What is knowledge?

In the discussion on the last post on measurement, the definition of knowledge came up a few times.  That’s dredged up long standing thoughts I have about knowledge, which I’ve discussed with some of you before, but that I don’t think I’ve ever actually put in a post.

The ancient classic definition of knowledge is justified true belief.  This definition is simple and feels intuitively right, but it’s not without issues.  I think the effectiveness of a definition is in how well it enables us to distinguish between things that meet it or violate it.  In the case of “justified true belief”, its effectiveness hinges on how we define “justified”, “true”, and “belief”.

How do we justify a particular proposition?  Of course, this is a vast subject, with the entire field of epistemology dedicated to arguing about it.  But it seems like the consensus arrived at in the last 500 years, at least in scientific circles, is that both empiricism and rationalism are necessary, but that neither by themselves are sufficient.  Naive interpretations of observations can lead to erroneous conclusions.  And rationalizing from your armchair is impotent if you’re not informed on the latest observations.  So justification seems to require both observation and reason, measurement and logic.

The meaning of truth depends on which theory of truth you favor.  The one most people jump to is correspondence theory, that what is true is what corresponds with reality.  The problem with this outlook is that only works from an omniscient viewpoint, which we never have.  In the case of defining knowledge, it sets up a loop: we know whether a belief is knowledge by knowing whether the belief is true or false, which we know by knowing whether the belief about that belief is true or false, which we know by…  Hopefully you get the picture.

We could dispense with the truth requirement, simply define knowledge as justified belief, but that doesn’t seem right.  Prior to Copernicus, most natural philosophers were justified in saying they knew that the sun and planets orbit the earth.  Today we say that that belief was not knowledge.  Why?  Because it wasn’t true.  How do we know that?  Well, we have better information.  You could say that our current beliefs about the solar system are more justified than the beliefs of 15th century natural philosophers.

So maybe we could replace “justified true belief” with “currently justified belief” or perhaps “belief that is justified and not subsequently overturned with greater justification.”  Admittedly, these aren’t nearly as catchy as the original.  And they seem to imply that knowledge is a relative thing, which some people don’t like.

The last word, “belief”, is used in a few different ways in everyday language.  We often say “we believe” something when we really mean we hope it is true, or we assume it’s true.  We also often say we “believe in” something or someone when what we really mean is we have confidence in it or them.  In some ways, this usage is an admission that the proposition we’re discussing isn’t very justified, but we want to sell it anyway.

But in the case of “justified true belief”, I think we’re talking about a version that says our mental model of the proposition is that it is true.  In this version, if we believe it, if we really believe it, then don’t we think it’s knowledge, even if it isn’t?

Personally, I think the best way to look at this is as a spectrum.  All knowledge is belief, but not all belief is knowledge, and it isn’t a binary thing.  A belief can have varying levels of justification.  The more justified it is, the more it’s appropriate to call it knowledge.  But at any time, new observations might contradict it, and it would then retroactively cease to have ever been knowledge.

Someone could quibble here, making a distinction between ontology and epistemology, between what is reality, and what we can know about reality.  Ontologically, it could be argued that a particular belief is or isn’t knowledge regardless of whether we know it’s knowledge.  But we can only ever have theories about ontology, theories that are always subject to being overturned.  And a rigid adherence to a definition that requires omniscience to ever know whether a belief fits the bill, effectively makes it impossible for us to know whether that belief is knowledge.

Seeing the distinction between speculative belief and knowledge as a spectrum pragmatically steps around this issue.  But again, this means accepting that what we label as knowledge is, pragmatically, something relative to our current level of information.  In essence, it makes knowledge belief that we currently have good reason to feel confident about.

What do you think?  Is there a way to avoid the relative outlook?  Is there an objective threshold where we can authoritatively say a particular belief is knowledge?  Is there an alternative definition of knowledge that avoids these issues?

67 thoughts on “What is knowledge?

  1. I think we can “know” things that are neither true nor justified. I remember being a brand new teacher finding out that something I had been teaching was untrue. My first thought was how was I going to contact all of the students I taught incorrectly .

    So, my “knowing” that thing was knowledge, I thought it was true and was justified and it turned out not to be so. So, was it not knowledge all along? I think not. (Sorry, I am a recovering punner.) To “know” something, we just need to paint it as “knowledge.” It is a classification of things bouncing around in our heads … that we assign, just like beliefs, etc. This is how “true believers” believe things that are patently false. They have a mental paintbrush that covers truth, knowledge, etc. and they sue it.

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    1. There is a usage of “know” that covers what you’re talking about, referring to a confident belief regardless of whether that belief turns out to be true or false. I remember reading a soldier’s memoir of WWII where, at some point, he wrote something to the effect, “I just knew I was never getting out of there alive.”

      But I think most of us would recognize that usage without actually thinking the solider “knew” he was going to die in the war, since he obviously didn’t, having lived to write about it.


      1. Maybe your question would have more meaning stated another way;
        It seems that reality determines the constraints that define the world we live in. We are constrained by what is possible and what is not possible. Living creatures push against or work with the constraints of reality to achieve their goals.
        The imagination and dream state have few or no constraints and so often people confuse themselves and the difference.
        Testing reality is only knowable once the outcome for it have been realized. I’d I jump off a ten story building my friend might say he knows I will be killed, but when I survive the fall his knowledge was wrong.
        The only knowledge we have is history.
        The problem with history is that often enough not everyone describes an event in the same way. Five observers and five different versions of the event afterwards, and possibly before.
        In general the knowledge based predictions have to be addressed with skepticism. The test of knowledge should be impossible to deny, alive or dead…and yet this often is contested.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Good point. All experience is subjective. We can only have theories, models, about objective reality. (Leading some people to doubt whether there is an objective reality.) The knowledge test of those theories, those models, those beliefs, is their ability to reliably make accurate predictions. But observing the results of testing those predictions is subjective experience.

