My thoughts on philosophy, language learning, photography, theology, and life in general. All are welcome! I hope my random ramblings can somehow improve your life. I'm really only writing for my own benefit, as a journal of sorts. Hope you enjoy.
Continuing the series on Discovering the Philosopher in You with Prof McGinn, lecture five is on Knowledge and Experience: Where Does Knowledge Come From? Here Prof McGinn says that we're going to move on from the basic building-blocks of philosophy and getting to the more meat-and-potatoes questions of philosophy. So here we are and where does what we know come from? This is a question from epistemology (the theory of knowledge). In the lecture Prof McGinn talks about two specific sides of this argument, the empiricists and the rationalists.
Before we cover those two sides of this issue, let's first talk about what we mean by knowledge. It's not what you and I know. It's more like how people attain knowledge in general. One of the ideas set forth in different theories of knowledge is that we can and do know certain things without experiencing them. Keep in mind this is not that you learned something without experiencing it. Take math, you say you learned it from your teacher, which is a type of experience, but that's not what we are talking about because that teacher learned it from some other teacher. What we're trying to get at, is where the first person learned math. That's one way of looking at it; another is the idea that to know that 1+2=3 doesn't take experience. Think about it. How do you experience the numbers 1, 2, or 3. The concepts of plus or equals? It's not like you can experience these things like this cup of water I'm drinking.
The empiricists, notably all British, claim that knowledge can only be attained experientially. One of the first things Prof McGinn mentions about the empiricists is one of the main things that makes me doubt their views and neutrality on philosophical questions. He talks about one of the primary motives behind the empiricists was a desire to depart from religion. If one starts out with a specific motive it's hard to stay impartial. I know I'm not, but at least I'm honest about it, and I try to maintain impartiality in most things. So, in order to get away from the ideas of revelation that religion relies on, which it does at least in some ways it relies on the idea that God reveals knowledge to His followers that is outside the realm of experience for those not involved in the revelation. So to empiricists all knowledge comes from someone's experience.
The rationalists held an opposing view that at least some knowledge doesn't come from experience. They don't deny experiential knowledge, that would seem counterintuitive. However, they held that some knowledge is not derived from experience. It's commonly referred to as "a priori" knowledge. As opposed to "a posteriori" knowledge, which is experiential knowledge. So, as opposed to the empiricists' claim that all knowledge comes from someone's experience, the rationalists claim that at least some knowledge is innate and cannot come from experience. This other source of knowledge is often called "pure reason" hence Kant's writing The Critique of Pure Reason and a Critique of Practical Reason.
For this discussion I've always liked the example of the dark side of the moon. Now I know astronauts have landed on and encircled the moon and they have experienced that in a way, but before they did. Did we know experientially that there was a dark side of the moon? No. No one had ever experienced it or seen it or photographed it. So at that time we knew from logical conclusions that if an object has one side it must also have another side, and even though we may have never seen it, we know it's there.
Others argue that language is an a priori knowledge. Most notably the famous linguist Noam Chomsky who argued that some form of grammar and linguistic ability is innate/a priori. I tend to agree with this concept of a priori, except that it doesn't seem like it'd be knowledge as we typically think of knowledge. More like skills or abilities, or even ways of thinking and pattern recognition, not necessarily knowledge.
One last comment... The discussion of a priori (about which I had some interesting comments from a Google+ discussion) is NOT exactly like the debate of nature vs. nurture. Also, genetically hardwired instincts technically don't fit with a priori knowledge either (sort of). Whatever your view these are all very interesting questions about knowledge and while the debate isn't as heated as in the days of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume (British empiricists) with René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant (not all rationalists but mostly), it is still an interesting discussion in epistemology.
I love sushi! And getting good sushi is easy here in Japan
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.