H51060 etc.: KNOWLEDGE AND TRUTH
We human beings seem to be into knowledge in a big way. We share this interest with some of the 'higher' animals. However, in our case, both our desire for knowledge and our capacity for it seem to go way beyond the needs of survival. But what is this 'knowing', what is it to know? How do we do it well? and what do we get when we do it well? That is, to ask Pilate's famous but in his case possibly ironical question, what is 'truth'?
Some questions to get you thinking:
1. Can you 'know' someone without knowing too much about him or her in the way of 'facts'? Are they the same thing, knowing someone and knowing facts about them? Or could you know a whole heap of facts about someone (e.g. in your role as taxation commissioner or principal of a college or police) without actually knowing them?
2. What about knowing how to ride a bicycle, or drive a car or speak French or Chinese? Could you have a very large knowledge of mechanics and physics without knowing how to ride a bicycle or drive a car??
3. Say you were a teacher. How would you determine whether or not your students knew something? Does it matter how they go about learning it, as long as they get there in the end??
4. Do you know anything at all about scientific method? If so, what do you think this method (or methods?) might consist in? Does it differ from natural science to the social sciences and humanities?
5. What is truth?
Feel welcome, now, to consider the following 'lecturer's input' and read relevant sections from book of readings, before continuing with your journal on this set of questions.
LECTURER'S INPUT ON KNOWLEDGE, TRUTH AND SCIENTIFIC METHOD
If you don't mind, we will concentrate on the following issues:
(A) What is knowing?
(B) What is involved in the process of coming to know/arriving at the truth?
(C) What is truth?
(D) What is good scientific method, if there is such a thing? [See Overheads]
(A) What is knowing?
Some interesting distinctions:
The first thing we might do in answering this question is to make explicit the distinctions implied in the first two questions above:
Knowledge by Acquaintance versus Knowledge by Description:
· One can know quite a lot about someone else, have a rather large dossier full of accurately descriptive statements, facts about them, without ever having met them or being personally acquainted with them. Similarly with places and situations and emotions. One can have a whole psychology of love without ever having been 'in love', or have learned quite a lot in geography lessons about Sydney without ever having been there, breathed in the atmosphere and the smells, or been on the incomparable harbour.
· To some extent it also goes the other way: one can be acquainted with someone, even be very good friends with them, without knowing too many facts about them. Indeed, there may well be lots of people and lots of agencies who know quite a good deal more in the way of facts, including birth and marriage details and taxation and income details, and nowadays credit worthiness and even detailed spending patterns. Though one can hardly be acquainted with someone without knowing at least some facts about them.
Can either of these categories of knowledge be reduced to the other? Some people would like to be able to cash 'knowledge by acquaintance' into 'knowledge by description', that everything one can know by acquaintance could, if you had long enough, be put into words and turned into a list of descriptions. But is this so? Can this be done without remainder? What do you think? If you could do it without remainder, this would turn acquaintance into a way of getting knowledge rather than a kind of knowledge. But can you do that?
Knowing How versus Knowing That:
· One can know quite a lot of mechanics, more than enough to explain in detail the dynamics of bicycles or motor cars, without knowing how or being able to either ride a bike or drive a car. Indeed, it is conceivable that one could know an enormous amount, more than any Olympic athlete, about the biology and physiology and psychology of running without being able to run a step. And a half-way intelligent ten year old Chinese person could have much greater competence in Mandarin than an Anglo Professor of Chinese in an English speaking culture, even though the latter might have a vastly superior knowledge about the grammar of the language in question. Knowing That doesn't translate into Knowing How.
· Once again, to some extent it also goes the other way. A fairly high level of know-how is consistent with a fairly low level of knowing that. Knowing How doesn't translate necessarily into too much Knowing That. Though Knowing That in particular cases may enhance one's know-how - or, perhaps, someone else's knowing that, e.g. the coach, one's French teacher, your dietary advisor etc.
· Finally, of course, a high degree of Knowing That requires the acquisition of certain knowledge research skills, i.e. a certain about of Knowing How!
Philosophers typically concentrate the bulk of their attention on Knowing That and Knowledge by Description. So having made such interesting and indeed important distinctions for the rest of our time we will unfortunately pretty much ignore them!
