Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Epistemology: Essay #0 The Basics

As the title suggests, this introductory essay seeks to establish the basic groundwork which must be understood before the rest of the essays can be fully appreciated

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It deals with: a) the defining components b) conditions or sources and c) limits of knowledge.

Types of knowledge
a) Propositional knowledge that something is so. This is further divided into empirical, or a posteriori, and non-empirical, or a priori, knowledge. Knowledge gained through perception or the sciences is empirical because it is derived through experience, such as the proposition “water is H2O”. Knowledge gained without appeal to experience or gained through “pure reason” is non-empirical. This type of knowledge is usually more questionable, but some examples include: logical truths such as if all A’s are B’s, and all B’s are C’s, then all A’s are C’s, mathematical truths such as the pythagorean theorem, conceptual (often trivial) truths such as all bachelors are unmarried men.
b) Non-propositional knowledge of something, such as knowledge by acquaintance.

The analysis of knowledge
According to the standard view, propositional knowledge is justified true belief. As we will see, this analysis has some problems. Gettier examples show examples where a justified true belief, intuitively, does not count as knowledge. One example: Smith is justified in believing the false proposition (i) John owns a Ford. He is therefore justified in believing (ii) John owns a Ford or Brown lives in Barcelona. It just so happens that Brown lives in Barcelona. Therefore, Smith believes the true proposition (ii) but does not know (ii).

A preview of some different epistemological theories:

1. Foundationalism: One distinction is important here. Some beliefs can be justified non-inferentially, without reference to other beliefs (such as the belief that you felt pain when you put your hand on a stove, or that you are thinking about these matters right now). Foundationalism says that inferentially justified beliefs that are justified by other beliefs (a belief that George Washington is the first president is justified from your belief that you read that fact in a history book) are grounded on non-inferentially beliefs. One problem is that it’s “grounding” is too small and therefore sometimes results in weak skepticism.

2. Coherentism: This theory maintains that a belief’s justification is a function of how well it coheres with other beliefs. One problem with this is that there is no connection between beliefs about the outside world and the outside world itself. One can have beliefs that cohere with each other but that are all completely wrong.

3. A causal theory of knowledge: You know that p if (i) you believe that p (ii) p is true (iii) your belief that p is causally produced and sustained by the fact that makes p true. One problem is that causes are very complex and often not accessible by the believer, internalists believe that the causes must be accessible for the belief to be justified and externalists reject this requirement.

4. Reliabilism: A belief is justified if it is produced by a mechanism that reliably gets at the truth. For example, if perception under normal conditions was deemed reliable, then a perceptual belief that there is a chair in the room is justified.

5. Scientism: The theory results from taking science as the ultimate authority on epistemological matters. Quine maintains for example that epistemology should just be treated as a chapter in empirical psychology. One problem is how narrow or how broad a notion one means by “science” (people in lab coats or just sound reasoning strongly guided by empirical reasoning?). A line would also have to be drawn between science and pseudo-science. Another problem is that it appears to be self-defeating; subscribing to science as the sole arbiter for problems in knowledge is itself a philosophical position and hence can not be submitted to science to determine it’s normative status (whether it’s a good theory).

6. Pragmatism: The view that (a) the vocabulary, problems, and goals of traditional epistemology are unprofitable and thus in need of replacement by pragmatist successors (b) the main task of epistemology is to study the advantages of different vocabularies. Is such a pragmatism supposed to provide a true claim about acceptability? If it does, it goes against it’s own acceptability. If it doesn’t, why should we accept it?

7. Intuitionism: The view that utilizing intuition or “common sense” is a strong indicator of where justification rests.

8. Skepticism: Knowledge skepticism tells us that it is impossible or very hard to know anything, while justification skepticism tells us this with regards to justification. One important skeptical argument is the Problem of Criterion. It forces us to face this question: How can we specify what we know without specifying how we know; conversely, we can only specify how we know on the basis of what we already know. We’re caught into circularity. We encounter another circularity when trying to justify our cognitive faculties; to judge the usefulness of our cognitive faculties, the only thing we have is our cognitive faculties. This problem is for skeptics too, because they cannot show without circularity that withholding judgement is the best way to avoid error and get at the truth.


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