, my case looks even more dim than the one above. It probably goes something like this (assuming God does exist):

L thinks she knows that G exists because:
1) G is true.
2) L believes that G is true.
3) L is inclined to believe that G is true.*
4) L has some other reasons to believe that G is true.
5) L's reasons are internally/subjectively adequate justification, but probably not externally/objectively/actually adequate justification.

I'm willing to conclude that even if God really does exist, and even though I believe that he does, my believe probably won't qualify as actual knowledge of God's existence. Does that mean I have to be agnostic, resigned to admitting that I can't, we can't, know whether God exists? Perhaps. But there's something not really captured by agnosticism, and that's my belief that G really is true (however lacking in justification, and whatever other premise is required for knowledge --if we can have knowledge at all). I'm willing to admit that I don't know, even if it turns out that I am right. I'm willing to concede that I what I hold is not knowledge, just belief. I'm okay with that.

But is the whole knowledge or belief distinction is more than a squabble over terminology? If what I hold is knowledge (or could be), well that will certainly play a role in how this belief shapes my life. But can it shape my life in the same way if I admit that it is merely a belief, a belief that even if true could never really be knowledge? On that account, I'm unsure. My intuition is that the nature of religious belief and how it plays out in our daily lives is such that it is meant to be belief and not knowledge, for that is the entire point of faith. But more on this later, maybe.

*I do think that I am inclined to believe in God, because I have (at times) tried to distance myself from that belief for a period of time to better evaluate his possible non-existence. It doesn't work. No amount of skeptical philosophy has swayed my heart, though it has (and will continue) to give my mind pause. It's a phenomenon I've ventured to explain before, though it's not entirely clear, even to me. Rationally speaking, I think I'm probably nuts. But somewhere in there I just can't not believe. So I admit that what I hold isn't knowledge, because I can't prove it to myself adequately from an objective/rational perspective. But I also don't think that gives me reason to abandon my belief (though I'm sure many people would say I ought to), because I'm not a worshiper of reason. I think reason, logic, etc, are awesome. They really are great. But they are not all that there is. The heart has it's place too, and sometimes it's foolish and wrong. But other times the heart can access things that reason could never reach. Call me crazy.


Wilson said...

My intuition is that the nature of religious belief and how it plays out in our daily lives is such that it is meant to be belief and not knowledge, for that is the entire point of faith.

An interesting formulation, but is the belief/knowledge distinction scripturally valid? In the NT, faith operates in the absence of "sight," but I'm not sure that this is supposed to indicate a lack of knowledge. The evangelists seem awfully adamant about what they "know" to be true and how different it is from the ignorance of other religions.

Meanwhile ... If religious belief is not meant to be knowledge at all, then does it have its own set of criteria that allow us to weigh one faith against another? Is there, for example, a way to argue that one religion has stronger internal/subjective justification than another? Or should we judge between them according to their external/objective justification, even though no religion will ever reach the level of knowledge? (Or are all religions equally valid as long as they are fully justified subjectively?)

Lindsey said...

Okay perhaps what I mean by knowledge needs to be clarified. I'm going with epistemologically sound knowledge, the kind we may never have (excepting, perhaps, our own existence in the Descartes fashion). So what I'm saying is this: if we can have knowledge at all (in whatever sense knowledge is tightly defined to be), then it's not the sort of thing we can have about religious belief and have that belief still be religious in nature. Not that we can't make judgment calls between beliefs, etc, but that absolute certainty is unattainable (for the time being)-- and for good reason. I'm not saying that the belief is weakly held, but it's not something that could qualify as knowledge --if anything could. And we wouldn't want it to. If believing in God was akin to believing that I must exist as some sort of entity because I'm thinking about my own existence, well that wouldn't leave much room for choice, for faith. I think Hebrews 11:1 says it well, as you alluded to, that faith is "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." It's a different sort thing, it's not the same as knowledge. It's a certainty in an uncertainty.

And as I briefly threw out there in the end, I think there are things you "know" in your heart that you don't "know" in any philosophical sense of the word.

As for how to make judgments between religious beliefs, well that'd be like making judgments between people's moral beliefs. A good deal of our moral belief probably doesn't qualify as "knowledge," but that doesn't mean we can't make comparisons between them --and conclude that some are better than others (closer to the truth, if you will). I may not be certain that the Kant's categorical imperative covers things well, but I think it captures more than, oh I don't know, utilitarianism (but I suppose that's debatable). Anyway, I won't outline how that would work out, but you get the point.

More importantly, aren't you happy I'm branching out into other fields of philosophy? This may be child's play to a LEMMing, but it's new stuff for me...