Some attempts to 'define' knowledge:
A classic way of defining 'knowledge' or 'knowing', in the sense of knowing or knowledge about, since at least Plato's Dialogues is that knowledge = true belief plus evidence or, if you prefer, knowing is true believing where you have evidence and are not just guessing. Knowing about something is having true beliefs about that something in situations where you have evidence.
Let's then have a look at each of these three supposed ingredients, see what they amount to and why a person might like to include them as ingredients of 'knowing'. Then, as true philosophers, we will see if this nice little recipe really might work, to try to think more deeply about it, beyond the taken for granted.
In the rather obscure language of professional philosophers, where 'A' is a person (or some other kind of knower if not all knowers are persons) and 'p' is the state of affairs picked out by a statement about something or other, e.g. the cat ate the mouse, a person 'A' knows that 'p' if and only if:
1) 'p' is true. You can't know what's not so. Before you can know that the cat ate the mouse, surely the cat must really have eaten the mouse.
2) 'A' believes that p. You can't be said to 'know' something, if you don't even believe it, and certainly not if you believe something different. Though believing that something is the case is not sufficient by itself for what you have to count as knowledge.
3) 'A' has evidence for 'p'. He or she is not just guessing, they really know, they have evidence in favour, some reasons for believing and good reasons at that. I can't really be said to know that the cat ate the mouse if I'm just making a wild guess. What counts as good reasons or evidence would be relative to the situation, of course. For example, the cat was playing with the mouse a moment ago and now the cat looks like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. Or even better, I or someone else whose testimony is trustworthy may have actually seen the cat eat the mouse.
Now this all sounds quite good, almost common sense really, once we get the idea of what the philosopher is trying to do. But like good philosophers, let's have a closer look, let's look at the matter more deeply, let us slow things down a little bit. We will have a look at each component of the recipe in turn:
W.r.t. 1) 'p' is true. Putting aside until later what 'truth' might be anyway there are still some problems with this. What in practice does this component amount to?
Here we have to distinguish immediately between two points of view, which we may call 1st person point of view and 3rd person point of view, namely where the 'A' in question is myself, versus where the 'A' in question is someone else.
· From the 1st person point of view, "'p' is true" seems to be redundant, in so far as to believe something anyway is to take it as true. So knowing something = believing something in a situation in which I have (or, I believe I have??) good evidence or good reasons, full stop, that is, I allow myself to know something in situations in which I think my belief is well grounded, full stop. I know that the cat ate the mouse = I believe that the cat ate the mouse and I am not just guessing, my belief is well-grounded.
· From the 3rd person point of view, "'p' is true" reduces to I or we also believe that p, we the judges of the claim to knowledge also take 'p' to be true. This is certainly so: we don't allow a claim to knowledge to stand if we ourselves don't believe it is the case. Though our reason for believing it to be the case might consist in the combined facts that (a) they believe it to be the case, and (b) they are in a situation to have good evidence for their belief, e.g. they are the scientists, the experts after all.
This is all controversial, however. Theoreticians of knowledge divide at this point between epistemic Internalists and Externalists. Externalists contend that what makes believing good is determined from outside or external to our believing practices themselves, namely by 'reality', what's really out there, versus what I or you or the majority or the experts or even God believe is really out there. Internalists propose that this way leads nowhere fast, in so far as we have no access to what is really out there external to more or less well-grounded claims to knowledge of what is really out there by this, that and the other person. Externalists reply that Internalism is much too subjective, in so far as it makes the validity of claims relative to the knowers rather than being determined by what is really out there.
In respect of our present problem, Externalists will typically continue to define 'knowledge', and, in a stronger form, even 'meaning', in terms of 'truth'. The meaning of a statement = its 'truth conditions', i.e. what would be the case out there in the world were the statement to be true, the conditions in reality which would make it true. Whereas Internalists will more likely try to define 'truth' in terms of 'knowledge'. For example, 'truth' is what God knows, or, to make our definition more acceptable to agnostics and such-like, what God would know, were there a God. Or, truth = what is satisfactory to the human mind and stands the test of critical examination (Hume, implicitly). Or perhaps, if you can live with it: 'truth' is just the attribution we give to our best guess for the moment...
