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?

I was wrong

iwaswrongFellow blogger, Steve Morris, did a post on the importance of admitting when you’re wrong.  He finished up his post with this challenge:

So I had the amazing/stupid idea of putting this into practice on more formal terms. I propose to create an international Admit You’re Wrong Day.

As many of you are bloggers, I challenge you to have a go yourselves. It might be therapeutic, if it doesn’t leave you looking like a complete idiot.

In the spirit of that challenge, I thought I’d do a post on things I’d changed my mind about since blogging about them, that I now think I was wrong about.  As I commented on Steve’s post, if you’re not changing any of your views over time, then you’ve stopped listening and thinking.  When we publish our opinions, we run the risk of locking them in, and creating a self made ego trap.  Hopefully this is a small step against me doing that.

First, let me be clear that I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things over the years.  My views on politics, religion, history, science, and many other things have changed dramatically over my adult life.  But most of that happened before I started this blog.  In many ways, I’m glad I never had much opportunity to publish my views when I was younger, since it would have put me in the position of having a lot more to recant.  But I only started in November 2013, so this list won’t be too long.  (Who knows.  It might be much longer in the future.)

So here goes!

My early posts were highly skeptical of things like conscious qualia, thinking that it was mostly an illusion.   A lot of that view had come from reading Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore.  But after additional reading in neuroscience, notably the work of Michael Graziano and Michael Gazzaniga, I now think that was hasty.  My current view is that consciousness, qualia, sentience, is a data processing architecture, and that we’ll need to understand it if we ever hope to give it to machines.

I’ve noted in multiple posts the common scholarly belief that ancient pre-Axial age religions didn’t have a moral aspect.  I got this from reading numerous articles and books.  But I’m now tending to think, based on the work of Ara Norenzayan, Robert Bellah, and many others, that this is a scholarly myth, that ancient religions did have a moral aspect, although what they considered to be the right and proper way to live might horrify us in many cases.

I expressed skepticism of the need for the US becoming involved in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).  I still think my reasoning in that post was sound, but ISIS has shown itself to be so barbaric, so opposed to basic civilization, and so interested in spreading their medieval ideology of hate, that I’m much more sympathetic to the idea than I was at the time.  I still think a lot of caution is called for though.

I was probably too strident in dismissing fine tuning problems in physics.  I still think many of them are simply looking at things backwards (i.e. the universe isn’t fine tuned for us; having evolved in it, we’re fine tuned to it), but some of the coincident physical constants and properties seem to be amazingly improbable, and demand scientific investigation.  That said, I find God and multiverses both problematic as possible explanations.  One strikes me as “God of the gaps” theology, and the other as anti-theist counter-apologetics.  Both seem like “just so” stories.

These are the mea culpas I can think of right now.  There are undoubtedly more.  This is my 647th post on this blog, so I’m sure I’m missing some other cases where I changed my mind.  But these are the ones I’ve been meaning to mention for a while.  That said, if you’ve noticed any inconsistency in prior posts, please let me know.

A Dialog on Happiness – Existential Comics

What is happiness?  I think anyone who has ever given the question serious thought realizes that there is no one simple answer.

Click though for the full version.

via A Dialog on Happiness – Existential Comics.

I would say that Amencia’s first example is defective though.  If the man hooked up to the machine is watching terrible things but isn’t enjoying it while it’s happening, then the machine isn’t successful in its purported ability to “to perfectly simulate any feeling” (emphasis mine).

The rest of the dialog does resonate with me, particularly the part about being motivated to do things without necessarily weighing your predicted state of resulting happiness or unhappiness.  For example, many times in my life, I’ve been compelled to understand things, even when I knew that the answer would probably not make me happy, such as understanding how small and inconsequential humanity appears to be to the overall workings of the universe.  You could argue that the satisfaction in knowledge is a type of happiness, albeit an uncomfortable one, but this just shows how malleable and slippery the concept of happiness actually is.

When We Use Fate As A Scapegoat

Making decisions can be difficult, and making a hard decision can up the stress even more. A new study suggests that when we have an especially hard decision to make, we’re more likely to use the belief in fate as a coping mechanism.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that believing that outcomes are out of our control is a coping mechanism to help us live with our decisions.

via When We Use Fate As A Scapegoat.

