Knowing v accepting


How do we draw the border between what we know and what we have learned from people who know?

The question is prompted by a discussion on a public post of Ed Brayton’s on Facebook about sophisticated theology and Karen Armstrong and agnosticism. Dan Linford (who teaches philosophy) said this:

Armstrong thinks that we can know that it is true that “God exists” but we cannot know what that sentence means, both because we do not know what God is nor do we know what ‘exists’ means.

I can’t make any sense of that. I can’t see what it can mean to know something if you don’t know its component parts. It seems like Dadaist gibberish to me. If I don’t know what ‘god’ is and I don’t know what ‘exist’ means, how can I know god exists?

It’s helpful in understanding mysticism, Dan said. Not to me it isn’t.

Dan drew analogies to a trusted friend telling you a sentence in a language you don’t understand is true, and thus you know it’s true, and to an instructor writing an equation that we don’t currently understand; we might trust the instructor that she is telling us true things.

But I wouldn’t say I know those things. That’s one place where I draw the border. I might accept it, but accepting something, taking someone else’s word for something, is not the same as knowing it yourself. It’s provisional. Knowledge is not provisional. If it is provisional, then it’s something short of knowledge. It may be good enough, it may be serviceable, it may be true – but for you it’s not knowledge.

Or am I all wrong?

Comments

  1. Jean says

    It’s not knowledge; it’s belief. Once you get more corroborating evidence, it may turn into what could be called knowledge. At least that’s how I see it.

  2. says

    No, I don’t think you’re wrong at all. This is loosely related to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The problem with Linford’s response, and philosophical responses in general, is that epistemology has very little to do with how people actually acquire knowledge.

    Unless you’re on the cutting edge of scientific research, you don’t acquire knowledge by carefully reasoning over the evidence. Most of the time, we acquire it by hearing someone say something and then thinking “Yeah, that sounds right.” Like you say, knowing vs. accepting. I can’t think of anything at all that I have come to know as a result of the kind of critical thinking people like Boghossian are constantly going on about.

    Epistemology isn’t about acquiring knowledge as much as it’s about confirming or disconfirming previously acquired beliefs. I think this confusion plays into another common phenomenon, which is the confidence with which self-described “rational people” hold to their views. Stephanie Zvan had a couple of posts about this recently. “Rational people” tend to think that their beliefs are pre-justified by their own inherent rationality, but that’s nonsense. I like to say that rationality isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, and not everyone does it equally well, and no one spends very much of their time doing it. The vast majority of any person’s beliefs at any given time are largely unexamined, and therefore potentially suspect.

    The vast majority of any person’s beliefs at any given time are also relatively trivial. What truly rational people try to do is identify the unexamined beliefs which underlie their views on matters of consequence.

    I hope it’s not bad form for me to mention that I’ve started my own blog, which I hope will be of interested to many readers of this and other Freethought Blogs: Not Another Atheist Blog. If I’m out of line, I apologize, and either way I won’t bring it up again.

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    Nope, I think you’re right. My favorite analogy goes as follows: strip all knowledge claims from the word “cat”, then form the statement “cats exist.” Can you evaluate the truth-hood of it? Nope, not even if you had a cat sitting on your lap. Thus it is unworthy of any belief.

    The sentence in another language has more knowledge content than “cat,” as it’s formed from letters and words which can be looked up. Ditto the equation. But there is no place to look up what “cat” means if you’ve stripped all meaning from it. Where would you start? This doesn’t change if transferred to someone else: how could your trusted friend conclude “cats exist” unless “cat” had knowledge attached to it? Their trust does not justify accepting “cats exist,” instead “cats exist” justifies reducing your trust in them.

  4. says

    Good, this isn’t just me then. The conversation didn’t go at all well on Ed’s thread, because there’s the technical definition, according to which – apparently – if someone else knows, and tells me, then I know, because I’m justified in accepting that as true belief and knowledge=justified true belief as any fule kno. Apparently I simply have to accept the technical definition and presto, I know this thing I’ve been told.

    Nope. I don’t. I may believe it, I may accept it, but I don’t know it. Philosophers can tell me I do know it all they want to; I don’t.

  5. Fred McVittie says

    I have to say that I’m somewhat in agreement with Armstrong here. Sophisticated theology has a bit of a bad name in atheist circles, not least because RD and others equate it with ‘dippity’, ‘woo’ or deliberate obfuscation, but I suspect that (sometimes) there’s more to it than that. At its best ST connects with philosophy and even some branches of the sciences, and it’s a shame that those genuine attempts to understand aspects of lived experience are rejected just because it uses words we don’t like. I also think it’s unfortunate that Armstrong is referred to here as a ‘mystic’, which carries a lot of inappropriate baggage, when she is really just drawing attention to the limitations of human conceptualisation; an inevitable product of our embodiment.