What then are you, an Internalist or an Externalists? And what might be the consequences for theology of one position or the other?? Or perhaps you are an 'I don't know'-ist!
W.r.t. "'A' believes that p":
Here the interesting philosophical issue is what belief amounts to. An example sometimes used, not so good for us Australians perhaps, has to do with in what conditions we attribute a belief that the ice on a pond or river is thick. If a person says the ice is thick, but is not prepared to walk on it, we are inclined to disbelieve them. They don't really believe that the ice is thick: after all, they are not prepared themselves to walk on it. (Remember the parable in the Gospel about the Two Sons.) An example which might work for city dwellers might be, the belief that the streets are safe and whether we are actually prepared to walk in a certain part of town or not.
Whatever, belief is manifest as much or even more authentically, it seems, in what a person is prepared to do, how a person is prepared to act or behave, as in what they say or even perhaps what they self-consciously think. A person's beliefs define reality for them, and the 'person' in question in this case is the whole acting, behaving organism, not just the self-conscious thinking or talking part.
Is this even true from a first person perspective, that sometimes I don't know what I really believe until put on the spot where that belief becomes relevant? So that sometimes I even make discoveries about my own beliefs? Or is this altogether too paradoxical? What do you think?
We probably wouldn't want to push it too far, however. What a person says, and in first person case what a person self-consciously thinks they believe, is evidence for believing that thing and most of the time good evidence. Belief manifests as a disposition to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances, including talking and self-conscious thinking. Is this, then, what belief is? Or is 'belief' that in us or that about us which grounds such dispositions, the intentionality or stance so to speak of the total organism in its relationship with its total environment or something like that, a certain way of being with the things and with other people.
This is all of obvious relevance to theology, don't you think? Pushed far enough it might even resolve the faith versus works problem??
W.r.t. "'A' has evidence for 'p':
There are a number of interesting questions for exploration here:
· Firstly, there is the problem of how much evidence?
We've already noted that what makes for evidence is dependent on what it is we are talking about. Evidence for Pythagoras' Theorem is being able to demonstrate it, or perhaps knowing that it is a theorem of geometry on the basis of what mathematicians say - that is, a knowledge based on testimony: even though I can't prove it, I know other people can. This is rather different than our evidence that the cat ate the mouse: here we rely on my or someone else's experience, or in some cases with deductions from experience. This much is OK.
But how much evidence do we need in order to say we know? Enough to make us certain. But how certain? Certain beyond all possible doubt, or certain just beyond all reasonable doubt? The latter opens up interesting possibilities. Statements certain beyond reasonable doubt can in fact be overturned: the courts sometimes get it wrong, though no fault of their own, the person actually was where his totally unsubstantiated alibi said he was,etc. Does it make sense to say, then: "I know, but I could be wrong"? [People who say, it does make sense, are sometimes called "Falliblists"]
This becomes particularly interesting in respect of science. According to post-Popperian philosophers of science, a scientific theory has to be falsifiable in order to count as genuinely scientific. Does this mean that scientific theories don't count as genuine knowledge?? And what of e.g. Newtonian science, which was the most certain part of knowledge outside of pure mathematics for some hundreds of years, but whose fundamental concepts have now been shown to have severe limits? Perhaps in another hundred years we will come to the conclusion that contemporary Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory also have severe limits. One thing it seems that science can't predict are future discoveries in science. Even our best scientific theories, it seems, may turn out to have been little more than "our best guess, for the moment". We seem to be left, then, with a choice between Fallibilism on the one hand and placing severe limits on the scope of true knowledge even in the 'hard' sciences on the other. This is very intriguing.
· By way of a second, just as interesting question: do we need to know that we have good evidence, in order to have good evidence? More generally, Do we need to know that we know in order to know?
This immediately puts us in a bind. If we say, no, then it is conceivable that we think we are only guessing but we actually know - we have good reasons but we don't know we have good reasons. On the other hand, if we say yes, then we get involved in an infinite regress. If we need to know that we know in order to know, then, in order to know that we know we need to know that we know that we know, and so on forever.
