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Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Nicholas: Philosophy with Physicists

Something that I found deeply intriguing during our discussion about Plato’s Cave was the difference between True Belief and knowledge, something that came up in this video. The class bounced the idea around for a couple of minutes, but then moved on to other things. I however, was really hooked on the idea and at the end of class jotted down the following list in my binder:

  • True Belief and knowledge, what’s the difference?
  • does True Belief lead to knowledge or the other way around?
  • Is our understanding of science a True Belief or is it knowledge?
  • Can we ever have actual knowledge?
  • What if we’re later proved to be wrong? was it still knowledge at the time or is it a True Belief in retrospect?
  • Is True Belief and knowledge on a “scale of knowing”?

Now I realise that each of these questions could consume a blog post (or a PhD thesis) each, so I’m going to focus on throwing some solutions at a few of those questions and hope that something sticks.

Without really delving into the first question too much, lets assume that the difference between a True Belief and Knowledge is as Plato suggested  to Socrates: true belief accompanied by a rational account is knowledge, whereas true belief unaccompanied by a rational account is distinct from knowledge. Plato then had Socrates try to refute this assumption, but the only issue he could find with the statement was that a “rational account”  was difficult to define itself. Thus, if somebody believes something is true, but can not back it up with experience or better yet, repeatable experiments, then it remains a True Belief, but if that same somebody percieves the world in a certain way, forms a belief and then backs it up with evidence, then he has knowledge. Here’s an infographic I found that might explain it a little better.

diagram of knowledge as justified true belief: perception is based on reality and causes belief; if the belief does not correspond with reality, then it is false and leads to error; if the belief does correspond with reality and has sufficient evidence, then it is knowledge.

Now pretend for a moment you’re Issac Newton and have just figured out the three laws of motion, have done some experiments with your peers and found your equations to be infailable. Besides feeling pretty proud of yourself, you’ve now acquired some knowledge, according to Plato, because you’ve percieved the world in a certain way, formed a belief, backed it up with evidence and then discovered (if discovered is the right term) some knowledge. Congratulations! you’ve just become the world’s most influential physicist and your three laws of motion will spur on hundreds of years of scientific progress! Until of course, Einstein comes along and disproves you with his theory of relativity.

because smart people can be silly too

So now what? Was your knowledge actually a True Belief because it turned out to be wrong? Even though it met Plato’s requirements for knowledge and for all intents and purposes was completely accurate during your life? If it was knowledge that you had, then it was false (and thus not knowledge at all?), at least within hindsight, and if it was not knowledge in the first place, because it was false, then how can anyone ever acquire knowledge because how can we ‘know’ that we have reached an absolute truth, or have made it out of all of Plato’s Caves (for there could be more than one). Even Einstein’s revolutionary theory was overthrow with quantum physics, which dictates that almost all events are possible, the only difference being the probability of these events occurring. If this theory turns out to be true then we can never actually know something (at least in regards to where subatomic particles are) for certain, and thus that kind of knowledge, materialistic knowledge even, is impossible, so what hope do non materialistic concepts have of being known?

Philosophy is confusing.



One thought on “Nicholas: Philosophy with Physicists

  1. Engrossing and completely fascinating post, Nick. I appreciate (as others must as well) the clarity of your presentation of True Belief & Knowledge, and how it extends naturally to the predicament that we may never truly *know* anything in permanence.

    This makes me think of the evolutionary necessity of questioning, and searching: if what we know about our lives and environment is always shifting beneath our feet, there would be a certain survival benefit to pursuing a clearer expression of ‘rational account.’ Whether in science, the arts or philosophy, to think that we are wired for an endless search of a more rational account of existence and reality is inspiring to contemplate.

    Posted by Bryan | September 24, 2012, 1:19 am

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