          In the end, we can only fall back on techniques such as comparing our subjective experiences to derive the best models of objective reality, the best knowledge, that we can.

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          1. Have you looked at the quantum double slit experiments.
            Tom Campbell has done a lot of work regarding their philosophical implications!


        2. There are numerous interpretations of quantum mechanics that are compatible with the evidence. None currently have unique evidence for their view. All require dispensing with some fundamental aspect of how we understand reality. Campbell dispenses with objective reality, but others dispense with determinism, locality, or unique history.

          I’ve favored one or the other over the years. I’ve found that people are often passionate about their preferred interpretation, often putting it forward as the most obviously correct one and being dismissive toward the others. But until there is evidence for any one interpretation, I’ve settled into agnosticism.

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          1. It is however an argument for subjectivism. I’m not sure either way myself. I do believe in an indisputable history that can be known, and constrictions imposed by reality.
            But, a current cosmological theory suggest that reality is a simulation that behaves similar to a computer simulation.
            At first I thought it was rediculous, but all the quantum, zero point and holographic theories to my surprise do support this possibility.
            If this were the case you and I would be the the equivalent of two characters within the simulation with freedom within the context of the constrictions of reality(the program).


  2. I think most people are basically pragmatists which find the correspondence theory of truth useful. That’s why one trusts science despite the logical problems of induction a la Hume.

    My own view is basically pragmatist where I consider sensory data as part of the conversation (so consensus in spite of the evidence is not true consensus). Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks!

      There actually are pragmatic theories of truth attributed to William James and others. But they’re not correspondence theories. Pragmatic theories tend to focus on whether the beliefs are useful or effective.

      I think the pragmatists are on the right track, but my own sentiment is to focus on which beliefs are reliable, in the sense that they’re predictive. For example, belief in natural rights might be useful and effective when arguing in the courts, but I don’t think such beliefs would be very reliable or predictive if you found yourself lost in a jungle.

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  3. Physical reality is not knowable!
    We can name a thing like a tree, measure it, picture it, describe it and yet none of these things are the tree. And you are not your name.
    However, philosophy has produced systems like mathematics and formal logic and measurement. None of these are physical reality, but they are true and knowable because they are algorithms.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What you seem to be saying is that we can only know the abstractions we create for physical things. But aren’t the abstractions constrained by what we observe? If so, assuming our observations are constrained by the physics, don’t the abstractions give us some insight into those physics? Or are you talking in terms of absolute knowledge? (If so, I completely agree.)

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  4. I don’t believe in absolute knowledge, it’s a fiction.
    What I am saying is that the greatest coherence we can achieve are the very algorithms that we are claiming. An algorithm is a logical construct that cannot be wrong within the algorithm and its rules.
    It also happens that limited cross sections of reality can be expressed by algorithms. This does not mean reality is an algorythym.

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  5. I think you are mistaken that “knowledge is justified true belief” is the ancient classical definition of knowledge. In fact it is a modern spin on the ancient definition, created by philosophers in the last half century and called the “Gettier problem.” It is a straw man problem meant to be swatted down by straw man solutions.

    Part of the very meaning of knowledge is that it is true, so it is quite sufficient to say, as you do, that knowledge is justified belief. Plato would have been happy with that I am sure. His theory of Forms simply provides an ontology for that epistemology—as presented in his allegory of the cave, for example. That ontology plays out in the history of philosophy as Idealism , dualism, and the theories of truth you discuss.

    Thinking more about our exchange on your earlier post on measurement, it occurred to me that even if MRIs could be refined to the point where the pain of a stomachache could be identified in the central neural system and hence measured, all that would be measured would be chemical, metabolic, and electrical correlates of the pain, not the pain itself. So what would happen if the MRI measurement doesn’t correlate with the sufferer’s report? Would we conclude he is lying? Or is it impossible that it couldn’t correlate?

    Or take this case: suppose the three neural correlates to the two premises and conclusion of a syllogism were recorded by an MRI. Could we conclude the syllogism was valid? Or would we compare the MRIs of those who got the syllogism right and those who got it wrong, and start using MRIs as teaching aides for classes in Logic 101?

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    1. I have to admit that I haven’t read ancient philosophers at length. (I did read Plato in college, but that was decades ago.) My understanding of that definition being ancient came from reading introductory books on philosophy. So if “justified true belief” is not an accurate assessment of ancient views, then I stand corrected. Thanks!

      On brain scanning and pain, that’s an interesting question. Pain is more than just the signal coming in from the peripheral nervous system. It requires an evaluation in the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex from what I’ve read), an evaluation which involves a person’s innate and learned dispositions. We’d have to be able to effectively read their mind. And the problem is, even if their evaluation is skewed, that evaluation happens below the level of consciousness, so it’s not like we could call them a liar, unless we could see the evaluation and then see that they consciously weren’t being honest about it. In any case, we’re a long way (centuries probably) from ever being able to do anything like that.

