More on knowledge

by Neil Rickert

As I have made clear in earlier posts, I do not like the typical philosopher’s view, that knowledge = justified true belief.  I most recently discussed that in “What is knowledge?”  As you can see from the comments to that earlier post, philosophers (or at least one) disagree with me.  There was a guest post today, at Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, which helps illustrate my objection to the JTB characterization of knowledge.

The poster, Matthew Pocock, first describes an earlier part of his education, that he found effective:

Some of the teaching I had been lucky enough to benefit from in schools prior to the King’s School had been very good. I had been encouraged to think for myself, ask questions and investigate. Learning was in part a communal enterprise where students learned from and helped each other, as well as from teachers.

He was then moved (by his parents) to a religious school following the ACE curriculum.

The contrast could not have been more stark with PACE-based education. It was regimented, highly structured, entirely without any communal learning, rote-based. Questioning and independent investigation would invariably lead to failing the end of booklet tests, as it didn’t matter if you were right or wrong, only if you wrote down the same answers as the booklet had.

If knowledge is justified true belief, then that sort of education ought to be the most effective.  For then knowledge is a matter of having the right beliefs, and acquiring those beliefs from an approved text book ought to be justification enough.  However, that method of learning did not seem to work very well for Matthew.

The other PACE booklets were no better. The scienceones were a joke. They would better be called ‘natural history’ as they simply involved rote-learning of ‘facts’ about the natural world, many of which were wrong, and none of which were backed with any kind of evidence. The whole thrust of the booklets was to instil a reverence for received knowledge and the ability to regurgitate by rote, not understanding or questioning.

And there, in the last sentence, is the point I try to make.  It is that understanding that comes from questioning that constitutes knowledge.  Beliefs, by themselves, are insufficient.  And once we have the understanding, we won’t actually need to acquire the beliefs for they will seem to be self-evident on the basis of our understanding.

 

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9 Comments to “More on knowledge”

  1. Hey, thanks for linking back to my blog. I’m currently thinking my way through Simon Blackburn’s “Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed,” which ties in with some of the things you discuss. I don’t have time to engage fully with your argument now, but I’m posting here to remind me to come back and comment when I can read and digest your ideas.

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  2. As a person who has adopted JTB as the best available description for knowledge, I have no illusions of how ambiguous words ”justified”, ”true” and especially ”belief” are. IMO, ”justified true belief” can be understood only in philosophical contex. Even in philosophy the concept JTB isn’t univocal, let alone other areas. I see JTB this way:

    ”Belief” means subjective, phenomenal facts, seen with the seer’s eyes. It’s not absolute, not thing-in-itself, not seen with God’s eyes. Tomorrow one can see it differently (hopefully better).

    ”True” refers to the correspondence theory of truth. The belief is true if it corresponds to the factual state of affairs. I form a true belief that ”snow is white” if I can empirically observe that snow is white.

    ”Justified” refers to the coherence theory of truth. If a new fact can be unified to the former body of knowledge coherently, the fact becomes justified. Methods of justification may vary and the body of knowledge may change, but when the new coherent body of knowledge is formed, everything that can be done, has been done.

    Consequently I see correspondence and coherence as dimensions of knowledge.

    In a response in ”The blind man and the cave” you said:

    ”I see knowledge as the ability to have facts and to relate those facts to reality. I don’t see knowledge as the facts themselves. The blind man, in building that scaffolding, was gaining the abilities that I count as knowledge.”

    I think that in the quote above you define the same dimensions of knowledge: ”to have facts” and ”relate those facts to reality”. But I admit that your concept ”knowledge” is different from ”JTB”. It seems to me that your knowledge would be kind of superstructure of JTB. Hmm. ”Awareness” comes to my mind.

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    • ”True” refers to the correspondence theory of truth. The belief is true if it corresponds to the factual state of affairs.

      But what is a “factual state of affairs”? And are there such things?

      How does that correspondence thingie work?

      ”Justified” refers to the coherence theory of truth.

      Can you make up your mind on whether to use correspondence or coherence?