    You draw attention to her questioning what the word ‘exists’ means, with the implication being that defining a word like that should be simple, but in philosophical terms, as well as within disciplines such as cognitive linguistics, which I have some knowledge of, ‘existence’ is a deeply problematic concept. The fact that it is too often associated with a crude scientism that suggests that the only thing that the word can possibly mean is something like ‘to be composed of atoms’ is indicative of the problem. Do emotions exist? Perceptions? Values? And if we say they do are we simply saying that there are neural correlates for these phenomena? Terms like ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ also, with a bit of careful investigation, are shown to be not really any more readily definable, despite the apparent obviousness that they present.

    I don’t know if ‘sophisticated theology’ is any better at granting access to these ideas than other forms of poetic engagement, but it certainly has more chance that science, imho.

  6. says

    First, isn’t everything we say we know provisional to a degree? (aka the solipsism problem)
    Second, we talk all the time about stuff we “know”, but by your definition is only stuff we accept: the sun is at the centre of the solar system–but you only know that because that’s what you’ve been taught and it jibes with other stuff you “know” (like the rudimentary principles of gravity). By your definition, what do you actually know (vs. what you only accept)?

  7. stevebowen says

    If that really is Armstrong’s position she should be Ignostic. It’s theological non-cognitivism and while a reasonable position in itself renders discussing the existence of god entirely pointless.

  8. says

    I think I agree, except for one thing:

    I tend to follow something said (made famous by?) Carl Sagan: “I don’t want to believe. I want to know.” So like with evolution; when somebody asks me if I “believe in” evolution, I say that I don’t.

    I don’t believe in evolution.

    I don’t believe in evolution, because I don’t have to. It’s a proven fact. The methods by which it occurs (Natural Selection, Genetic Drift, and so on) is the theory, but that evolution occurs is a fact. So I usually find it easier to say that I [i]know[/i] evolution happens, insofar as it’s been proven.

    Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I “accept” it? Except I have seen at least some of the evidence myself, and have made it a habit to collect and read (to the best of my admittedly limited abilities) scientific papers on the subject.

    Hm… maybe this falls perfectly in line with what you’re saying. I’ll have to think on it more…

  9. says

    Ibis, yes, pretty much…although there are also degrees. I can think of plenty of things I’m happy to say I know, even though I can think of ways I could be wrong. (I’ll say I know where X is – but uh oh, X might have burned down in the last 5 minutes. Etc.) But things that are more technical and remote – I’m not so happy I say to know those, even if I do share in some reported knowledge of them.

    And yes, about the sun – that tends to be the first thing I think of when I consider this issue. Yes, I “know” the sun doesn’t set but is orbited by the earth, but I “know” it via other people who know it in a realer sense than I do.

    On the other hand context can change that I suppose. If I were confronted with someone who claimed the sun circles the earth because God said so I would probably start using the word “know” quite readily.

  10. says

    I agree with Ophelia, and contra #1, I don’t think it even qualifies as “belief” if I don’t grok the content of the statement. With respect to the case of being told by an authority I accept, it’s more of a meta-belief that there’s a statement — or even a whole body of knowledge — here that is probably true, but it isn’t *my* knowledge until I understand it. And if, on further investigation, I find that the authority’s claim amounts to “1=2” or somesuch, I’ll conclude I was wrong to trust that authority in this area.

    But aside from that, I have no reason to accept the mystics as that type of authority. I can, with some investment of time and effort, learn enough of the language, or the math and science, to gain some comprehension of the content of the statement, and see if it jibes with what I already believe on good grounds, and so make it part of my knowledge. But where science seeks to clarify* its explanations, religious mysticism seems to regard obfuscation as a virtue. So in the face of continued stubborn refusal to say what is meant by “God”, I think I’m entitled to conclude that there’s no there there, and get on with more interesting projects.

  11. says

    Ed’s blogged this one as well. As I said there, Armstrong’s argument is nothing more than the creationists’ “God of the gap” wrapped up in academic-speak. It’s rapid hand-waving to distract you from the fact that there’s nothing there.

  12. linford86 says

    I thought I’d wade in here and provide a few responses. I’m currently nursing a hangover from some unfortunate decisions last night, but I’ll try not to be too gruff in my responses.

    drewvogel stated: “The problem with Linford’s response, and philosophical responses in general, is that epistemology has very little to do with how people actually acquire knowledge.”

    It’s not my response; it’s Karen Armstrong’s. I was just explaining it. As I wrote in my article on Scientia Salon, I’m no fan of Armstrong’s (I argued specifically against her). However, I think it’s valuable to at least understand what those who disagree with you have to say, which is why I was bothering to explain Armstrong’s position in the Facebook thread in question.

