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A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

#Introphil Mooc – Second Week Impressions

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This week we got right into some of the epistemological problems that philosophers worry about. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that – eg Paris is the capital of France (Where have I heard that one before?).
For a belief about something to be knowledge the Justified True Belief (JTB) theory requires that:

  1. It has to actually be true.
  2. It has to be believed to be true.
  3. The belief has to be justifiable – good reasons needed in support of why it’s true.

So far so good and evidently all philosophers from Plato down were reasonably happy with this until one, Edmund Gettier, in 1963, rather short on publications, finally published a 3-page paper that completely upset the apple cart!

Here’s my homespun example of a Gettier case:
I lock my car manually before I go shopping but on returning, I operate my electronic key fob in the belief that my car will unlock. As expected the car then unlocks with the usual audible clunk and flash of indicator lights. But when I get home my wife apologises for removing the battery from the key fob (it was a new battery) and forgetting to tell me!

Now 1. and 2. above are satisfied and so is 3. I had good justification as the key fob had always been reliable and with a new battery, I’d every reason to believe it would do its job. What actually happened was that, by a fantastic fluke, someone else nearby with exactly the same key code had operated their own key fob at exactly the same time causing my car to unlock! (This is not impossible – the number of different codes is finite!) So JTB fails – the car unlocked as I believed it would be and my belief was well-justified but yet the car would have remained locked were it not for a lucky accident. My belief turns out to be false and therefore not knowledge.

With most epistemoligists accepting the breakdown of JTB it’s back to the drawing board. I can’t get my head around JTB theory too well but my feeling is that there’s something fundamentally suspect about the whole thing. It may be a useful exercise in manipulating the nuts and bolts of philosophic thought but it doesn’t seem to relate much to what Prof Pritchard stated, very sensibly, at the outset in his first lecture about it being “… crucial to us to understand both what knowledge is and to assure ourselves that we have as much knowledge as we think we do.” Fair enough, but in everyday life what counts as knowledge is rarely the strict stuff of JTB. It’s more like, “maybe true” or “somewhat false” or even a bit of both depending on folks’ perspectives. Now something like Information Theory may sharpen up the everyday concept of information very satisfactorily for telecommunications engineers who design efficient networks and so on but as far as I know there’s nothing similar for dealing with ‘knowledge’.

I think of knowledge as essentially a property of a brain that’s well-developed by evolution to somehow code and store a sophisticated model of the external world – and ever ready for action. Knowledge that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ brings all sorts of associations with it that I need to act on if I actually go to Paris. Good knowledge is what correlates well but never perfectly, with what’s actually out there – maybe I won’t get lost on the Paris Metro if I have it! Measuring knowledge and how it’s acquired is of course something else again – perhaps best left to the neurologists of the future or even educators.

Knowledge is power

Image by By Ludie Cochrane

Brain in a Vat? Controlled by Evil Demons? Why not!

Enough! I enjoyed this second week despite my reservations. I’m less dubious about the importance of Radical Skepticism and the ‘Brain in a Vat’ problem. You only need a little imagination of the SF type to realise that there’s an infinity of Matrix-like scenarios leading to the same conclusion that it’s impossible to know they’re unreal. It’s important and humbling for we bigheads to have serious doubts cast on whether we can really know anything. Life is based on assumptions – fine! – let’s make our assumptions wisely and then get on with it!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

February 11, 2013 at 8:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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