The problem of knowledge—musings on a thesis

I’m beginning to think that the word ‘knowledge’ is positively unhelpful. It is a lie clad in truth’s clothing. It makes us think we can have something distinct from belief or opinion but on closer examination it is just posturing. And both faith and science are similar in this regard.

It’s over two and half millennia since Socrates (in Plato’s Theaetetus) tried to nail down what we mean when we talk of knowledge. One commonly accepted view is that to say you know something is the same as having justified true belief. So knowledge is a belief that has more conditions added; it must be a true belief and it must be justified (i.e. there must be good reasons for thinking it is true.)

Why does something need to be true and justified to count as knowledge? Because if you believe something that isn’t true then we don’t normally call it knowledge. And if you believe something that is true but don’t have any good reason for believing it then again we don’t normally call it knowledge; it’s more a case of luck.

But Socrates knew even then that to define knowledge in terms of truth was a problem. If knowledge is justified true belief then how do you know (there’s the word) it’s true? In other words you have to already have knowledge that something is true before you can call it knowledge. To put it another way, you say “I know X because I have a justified true belief that X.” But someone asks, “But how do you know that your belief is a true belief? Before you can claim to have knowledge you have to know that your belief is true.” Sounds circular—you need knowledge before you can have knowledge.

The alternative is that you can have a sort of knowledge (justified, true belief) but you can never know that it’s true. So you can know things but you can never know for sure that you know. This isn’t circular but it just means we can never be sure of what we call knowledge. And normally when we speak of knowledge we mean something we are sure about.

So let’s be honest; when we say we know something we ought to say we believe and then modify that by saying how strong our belief is. So we might say ‘I’m absolutely convinced’ or ‘I’m pretty sure’ or ‘I believe… but I have my doubts.’

And that’s where religious faith and climate science offer examples: both are about what we believe to be true (perhaps with absolute conviction) but we can’t prove either of them.

So the language of belief and faith and conviction and confidence is more transparent than the language of knowledge and for clarity’s sake we ought to stop using the word knowledge.

I’d be very happy for a vigorous discussion to ensue.


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