The nature of knowedge — a personal perspective

by Neil Rickert

In my previous post, I wrote

When I read John’s statement (either version), as quoted above, I see John mentioning the nature of knowledge as an important topic.  I’ve read a lot of epistmology (the subfield of philosophy that deals with knowledge).  In all honesty,  I have not learned anything at all about the nature of knowledge from that reading.

Here, I want to talk informally about what I take to be the nature of knowledge.

To me, knowledge is closely connected with learning.  I see knowledge is the result of learning.  I guess that makes me an empiricist, at least in the broad sense of the term.

At around 10 years of age, while walking home from elementary school, I wondered about knowledge.  In particular, I wondered if knowledge could be just those natural language statements such as we learn in school.  But, as I pondered that, it seemed impossible.  It seemed to me that there was nothing in those sentences that said how our language sentences connect with the world.

We can look at this in terms of computers.  I can enter many true statements into a file on my computer.  But my sense is that the computer still does not know anything, because it does not have a way of connecting those sentences to things and events in the world.

Epistemology

Within epistemology, the area in philosophy that discusses knowledge, it is common to define knowledge as justified true belief.

When knowledge is defined in this manner, a belief is something like a natural language sentence about the world.  Some sort of connectedness to the world is thus presumed in the use of the word “belief”.  But, apart from being a standard assumption, it does not seem to play a great role.  The literature on epistemology emphasizes the logical structure of that system of believed sentences, and the question of when one believed sentence can serve to partially justify belief in another.  But the question of connectedness to the world is not given as much attention.  This is why I do not find epistemology at all satisfying as an account of or as an investigation into the nature of knowledge.

That connectedness of a sentence to the world is roughly what philosophers call “intentionality.”  Generally, when philosophers discuss knowledge as belief, they are careful to point out that they are assuming intentionality.  And there is a literature on intentionality.  However, most of the philosophical study of intentionality is separate from the study of knowledge.  And I have not been satisfied by what I have read from that literature on intentionality.

Logic and geometry

Thinking about downtown Chicago, I can say that:

  • Dearborn Street intersects Van Buren Street.
  • Madison Street intersects State Street

I could make many more such assertions.  Statements such as those are presumably examples of what would count as justified true beliefs, and so would count as knowledge as typically defined.  However, no amount of logic, applied to such statements, will tell me how to get around in Chicago.  My ability to get around is far more geometric.  It is not sufficient to have a bunch of discrete facts, not even a huge bunch of discrete facts.  In order to get around, I need to negotiate my way through a continuum of space, and those discrete facts are far too few to be sufficient.

I am suggesting, in effect, that there is something geometric about our knowledge.  I’m suggesting that the use of logic, which seems to be a core method of philosophers, is not sufficient.

This issue also arises with induction.  It is common for philosophers to suggest that induction is a source of new knowledge.  Induction often depends on similarities.  But it seems to me that similarity is more a geometric notion than a logical notion.  Logic gives us identity, but it does not give us similarity, unless that is introduced in axioms.  So, once again, I see a need to go beyond the logic toolbox, if the nature of knowledge is to be properly studied.

Scientific approaches

There have been attempts to study knowledge or learning within science.  Perhaps the best known is from behaviorist psychology, where learning is often studied as conditioning.  To me, that runs into the same problems that I see with epistemology.  That is to say, it attempts to account for knowledge as a bunch of discrete units.  So it does not allow for the geometric aspect that I see as important.

Jean Piaget did some extensive study of learning by children, as his way of investigating knowledge.  It is an interesting approach.  In my estimation, it is more amenable to recognizing a geometric aspect.  His work seems to rarely get more than a footnote in the philosophical literature.

J.J. Gibson, with his work on direct perception, and Eleanor Gibson, with her work on perceptual learning, also warrant mention.  The Gibson’s work also seems to allow a geometric aspect to knowledge and learning.  And the Gibsons are given more recognition within epistemology, than is offered to Piaget.

Summary

As I see it, the nature of knowledge is more closely related to intentionality than to the logical structure of discrete beliefs.  Some of the work of scientists such as Piaget and the Gibsons seems to be in the right direction.  I find the work done by academic philosophers to be unsatisfying with respect to my own interests.