      I’m not sure a brain scan would ever be particularly useful in helping students learn a high order concept like a syllogism. The mental underpinnings one person uses to understand it seems like it would be hopelessly specific to their own mental history. The examples meaningful to one person might be meaningless to someone else, and even if they weren’t, their understanding of that example itself, the hierarchy of mental associations it’s built on, might be irreconcilable with someone else’s.

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  6. The distinction between ontology and epistemology is a keeper. That’s why I’m not worried about the regress where we know whether a belief is knowledge by knowing whether the belief is true or false… etc. Sure, there’s a regress there, but that’s OK because it’s one thing to know X, and quite another to know that you know X. And still further from knowing how you know X. If we knew how we knew things, artificial intelligence would be a piece of cake, instead of the stab in the dark that it is. Note that when you don’t know how you came to a belief, it’s pretty hard to tell whether that belief is justified.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points. Of course, many of our beliefs formed unconsciously are wrong, but often they’re good enough to get us through the day with knowledge whose sources we may have never been conscious of.


    1. Hey Tom,
      Good hearing from you!

      I think maybe you’re conflating two things:
      1) knowing the concept of a unicorn
      2) believing that there are unicorns in the world

      I can justify 1) by researching and citing various accounts, but that justification would have no bearing on 2).

      Unless I’m missing something?


      1. There is no such thing as a frictionless plane, but unlike the unicorn this concept reduces the confounding variables enough to apply a mathematic theory successfully in predicting the flux and process of reality


  7. This is such an important question for our post-truth society. I’ve been seriously considering writing an op-ed for this, but just haven’t managed the time yet. The typical responses to the Gettier problem have been to try to better define J in the JTB theory of knowledge, but the real fault lies in the T. As I said in my post on this:

    In ancient times, humans believed the universe (or at least their gods and their heavens) were eternal, fixed, and immutable. This is the type of environment that is required for TRUTH to exist. Pragmatically, over timespans of human existence, such an environment can seem like it exists, but over evolutionary time, we now see that our universe is temporal (not eternal), expanding (not fixed), and changing (not immutable). In this type of environment, we can never be certain that any TRUTH will survive. Knowledge, therefore, cannot be justified true belief, because there is no such thing as TRUTH. When looking at the JTB account of knowledge, It is the T that must be revised because our cosmological revolution needs to sink in to our epistemological understanding.

    Before we get to T’s replacement, let’s look quickly at J and B. The question of Belief is a straightforward one that any honest person can answer about themselves either to themselves or to another. (Of course, changing beliefs is another matter entirely…) As for Justification, the best method we have found so far is the scientific method, which consists of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, in conjunction with the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. Under modern interpretations, a scientific hypothesis must also be falsifiable, otherwise the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully tested.

    So what then is the best way to define knowledge? It can’t be a perfectly complete and TRUE thing. It must be an ongoing process that is forever subject to change. As long as there is no reason for knowledge to change, it can persist, it can survive. Like anything, knowledge is therefore subject to evolutionary forces. It varies. It is selected for its fit. And if the facts of the environment change, then it either adapts or goes extinct. No “truth” is ever permanently immutable. Not even that one. Some day, some evil demon might reveal itself and prove that some truths are permanent, but until then, we must live and rely on the knowledge that survives our best examinations.

    When do we know that knowledge is surviving? Whenever knowledge holds up while trying to make predictions with it. Where beliefs fail to predict, they are discarded. In a process that is akin to the variation, selection, and retention model of natural selection in biological evolution, we can call this rational selection within the evolution of knowledge. For evolutionary epistemologists, all theories are “true” only provisionally, regardless of the degree of empirical testing they have survived. I believe this is the best way we currently have, or may ever have, of looking at the world. Therefore:

    ​Knowledge can only ever be: justified, beliefs, that are surviving.


    Liked by 2 people

        1. Sorry Ed. Didn’t mean to short shrift you. It’s just that what you wrote seemed to accord so well with the post that I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

          I will observe that, emotionally, people seem to resist the idea that truth and knowledge might be mutable. Maybe there’s comfort in seeing these things as timeless. But if they are, then our knowledge of them is certainly not timeless. And as you noted, things are always changing. Even the most fundamental laws of nature might have evolved over time.

          Anyway, you have my permission to pick up your Nobel at your convenience 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Okay. I’ve been kicking this around in my head and it’s time to get some feedback. I ask that you (anyone) consider building up the idea (with brick, not straw, ahem) before tearing it down.

    My (running) definition of knowledge is “that which allows an agent to recognize or interpret the meaning of information.” This comes with a lot of caveats, but mainly I should point out that I am using a broader definition of “information”. Information is a set of data associated with a given system. The “meaning” of information is essentially the entire causal history of that system, but an agent usually only picks out a subset of that causal history that is useful. Which particular sub-meaning that an agent picks out depends on what knowledge the agent brings to the table, so to speak. Thus, any schoolchild might have enough knowledge to look at a image and say “that’s a cow”, while a farmer may have enough knowledge to look at the image and say “that’s a sick cow”, or “that’s a pregnant cow”.

    I currently see two “things” which can be a “that which”: memories and concepts. I can say I know there is a beer in the fridge because I have a memory of putting a beer in the fridge. I can say I know what a chicken looks like because I have memories of chickens (and a concept of a chicken) to compare against. I can say I know what a unicorn would look like because I have a concept of a horse and a concept of a horn and I have a concept of those concepts combined.