    At any rate, I’m rather confused by your statements re: philosophy. As someone who is engaged in academic research — and has a background in the physical sciences — I have spent a lot of time “actually acquir[ing] knowledge”. It seems as though you think that only scientists do research. Even if I had never spent the years that I did in the sciences, I have spent a long time doing research in history & philosophy. Those are academic disciplines, too, and also involve knowledge acquisition.

    Ophelia stated: “[…] there’s the technical definition, according to which – apparently – if someone else knows, and tells me, then I know, because I’m justified in accepting that as true belief and knowledge=justified true belief as any fule kno. Apparently I simply have to accept the technical definition and presto, I know this thing I’ve been told.”

    Well, let’s be a tad more careful. There are varying technical definitions of ‘knowledge’ and Alexander had offered one of them as an example, because he thought it might be helpful. The definition he offered was that knowledge is justified, true belief. In other words, if we justified in believing a proposition P and P is true, then our belief in P counts as knowing P. Now we turn to the example where a trusted person tells you something.

    We can imagine, just for the sake of argument, that someone who we have full and total confidence in tells us some statement. As an example, perhaps you have seen a medical doctor for years, they’ve been consistently correct in their prognoses, etc. Now you visit them one day and they tell you that you have a disease you’ve never heard of before. When they tell you the sentence “Ophelia, you have [insert disease name]”, you have full confidence that what they said was correct. You are justified in being confident because this is a trustworthy doctor who is never wrong. But you also don’t understand what they said to you because you’ve never heard of this disease before.

    Armstrong’s claim is like that. She thinks that there are statements about God, which we can know to be true, but which surpass any of our usual concepts. I’m not saying that I buy this idea of hers — like I said, I ultimately reject her view — but it does seem to make sense to say that we can be confident that a proposition is true without understanding the proposition.

    Now, maybe you don’t like the JTB definition of knowledge. Famously, Edmund Gettier did not either and he developed a series of interesting counterexamples. But it seems that all someone like Armstrong needs to say is that we can be highly confident that a proposition is true without understanding that proposition. It seems to be beside the point as to whether you want to call this high degree of confidence ‘knowledge’.

    steve bowen states: “If that really is Armstrong’s position she should be Ignostic. It’s theological non-cognitivism and while a reasonable position in itself renders discussing the existence of god entirely pointless.”

    No, that’s not right. A theological non-cognitivist claims that theological statements express something other than propositional content. As I interpret her, Armstrong is an apophaticist, not a theological non-cognitivist, and she thinks that our language is capable of communicating propositions about God (however poorly). However, she thinks that when we do apply terms to God, they mean something different than what they would have meant when we apply them to creatures.

    Incidentally, while there are some technical differences between Armstrong and Thomas Aquinas, Armstrong’s view of religious language is very close to Aquinas’s. It’s also very close to that expressed in the Catholic catechism. So if this makes Armstrong a theological non-cogntivist or an ignostic — as you suggest — then the Roman Catholic Church and Aquinas are ignostics or theological non-cognitivists. That seems fairly implausible.

  13. says

    It seems like Dadaist gibberish to me

    It seems like someone wants to believe in god, but can’t come up with a rational argument and preferred to substitute an irrational one. That’s silly because simply asserting faith is both more honest and less woggity-goobly. I can respect someone who asserts faith (no point in arguing with them, really) but the woggity-goobly just shows that they’ve tried to brain, but nothing happened.

  14. quixote says

    Um, coming from a philosophy amateur here, so may not be worth the heat of the pixels to read it, but doesn’t this just cry out for a bit of Socratic method? I.e. define terms. It sounds to me like people are using knowledge to mean whatever it means to them, and others are reading it according to their own definitions, which sometimes seem to be non-overlapping.

    There’s knowledge(a), such as I know I’m sitting in this chair because I can feel the pressure. (Although I gather Descartes wasn’t so sure what that proved.) There’s knowledge(b) where I know the boss is a jerk based on past experience, which may or may not account for the way the boss is in all situations. There’s knowledge(c) where somebody else has weighed and tested and measured something enough to be sure of getting the same answer tomorrow, and whose word you’re willing to take for it. And there’s knowledge(d), which circles back to (a), where someone has a personally meaningful experience that others have no way of accessing, but which the someone is convinced is true, for some value of “true.”

    And there may be a few others I’ve missed in that post. As it stands, I have to admit my eyes always glaze over when I see stuff like, “we can know that it is true that “God exists” but we cannot know what that sentence means.” Shades of arguing about the meaning of “is.”