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2 Comments to “The nature of knowedge — a personal perspective”

  1. Reblogged this on Liamuber's Blog and commented:
    To know what knowledge is, that is the question. If it was a problem of logic, the mathematicians would have defined it by now. Godel has already indicated that such would not be possible. There are true statements that cannot be proven.

    Like

  2. Neil,

    “It seemed to me that there was nothing in those sentences that said how our language sentences connect with the world.”

    I agree here. It is the patterns recognized through experience that become correlated with the structure and composition of sentences, such that said patterns can be communicated and help us to accomplish our goals.

    “We can look at this in terms of computers. I can enter many true statements into a file on my computer. But my sense is that the computer still does not know anything, because it does not have a way of connecting those sentences to things and events in the world.”

    At the very least, most computers that we can think of wouldn’t “know” anything, but it’s hard to say if computers beyond a certain level of complexity don’t or can’t. We simply don’t know. If we find a computer that is analogous to a human brain (i.e. interconnected representations of “body” state, some minimum level of hierarchical organization, pattern recognition modules for incoming data including recognizing patterns of (at least certain types of) processing within itself, etc.), it may be the case that such a computer knows something in the same sense that we do.

    “Within epistemology, the area in philosophy that discusses knowledge, it is common to define knowledge as justified true belief. When knowledge is defined in this manner, a belief is something like a natural language sentence about the world. ”

    As I mentioned in my previous post, I would define it to be “justified non-coincidentally true belief” (at least to handle the Gettier problem). I would add however that I don’t equate a “belief” with a natural language sentence about the world” per se, at least not without stipulating any presumed differences between a sentence and “the meaning of a sentence”, that is, the semantic content of the sentence based on some pool of fundamental concepts to work with.

    “But the question of connectedness to the world is not given as much attention.”

    True, but I would argue that the justification of said belief within the platonic definition of knowledge is where this issue is addressed (even if deemed inadequate). I would describe the justification of beliefs to be the hierarchical patterns recognized through experience that connect a belief or natural language statement to the world. If nobody had this justification (i.e. hierarchical patterns observed/learned), I would argue that they don’t have knowledge of anything, at least no pragmatic knowledge.

    “Thinking about downtown Chicago, I can say that…I could make many more such assertions. Statements such as those are presumably examples of what would count as justified true beliefs, and so would count as knowledge as typically defined. However, no amount of logic, applied to such statements, will tell me how to get around in Chicago. My ability to get around is far more geometric. It is not sufficient to have a bunch of discrete facts, not even a huge bunch of discrete facts. In order to get around, I need to negotiate my way through a continuum of space, and those discrete facts are far too few to be sufficient.”

    I don’t see those statements, taken alone, as intended to tell you how to get around in Chicago (even with logic applied). However, those statements along with many more (and some implicit) statements including those which describe how to move the body from point A to point B, how to read signs and landmarks, etc., seem to me to be a means of getting around in Chicago.

    “I am suggesting, in effect, that there is something geometric about our knowledge. I’m suggesting that the use of logic, which seems to be a core method of philosophers, is not sufficient.”

    I at least agree that logic alone is not sufficient to account for knowledge (or its implementation). Logic generally provides us with accurate conclusions to “if, then” statements/relationships which certainly is integral for organizing our current beliefs and also for seeing if new potential beliefs are compatible with our current “lexicon” if you will. Certainly the lexicon of beliefs as well as the fundamental hierarchical concepts themselves which compose said beliefs are more important than logic alone.

    “This issue also arises with induction. It is common for philosophers to suggest that induction is a source of new knowledge.”

    I would say that induction is the common empirical/experiential method for gaining justification for the creation and maintenance of our knowledge beliefs, as it is based on finding patterns in nature.
    “As I see it, the nature of knowledge is more closely related to intentionality than to the logical structure of discrete beliefs.”

    I would say that knowledge is based on the hierarchical patterns we observe in nature which we tend to organize into logical structures of discrete beliefs for the purposes of evaluation, communication, etc. The fact that our knowledge beliefs can be represented in a logical fashion, to me, points out the hierarchical (largely logical) structure of nature. Regarding intentionality, yes there seems to be an agent behind all knowledge beliefs, but the agent (i.e. our brain) seems to reason and knows things at least mostly based on hierarchical pattern recognition modules in the neocortex (as well as the use of memory), and so it seems that “intentionality” is very closely interwoven with the logical structure of our beliefs, and also the logical (or more specifically the hierarchical and logical) structure of reality.

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