One of the interesting consequences of not needing to know that we know in order to know is that it makes it easier to extend genuine knowledge beyond the realm of the human. This is providing we allow other animals to at least have beliefs.
One theory here is that all that is needed for knowledge is an appropriate causal relationship between the situation to be known and the believing. Provided the situation or state of affairs to be known causes the correct believing, whether directly or indirectly, a person or animal can be said to know that situation or state of affairs. In this sense a dog can know that such and such is the alpha dog in its pack/its 'master', and that so and so are its pups.
People who go for this very interesting idea are sometimes said to be advocation "Causal Theories of Knowledge".
This is surely enough to get you thoroughly confused. How much of it is real, and how much just philosophical quibbling?? However, it is the kind of thing that professional philosophers get into in a big way, and it doesn't hurt to be a little bit familiar with it.
(B) What is involved in the process of coming to know/arriving at the truth?
One common way of working out what constitutes good practice is to have a close look at the practice as it actually occurs and see if we can determine the most general features of its more successful deployment.
Some general, hopefully useful statements on the process of coming to knowledge:
See if you agree with the following:
1. The acquisition of knowledge involves a more or less strong element of human active involvement. Alternatively: knowledge takes work, and requires personal involvement and commitment. It consists in sometimes quite creative human constructions suitably tested rather than in passive mirroring or 'photographing' of reality.
According to this idea, knowing is a species of production, not just a matter of sitting back and being impressed. It is what we bring to our experience and how we process it that enables our experience to yield what information it does. Knowing is something we have to work at, though in common everyday life most of the work is habitual and largely unconscious. Without this sometimes unconscious processing, this habitual way of construing or interpreting what is happening to us, the effect of the environment on our psycho-physical organism, our experience would be no better than that of a new born babe.
This doesn't mean that what we claim to know is really only our invention. It is just that the emergence, the coming into the light, the coming into unconcealedment so to speak of things and people, is a production, though not only my production: our production, and the result of a dialogue or interaction also with the "objects". All knowledge, all truth is "mediated" by the work of the subject. Things and people need our work, albeit mostly unconscious and habitual, in order to give themselves as they do. You have to listen and be on the ball and be perceptive. They don't give themselves to lazy people, nor to stones and bricks.
For this point, see especially Kant: experience without thinking is blind, thinking without experience is empty, both as needed for genuine knowledge which occurs when percepts are subsumed under concepts. Also the work of the later German philosopher Edmund Husserl, with his notion of 'constitution', at work even in perception. Also contemporary work on the psychology and neurology of perception: perception, esp. seeing, as an active process. Also contemporary hermeneutics and contemporary philosophy of science: all facts are theory laden, all experience is theory laden. But the idea of knowing as involving a sometimes strong element of creative human activity is present already in Aristotle and the Scholastics, Aristotle's 'nous poetikos' (creative or making intellect, 'poetikos' the word from which we get 'poetry'), the medieval latin 'intellectus agens'.
2. If done well, this creative involvement enhances rather than reduces the prospects for useful knowledge.
The mystery is that, as a general rule, the degree of giving, the degree of unconcealedness of the real, of people, of things, of the appearing of Being,
is directly rather than inversely proportional to the contribution of the intending act/the subject, i.e. to the degree to interpretation, to the degree of mediation, to us human beings (or whatever) doing our thing.
As a general rule: not always. A particular quality of contribution on our part is required, not a domination, a dogmatic rationalistic determination by the knower but a letting be (Heidegger). Without questioning and the right kind of questioning no answers, but being, people and things, only lets itself be seen when it is given room to move, and this requires a continual dialogue, an attitude of openness, a going out and eliciting of a feeding back. The most important thing in knowing is the art of asking the right questions. Cf. Lonergan: objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.
Whatever, "subjectivity", personal, dedicated involvement of the 'subject' or person in the process of knowing, is not to be seen as an obstacle, something to be got out of the way. It is, rather, something to be got right, one of the factors whose authentic deployment enables objects and people to give themselves.
3. Doing it well typically involves a three phase process:
This dialogue which enables things and people to give themselves, on every level from childhood 'constitution' of world and persons and self through everyday life to quantum physics, in its most general aspect, would seem to involve a threefold process, repeated as necessary, of
· presentation or experience,
· imaginative theorizing, hypothesis formation, and
· testing, implementation of willingness to stand corrected with reference to new experiences,
with what is achieved in any step in the process carried forward to the next.