  15. says

    it’s a shame that those genuine attempts to understand aspects of lived experience are rejected just because it uses words we don’t like

    Nice. Generally, it’s rejected by philosophers because it fails to hold up to even basic epistemological challenge. It’s not because it uses words someone doesn’t like – it’s because it uses those words in a way that don’t advance the argument.

    Ibis3@#8 points out that there are a number of philosophical schools that feel they have demolished all claims to knowledge on the basis that they are eventually dogmatic (Sextus Empiricus. ca. 200AD) David Hume recapitulated and elaborated on the pyrrhonian skeptics and mounted a robust attack against many types of claims of knowledge, as well. For me, Sextus Empiricus and David Hume have held the field and subsequent attempts to establish knowledge on an empirical basis have not succeeded except for through argument based on exhaustion of other possibilities; basically “knowledge of the gaps” which is Ciszko’s argument in “Without Miracles” as well as where Popper was trying to go with falsifiability. I don’t think it’s unfair to characterize the responses to the pyrrhonians as relying on things as they appear to be, appearances being good enough for all intents and purposes; this, however, is extremely problematic for the deist, who tries to claim that: things as they appear to be, therefore knowledge of god. More than one important step is missing there.

  16. sawells says

    I think we need to distinguish between DON’T know and CAN’T know. In the doctor/diagnosis case, the doctor may use a term whose meaning we do not currently know, but which we could if we learned more.

    Armstrong’s case is more equivalent to a doctor saying “You have a severe case of umwoomphia. It’s impossible for anyone to know what umwoomphia is or what the symptoms are. But you definitely have it.”

  17. Ariel says

    linford86:

    Armstrong’s claim is like that. She thinks that there are statements about God, which we can know to be true, but which surpass any of our usual concepts. I’m not saying that I buy this idea of hers — like I said, I ultimately reject her view — but it does seem to make sense to say that we can be confident that a proposition is true without understanding the proposition.


    It makes sense and I agree. I’m not sure though about the word “proposition” here. Is it the same as “sentence”? Are we talking here about a mere string of uninterpreted symbols or is it more than that? If more, how much more?

    To illustrate: there was an example of “God is good” in Ed Brayton’s text. The problem is that if I think of “God is good” as uninterpreted string of symbols, then even knowing that it’s true, I’m still not able to draw any conclusions from it. For example: can I infer at least that whatever “God” refers to, possesses some traits which are worth possessing? No way – if it’s just an uninterpreted string of symbols, I can’t do even that. It’s like saying “”slrweaewa” is true” – try to infer anything from this! The problem with knowing that an uninterpreted string of symbols is true is just this: it is a pretty useless piece of knowledge.

    So maybe Armstrong is claiming that we have some partial understanding of such sentences? Your example about Ophelia and a doctor strongly suggests it. It’s simply not entirely correct that I do not understand “Ophelia, you have [insert disease name]”. On the contrary, I have a partial understanding. The thing is that even not knowing the disease, I am able to draw inferences. (For example, I’m able to infer that Ophelia is ill.)

    What, according to Armstrong, can be inferred from “God is good”?

  18. says

    @linford86

    Armstrong’s claim is like that. She thinks that there are statements about God, which we can know to be true, but which surpass any of our usual concepts. I’m not saying that I buy this idea of hers — like I said, I ultimately reject her view — but it does seem to make sense to say that we can be confident that a proposition is true without understanding the proposition.

    Sorry, it doesn’t make sense to me, at least not without some qualification. I like sawells’ point about something that is unknown, but knowable. In your doctor example, I can provisionally accept that the statement may be true without knowing all of the premises that make it up, but only because I can know the premises, at least to some level. Note the “provisionally” there as well. If there’s doubt about one of the premises, then there’s doubt about the conclusion.

    The truth or falsity of a proposition where you can’t know even the meaning of one or more premises is, in itself, unknowable. I don’t know if philosophers make use of this, but in computer science we sometimes use three-valued logic. “True,” “false,” and “unknown.” The “AND” operator (which you would use to join premises in a proposition) returns a value of “unknown” if either value is unknown. I think that applies here.

  19. Al Dente says

    Fred McVittie @7

    Sophisticated theology has a bit of a bad name in atheist circles, not least because RD and others equate it with ‘dippity’, ‘woo’ or deliberate obfuscation, but I suspect that (sometimes) there’s more to it than that. At its best ST connects with philosophy and even some branches of the sciences, and it’s a shame that those genuine attempts to understand aspects of lived experience are rejected just because it uses words we don’t like

    My objection to theology, sophisticated or simplistic, is quite uncomplicated. It’s opinions about what an imaginary being thinks and wants. That makes it completely unknowable. Some theology is quite complicated and shows a great deal of thought and elaborate interpretations of what other theologists have written, but it still boils down to: “This is what I think something which doesn’t exist thinks.”