    So let’s look at the pieces of justified true belief. Now knowledge can only ever be probabilistic because we can never know the entire causal history of a system. But we can assign probabilities (and do the whole Bayesian thing) to the meanings we pick out, and we assign “belief” to those which meet some unspecified threshold and “knowledge” to those which meet some higher threshold. Justifications are simply knowledge which increases our probability assignments. Truth lies in the causal history of the information. For any system there is a fact of the matter as to its causal history, i.e., how it got that way. So something is knowledge if it picks out actual meaning.

    Okay, have at it.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. James,
      I don’t know that I have any issues with what you said here. I will observe that you seem to have been absorbed lately by the philosophy of information. (Or maybe you’ve always been, and I’ve just been posting stuff lately that’s relevant to it.)

      Your definition of the meaning of information (don’t think I missed that you snuck in the meaning of meaning here) reminds me of the “causalation” term I used on my own information musings a while back. So meaning being in the causal history makes sense. Actually, I think it’s in the entire causal history of every interacting system. It’s why the meaning of something is so useful. It conveys a lot of information.

      This also reminds of an information management concept, the DIKW pyramid (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DIKW_pyramid ). This model considers wisdom to be defined in terms of knowledge, which is defined in terms of information, which is defined in terms of data. (Although strictly speaking, I’ve never been sure the distinctions in the DIKW were…erm…meaningful. Data has to have a lot of meaning to actually be data.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike, my obsession of the moment is the philosophy of consciousness. (It may be part of my mid-life crisis. 🙂 ). It just turns out that information is a key part of my solution. Meaning/value/purpose/function is also a part. And guess what? Knowledge, as I defined it above, is also a necessary part.


        Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ll go with a Wittgensteinian pragmatism. There is no one true definition of knowledge. The correct definition on any occasion is the one which most effectively allows parties to relate the concepts that they subjectively hold in association with the word “knowledge”.

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    1. I can see where you’re coming from. My only concern is that puts a lot of work into the evaluation of a particular belief if you haven’t already worked out the correct definition for that occasion.


      1. My only concern is that puts a lot of work into the evaluation of a particular belief if you haven’t already worked out the correct definition for that occasion.

        By ‘a lot of work’, do you mean something like publishing a blog post and interacting with dozens of people who can’t seem to reach a consensus? 🙂

        The definition I offered was only intended to be descriptive, not normative. In practice, we just assume that our word-concept associations all generally agree and only when we discover that something is amiss do we look to clarify or adopt some specific definition (e.g., from a dictionary) for the purpose of the task at hand. I don’t mean to imply that “What is ____?” philosophizing independent of any other context is pointless – it does provide a forum for a population to synchronize on a definition and reduce the frequency of those “discovering that something is amiss” moments. It may be valuable, however, to be cognizant that this is the full extent of what we’re accomplishing and that there isn’t some essential, immutable, true definition out there floating in the ether and waiting to be discovered.

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          1. The only thing absolute is that there is only one history.
            And yet there are very many different accounts of it, and so many contradictory claims of knowledge of it.
            If we all can’t agree on a single history that is absolute, then almost nothing seems knowable!

            Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d say knowledge doesn’t really exist – what does are behaviors that have given positive feedback in the past (or have appeared to aided survival) and are assumed to give positive feedback in the future (or give survival in the future). Like a sliding scale, the more you push the slider toward ‘it will definitely give something good/keep me alive’ the more it seems like an actual thing in itself, as if it exists itself. But how else could you treat something when it’s definite that doing X will produce Y? It ends up seeming like a kind of landscape/part of a landscape itself . Which it seems is given the name ‘knowledge’.

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  11. I would hope for these discussions to emphasize how crucial it will be for humanity to develop a respectable community that provides accepted epistemological principles. Philosophy must join science in this way, and so become something more than just another humanistic endeavor, or “art”. We need answers here! Ed Gibney may have been joking with that Nobel remark, though I’m sure that he considers the true joke to be how associated experts have not yet reached accepted understandings.

    Mike’s previous post presented Doug Hubbard’s position that observations are the means by which uncertainty becomes diminished. I didn’t add anything to that, other than to potentially help explicitly get things straight on the metaphysical side (which his ideas implicitly depend upon). Without causality there aren’t even things to figure out! Now I’ll move on to epistemology.

    When Mike asks “What is knowledge?”, I realize that he’s asking for useful definitions for this humanly fabricated term. The problem is that in a literal sense this question implies that there is a true definition out there to discover. So simply saying the misleading “What is…” statement, should tend to get one thinking about terms in an unproductive way. For example above Mike mentioned to Ed that perhaps truth and knowledge change over time, as if they’re more than human constructs. But how could he not have such thoughts at unguarded moments, given the flawed question itself? And notice how ingrained this perspective happens to be. Physicists today try to discover what time “is”. Psychologists try to discover what consciousness “is”. The list goes on and on.

    I mean to counter this paradigm through my first principle of epistemology. Note that once generally accepted we should actually have more ability to casually say something like “What is life?” since the “is” should then be taken by educated people as “a useful definition for”. Furthermore all these head banging discussions where people are clearly using separate definitions, simply can’t be productive. Travis earlier brought up Wittgenstein’s “ordinary language”, which might be helping some, though clearly hasn’t been sufficient. Perhaps my EP1 will be. (My EP2 gets more to Mike and Ed’s position, as well as explicitly theorizes how the whole thing works, and well beyond the human.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Eric, one of my goals was to make clear that the answer isn’t as simple as many people assume. I think the very fact that it’s a head banging discussion makes that point. But (at the risk of sounding Rumsfeldian) we have to have discussions with the language we have, not the one we wish we had.

      If you don’t like “What is knowledge?”, how would you have asked it?

