A Consideration on Knowledge

To know or not to know? Or more actually do we have the possibility to know? I believe that the reality of knowledge is something that is only narrowly considered and needs to be recalled. The discussion starts first with what we consider as knowledge. The traditional vision of knowledge as “Justified true belief” will help me to raise the right questions about the knowledge gathering process, and by extension, knowledge itself. The three conditions of this theory will be contrasted with Descartes’ approach: constant doubt, which will enable us to put into perspective our common, taken-for-granted sense of knowledge.

What is "Justified true belief”:

The most common argument for what we consider as knowledge requires:

1. X must be true.

2. S believes X.

3. S is justified in believing X.

X being the thing to know and S an individual.

Let us start with the first condition: “X must be true”. This claim can, at first, make sense. As a matter of fact, if one were to say that Paris is the capital of South Africa (all other conditions aside) we would hardly consider this as knowledge.

However, this argument seems to pose a problem. How do we define “true”? We could say it is something that has been observed several times by our senses or reflected on with our mind, and, we have thus, empirically, induced that this combination of factors will always cause this effect, or that this combination of characteristics can be called X.

Nonetheless, our perceptions and/or reasoning can be false. There is a possibility that everything that we see, hear, touch, think is only subjective to the Human Specie. This was many times highlighted by academics with Descartes' wax experiment. An easier way to perceive this is to talk about Descartes’ “Malicious genius”, whom would put in front of our eyes false perceptions. This theory of a “false” world has, for example, been used in popular culture by the Wachowski family in their movie “The Matrix” in which, Human beings experience a fake world through a simulator. Unfortunately for us, it is likely that if this is the case, we would not be able to prove it - even harder to get out of it-. Of course, I will not purport this theory in this essay. I will try to tell you, in a less closed up way, what I mean by fake perceptions.

In order to deal with this, I need to take into account the next condition of the traditional knowledge as “justified true belief”: “S is justified in believing X”. A good example to illustrate this necessary condition is the example of the guess: guessing that England’s capital is London seems not to be knowledge.

What “good reasons” make us believe that we have knowledge of something?

1. Physical perceptions of regular events, especially cause-effect event and logical reasoning with basic and unprovable axioms.

2. Knowledge transferred from higher authorities.

These two ways seem, to me, the most common ones with which we gather knowledge. If we take some time on the second option, we can quickly say that different problems emerged.

Without speaking about authorities that plainly lie, people not only make mistake but also focus more on certain variables than others due to the numerous causes of one effect, and due to their cultural/environmental biased. This, combined to the multiplication of information sources throughout the social networks, T.V. channels etc., and their way of working, cause a large amount of fake news and a isolation of people in their own “beliefs bubble”.

However, these problems are only superficial when compared to the fallacy of perceptions that we quickly saw above. I mean by this that any piece of knowledge transferred by others must have been “experienced”, or reasoned to, by someone at first.

The main issue for trusting our senses is the argument of relativity. Our eyes perceive only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum (390 to 700 nanometers), and our hearing too. The things that we perceive as white, blue.. or that we hear as strident, grave… could have easily been perceived otherwise, had we possessed another perception spectrum. This problem can be extrapolated and pose some serious questions to our current understanding of the world. As a matter of fact, any change in our basic perceptions would have lead to a totally different aggregate of scientific observations which, in turn, would have caused a different historical scientific process.

However, the logical reasoning is an interesting topic when it comes to knowledge. There is one major issue with knowledge created by logical reasoning: the use of unprovable axioms as a base for our understanding of reason. A good illustration of this, I believe, reside in two particular axioms that, if rethought, seems to give a significant hit to rationalisation. The first axiom is the one of universalisation. Indeed, people “create” knowledge or rely on transferred knowledge as they can partially or totally verify the truth of a proposition in a way which guarantee them the use of the same reasoning process as the “transferer”.

Nevertheless, I consider the universalisation of rationality not as easily proven. To completely understand what I mean, we can use an analogy: imagine if a new extra-terrestrial specie were to try to communicate with us, the fact of “they” being rational in the same way as we are is far from being easily demonstrated.

The second axiom which also heavily impacts on my argument just above and, is linked to physical perceptions is the cause-effect axiom. The truth of this axiom is difficult to prove since it is unobservable and creates a circularity problem if we try to think about it rationally. This fact is well-known with Hume’s copy principle. Moreover, the main critique in Descartes’ ontology, in which he separates existence into two substances: the mind and the body, is the difficulty for the justification of causality between two non overlapping attributes. I am not saying that causation is unusable. It is in fact a very useful way to explain the world in a common fashion. It is practical but not bullet-proofed.

My last short argument will be dedicated to the last condition of the “justified true belief” theory: “S needs to believe X.” I interpret it as a need for a subject before even considering knowledge. This is the direct extension of Descartes systematic questioning. After a constant doubt Descartes reached a conclusion which is famously illustrated with: “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think therefore I am”. The only thing that we can be sure of is that there is a subject to this questioning. Our being is the only thing that survive the systematic doubt and which can be considered as knowledge.

On the one hand, we have human-made “knowledge” that has emerged from social construct and mutual agreement by the a given group of individuals and then world-widely adopted. And on the other one, we have unprovable -or with difficulties- knowledge creating processes, yet still used because they are practical. In the end, it seems that knowledge is meaning. Not something that is true -if anything is- but something that is agreed upon and can be included in a systemic model that has a consensual way of processing things: causation, perceptions, rationality etc.

This article was written by Aurélien Cisneros.

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Aurélien Cisneros