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Epistemology

Believing in Knowledge

Throughout this week, we have been discussing epistemology, touching on various branches of this topic, focusing often on the progression of opinion, belief, and knowledge. A brief, but somewhat broad definition of the three terms according to our Philosophy textbook and what we used in our discussions: Opinion- Statement that cannot be proven true or false. Belief – Statement that can be proven true or false. Knowledge- Justified true belief. Where a belief becomes knowledge was an area very much debated and broken down further. An idea that caught my mind was the definition of knowledge as society’s beliefs, as a collective belief.

Use Ptolemy’s theory for an example. It was once believed that all celestial bodies within our cosmos orbited around the Earth. Similar to how we now believe that the earth and the planets of our solar system orbit the sun, the people of Ancient Greece accepted the Geocentric model as truth, and more specifically, as knowledge. This theory was not only widely accepted but justified. There were two common observations that supported the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe. The first observation was that the stars, sun, and planets appear to revolve around the Earth each day. Stars closest to the equator appeared to rise and fall, and circled back to its rising point each day. The second observation was that the Earth did not seem to move from the perspective of the Earth bound observer, remaining solid, stable, and unmoving. In other words, it was completely at rest. If the celestial bodies around the Earth revolved, and the Earth remained still, then the conclusion could be drawn that everything orbited the centered Earth.

Nowadays, however, our newest mathematical and scientific discoveries and theories, such as aberration, parallax, and the Doppler effect, have proven that the Sun is actually the centre of our solar system. We are taught in school and by society that this theory is fact, and is indeed observable out beyond our atmosphere if only our naked eye were able. However, how can we be sure that are current theory is true?

If common knowledge can be defined as beliefs justified by the agreement of society, then knowledge is but the overlapping of personal beliefs (beliefs defined as statements that can be proved true or false). The line in which a belief becomes knowledge is crossed with justification, but it seems justification is a grey shade that is solidified through agreement of the masses. This interlacing of personal perspectives questions whether what we know is true, but nonetheless affirms the world in which we live in today.

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Believing in Knowledge

  1. I like how your post focused on one example to explain your theory; however, I would like to debate one point.

    You write, “We are taught in school and by society that this theory [the heliocentric model] is fact, and is indeed observable out beyond our atmosphere if only our naked eye were able. However, how can we be sure that are current theory is true?” I am confused by this often articulated argument, as humans have ventured outside of our atmosphere and observed the motion of observable celestial bodies. We may not know everything that is out there, but we do have the ability to witness the motion of the Earth as a direct experience.

    As Bertrand Russel believed, and as quoted from the booklet, “Knowledge by description can be based on your own knowledge by acquaintance – or someone else’s.”

    Posted by msbethechange | November 14, 2012, 2:42 am
    • Thank you for bringing this point up, Jen!

      I scrounged around the internet to figure out how much of the Earth’s movement that astronauts could actually while in space. As far as I found, most astronauts remain at approximately 250-350Km away from the Earth, orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes, thus being too close and moving too fast to actually see the Earth spin.

      My argument was more or less based on the flaws that may exist within our theories that we are unaware of, due to our personal bias and inability to truly ever know, not so much the specific flaws in the example I posed. I think specifically the jump we make when drawing conclusions from data is where flaws are made, and because we have no Truth-knowing higher being/book/evil genius to access, the theories we make are as true as our humanly justification allows.

      Posted by irishung | November 14, 2012, 7:16 am
  2. As I said near the end of class on Tuesday, I think you characterize the aim (and the difficulty) of the constructivist’s approach to knowledge in your last paragraph, Iris:

    “If common knowledge can be defined as beliefs justified by the agreement of society, then knowledge is but the overlapping of personal beliefs (beliefs defined as statements that can be proved true or false. The line in which a belief becomes knowledge is crossed with justification, but it seems justification is a grey shade that is solidified through agreement of the masses. This interlacing of personal perspectives questions whether what we know is true, but nonetheless affirms the world in which we live in today.”

    I think a certain amount of our current paradigm is represented with what you’ve said here, as the digital age gives way to an extension of Constructivism called Connectivism, wherein constructivism takes on a seemingly-infinite and global potential for knowledge creation. Our friend Stephen Downes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is one of the leaders of this movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectivism

    What do you think are some of the challenges in building this ‘overlapping’ personal knowledge in our communities? We’ve seen that it can be difficult in a group of 24 (or, 56, on an Adventure Trip, maybe), and a highly messy and contemptuous process in our provincial or national politics. What do you think we might need to overcome on a larger scale (nationally, globally) that these smaller scenarios (classrooms, extra-curricular clubs, etc) can teach us?

    Posted by bryanjack | November 14, 2012, 6:59 pm
    • Our, as you casually called it, “Lord of the Flies” like discussions did indeed display the many complications of constructivism. Though we never reached a agreed definition for our opinion-belief-knowledge discussion today, we were able to come to a relative conclusion for our project plan yesterday. Various strategies were brought up to better the process, including electing a leader that would have final say, surveying the masses through a vote, and many others. In the end, we more or less organized our plan through discussions and reasoning that included most of the class. Was this the most efficient way? Probably not. But we were eventually able to reach a consensus without any mortal wounds being dished out.
      On a larger scale, I think the increased number of people will indeed complicate things. Similar to a repeatedly raised point during our planning session (“Too many people and not enough jobs!), more people seems to equal more tension. In a society where decisions involving many are decided by the few, the end result is often only relevant to the few. This is perhaps one of the most bothersome cons of the democratic system. Luckily, in our evolving world, the general public also has a place to define what they believe is true. Wikipedia, for example, is a treasure trove of knowledge that is built through the contributions of many.
      In a world where people with different values and backgrounds can communicate directly, there will always be a constant clash of ideas. Is there a “right” way to overcome it all? I think not. However, knowledge is still passed on person to person, and with the internet accessible to many, ideas are passed over oceans and continents, creating a somewhat jumbled but extremely colourful interpretation of our existence.

      Posted by irishung | November 15, 2012, 7:31 am

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