      In principle, it’s good to get people to agree on terms, but for general language, which is always evolving, it seems inevitably built on a foundation of sand.
      Not that it isn’t productive at times to define terms as scientific and legal standards bodies sometimes do. But the older and more general the term, the less anyone has the ability to authoritatively do it. Note all the grief the IAU got for specifying a definition for “planet.”

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    2. Mike,
      It’s not that I want to alter the English language to work better than it now does. I consider modern English to be an incredibly effective tool, and probably quite a bit moreso than many other modern languages. Instead it’s our general attitudes towards our languages that concerns me, and apparently the latter Ludwig Wittgenstein had such concerns as well. As I understand it his solution was to restrict our terms to how they are ordinarily used, which I believe he emphasized with the position that there are no “private languages”. I agree with him that if people (especially philosophers) would just use ordinary definitions for their terms, then they could much more effectively discuss things. It’s simply ineffective when we ponder the ideas of others by means of separate definitions. That’s where Wittgenstein and I consider the serious head banging to occur. Apparently he failed however, though certainly not through obscurity (by which his ideas might still be pretty good). By now we may at least presume that his ideas weren’t good enough to fix this particular problem.

      Notice that if we take his advice, then a theorist must accept definitions that are commonly used rather that whatever a theorist’s evidence suggests would promote useful understandings. Furthermore by taking my own advice and formalizing the arbitrary nature of our terms, we actually take power away from people who use definition to promote silly notions. For example there is your classification of the “naturalistic panpsychist” — people who simply define all matter to have some level of consciousness. Yes I will grant them this right of definition while pondering their ideas. But given such definition, how might something useful be demonstrated? Both legitimate and illegitimate theorists must be provided this right. We need it given both the arbitrary nature of our terms, as well as how much more we still have to figure out.

      So how would I have asked the question “What is knowledge?”. This would simply require four extra words. I’d ask “What is a useful definition for ‘knowledge’?”. Or I could even expand to something like “What’s a useful definition for the humanly fabricated and thus arbitrary ‘knowledge’ term?”. Note that such pedantry wouldn’t always be required, as long as it was formally understood how arbitrary definition happens to be. But while most everyone beyond me seems to consider terms by means of “is” (including the late Wittgenstein), there do seem to be problems associated with this perspective. Thus my EP1.

      Then there is my EP2: There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). As evidence continues to remain consistent with theory, it becomes nothing more than believed.”.

      You’ll note that I’ve presented no “knowledge” here, but rather simply belief. This is because I don’t consider there to be anything that I can truly “know” about what exists, except for my thought itself. (I consider all deduction, such as mathematics, to not “exist” in the sense that I’m referring to now.) Of course under less formal settings I speak of what I “know” all the time. I “know” my friends, for example. And I certainly appreciate the Shakespearian to “know” someone, is to have had sex with that person. That all fits in very nicely with my EP1. (Yes that SMBC was a good one, and there I think about Marilyn Monroe’s “Let’s make love”.) But when I’m in formal settings such as your blog, I do try to moderate absolute language that don’t warrant it. Except for my own existence, I merely have beliefs about what’s real.

      Regarding the backlash against the IAU for defining “planet” such that Pluto doesn’t qualify, that’s obviously just some standard political bullshit. This does also demonstrate my point however. People today think about definitions as what’s true, and given that there is such a strong sentiment that philosophers can’t reach any agreements in epistemology and so on, we can’t look to them for such wrongs to be righted. If they can’t/won’t fix these problems, the task will go to outsiders like you and I.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Hi Eric,

      Thanks for pointing me to this great blog!

      “… how crucial it will be for humanity to develop a respectable community that provides accepted epistemological principles. Philosophy must join science in this way”

      Philosophy can not “join science in this way” because science does not “provide accepted epistemological principles.” Science is always in the process of trying to prove it’s principles wrong. They are far from “accepted.” They are targets to be shredded by all comers. You win a Nobel prize for destroying them. This to me belies the idea that they are accepted. At best you could say they are temporarily accepted, but even then I don’t think that’s quite right.

      While I recognize the need for more consensus in the philosophies of epistemology, metaphysics and value, it could never be a thing like science for a large group of respected people to accept your E1, or any other principle, and then move on. Such a consensus could only ever be a group that agrees to accept certain principles because “come on” and then shoves aside outside ideas that it deems as non-useful because “come on” I’m not saying that such a respected group would not be useful to society, but I don’t think it would represent something more like science.

      Does this make sense to you?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mike,
        Let me introduce my friend Garth to you, as I’m sure you’re curious. He’s a supporter of evolutionary psychology as well as of science based answers for things in general. Such positions make him one of Massimo’s most prized contributors (which seems clear since Massimo retorts personally to a majority of Garth’s commentary at his site). Garth and I see eye to eye on quite a few major issues, with some less notable exceptions that we’re still working on. I think you’ll find him to be at least as much of a character as I presume you to find me. I recently mentioned to him how much you’ve helped my own perspective grow over the past year and a half, so apparently he’s taking a look for himself.

        Yes I think I see what your saying, as well as appreciate those points. Some positions in science have earned tremendous acceptance, while others have not. Still what I’m shooting for here may be a bit different. By “join science in this way” I merely mean that just as science has a community that provides humanity with various provisionally agreed upon answers, we’ll also need philosophy to develop a community that’s able to do so as well. (I certainly don’t mean that science has developed accepted epistemological principals.)