      If a new fact can be unified to the former body of knowledge coherently, the fact becomes justified.

      I am not making sense of that. I had thought that it was beliefs that were expected to be justified. Facts are supposed to be just facts.

      But I admit that your concept ”knowledge” is different from ”JTB”. It seems to me that your knowledge would be kind of superstructure of JTB.

      Not really a superstructure. Rather, I see knowledge and beliefs as complementary to one another.

      I am about to cross a busy road. So I look around at the traffic, in order to find a safe time to cross. It seems reasonable to say that I form beliefs about the traffic. But, once I have crossed the road, I will quickly forget those “beliefs”. They were, at best, ephemeral beliefs. How can those beliefs be part of my knowledge, when I have so quickly dispensed with them. However, in order to form those beliefs, I needed an ability to make reasonably accurate assessments of the traffic and of the risk from that traffic. It seems to me that my knowledge is in that ability to make assessments, rather than in the rather ephemeral beliefs that express particular instances of such assessment.

      That gets me back to the basis for this post, the kind of indoctrination involved in that ACE program. It seems to me that indoctrination involves acquiring beliefs, while real knowledge is an ability at assessing and judging the situation that will allow one to independently form one’s own beliefs.

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  3. OK, I’ve followed your argument back. I would say two things:
    1) In the case of Accelerated Christian Education, JTB is not provided because the information is taught based on authority, without justification. And it is frequently untrue.

    2) The reason teaching questioning is important is to give pupils the skillset to continue acquiring and validating knowledge after they leave school.

    This does not rule out JTB as a valid definition of knowledge. Questioning can be seen as providing the justification.

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    • Thanks, Jonny.

      When we ask questions, that is part of a method that we follow to find things out.

      That leaves us with content (actual beliefs), and method (how we acquire those beliefs).

      The trouble with ACE, and similar programs, is that it emphasizes content rather than method. I’m pretty sure you agree with that.

      My objection to “JTB”, is that I think the word “knowledge” should be applied to method rather than to content. And education should be emphasizing method over content. If a student acquires good methods for forming content, then he/she will come up with sound beliefs. If he has no method, then his only way of acquiring beliefs is to rely on authority.

      In any case, I am not picking an argument with you. I like what you are doing with your site. My disagreement is with philosophers. They are very bright people, but I think they look at things too narrowly. I would like to see them spend more time analyzing method and spend less time on content.

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      • I think our disagreement is purely semantic. We definitely agree for all practical purposes (and I was never in doubt about that).

        I would argue that “method” provides the justification, thus leaving your definition compatible with JTB.

        Anyway, I agree with everything you’ve said, so perhaps I misunderstand the claims of JTB.

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  4. “It is that understanding that comes from questioning that constitutes knowledge. Beliefs, by themselves, are insufficient. And once we have the understanding, we won’t actually need to acquire the beliefs for they will seem to be self-evident on the basis of our understanding.”

    I see this understanding as being the same as the “justification” needed in JTB. As I wrote in my post “Knowledge and the brain in a vat scenario”, I prefer to define knowledge as “Justified Non-coincidentally True Belief” (JNTB). It is certainly not the kind of knowledge that we can prove. As I mentioned in the same post, I don’t think it’s possible to prove knowledge except through the use and understanding of definitions. For all other knowledge that is unprovable, I think that the JNTB approach is the best we’ve got. It still doesn’t handle the issue of what is considered adequate justification, but perhaps that means that any justification at all is all that is required as long as the belief is non-coincidentally true.

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    • Thanks.

      I’m a little unclear as to how understanding could be the same as justification. John Searle, in his “Chinese Room” argument, uses understanding as about the same as intentionality, and that seems more reasonable to me.

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  5. Justified True Belief (JBT), seems like a word game to me. A way for theists to posit belief as equivalent to knowledge. I think Karl Popper’s essay on “Conjecture and Refutations” states very concisely that knowledge is a repetitve process of conjecture and refutations that effectively eliminates the reduction to a “belief” system that JBT assumes is necessary.

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