    Quite often dogma is determined by whoever shouts the loudest. For instance, the Nicene Creed is supposedly the basis for Christian dogma (although not all Christians subscribe to all of it). The filoque (literally “from the son”) phrase included in some forms of the Nicene Creed but not others, and is the subject of controversy between Eastern and Western churches. The controversial phrase is shown here in italics:

    And in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son

    Whether or not the phrase should be included is one of the causes of the “Great Schism” between the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches. The Catholic Church and most Protestant churches include filoque while the Orthodox churches reject it as heretical. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo I yelled the loudest in the Western church while Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople and Emperor John VIII Palaiologos screamed loudest in the Eastern churches.

    TL;DR Two groups of theologians disagreed about one word and their respective churches went their separate ways. But we all know that neither of these groups was doing anything but pulling their opinions from their collective rectums.

  20. linford86 says

    “I like the subtle (but not very subtle) hostility of Dan’s chosen example.”

    I’m glad that this amused you (instead of offending you) because, honestly, I did not intend to be hostile!

  21. linford86 says

    I think the following might clear up a large amount of confusion here. It would seem that there is a distinction between:

    1. Knowing that p;
    2. Knowing that p is true;
    3. Understanding p.

    We might think that 1 and 2 are distinct. Perhaps I can know that Bob said something that was true without knowing what Bob said. However, the doctor example I gave seems to suggest that 1 and 2 are equivalent: to know that p is to know that p is true (both involved having justified true belief that p). This is also the case for a variety of examples in physics, where even if we can know that the equations are true, we might not have an interpretation for the equations beyond what we need to apply them to our apparatus (consider that the many worlds interpretation and Bohmian mechanics are both consistent interpretations of the Schrodinger Equation, yet involve radically different ontologies).

    Here’s a further question. Can you have 1 and 2 without 3? Well, again, the doctor and physics examples seem to suggest that yes, you can have knowledge without understanding (I can know that p is true without understanding p).

  22. Al Dente says

    linford86 @26

    you can have knowledge without understanding (I can know that p is true without understanding p).

    Of course. I know my computer and the internet work without understanding how they work.

  23. says

    @linford86

    But Armstrong is arguing that p cannot be understood. In my book that makes any proposition involving p to be meaningless. Nothing more than an unsupported assertion of the truth of p.

  24. says

    to know that p is to know that p is true (both involved having justified true belief that p

    Uh, I don’t see that’s necessarily the case. You can know P and know P to be false by definition. For example if P is the proposition “1 + 1 = 4” (based on our definition of one, and how addition works) I can know what the proposition means and know it to be false. Perhaps I am misreading you?

  25. Vicki says

    OK, there’s some real disagreement about what “exists” means. But I think most people would agree that “Mount Rainier exists” and “Mount Rainier is a plastic model of a zebra” are not synonymous, because we know that “exists” isn’t synonymous with “is a plastic model of a zebra.” For the same reason, “Mount Rainier exists” isn’t synonymous with “Mount Rainier is in the Cascades Range,” even though those are both true statements about the same physical object.

    If someone can’t give me a definition of “god” that is clear enough for me to be able to tell whether they mean the creator of everything, my emotional response to the sight of Mount Rainier, or a plastic model of a zebra, then “God exists” is no more meaningful than “10389jrn xyzzy Florr!querts.” It’s cheating for someone to argue that “God exists” if they aren’t willing to try to define god. Cheating that will then leave them handwaving that they’re trying to use the same term for both the creator of everything and my emotional response to Mount Rainier (which varies) but not that plastic model of a zebra, without ever giving evidence for the existence of a creator. Yes, there are plastic models of zebras. That isn’t much of a basis for theology.

  26. Al Dente says

    Vicki @30

    It’s cheating for someone to argue that “God exists” if they aren’t willing to try to define god.

    Whenever I have a meatspace discussion with a theist I always insist on them giving me a definition of “God.” I ask them “Are you talking about a vague, deist deity who kickstarted the universe and then faded into the background or an old geezer with a long white beard who sometimes answers prayers, decides which high school team wins ‘The Big Game’ and has an unhealthy fascination with peoples’ sex lives or something in-between?” I’ve noticed that when speaking to me their gods tend towards the deist end of the spectrum but when speaking with other theists their gods are more similar to the geezer.

  27. Pierce R. Butler says

    Waitaminnit.

    I “know” the Earth orbits at 500 light-seconds out from the Sun, +/- ~1%.

    And I’ve stacked up enough coins & stuff to have a working “knowledge” of 500-ness, though not with much precision.

    My concept of a light-second gets a lot more tenuous – about 8.6 days’ travel around the circumference of our annual orbit, if that helps anyone “know” it better. I “know” I could cover a light-second by going around the circumference of the Earth about 7.5 times, but at my latitude I “know” that’s a lot more planetary spins than noon from next week from tomorrrow – but I no longer “know” the trigonometry to make a stab at “knowing” the number.