Thus: presentation, understanding judgement
experience, what is it, is that so?
things happening why is it so? is that the
to us hypothesis construction solution?
raw data problem solving testing,
theory making truth in respect of
interpretation our theory,
bright ideas the validity of our
A pattern maintained right through (cf. also the interpretation of texts.) Compare a detective, looking for a murderer.
For this see especially the work of Bernard Lonergan. But once again, it is already in Aristotle and Aquinas.
· The key to good knowing seems to be to have all three stages, and in fair balance. In practice, this may be the work of different people, involving a division of labour: some people are better at one phase than another.
· Only a relative distinction (versus Lonergan sometimes):
-- all experience, probably, is 'theory-laden', with the possible exception of some moments within certain kinds of mystical contemplation: observational and theoretical are only relatively distinct, theories become facts, sometimes even perceived facts. There is an element of interpretation in every statement even the most basic.
-- the drive for understanding is a drive for true or accurate understanding – from the beginning. We are trying to solve the problem after all.
-- and the mere fact that I posit or judge a theory as true doesn't mean I've broken through to the final truth about the universe.
· These are names for phases in continuing individual and communal processes. There do appear to be limits however in respect of how much theory can be built already in the level of what we see, or hear or smell or taste or touch, the level of perception. Some 'theoretical entities', entities posited by theories, especially of the sciences, may well remain always as theoretical entities, though these also at a certain point may come to be regarded as facts. Every experience after the womb (and maybe even in the womb) is 'theory laden'. Every fact is theory laden. But not all facts are experienced or perceived in any direct sense. Neither of these statements calls the truth of our knowledge into question --it is just that all truth is mediated. Why not? Why should things give themselves to us without effort?
· But what is Truth?
(C) What is truth?
This is not as obvious as you might think.
First of all, we need to distinguish three kinds of claim in respect of all of which we deploy the word, 'truth':
1) Truth as in the expression, "are you telling the truth?", truth as in am I saying what I really believe, am I being sincere? This is sometimes called, truth as 'subjective' validity;
2) Truth as in the expression, "is your statement true, is it really the case that the cat ate the mouse, truth as conformity with the facts or with reality - truth as 'objective' validity; and
3) Truth as in the traditional expression, "are you being true to me?", truth as in 'intersubjective' validity - as in the marriage vow.
Philosophers are typically interested in the second sense, truth as objective validity. But the others are just as valid uses of the word. Indeed, as the contemporary German philosopher Habermas has noted, any attempt at communication (any 'communicative action' as he terms it) is susceptable to contestation on all three grounds: is this person telling the truth, is what this person says in fact true even if it does appear to be what they really believe, and is this person being true to his/her hearers in the sense of not engaging in propaganda or trying to dominate or seduce or seriously mislead or only giving half the story and slanted at that.
The competing theories of truth below, in any case, all have to do with the second sense, truth as objective validity. What does this mean?
Some competing theories of TRUTH
Correspondence: conformity between mind and things. Truth is some kind of correspondence or agreement between what I say/mean/think/believe and what is so, what is really out there. When we have this 'correspondence' then we say my statement is true. This is more or less the common sense idea, already enunciated above: truth is conformity to the fact, in line with reality, in line with what is really out there.
This is a very strong theory, in so far as it does appear to match our intuitions fairly closely. However, it is not without its detractors.
One trouble with this, the standard view on truth since Plato, is that, unfortunately, we never do compare what I say/mean/think/believe with what is so, what is really out there. The comparison is always with what we apparently experience to be so or really out there or what the experts or other people think or the rest of what we confidently say or regard as true or really out there. The comparison, like it or not, is always with something else on the side of 'subjects', either our and their experiences or their opinions. This factual state of affairs is reflected in a second family of theories
Coherence: the truth of a statement is a function of its coherence with other statements we believe. We regard a statement as true if it fits in or 'coheres' with everything else. Truth = 'it fits, it makes sense'.
