Knowledge and belief

by Neil Rickert

In a comment on John Wilkins’ blog, I expressed disagreement with John’s assertion “knowledge is a species of belief.”  The purpose of this post is to continue that discussion, and to attempt to further explain why I disagree with most philosophers on this topic.

I’ll start by trying to be clear that this is not a personal disagreement with John.  As best I can tell, most philosophers get this wrong.  Thomas Kuhn got it wrong, in spite of his training in physics.  In an earlier post, Why do philosophy of science John attempted to make the case for philosophy of science.  I chose not to comment, though I had considered posting “The trouble with philosophy of science is that it is done so badly.”  I am not sure why, but philosophers seem to be unable to understand what science is, and how it works.

Getting back to the comment I posted to John’s recent post, I there mentioned three statements that I held when in high school:

  1. Newton’s f=ma (it should really be f=d(mv)/dt, but let’s avoid techicalities).
  2. Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Mt. Everest is around 29,000 ft in height.

Comparing those statements, I find that there is a kind of tension involved in the second and third of those.  That tension is because they could be wrong.  I see that tension as involving a kind of psychological commitment, which I see as at the heart of belief.

For the first (the Newtonian statement) there was no tension, and it seems to me that there was no psychological commitment.  The statement just seemed obvious, so it required no commitment and generated no tension.  The obvious explanation is that the Newtonian statement is analytic.  That is to say, it is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms.  Most contemporary philosophers resist that view, much as they resist the idea that data is theory laden.

A typical view of analytic statements is that they have no content (or no descriptive content, or no informative content).  That’s doubtless true, and that is why f=ma requires no commitment and generates no tension.  But it does not follow that there is no knowledge.  If f=ma is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms, then the associated knowledge is to be found in those meanings, rather than in the statement itself.  My high school physics teacher did a superb job of conveying the meanings needed to understand Newtonian physics, and it was because of that knowledge of meanings that f=ma was itself trivially obvious.

In the traditional philosophical account we can say that statements, such as the three listed above, are abstract propositions.  Those propositions are then said to be connected to reality via something called “intentionality.”  In his Chinese Room arguments, John Searle has said that intentionality is due to the causal properties of the brain.  As a rough approximation, I say that science is chiefly concerned with intentionality rather than with propositions.  Science is engaged in generating the causal connections that are needed for intentionality.

In my comment to John’s blog, I suggested a duality between belief and knowledge.  I see knowledge as the causal connections to reality that make it possible to have beliefs about reality.  And that’s the basis for the duality.

I’ll finish with a shift of gears.

I want to cross a busy road.  I look around at the traffic.  It can reasonably be said that I form beliefs (or at least that I form representations) about that traffic, and I use those beliefs or representations to decide whether it is safe to cross the road.

Once I have crossed the road, I can discard those beliefs or representations.  They are of no further use to me.  When I next cross that road, the traffic will have changed and the older representations won’t be applicable.  So there is no point at all in putting those representations in my belief box (I think Fodor likes to talk of a belief box).  I refer to those as ephemeral beliefs.  I hold them for only a short period of time, then discard them when I am done.  In order to do that, I must have an underlying set of capabilities to form these ephemeral beliefs or “just in time” beliefs.  I want to use “knowledge” to refer to that underlying set of capabilities, rather than to the beliefs themselves.  If I have a 6 year old child, I will be holding his hand while crossing that busy road.  I don’t expect that child to have yet developed the capabilities needed to form the beliefs used for safe crossing of that road.

In his 1983 book “Intentionality”, at around page 150, John Searle discusses learning to ski.  He suggests that we might start with some beliefs.  But as we learn, we become more skillful.  And the beliefs become irrelevant to us.  Searle sees us as developing causal connections, such that we no longer need the representations (or beliefs).  Searle’s account seems about right to me.  I am using “knowledge” to refer to those causal connections that we develop, rather than to the beliefs that became irrelevant.

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