    I just worked out that last numbers with a little spreadsheet-playing and improvised formulae – does that count as doing the hands-on of drewvogel’s # 2’s “carefully reasoning over the evidence”? I did it in a state of fatigue – now that you “know” that, does your confidence in “knowing” that number take a hit?

    Someone who really “knows” astronomy by the numbers will surely set me straight before the sun rises next in Seattle, and then all the rest of us who check in after that will “know” better.

    The French use two words for what English mashes up as one: connaitre and savoir. Needless to say, the distinctions have been delineated by the teraword, mostly in French, and I want y’all to “know” I “know” very little of that discussion. Off the cuff, I’ll call the former intuition-from-experience and the latter rational comprehension – a distinction I hereby accuse some others here of neglecting. Harumph! (The smackdown I have coming from Francophones will be even worse than that from the astronerds, I “know” it…)

    One can validly “know” many things one “knows” are false: the Star Trek universe, the Tarot deck, libertarian economics, Judeo-Christo-Muslim theology – only God “knows” how many things we or he might “know” that ain’t so.

    The point of the above non-sequiturs: “knowing” has multiple dimensions as well as multiple degrees within each.

    The French are pikers – I “know” we need many more (no, I dun”no” how many) words than they have to “know” what we’re talking about here tonight. “Know” what I mean?

    Gawd, I’ve missed the epistemology around here!

  28. Don Cates says

    @Artk

    I agree. If we, meaning everyone, don’t know what “God” is or what “exists” means, then using the term “God exists” is rather ingenuous. Claiming “Froobl grobit” is true would be more honest and expose the ‘reasoning’ for what it really is.

    For @Linford86; your doctor comment should be “Ophelia, you [unknown/unknowable word] [unknown/unknowable word]”. Is it good news, bad news, completely unrelated to helth, a joke? With no restrictions on the meaning of those words, even for the speaker, why believe they are true?

  29. Dave Ricks says

    Dan, thank you for taking the time to elaborate and clarify here.

    A minor point: I think you misread Drew’s comment that “The problem with Linford’s response, and philosophical responses in general, is that epistemology has very little to do with how people actually acquire knowledge.” I think Drew meant this: Remembering back to when I was 16 and I took Driver’s Education, I absorbed knowledge organized by pedagogy from the source side of the education. I had no training to apply epistemology on my receiving side of the education. So when I passed the written test, and the driving test, they did not ask me to define Justified True Belief. Although in full disclosure, I have been pulled over and asked if I knew what the speed limit was.

    A more strategic point: I appreciate you putting Armstrong’s ideas on the table charitably here, so we can engage them without strawmanning them (“It’s not my response; it’s Karen Armstrong’s. I was just explaining it”). You put Armstrong’s position here:

    We can imagine, just for the sake of argument, that someone who we have full and total confidence in tells us some statement. As an example, perhaps you have seen a medical doctor for years, they’ve been consistently correct in their prognoses, etc. Now you visit them one day and they tell you that you have a disease you’ve never heard of before. When they tell you the sentence “Ophelia, you have [insert disease name]”, you have full confidence that what they said was correct. You are justified in being confident because this is a trustworthy doctor who is never wrong. But you also don’t understand what they said to you because you’ve never heard of this disease before.

    Armstrong’s claim is like that. She thinks that there are statements about God, which we can know to be true, but which surpass any of our usual concepts. I’m not saying that I buy this idea of hers — like I said, I ultimately reject her view — but it does seem to make sense to say that we can be confident that a proposition is true without understanding the proposition.

    Damn, I never thought I would be a Bayesian, but I see two Bayesian priors here: 1) the confidence that a doctor’s prognoses have been consistently correct for years — in numbers we can count — versus 2) Armstrong having a personal revelation — but what was her track record on any previous personal revelations?

    I think of Freethought as a philosophical movement that considers the whole space of philosophy but with revealed religion taken off the table, and we see what remains. Now it seems to me, her whole position is based on her personal experience, which to Freethought is argument from authority.

  30. John Morales says

    Marcus @29,

    to know that p is to know that p is true (both involved having justified true belief that p
    Uh, I don’t see that’s necessarily the case. You can know P and know P to be false by definition. For example if P is the proposition “1 + 1 = 4″ (based on our definition of one, and how addition works) I can know what the proposition means and know it to be false. Perhaps I am misreading you?

    You know that it is true that P is a proposition. 😉

    But I think in this case it hinges on the definition of ‘know’ (c.f. #16), such that it’s not meaningful to claim that a falsehood can be ‘known’; i.e. the claim only applies to true propositions.

