Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 2: Knowledge: How Should Knowledge Be Analyzed?

For those of you that missed my last entry, I'm working my way through a series of philosophy lectures by Prof. Colin McGinn of Rutgers University.  I find it kind of interesting that Prof McGinn chose to lecture in this order because in lecture one about skepticism the idea that we have knowledge or certainty (I'll be using the term knowledge for this entry but the two are more or less interchangeable in this context) is assumed.  I would think it might have made a little more sense to cover what is knowledge before questioning and being skeptical that one can have knowledge at all.  Nonetheless, we're on lecture two now about analyzing knowledge.  I apologize in advance because some of this stuff is considered dry compared to some other topics within philosophy.

Some of the first things we must consider when starting a philosophical analysis of something is what are the necessary conditions and what are the sufficient conditions for the idea being considered?  In this case, what is necessary for one to have or do to know something?  And, what is sufficient for one to have or do to know something?  The traditional answer to this question goes back to Plato's time (though I haven't personally studied Plato's epistemology), that is, a true, justified belief.  Belief, in this sense isn't the same as a religious or political belief (per se), rather a stab at the truth in thought.  One cannot think something is false and yet believe in it.  So, belief in its nature includes at least the attempt at truth, though one can guess at something and end up getting it wrong.  Justification is important for knowledge because, if one is to be rational, one cannot just say, "I believe this or that just because" or if one refuses to consider objections to one's beliefs they're being irrational.  Also, without justification things can end up being true by guessing and that's not complete knowledge either.  These things seem to be necessary conditions for knowledge, but as we'll see with the examples they aren't necessarily all the sufficient conditions for knowledge.  Let's move on to those examples because, to me, they're the fun parts of this concept.

Example number one to show how having simply true, justified beliefs are not enough to claim knowledge.  Suppose my brother comes to visit me every Tuesday afternoon, and it's a Tuesday and I'm expecting him and my friend, who is generally trustworthy, tells me my brother is at the door.  However, for whatever reason, my friend happens to be lying this time (the reason for the lie is not important), and my brother is not at the door.  At first we have an untrue, but justified belief that my brother is at the door.  However, as I'm going to meet my brother at the door, unbeknownst to my friend, my brother shows up at the door.  Did I know my brother was at the door?  No, not really even though it was true that he was at the door and I was justified in that belief.  But, no I didn't know that he was at the door at any time.  The second one is better (at least I think so).  You're driving through the countryside and you're seeing all the typical things one would expect to see, fields with bales of hay or straw, barns, livestock, etc.  Then, without realizing it, you are driving along and the things you've been observing, are now all fake.  So here we have justified beliefs (that the things we're seeing are real) but they're not.  Then, without your knowledge of it being so, there's a real barn in amidst the fake.  There, you have a true (at least about that one real barn) justified belief.  But that doesn't seem to be enough for knowledge in this case.

So there you have it, true, justified beliefs are required to have knowledge of something, but apparently are not the only things necessary to know something.  There have been many arguments and there doesn't seem to be any clear answer to what else needs to be added to true, justified beliefs to comprise true knowledge.  I certainly don't have the answers, again I'm just bringing up the question.  According to Prof McGinn's lecture it seems that there has to be some kind of causal relationship the truth and the belief(s) to be true knowledge.

Here's my only divergence from Prof McGinn.  I'm not saying that it's true knowledge, but I would posit that having a justified belief can lead to one believing that something is true to the point that it's true to that person.  Take the characterization of the mathematician, John Nash, in the movie A Beautiful Mind, the character played by Russel Crowe is plagued with delusions so powerful that he truly believes that they're real.  So, in effect, they become real to him.  It may not make any difference in reality, but to the individual things that are not true, with enough justification and powerful enough belief it can become real to that person.

What does this mean to you and me?  Honestly, not much.  I believe that there's a personal creator God.  There are many different justifications for that belief, they're generally covered in apologetics.  No one can prove or disprove the truth of that claim, but at least two of the necessary conditions for knowledge have been met for me.

Hiji Falls

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 1: Intro and Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

I'm going to try something I've never done in this blog before.  That is, write a series of posts along the same vein.  This idea was sparked by a philosophy podcast from learnoutloud.com entitled "Discovering the Philosopher in You."  Well, the introductory podcast was very interesting, it's a series of lectures from a professor Colin McGinn about all the "big questions" in philosophy.  So, I've decided to write parallel blog entries for each of the lectures.  I downloaded the study guide as well, so I'm referencing that guide as well as the lectures. Without further ado, introduction and lecture one, Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

By way of introduction I'll mention that these lectures and parallel blog entries are not in chronological order.  That's intentional, as Prof McGinn says, because all of the questions in philosophy are ancient questions that can't be answered.  It's not like we're coming up with new issues for philosophers to ponder over all the time.  Though I would say that doesn't mean that new problems don't come up every so often, but I'd say that these new issues are just new twists of old problems. Some of these questions include, what the ultimate nature of the world is, what the self is, whether we have free will, how our minds relate to our bodies, whether we can really know anything, where ethical truth comes from, what the meaning of life is, and whether or not there is a God.  These are some of the topics that I'll be covering over the next fourteen (or so) entries.