        But then why do I believe that philosophy needs accepted answers? Well because I consider philosophical question to concern the nature of reality itself. If all of reality is causally connected, then omitting certain parts of it should naturally hinder the full project in general. So studying reality today may be considered somewhat like trying to put together a vast jigsaw puzzle, even though many of the key pieces are not yet in play (and I suspect that this has effectively hindered our soft sciences the most).

        I’m not saying that my plan can or can’t happen. I’m simply reasoning that it must begin to happen in order to unlock an associated form of reality study progress. Rather than trying to work with one arm tied up, let’s try to free that second arm! Do you agree?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks Eric!

          And welcome Garth! I didn’t respond to your previous comment because I didn’t want to insert myself into your and Eric’s conversation. But anyone that can attract Massimo’s response is welcome here.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ha ha. In each of his responses he acts as though I am a useless annoyance to him, but he keeps responding and seems to feel the need to counter my arguments. Surely he knows that I am far more likely to go away if ignored.

            I actually do intend to stop commenting on Massimo’s blog. It is too much of a groupthink of ideologues reacting to the fact that science keeps taking significant bites out of their humanities territory. They seem convinced that scientism is the world’s biggest problem.

            Glad to have found this blog. Looks more like people who care about ideas rather than tearing down the thing that they think threatens them.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I had many rewarding discussions on Massimo’s various blogs, but it’s been a while, mainly due to time constraints. Sorry to hear that the discussion over there has grown monolithic. That’s too bad.

            Glad to have you here! Your thoughts are welcome on any post. (Just FYI, the older ones may not reflect my current views.)

            Liked by 1 person

        2. Hi Mike. Great blog. I’ve only read the last 2 articles including the comment threads but I am hooked. You set up insightful respectful debate on the most important deep thoughts we can have. Me likey.


          I certainly agree with the spirit of your endeavour which is why I am challenging you to clarify and defend it.

          In some ways what you are calling for already exists. There is already a large percentage of philosophers who more or less agree with your basic takes on metaphysics and epistemology, but they don’t belong to a unified group that has signed on to a basic set of common operating principals. Would they ever do something like that? Does the nature of philosophy itself prevent that?

          And if this large percentage of philosophers who would more or less endorse your basic M1, and E1, and E2, did all sign on to a group that chooses to accepts this general causal/probability/Bayesian theory of knowledge. How many of them would sign on to your V1 and whatever other Vs you have up your sleeve.

          You and I are both surprised and disappointed that there is not more consensus on what we see as obvious principals sensible people can agree on at least as temporary operating principals. All human actions require principals to act by. It seems strange that we can not work out a set of operating principals that are objectively better than others through systematic discovery tools like science, math, logic, rational discourse (to the extent that any such thing is possible).

          God speed, Eric. I hope you find a way to make it work.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. God speed, Eric. I hope you find a way to make it work.

            Must this really be my project alone? I would hope for others to find this cause sensible enough to take up for themselves. And to be clear, I do not want to detract from traditional humanistic philosophy. I am no philistine! I consider there to be tremendous intellectual beauty associated with such study, and so its loss should be quite a cultural impoverishment.

            Therefore in addition to standard philosophy, I would hope for it to be understood that accepted principles in metaphysics, epistemology, and value, will be required in order for science to function better. If so then we should need a second form of “philosophy” (regardless of whatever name it takes), that isn’t merely humanistic. Here we’d need a respected group of professionals that is able to provide at least some provisional consensus understandings. (I propose four.) But yes as you’ve implied, it may be that modern/ancient philosophy cannot become the sort of thing that I’m talking about.

            I’d say definitely take a break from Plato’s Footnotes, and especially if you find some more intellectually stimulating things to do. But also go back as well. Massimo and his readers will miss you. Furthermore you may find ways to up your game and so deprive Massimo of those ticky tachy definitional points that he uses against you. I’d find that quite interesting!

            Did you notice that Robin Herbert gave me a like regarding my radical plan on an amoral form of value study? (https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/platos-reading-suggestions-episode-121/comment-page-4/#comment-29152) That would have been noticed, since this is not just one of Massimo’s minions. I’ll continue picking my spots over there when I have time.


          2. Hi Eric,

            The way I see it is that this new thing you long for can not be philosophy because philosophy already exists and it ain’t that. And it can’t be science because science already exists and it ain’t that. So it will have to be a new kind of thing altogether and you seem to get that in that you recognize it will likely have to go by a new name.

            The way I see it all playing out is that science will continue to illuminate the reality of where our values come from, how they evolved, and how they operates in us, leaving not much philosophical work left to do. The kind of philosophical work that any human could do with the scientific information that is available.

            As more and more scientists make the claim that we no longer need philosophy, a statement I think is wrong, I think the truth they are really speaking is that we will no longer need ACADEMIC philosophy. Ordinary humans will be able to philosophize their way from the information gleaned from science to wise action.

            So rather than a group of respected academic philosophers coming together to form a consensus group, I think it will more likely be a large group of the general public who find their way to consensus on value, metaphysics and epistemology thanks to information provided by a science that has more an more to say on these subjects as time moves forward.

            So you are not in this alone, unless you are still going to try and get a group of academic philosophers to break free from their humanities brothers and come over to the dark side of providing operational answers to questions rather than simply posing important questions. On that mission I say god speed because I don’t think it is possible and I wouldn’t know where to begin to help with it. But I do believe the kind of consensus you are looking for will arise in the general public sphere, just not in the academic philosophy world.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Garth,
            I suspect that you’ve seen Ben Kingsley’s rendition of Gandhi? While I was developing my theories as a young man this narrative spoke quite powerfully to me. (I suppose that I’m only thinking of this now because over the weekend my wife and I were pleased to expose our 14 year old son to this wonderful movie.) I wonder if it impressed you as well?