    (Domain of applicability is an important consideration)

  31. John Morales says

    Personally, I think that at best Armstrong is proposing an otiose “hidden variable theory”.

    Lately, I’ve taken to referring to theists as goddists, but perhaps I should also start referring to theology as godology.

    (Looks kinda ludicrous and insulting when the cognates are employed, no? :) )

  32. Ariel says

    linford86 #26:

    I think the following *might* clear up a large amount of confusion here. It would seem that there is a distinction between:
    1. Knowing that p;
    2. Knowing that p is true;
    3. Understanding p.

    *Might* clear up, you say, and I agree. It *might*, sure, everything is possible … in the realm of the possible. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that nothing has been cleared up. Imo it only complicates the picture. Be that as it may, here is a handful of remarks:

    1 doesn’t imply 2. My dog knows that the cat is on the tree. However, my dog doesn’t know that the sentence “the cat is on the tree” is true. In order to have this second piece of knowledge, my dog would have to master the concept of truth (and the concept of a sentence as well!). So far he has given no indication of this. (On the other hand, he convinced me of his abilities to recognize cats and trees.)

    2 doesn’t imply 1. Imagine that a mathematician tells you: “some recursively saturated models have an automorphism whose conjugacy class is dense”. Hmm, assume also that “some”, “have”, “an”, “whose” and “is” are the only words you understand in this sentence. However, other competent mathematicians answer “yes” when asked whether it’s true. So 2 is satisfied – you know that the sentence in question is true (knowledge = justified true belief)! But is 1 satisfied? In other words: do you know that some recursively saturated models have an automorphism whose conjugacy class is dense? I don’t think so. My reason: in order to know it, you would have to believe it first. And the point is that without a sufficient mastery of the conceptual apparatus, you are simply unable to possess such a belief. All you are able to do is to repeat the words, and the ability to repeat the words is not a sufficient condition for having a belief.

    Can you have 1 and 2 without 3?


    This is more subtle. Anyway, your doctor example doesn’t convince me. After hearing “Ophelia has xyz” I acquire a belief that (*) Ophelia has a disease which the doctor called “xyz”. Imo that’s all that can be reasonably said here. But this is *different* from a belief that Ophelia has xyz, which would be required for 1.

    For an illustration of the difference, imagine that the doctor is a Chinese who used a Chinese expression meaning “a flu”. But I don’t speak Chinese. What’s the content then of my belief that Ophelia has xyz (Chinese words)? It’s certainly not that Ophelia has a flu. What is it, then? I’m inclined to think that it’s no more than (*). And the problem is that (*) is not enough to make your example fully workable.

    [Meta: what’s the connection of all of this to Armstrong’s claims? Sorry, I’m not sure. All I’m sure of at the moment is that all of this was fun to discuss!]

  33. sawells says

    @Ariel comment 37: The sentence that leaps out at me from your discussion is this one:

    “All you are able to do is to repeat the words, and the ability to repeat the words is not a sufficient condition for having a belief.”

    Mind if I steal that for general use? It seems to me to be a very powerful rejoinder to most forms of religious education!

  34. sawells says

    Thanks :)

    I think a lot of this “sophisticated” theology is the equivalent of exploring in detail the properties of the rational number whose square is 2. No matter how clever you get while you’re doing it, there still isn’t any such number, so all that effort is just developing difficult fiction.

  35. brucegorton says

    This is the thing that always gets me with the whole ‘sophisticated theology’ thing. If they go the Armstrong route, it is actually worse than childish.

    The childlike big beardy in the sky type god is at least a meaningful being. It isn’t the verbal equivalent to radio static. Even if it is totally wrong, it is at least meaningful enough to have content.

    With Armstrong, you can’t say you know or accept what she is saying, because it is effectively nothing but noise. It is neither true nor false, nor worthy of any consideration or even respect. Indeed it is worthy only of disrespect, given how it is essentially wasting everybody’s time.

    It is, as they say of pseudoscience, not even wrong.

  36. Hj Hornbeck says

    linford86 @26:

    However, the doctor example I gave seems to suggest that 1 and 2 are equivalent: to know that p is to know that p is true (both involved having justified true belief that p).

    My explanation for this would be that all claims have a truth value assigned to them. It may be 100%, in the case of mathematical or logical ones, but it’s still there. This is a side-effect of the epistemology we commonly deploy.

    Can you have 1 and 2 without 3? Well, again, the doctor and physics examples seem to suggest that yes, you can have knowledge without understanding (I can know that p is true without understanding p).