One thing of note in the lecture is how Prof McGinn describes Plato's famous cave parable.  The way it reads in the Republic is pessimistic.  It's like someone has chained the poor people in the cave and are manipulating their perceptions by walking behind them with stick-borne puppets making shadows on the cave walls.  The way Prof McGinn describes it is much more optimistic, that they aren't chained and that the people casting the shadows are just passersby.  I don't know the reason for his oversight, perhaps it's not oversight and that's the way it's described in other platonic writings.  I don't really know, but I thought that minute mistake, if it was one, was interesting.

The skeptical questions of what do I really know, leads down a long path ending with solipsism, and the other minds problem.  If you don't want to read those links, I'll summarize those ideas, solipsism is the idea that nothing else exists other than your own mental state.  There's also a temporal version of solipsism where we cannot know for certain that there was anything in the past or that there will be anything in the future.  All we can know for sure (sort of) is that we are knowing something right now.  The other minds problem is related to solipsism though more specific.  It's the idea that one cannot know that anyone else's mind exists.  We see others' bodies and actions and assume that they are analogous to our own minds but we can't know for sure that they're not just cleverly devised automatons or robots.  The problems that the skeptics, like Descarte raise, are many and there aren't complete answers to all of their questions, and on the surface it may seem like madness that can neither be proven nor disproven.  Prof McGinn talks about an interesting problem that skepticism can bring with its questioning all knowledge.  I'll try to summarize his points.

Suppose you had $10,000 in the bank, then when you check your balance, you suddenly find, without reason or expenditure that you actually only have $.10.  How would that make you feel?  Consider knowledge in the same manner.  We think we know so much, we think we have an intellectual bank account with 10,000 pieces of knowledge and with just a few jabs from skeptics we find that we actually only know 1 thing.  As Descarte argued "I think therefore I am."  Doubting is thinking, which is an action that only something that exists can do, therefore I exist.  But, with solipsism and the skeptical issues that's all we can know for sure.  Prof McGinn seems to say that these skeptical issues are detrimental to a one's intellectual wellbeing.

My personal views on this problem are a bit contradictory.  I love to play around with skepticism, but it's just childish play to me.  Are you reading my blog?  How do you know you're reading my blog?  How do you know you're not dreaming?  (Maybe because in a dream the writing would be better, haha!?)  The Matrix brings a scifi twist to skepticism.  How do you know that you're not plugged into some supercomputer that's feeding you all you think you're sensing?  Can you trust your senses?  Are you sure you're seeing red as I'm seeing red, or are you just calling purple red because that's what you've always been told?  These are fun but silly to me.  On the deeper issue of skepticism intellectually bankrupting people, I don't really see how it changes things or people for that matter.  I mean think about it, what if right now, the only thing that you actually know and can know, is your current thoughts?  So what?  Are you going to behave differently?  I presume not.  Therefore, if not knowing anything that you thought you knew doesn't actually change your life why worry about it?  I certainly don't and I hope you don't either.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


WOW deep stuff!  There's a whole Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article (sixteen pages long in 12pt type!) about time.  Needless to say, my entry won't be anywhere near as comprehensive.  Which I'm sure you'll all agree that's a shame.  Ha!  Well, here goes.  As usual this discussion was inspired by the History of Philosophy podcast, this time it was an episode about Aristotle's view of time.  I've done a quick search on my blog alone and found that I've used the word "time[s]" approximately 126 times (before this entry of course, I've used the word six times in this entry alone!).  Of course not all those usages were the simple noun, time.

We use the word all the time, but what do we really know about time?  "I don't have enough time."  "I ran out of time."  "A stitch in time saves nine."  "Time flies."  Numerous other casual references to time pop up in conversation all the time.  What do they all mean?  Is time measurable movements as Aristotle seems to define it?  Is time an empty void to be filled as Plato seems to define it?  Both seem to be acceptable ideas/definitions of time.  And when it comes down to brass tacks does it really matter?  The argument is, sort of, moot.  It's a discussion piece but it ends up in the same regression to which epistemology eventually runs, there's the skeptical answer that no matter how you slice it, you can never know for certain that you're experiencing what you're actually experiencing and that it's not all a figment of your imagination/dream/Matrix/brain-in-a-vat.  It's very similar when it comes to time.