Full truth is found only in theoretical systems --physical theories, metaphysical systems. Individual statements of common sense are only half true. Our need to rely on experience is temporary and not indicative: if we knew everything we would see how it has to be exactly the way it is. Thus Hegel.
This family of theories has come back into its own, in the aftermath of the apparent collapse of Foundationalism. Truth = how it fits in with everything else, that in respect of which we, or at least the relevant 'research community', have achieved an, often only temporary, communal 'reflective equilibrium'.
Pragmatism: the truth of a statement whether in science or common life (or religion) is a function of its usefulness or fruitfulness, Truth = it works well when we carry it into practice. But works well for what?
Peirce and Dewey: for prediction and control --as in science: two theories differ in so far as there is a difference in what you would be led to expect in future experience;
William James: James allows also a difference as to what we would take to experience, a difference as to how we insert ourselves into the world --a theory may count as true to the extent to which it enables us to co-ordinate ourselves with the real in a fruitful fashion. E.g. religious faith could well be true in this sense.
According to this family of theories, we regard a statement as true if it works, if it delivers the goods for prediction and control or for our dealing with things and people in life generally. If it does that, then this is all we should worry about.
Cf. Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis II: "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice [in the praxis] a person must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of their thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."
Obvious reference to theology: a theology is true in so far as it makes for fruitful insertion into the journey of human beings to God/the struggle for the Kingdom. Otherwise it's purely scholastic in the bad sense, a game for intellectuals, like chess but with the pretence to be otherwise which chess doesn't have. Theology as praxis.
These are the main traditional theories, but there are a few others which may be worth a mention:
Fulfillment (cf. the German philosopher Edmund Husserl 1859-1938): truth is the 'fulfillment' of an empty 'intention', when what I say/think/mean is given to me. Loosely: agreement between what I say/think and what is 'given', e.g. in perception or in 'intuition' of essences (as in logic or maths - we know such truths by a kind of intuition, e.g. 2+2 =4). Truth = intuitive givenness.
This is a rather strong conception of truth, meant by Husserl as the aim of his beyond doubt foundational phenomenology. It may not work so well in common life, however.
Deflationary or Reductive Theories of Truth (esp. Tarski): "A is B" is true if and only if A is B. The statement, "1 + 1 = 2" is true if and only if 1 + 1 = 2. The notion of truth is thus redundant. The statement "The cat ate the mouse" is true if and only if the cat ate the mouse.
This is popular among people who like to avoid obscurity and for everything to be clear. It may however be a mechanism for avoiding the question rather than answering it. On the other hand, it may promote a rephrasing of the issue, from What is Truth? to How does language map on to the world? Or does it? Or is "mapping on to the world" a useful or true way of putting it?
Unconcealedness or Aletheia (another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger): Truth is unconcealedness, not being concealed, a-lethia, un-hiddenness, not being hidden to us, standing in the light.
We regard a statement as 'true' to the extent that it sheds light on the matter as we say, to the extent that it brings things and people and what's going on with things and people into unconcealedness for the people to whom it is directed.
Note that "unconcealedness" here is always unconcealedness for someone. Note also that Being, and beings or things and people, need human beings or something performing similar functions in order to become unconcealed, and the degree of unconcealedness depends to some extent on us, the receptive mediation, the letting-be of human beings or something like human beings.
Note also that as with Coherence and some versions of Pragmatism, truth as Unconcealedness allows for degrees of truth = degree of unconcealedness. Not all in the light, always some in the shadow, light on one part frequently puts other parts into the shadow.
This has been invoked by some people as particularly useful in theology. Cf. Esp. Keith Ward, truth as Disclosure. See also Louis Dupre, in Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998), pp. 27 – 40. Among other things, it fits in very well with the notion of Revelation. In fact it is almost the same word, lifting back the veil.
In respect of such theories, a distinction is sometimes made between two questions:
1.the question of the meaning of 'truth', what we intend when we affirm a statement as 'true', and
2.a question concerning the criteria for truth, criteria for knowing when we have the truth.
Crudely, coherence, pragmatism and fulfillment might be said to do better on the second question, with major options for the first question being correspondence or unconcealedness. But this is all very complicated, wrapped up in various complicated ways with ways of understanding knowledge, among other things.