    My best counter is that the two situations are disanalogous. As I pointed out earlier, and Dave Ricks pointed out at #34, we have quite a bit of background knowledge about the medical doctor. We have prior diagnoses which turned out to be correct, and we have prior knowledge of what a medical doctor should know. I can spot-check their knowledge by spending some time reading up on their subject, then quiz them. I don’t need to have taken a full medical course to demonstrate they have a significant amount of medical knowledge. I can also look for self-consistency within what they claim, on the assumption that reality never contradicts itself. The mystery diagnosis may have no meaning to us, but not only does it have meaning to someone, it also depends on entities rich in meaning.

    Whereas to say “God” has no meaning is to imply it has no meaning for anyone. You remove that entity from an environment of meaningful entities, and prevent any evaluation of its truth value. If it cannot be evaluated, then by definition it cannot have a truth value assigned to it by an epistemology and thus cannot be considered a claim with knowledge content. This makes “God exists” a nonsense statement, which can only be used to prove that human beings aren’t perfectly logical.

  37. John Horstman says

    Screw it, I was going to have a much longer, more detailed response, but I have places to be. All knowledge is functionally Bayesian – it’s a matter of probability of being true, which we can sometimes even formally quantify, but it’s never 100%, with the exception of constructed abstractions (like mathematics or other formalized abstract systems, where things can have definite truth values because we construct them that way) and the existence of at least one ‘mind’ – some system capable of cognition such that I can even be here considering the questions. This is due, as Ibis3 points out, to the solipsism problem, which can never be resolved – not even if there was a god (or some other outside observer of the universe) and you or I met it, becasue those experiences would still be subjective and questionable (indeed, many people HAVE met a god as far as they are concerned, and I doubt the veracity of those experiences categorically).

    What’s ridiculous is the “therefore god [or other mystical claims]” leap Armstrong is implicitly defending – once you know that (nearly) all knowledge is provisional, you need some basis for whether you provisionally accept any proposition, and with what degree of certainty. Evidence that is validated by multiple subjectivities (assuming that other people exist, of course; and if they don’t, then really, none of this matters becasue I’m just arguing with myself, on the Internet, which is actually a delusion, so whatever) has been demonstrated over a long time to be our very best means of determining what is most likely to be true. Side note: this is why the scientific method has proved so useful, though that epistemic approach shows up everywhere we have groups of humans, as with cultural norms, shared historical or cultural narratives, etc. – we agree, so it is true (even when it isn’t). So what defenders of faith ignore is that lack of certainty does not mean that anything imaginable is thus equally certain – even without the possibility of perfect knowledge or actual independent verification (everyone verifying what I see could also be my own delusion), not all possibilities are equally likely.

  38. says

    I like that way of putting it. It’s what I’ve been trying to get at – knowing is mostly (or almost entirely) provisional, so it’s a continuum rather than a yes/no. Now that makes sense to me.

  39. Ben Finney says

    Others have pointed out this “you trust a friend who says it’s true, therefore justified true belief, therefore knowledge” is likely what the philosopher is asserting forces you to call that “knowledge”.

    I think the mistake is in trying to find a sharp distinction between knowledge and everything else. Knowledge, in the sense Ophelia seems to be seeking, is merely a more-justified species of true belief.

    The division isn’t sharp, because even when the justification for true belief comes from our direct sense experience, those senses are known to be less than perfectly reliable; so we cannot be completely justified in accepting what our direct sense experience tells us.

    So, I’d say there is a clear difference between “true belief, justified based on my direct sense experience” on the one plate and “true belief, justified because the friend who claims this is a reliable source of truth” on the other plate. I think we are correct to say we know the former.

    I also think, though, that we can be right to say the latter is knowledge — provided we are willing to say this friend is sufficiently reliable in this specific field, to overcome the extraordinariness of this claim. Sometime,s that’s the case — and I would say in those cases we can rightly say we know the claim to be true.

    It’s yet another real-world spectrum, where most philosophers want clear distinct categories and thereby try to force us to accept that because that’s a pile of sand, this grain must be too.

  40. John Morales says

    Ben Finney @45,

    So, I’d say there is a clear difference between “true belief, justified based on my direct sense experience” on the one plate and “true belief, justified because the friend who claims this is a reliable source of truth” on the other plate. I think we are correct to say we know the former.

    Warrant.

  41. says

    I’m sorry I haven’t been back before now, but I kind of got sidetracked.

    Dan Linford addressed a comment to me @16, to which Dave Ricks @34 provided a far better response than I would have myself. Most of what we know we know because someone told us and we believed them, despite the fact that this isn’t anything close to an epistemologically valid foundation of knowledge. Most of what most people call knowledge is acquired without epistemological considerations of any kind. That’s why so much of what most people call knowledge is wrong, but I don’t see any alternative. I simply can’t epistemologically validate the weather report, but I still need to know whether it’s likely to rain this afternoon.

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