We can number or measure time, we call it a watch or clock.  We experience the passing of time, assuming that we can trust our senses, at least we can see change over time which is how we perceive as time changing.  Is that what time is?  Change?  Something more substantive?  Does time actually exist?  If there weren't any minds to perceive time, would it still exist, if it exists in the first place?  I certainly don't have any answers, in fact, I really only want to bring up the questions about this.  What do you all think?  Do you have the answers?  Sorry to be pessimistic, but philosophers have been arguing/considering these thoughts for years and no one really has all the answers, so I doubt you (though you altogether form a formidable intellectual force) will be able to answer these questions.

One parting thought, these questions of the existence of time bring up the concept of infinity that I've discussed before.  Aristotle, because his concept of time relates to movement requires that time be infinite.  Here's my synopsis of the argument.  If time is the measurements related to movement then it has to be infinite, because if there was something that moved the first movement of time, then there had to be time before time.  So, if time is something moving or at least related to movement then it must be infinite.  I'll sum up my view, as I've already mentioned.  Infinity in time is related to space in that physical universe cannot be infinite and therefore time cannot be infinite.  God, however, is outside space and time and is the infinite unmoved mover, and uncaused first cause of all causes.  That's just my view, no real answers just what I think.  Good luck with your search for your answers.

If the tsunami/waterlevel ever gets this high, pretty much the whole island is screwed.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Teleology and Chance

Sorry (again), for the long time between entries!  I've been so busy.  It sucks too because I've been trying to focus on reading a book I borrowed from a coworker and I haven't been prioritizing well and my Bible reading has been suffering.

Anyways, in the course of my listening to the History of Philosophy podcast, I've recently come across a couple recordings talking about Aristotle's ethics.  Well, two of the ideas Professor Adamson has mentioned about Aristotle that I've enjoyed learning about are the ideas of chance and teleology.  I'll cover chance first because it is the most interesting and in my mind the most controversial.

According to the podcast talks about Aristotle defining chance being only intelligible in the light a final cause or goal.  In general, I enjoy this professor's impartiality, however, in this particular podcast Professor Adamson makes it abundantly clear that he is completely convinced that Darwin's theory of Evolution is completely true and unquestionable.  Aristotle clearly believes in a teleological view of nature and that chance as something that is NOT the norm, incredibly exceptional.  Aristotle wouldn't have any concept of how nature, which is uniform (in many ways) and has predictable processes, could come about through random chance, since chance is NOT normal.  To this concept, Prof Adamson says that Darwin has since proven that random chance does lead to nature/life as we understand it.  I'm sorry Prof but I have to disagree with you, no one has yet to prove that random natural occurrences/changes can lead to the diversity/complexity of nature.  I'm not stupid, there appears to be some evidence, and I certainly don't have answers to all the evidence and some of my answers are based on faith, but it's certainly not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  What bothers me is that Prof Adamson takes Darwin's ideas one-hundred percent on faith as truth.

The other concept that I can get behind from the lectures on Aristotle I've already somewhat alluded to, teleology.  If you're not familiar the idea revolves around the concept of a sense of purpose.  The main argument for God that comes from this concept goes like this.  Do your eyes have a purpose?  Do your ears?  Do all you separate organs/body parts?  How can it be that each disparate part could have a purpose and come together as a random assortment.  Life does have purpose.  I feel that Aristotle and so many others have missed that purpose, or as the Bible says "[they have] changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen."  (Romans 1:25 KJV)  I'm not usually one for ceremony but I like the way the Westminster Shorter Catechism states this final end for which man was made by God, "What is the chief end of man?  Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.  If one lives with that in mind the teleology of Aristotle is clear, that God made mankind with the purpose of loving God forever.

I love this beautiful place

Friday, April 5, 2013

Faith and Philosophy Blog Carnival, Apr 2013, 3nd Edition

Jana presents The Way Of The Zen Master: What Causes Stress & Tension & How To Rectify It and How To Find A Direction In Life both posted at Wisdom Ink.

Jessica Clark presents 10 Famous Preachers Proudly Named Ken posted at Kenney Myers.

Tehra Burton presents sex will save us. posted at sex will save us.

Adrienne Morris presents Rich Like Rockefeller posted at Books at Middlemay Farm.

Sarah Bernstein presents Hedonists and Hula Hoops posted at YourZenFriend.

As more entries come in, I'll update this edition. Thank you to all those that have submitted their work so far.  The standard caveat applies, I don't necessarily agree with all the ideas presented but I hope you all enjoy reading the various perspectives regarding faith and or philosophy.