            I recently gave you the following link to a discussion between myself and professor Daniel Kaufman, which you enjoyed:

            Do you not see that the only reason that I was able to get the better of him there, was because I was so respectful of both him and his community? Daniel has fought me for years, knowing full well that he could be the hero that others hope will rise up to disgrace my radical perspective. Yet he always fails miserably. Why? I believe because I fight him in the same manner that Gandhi fought the British empire.

            What good could it do our cause to proclaim that normal people armed with science will progressively render academic philosophy obsolete? To me this sounds like an attack that should naturally incite retribution. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t believe that science could have this effect. I’m merely suggesting that saying such a thing in public (regardless of merit) might hurt our cause.

            I suspect that Massimo will get on our side once (or if) the tides shift. But today I think he uses you like a tool from which to fight those who generally disparage his field. Why does he not try this with me as well? I think because he’d rather not be made to look like Gandhi’s British empire.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Sorry to jump in here Eric, but I’m wondering if a good place to start is just forming a group like the Vienna Circle or something. Get a small but motivated cadre to agree to a basic manifesto of some sort, publish it, and then spread the news to try and get more people to sign on to it. I know several of us chat about our worldviews either one-on-one or spread over long comment threads in various places, but maybe we could take this to a more formal step. (Although I’m not sure we could find agreement…)

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Garth,
            Let me also introduce you to my friend Ed Gibney. I actually primed him for this in an email recently. In it I mentioned that I was in seperate conversations with two other people — one with Mike (as usual), and another with a guy who has an extreme evolution based perspective. I told him that I’d introduce you when I thought the time was right, which I knew would spark his interest since he runs the http://www.evphil.com/ website. Like me he’s another damn American, though at least he defected with his wife to the UK. 🙂 I think you’ll also appreciate that he’s more of a citizen philosopher like Socrates was than a modern product of academia.

            Forming a group with the prestige of the Vienna Circle is well beyond my own capabilities. Even Massimo with his contacts would have difficulties developing such a thing I think, (that is if he wanted to, which he doesn’t). A less prestigious community isn’t out of the question, though in over four years of blogging I can’t say that I’ve been all that successful motivating people about this sort of thing. And then even given core agreements, perhaps our outlying differences would simply be too fractious? Mike presents an introspection based consciousness, while my own model concerns sentience. Your ideas seem life focused, while once again my ideas are sentience based. Garth and I seem alligned on sentience, though he seems more optimistic regarding human compassion (or something like that). As Garth says, we’re all self interested (which is better than the “selfish” term that I’ve used in the past). So how might such differences become resolved among invested selves? Seems like a worthy quest.

            What seems to be needed is a “Gandhi” type of figure. Here I’m not talking about the emergence of another Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris type of person. We already have lots of prominent people, and so can be pretty sure that their ideas aren’t good enough to do what’s needed. They are the system.

            Know anyone with ideas that seem good enough to potentially give us a Gandhi type of revolution? I’m hopeful about mine, though I’ve not yet had anyone truly grasp them.


          6. -> Know anyone with ideas that seem good enough to potentially give us a Gandhi type of revolution?

            Well me obviously. But that’s only obvious to an n of 1. : )

            I don’t think the Vienna Circle was full of famous philosophers at the start, so I wouldn’t worry about replicating its success immediately, but it’s a good model for generating interest through a core group of dedicated people. I’ll write again soon to see if we can get closer to seeing eye to eye enough to work together more.

            Thanks for the intro to Garth. Looking forward to exchanging ideas with him.

            Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for this very interesting post. I think one of the problems we run into with these attempts at ontology and “absolute knowledge” is the simple problem that we are, by our very natures, attempting to build an objective reality out of experiences and sensations are that 100%, always and inevitably subjective.

    The point at which we are simply measuring our perceptual and conceptual lenses rather than the “noumenon” seems inescapably unknowable.

    As for those people who don’t like the idea of knowledge being at least partially relative, I think they might just have to be frustrated. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ben! Good point. We never have access to the objective, only to our own subjective experiences. We build theories (models) of the objective world, which we can only assess by how successfully they allow us to predict future subjective experiences.

      Couldn’t have made your final point better!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is part of a thread I’m chasing down in my current book project – the idea that prescriptive statements about good/bad, right/wrong, true/false will end up going off the rails given enough time and a wide enough application. As such, the proper approach to prescriptive systems is to judge them based on consequences.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t think there’s a way to avoid the ‘relative’ outlook, at least not from the point of view of omniscience as the standard for…what shall we call it…absolute knowledge? But 2+2=4 comes pretty close to omniscience.

    I like the idea of spectrum of knowledge. Pragmatically speaking, I think correspondence theory works pretty well for the most part in day-to-day life (assuming we even need this much), and seems to be prevalent in ordinary language. This is of course a naive theory from a philosophical perspective, but it’s interesting to note that when we’re not being philosophical we don’t demand deductive certainty from all forms of knowledge. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to measure all knowledge by the same impossibly high standard. Other times it doesn’t make sense to diminish a high standard. I’m comfortable with flexibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 2+2=4 does seem like absolute knowledge. But I think it’s the absolute knowledge of something that is true by definition, of a tautology. Of course, many tautologies are not obvious, so figuring them out often has value. But 2+2=4 has value because of what it tells us about things in the world, such as if I have two ducks, and bring in two more ducks, I’ll have four ducks. Are there any scenarios in the world where that wouldn’t be true? I’m not aware of any, but then someone could conceivably see something in an experiment tomorrow that gives us a case that violates it, a black swan.