We’ve had a lot of conversation about free will lately.  Many have asked me what value compatibilism brings given how prevalent belief in libertarian free will is.  This study is a reminder that libertarian free will isn’t always the issue.  Fatalism is at least an equal problem.

Of course, the reality is that most people’s beliefs in this area are an unreflective mishmash, changing by circumstance.  Sometimes they believe in free will, often when judging others, and other times in fatalism, often when feeling overwhelmed by a difficult choice.

Which is worse, a belief in fate or a belief in libertarian free will?  Personally, I think both views can lead to poor decisions.  That we are often the victims of circumstance but also often have ability to influence those circumstances, is a nuanced view that can be hard to communicate.

Belief in immortality hard-wired? Study examines development of children’s ‘prelife’ reasoning — ScienceDaily

By examining children’s ideas about “prelife,” the time before conception, researchers found results which suggest that our bias toward immortality is a part of human intuition that naturally emerges early in life. And the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but rather our hopes, desires and emotions.

via Belief in immortality hard-wired? Study examines development of children’s ‘prelife’ reasoning — ScienceDaily.

A clever study.  Instead of asking people about their belief in an afterlife, which is too polluted with cultural influences, they asked children about their beliefs in a life before they were born, in cultures that explicitly ruled that out.  Of course, the children were very young and hadn’t picked up yet on that particular part of their culture.

The study seems to show that a belief in an immortal soul is hardwired into us.  I’m not surprised.  Religion is too pervasive in human cultures not to result from some core mechanism in the human condition.  This study seems to show that it isn’t culture specific.

It also makes sense that, as organisms which have evolved to prefer our own survival, that we intuitively feel that we’ve always existed and will always exist.  It’s why the idea of our existence ending is so counter-intuitive.

Of course, this results in us fearing death.  We have no choice; we’re programmed for it.  And religion offers solace in that fear.  But for those who can’t believe in that solace, applying some reason can mitigate that fear.

What Americans believe

Pew published the results of a new study this morning that is getting a lot of attention on the web:

Six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. The share of the general public saying that humans have evolved over time is about the same as in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

There’s a good deal of hand wringing over the 33% who reject evolution, but I’m actually kind of happy with the 60% who accept it.  Sure, I wish that 33% were lower, but I also try to be a realist on these things, and in that light, 33% isn’t that bad.

To illustrate where I’m coming from, I’d like to call your attention to another poll that hasn’t received nearly as much attention.  Harris Interactive conducts polls online, with appropriate weighting to counteract any skewing in the online population.

People are much more likely to admit to not believing in something that it is popular to believe (like God), or believing in something that isn’t popular to believe (like witches), if they can admit it anonymously online instead of to another human, even if that other human is an anonymous operator on the phone.

Harris conducts a poll every few years on people’s beliefs.  Reading the report is both heartening and sobering.  When you see some of the things a substantial minority of Americans believe in, you’ll see why I’m not particularly alarmed by the Pew results.

Per Harris:

  • 29% reject evolution, another 25% aren’t sure
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 36% believe in creationism (which roughly matches the evolution number above)
  • 36% believe in UFOs
  • 29% believe in astrology
  • 26% believe in witches

The full report is here.

I certainly wish these numbers were lower, but I suspect that 26-36% represents a floor for these kinds of beliefs.  With that in mind, Pew’s 33% number fits right in.

If you fear that the US is uniquely blighted in this regard, check out this Gallup poll on paranormal beliefs by country.

Mystics and/or Atheists

James McGrath, a theologically progressive Christian, has a post up discussing the many varied conceptions of God: Mystics and/or Atheists.

As I indicated on another post, the word ‘God’ can be used to refer to so many things, that it is accurate to say that we are all theists and all atheists in relation to some god or another (with the possible exception of polytheists who accept every god presented to them). The most hardened skeptic usually believes in the universe or the laws of nature, so if one of those is your conception of God, then you’d define very few people as atheists.