Fight Me! What do you know anyway?

Please don’t, I’d rather not be physically wounded.

But what is this property we casually drop as “knowing”? I ask that you bare with me as I attempt to quickly summarize popular thoughts of knowledge, if you know them (Plato, Gettier, Nozick) or don’t care (well you’re mean) I’ll die a little but skip ahead to the bold marker, you’ll know it when you see it.

Written by Plato, about Socrates, a dialogue dubbed “The Meno” contains the so-called standard account of knowledge. It’s claim is that knowledge is “justified true belief”, therefore when person S believes idea P, has good evidence to believe P, and by causal properties of the universe P is true, then we can say S knows P. If I believe the grass outside is wet because it’s raining above my house and the grass is in fact wet (I’m not on an LSD trip or my neighbor isn’t trying to mess with me somehow), then I can say “Hey, I know it’s raining outside” and appropriately reward myself for my impressive deduction.

However, in 1963, American Philosopher Edmund Gettier wrote an essay entitled, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” unsurprisingly critiquing Plato’s account of knowledge. The examples provide an incredibly short (so read them, they’re each basically a paragraph, gosh) but initially complex idea to wrap around, but Gettier basically says that Plato got it close, but this isn’t a hand grenade so nonetheless wrong. The problem ends up being that it seems one can hold an appropriately justified reason about a true belief, but still not be able to claim it as knowledge.

Then in 1981, a book entitled Philosophical Explanations (here’s a wikipedia link, just read the Epistemology section, also short) by Robert Nozick, he devises a 4 condition proof to respond to the Gettier problem and claim a revised account of knowledge. The first two conditions are straight from Plato, that “P is true” and “S believes P”. The last two are “If P were’t true, S wouldn’t believe P” and “If P were true, S would believe P”, and only by satisfying all 4 conditions can we say that we know something. The issue that Nozick attempts to resolve is the lack of tracking pointed out by the Gettier problem. There were facts that made P true and different facts to explain how S could believe P that lead to a lack of knowledge as seen by Smith and Jones in the Gettier problem. Nozick’s final two conditions help track these facts to appropriately assign cases of knowledge.

For instance, if I’m incredibly rude by being drunk at a circus sitting next to an older couple and their grandchildren and claim to see a neon pink dragon, can I claim that as knowledge? Let’s assume the first 2 conditions are satisfied and there was in fact a neon pink dragon and I believed it, then consider: If a neon pink dragon in the circus weren’t true, then I wouldn’t believe there was a neon pink dragon in the circus. If I were being deceived by the circus performers with a poorly made drawing that I believed due to my public intoxication and it wasn’t true but I believed it anyway, without the 3rd condition I would still “know” that there is a neon pink dragon in the circus. The facts that allow me to believe that a dragon is there are my drunkenness and the shitty drawing that I see. The fact that makes it true is if there actually is a dragon. However, because I’m drunk and believe the deception, I can say I know there is a dragon in the room when I obviously wouldn’t due to my mental state even if there was. It’s like believing in the dragon because I see a picture of one, and coincidentally there happens to be a dragon. Nobody would claim that I know there is a dragon if I believed the picture, but there just happens to be a dragon. Nozick added this condition to track the reasons we have for believing something and the knowledge that it leads to.

Similarly with the 4th condition: If I were being radically deceived by an evil demon were true, then I would believe I were being radically deceived by an evil demon. Do you think you could ever know for sure if you were in the matrix, a brain in a vat, or being systematically and radically deceived by Descartes’ evil demon? According to Nozick and his 4th condition of knowledge, no, but according to Plato’s, yes. Assuming the demon is competently deceiving you, there’s no reason you would see through it’s deception and point out to the sky screaming, “AHAAA! I found you out you crafty asshole, this is fucking candyland not Paris!’ Instead you would just continue on believing in the deception or living as a brain in a vat. According to Nozick, you can never know if your a brain in a vat, even if it were true. Interestingly though, it would be possible to know that you’re physically a human moving through reality as popularly conceived, it would just have to be independently true. If I were a real person were true, I would believe I were a real person. Makes sense.


Ahem… Anyway, so what do you think about those critiques and accounts of knowledge? Think about them and comment with an answer of your own, but I challenge you to actually think about it. That means no “kind of agree” answers or “don’t really like it”‘s or “good/bad”‘s, if I wanted that I’d just talk to some of my former high school philosophy class mates, you know who you are.

It seems to me that if I did buy the Gettier problem and Nozick’s response, then in many instances I still can’t know if something is true. The truth is necessary in Plato’s account as well as Nozick’s, and while I can confidently assume that I’m typing on a keyboard, can I know I am, and more importantly could there even be a way for me to? However despite that, I find it to be a very compelling account of knowledge and a successful response to the Gettier problem that pointed out a true flaw in Plato’s account. While epistemology can be boring and seem like it’s just nitpicking, it’s the very foundation that supports anything we think to know. Maybe a proper definition of knowledge won’t be achieved tomorrow, but that doesn’t make it unnecessary. It seems fundamentally necessary for greater progress. I’ll borrow the famous some famous words from Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Why does this matter at all? Well can we actually know someone committed a murder? In the cases that lack the convenient DNA matching super computer, video evidence of the incident, witnesses (maybe the murderer actually thought to murder when nobody was around?), etc., how do we know anyone did anything? If your trying to embark an a spiritual journey of your own to love yourself, how would you begin to know who you are? Let’s say you know you love cats, but that’s only true in the moments in which your whimsy loves cats, something could easily happen and cause you to not love cats, so do you really know that the entity that is you loves cats? Do you even know that it’s occasionally true? How do you know if you can beat your friend in beer pong or if you could smoke a J faster than your philosophy professor? Let’s assume there are beings in the universe that have evolved immensely further than we have, do you think even they would still struggle with the concept of knowing? Before we can decide what the right thing is to do instead of the wrong thing, shouldn’t we be able to properly identify how we could know either to begin with?

I mean you can very easily dismiss these ideas as philosophical hair splitting and claim to know that you know what you know because of XYZ and be off on your merry way and enjoy a cheeseburger or something, but just remember, people once zealously believed the earth was flat and imprisoned anyone who would contest otherwise. Before we claim scientific properties to be truths about the universe, doesn’t it seem fundamental to grasp a reason as to how we could know them? It’s worth thinking about to have a mature understanding of critical analysis, so think about it and respond!

Any questions feel free to comment or email (there’s a $5 surcharge  that goes to college fund/pizza money…. not really, but maybe eventually) and if you spot anything incorrect, comment/email and I’ll fix it and give credit, thanks for reading!


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