      I agree that the level of certitude we demand is context dependent. Physicists demanded 5 sigma certainty before they agreed that the Higgs boson had been found. Social scientists are often satisfied by the equivalent of 2 sigma, although that’s driven by necessity since they’re not going to get higher levels in most cases. But if I look outside and see storm clouds, I’m not going to demand either level of certainty before I know to take an umbrella with me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We had our book group on William James’ “Varieties” yesterday, and so I’ve had pragmatism on my mind lately and I’ve been thinking about whether I agree with it. I think I basically agree with the general thrust of it, for the most part, but I don’t want to insist that every sort of truth must be true by virtue of being practical. Something about that seems warped, though generally I like the notion that theories should be relevant. For 99% of the time I’m a pragmatist.

        On math as tautology, I’m starting to think the issue is a matter of semantics in the sense of “just” a matter of semantics, though I grant that my stance mostly comes from an instinct or impulse rather than a specific argument that engages on the battlefield. The more I hear about it, the more I think we’re just cooking up ways to square our instinctive understanding of math’s nature with the rest of what we believe. I tend to side with Kant’s a priori synthetic distinction, though that’s what started all this verbiage…I’m sure he didn’t mean to! To be honest, I find the off-shoot distinctions are getting ever-so-tedious, which makes me suspicious. That 99% part of me is giving the matter the squinty-eyed skeptical look.

        Another consideration: I think the word “tautology” originally had a negative connotation. In this sense to call an argument a tautology is to point out that an opponent is only pretending to make a good argument, but isn’t really saying anything. In other words, it’s a verbal deception, a sinister form of BS. It’s not only not knowledge, it’s a sort of anti-knowledge, irrefutable-but-empty rhetoric masquerading as knowledge. So calling math tautological sounds like an attempt to label it phony knowledge. Now the word “tautology” has taken on new directions and colors via the ongoing debate, and this insult isn’t always intended.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “but I don’t want to insist that every sort of truth must be true by virtue of being practical”

          With pragmatism, I think it’s not enough for it to just be useful, it must be useful for a particular purpose: prediction. If a belief is useful for increasing our prediction accuracy, I’m on-board with calling it true. If that belief is useful for increasing our peace of mind, that’s a type of pragmatism I don’t buy. (Didn’t James regard belief in God as true because of the comfort it provided?) Of course, you could take this a degree further by arguing that what I’m really looking for is a more enduring level of comfort.

          For a long time, I took “a priori” and Kant’s “analytical” to be synonymous. I thought using “a priori” to refer to innate or preconceived conceptions was colloquial misuse of that term. But I think it was either you or Michelle Joelle who pointed out that Plato used it that way. The analytical / synthetic distinction seems like a more precise way to describe the distinction between things we know by definition vs things we know empirically.

          I don’t know about originally, but saying that something is tautological is definitely often meant pejoratively. My response whenever someone uses it on me is to point out that many insightful tautologies aren’t obvious and shouldn’t be dismissed. I also try to point that out when I describe someone else’s point as a tautology (as I did above) to try to convey I’m not using it as a put-down.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. I haven’t read the other pragmatists, so my conception comes solely from James, but I tend to think of pragmatism as something broader than prediction, (although I could be thinking of prediction too narrowly). I think of pragmatism as a philosophy that undermines any sort of abstraction that doesn’t pertain to or come from experience—but experience is much broader than classical empiricists took it for, which explains why James calls it, “radical empiricism”. The best example of the sort of abstraction that James’ pragmatism rejects is Kant’s noumena, the notion of “things in themselves”, which is explicitly defined as un-experiencable, in Kant. Other kinds of abstractions would include theological proofs for the existence of God.

    James didn’t think that you should believe in God because it makes you feel comfortable. His “Varieties” examines personal religious experience—real experience, not theorizing about God, not going to church—from a psychological point of view as well as from a philosophical point of view. He would call belief in God’s existence an “over-belief,” which he doesn’t think are universally or logically necessary or provable by theologians or philosophers, though the belief may really be included in an individual’s experience and integral to it. He hypothesizes that all religious experience is essentially a sense of something greater, which can be explained by the subconscious, though he doesn’t rule out that there may really be something greater.

    Let me just give you the Kantian definitions:
    Analytic: The predicate is contained in the subject.
    Synthetic: The predicate adds to the subject.
    a priori: prior to experience.
    a posteriori: after experience.

    Kant thought that a tautology was analytic a priori. Math, for him, was synthetic a priori. The logical positivists didn’t think there could be synthetic a priori knowledge, so they tried to deny that math was synthetic a priori.

    I hope that clarifies things? It’s a lot to take in and philosophers like to muddy things up with those terms, but that’s my basic understanding of it. As far as Plato goes, he didn’t use the terms, but people who interpret him do.

    I’m starting to get the idea that calling out a tautology isn’t necessarily meant as a put-down, but it’s sticky stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. The idea of synthetic a priori makes my head feel like mush. The problem with defining the analytic / synthetic definition in terms of language is that I’m not sure which parts of 2+2=4 are predicate and which subject. It seems like maybe whether it’s analytic or predicate hinges on which sentence we translate it to.

      Liked by 1 person

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