Monday, January 9, 2012

Does 'A knows that P' entail that P is true?

To: Alfred M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does 'A knows that P' entail that P is true?
Date: 1 November 2006 10:28

Dear Al,

Thank you for your email of 25 October, with your first University of London essay for the Epistemology module.

I am somewhat disconcerted that this is the second essay I have received within a month - the other essay also submitted by James, an American student on the University of London External Programme - which questions the widely accepted view that knowledge that P entails that P is true.

Or, at least, I think this is what you are doing. Although you are not writing to a question (in future, this is something I would advise because examiners put a very high value on relevance to the question asked) I would guess the question could be put simply, as, 'Does A knows that P entail that P is true?'

From your essay, I am not sure what answer you would give, when the question is stated in these bald terms. Here are three alternatives:

a) No, because what matters for knowledge is relevance to a personal belief system and not what an external observer from a more lofty viewpoint would 'know'.

b) No, because there is no such thing as truth, but only 'true for A', 'true for B' etc.

c) Yes, because there is no such thing as truth, but only 'true for A', 'true for B' etc.

Although your argument is more persuasive and gripped me more than the one offered by my other student, one criticism of your approach would be that you don't make it clear what your position is. Here is how my other student defined knowledge:

S knows that P if and only if:

1. S believes that P.

2. S is justified in believing that P.

3. S's justification for believing the truth of P is commensurate with a) the degree to which the proposition fits into S's complete world model, b) the perceived importance (to both Sand society at large) of the proposition in question, and c) the plausibility of existing counter-claims to P.

Note how condition 3. replaces the more commonly accepted condition, 'P is true'.

In response, I allowed James his definition - but only as applying to an invented concept which I called 'knorridge'. (This is a common dialectical move in philosophy.) I then posed the question, 'If we have a concept of knorridge, do we still need a concept of knowledge?' (i.e. a concept which has 'P is true' as the third condition). I argued that we did, because there will always be an occasion when we want to signal our disagreement with what a person thinks he 'knows'. (It is significant that when you gave your example of the rich man and the beggar, you put 'knows' is scare quotes - more on this in a minute.)

The question, 'What do I know?' is important. The answer will necessarily be in terms of what I can be confident in believing, my degree of certainty. Sceptical arguments attack the sense of confidence, which we attempt to shore up in various ways. (To take a famous example, Descartes appealed to a veracious God.) However, in order to engage with these issues, all that is needed is the concept of 'knorridge'.

The reason we have a concept of knowledge - as opposed to knorridge - in our vocabulary or conceptual scheme is to enable us to deal with occasions when the question we want to raise is not, 'What do I know?' or 'What do we know?' but rather 'What does he/ she know?' or 'What do they know?' These questions can be just as important, no less relevant to action.

The question, 'What does he know?' need not imply a 'higher' level of consciousness or cognitive ability, let alone God-like knowledge. I 'know' there is a hundred pounds in my wallet because I went to the cash machine last night. What I didn't realize is that my wife removed ten pounds early this morning to pay the window cleaner. At lunch time I buy a round of drinks at the local bar and absent mindedly pay the twenty pound bill with a ten pound note which the barman absent mindedly accepts.

I didn't KNOW that I had a hundred pounds in my wallet, I only thought I knew. I only thought I knew this, irrespective of whether I ever find out the truth or not. There might be a temptation to say, 'In my universe I did have a hundred pounds in my wallet' but now we are going into Schroedinger's cat territory. There are lots of things - myriads of things - that happen all the time outside our knowledge or awareness. We leave the box alone, or we open it to see what's inside. Opening the box does not change the world, only our state of belief or knowledge. This is common sense. I am not saying that there could never be reason to challenge the common sense view - maybe when you delve into theoretical physics - but I am merely pointing out that it is a reasonable starting position.

There is a strong undercurrent of the American Pragmatist tradition in your essay. I am sympathetic to this. The most important point to make in support of that view is that many of our beliefs are not simply factual but evaluative. Our world view is thoroughly 'ideological' in the sense that the features which are salient to us are defined in terms of their importance for action. I take all this on board.

Your example of the judgement, 'lazy' is a case in point. Is the rich man 'right' or 'wrong' to judge that the unemployed man standing on the corner is lazy? From your description, one is inclined to say that he is in fact wrong, because he is unaware of the strenuous efforts that the unemployed man made to get a job, which makes this not such a good example for your case.

However, we can beef this up by considering what it is to be 'lazy'. I have great sympathy for the unjustly accused 'lazy' people of the world who don't see the point of frenetic money grubbing, who love to spend time looking up at the clouds etc. etc. But that's just the view from where I stand. Maybe looking at the way I spend my day, you would say I am lazy.

Again, I am fully with you in rejecting the idea of the 'God-like' perspective. From the Godlike perspective - or Nagel's 'View From Nowhere' - there is no such thing as the human world, but only matter in motion. However, I have argued that interest in knowledge - as opposed to mere knorridge - does not require any assumption that the only 'true' view is the one that God sees.

All the best,

Geoffrey