Thursday, February 22, 2007

Knowledge Games

I have always had a sneaking suspicion that many people attracted to philosophizing like making up outlandish scenarios; testing theories is just a subtext for creating extraordinary yarns.
Above all others, epistemologists (people who study what knowledge is) are attracted to this seminar room fantasising. The traditional definition of knowledge was "justified true belief". The major problem is that such knowledge can be undermined by sceptical scenarios.

A favourite example of mine involves a girl, let's call her Lavender, who visits a zoo. She thinks she sees a zebra in a cage, it has black and white stripes, four legs and looks like all the zebras she has ever seen. A strange old wizened philosophy professor sidles up to Lavender and asks her what she knows about the thing in the cage. Lavender says "I know that's a zebra." The epistemologist (for that is his speciality) cackles and says "do you, I wager it's a cunningly disguised mule." The problem thus becomes, could Lavender really have the justified true belief in the first instance? For the epistemologist is right, because he himself has painted the mule to fool poor unsuspecting zoogoers and plunge them in to sceptical doubt and also make a bit of money by duping them.

If you take the moral from such considerations what we say we know thus becomes justified belief, but surely we want our justified beliefs to be true? It may well be the case that they are not and so our ability to know what is true in the world has been rocked. Are philosophers having fun or are these sceptical examples a serious way of spending one's time? I say both are true, because these simple examples are ways of dramatising problems we face in making headway in philosophy, but it seems clear to me that such examples are really invented to have a good laugh and what's bad about that?


lavenderblue said...

Tobe !

I shall read this many, many times I am sure.
But a big thank you for taking the time to help !
As you know it has baffled me for too long........

zola said...

Hello Toby bear : Intersting that. This week in Finland sees the first ever centre dedicated to critical pedagogy and Paulo Freire.

It was freire, and others, of course, who struggled to stay vital. This was a struggle that linked rigour and solid knowledge with the human sense of joy, fun, laughter and hope.

Perhaps this issue is old fashioned now because the measurement of all value has nowt to do with educational labour or even a Socratic Shock.
Thanks for the post
and hope you nasty journalism exams went ok for you.
For me the only exam for a journlaist is the feedback from readers. Bit I am old fashioned.

zola said...

Anyway : my name is SOKAL.
It was me that first put up that little zebra cum mule event. I can now tell you it was a hoax. It really was a Zebra badly painted ( but just well enough painted to provoke doubt)twice. two layers of paint.

anticant said...

A great post, Toby! I know the following is an old chestnut, but can you help me, please?

I'm not a solipsist, but I am sceptical as to whether my perception of external objects is the same as yours. For instance, what the Brighton Pavilion looks like to me may be seen by you entirely differently. And when we both agree that a rose is "red", is "redness" merely a conventional name we use for what are in fact two entirely distinct personal perceptions?

How can we be sure that anything is as we perceive it?

lavenderblue said...

In the eye of the beholder springs instantly to mind.....
It is doubtful that people see things the way others do.
Colours for example.
How many blues ...?
What colour IS the sky ?
Think of a witness statement desribing a two people see exactly the same thing.

lavenderblue said...

A rose by any other name.......
Roses are red,dillydilly.
Oh - but Anticant, what about the Wars of the roses....and blue roses and yellow roses
and i am a pedant .
Shall I get my coat ? xx

toby lewis said...

I find the philosophy of perception very difficult and I know little about the literature, but here goes.

We have no means of knowing (yet) whether our perception is the same as that of others. However, we can go about our daily business and communicate to and pass objects to most able-bodied people. This seems to suggests that the shape of objects at least is not functionally different in the conscious of one person to another. But the phenomenal experience of colours for example could be very different and we could still go about our everyday lives. When someone is blind to the distinction between blue and green their colour blindness obviously becomes apparent because when we ask them to pass the blue object they will pass the green object.

I choose to believe that as we have similar brains to other people, and thereby brain patterns our experiences are probably not radically dissimilar, yet for the moment we have no way of refuting the die-hard sceptic. The question I put to you is whether that is ever possible?

I'm glad this might have helped you understand what me and Szwag were banging on about, Lavender.

Zo - These journalism exams were a means to an end: employment. It still hasn't come yet, but it can't hurt trying.

anticant said...

According to Lakoff & Johnson: "Philosophy in the Flesh" [which I'm still in the process of reading] our perceptions are mediated through our uniquely individual mind-body personas.

I agree that while there may not be a philosophically convincing refutation of radical scepticism, we actually function for the most part in a matter-of-fact, common-sense way. Anything else would be chaotic.

Similarly, as Berlin said, although there is no conclusive proof of free will, we behave on the assumption that it exists.

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