This week We are going,to,travel back to,the twilight zone as we seek to explore the question of knowledge and belief on the Sci phi show
As we venture into the twilight zone we find a story called nightmare at 20,000 feet. We meet a young married couple boarding a flight, the husband, Robert Wilson, a salesman is traveling home after a 6 month stint in a sanitarium where he was treated for a nervous breakdown that occurred on a previous airline flight. During the flight Bob becomes convinced there is a monster on the wing of the plane and that this monster is messing with one of the engines. Of course the monster hides when anybody but Bob attempts to see it.
What is bob to do? Should he doubt what he can see with his own eyes? Should anybody else believe his seemingly impossible story?
There is a field of philosophy called epistemology, which is the study of knowing, that seeks to wrestle with problems like this.
There are several ways of knowing something, two of these are procedural knowledge, like knowing how to replace a flat tire, and acquaintitive knowledge like knowing a city or a person. But for now I am going to limit the discussion to propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge is of the form, “All dogs are mammals” or “2 + 2 = 7”. Obviously not all propositions are true.
The first thing to consider is what a persons goal is with regard to gaining knowledge. Interestingly it isn't as simple as maximizing true beliefs or minimizing false beliefs. It is actually extremely easy to do either of those.
To maximize the number of true beliefs you have, just believe everything anybody ever tells you, including contradictory beliefs. Likewise if you want to minimize false beliefs just refuse to believe anything at all. Depending on what you want to achieve one of these two options will insure you get the desired result. However for most people they don't want one or the other but a middle ground between the two that allows for a maximum number of true beliefs and a minimum number of false beliefs, ideally zero.
There used to be a simple answer to the the question of how get that balance of the maximum number of true beliefs to the minimum number of false beliefs. The straight forward solution is the concept of justified true belief. The idea is that all justified true belief counts as knowledge and anything that isn't justified true belief doesn't.
There are therefore three parts to knowledge, let's examine them one at a time in reverse order.
First there is belief. In order for something to be knowledge there is a requirement that a person has a belief about the proposition in question. This seems to be a simple enough idea.
Next we move onto the criteria of truth. For something's to count as knowledge it needs to be true. The issue of what it means for something to be true has long been debated but for simplicity I will go with the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas who said “A judgement is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”. We will have to leave an exploration of the different conceptions of truth for a later show.
Finally we come to the hardest part of the idea of Justified True Belief, that is the justification for the idea. This can turn out to be quite difficult to nail down. The basic idea is that for a belief to count as knowledge it has to be properly justified. The way you arrived at a belief must be reasonable and involve some process that is appropriate for forming that belief. Here we run into some problems with what counts as reasonable and appropriate, although there are plenty of clear cases to illustrate the idea.
So what would be a reasonable justification for a belief.
Suppose I had the belief that my friend Owen enjoys drinking beer.
For the sake of argument assume it is true that it is actually the case that Owen enjoys a beer. This will satisfy the truth requirement.
Will my belief count as knowledge? It really depends on how I justify it. If my justification for this was based on my observation of Owen drinking a beer and expressing enjoyment at doing so, then it would be reasonable to think that my belief counts as knowledge.
I could have reached my conclusion in a different way though. Say I took all the names of my friends and put them on a dart board and then proceeded to throw darts at the board blind folded. I then conclude based on which darts struck names that all of the people whose name was pierced by a dart enjoyed a beer, Owen being among the names struck by a dart. Is this a reasonable way to justify a belief? It would seem that the answer is no not really. Even though it has generated a true belief because Owen does enjoy a beer, this is not an appropriate way to justify such a belief because the justification is entirely by chance. It may or may not be prone to generating true or false beliefs depending on chance and the number of my friends who enjoy a beer. Either way this seems like a very defective way to reach beliefs and it isn't really reasonable to call any such beliefs knowledge.
So to have a belief qualify as knowledge the justified true belief standard seems fairly reasonable. The justification can take many forms, it can consist of personal experience, or study, or information from a trusted source. There are lots of possible ways for a belief to be justified. There is a possibility of getting bad information or arriving at false beliefs that would appear to be reasonably justified but in general the standard of justified true belief was regarded as a good way of characterizing knowledge.
That was until a philosopher by the name of Edmund Gettier proposed a number of thought experiments in 1963. One example goes as follows.
Henry is driving in the countryside, looking at objects in fields. He sees what looks exactly like a barn. Accordingly, he thinks that he is seeing a barn. Now, that is indeed what he is doing. But what he does not realize is that the neighborhood contains many fake barns — mere barn facades that look like real barns when viewed from the road. And if he had been looking at one of them, he would have been deceived into believing that he was seeing a barn. Luckily, he was not doing this. Consequently, his belief is justified and true. But is it knowledge?
Clearly the conclusion reached is reached simply by luck, which we know is a defective means of acquiring knowledge and fails the justification step, but it would appear that the belief about the barn does pass the justified true belief test. This would suggest that the justified true belief criteria is at least incomplete for determining whether something is knowledge or not. There are a number of attempts to solve this problem but that is material for a future show.
So back to Bob. What is he to do about the monster on the side of the plane?
Is it reasonable for Bob to conclude that he has knowledge of the monster on the side of the plane? At least in terms of justification for his belief he has the problem that he may not be able to trust his senses. After all nobody else can see the monster and it frustrates all attempts by Bob to reveal it to the other people on the plane. Given Bob's past mental health issues it seems it might be reasonable for Bob to conclude that he is hallucinating the monster on the side of the plane. Certainly that is the conclusion drawn by everybody else.
Although the reality that the monster appears to be tampering with one of the engines changes the circumstances somewhat. If Bob doesn't act the plane may crash. What is Bob to do? Clearly the veracity of his belief is in question with Bob doubting even himself. Bob decides to act after stealing a gun he opens the emergency exit and shoots the gremlin driving it off.
Did Bob act rationally? One of the crew asks why he chose such a convoluted way to try to commit suicide. Later we discover that Bob will be vindicated because there is physical evidence of tampering to the engine. But that still doesn't really answer the question. It appears that Bob may have saved the plane by driving the monster off. Yet it also seems that at the very least he should have questioned the validity of his belief.
This is a very brief introduction to the very deep field of epistemology. Hopefully it has given you some food for though. You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via sciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask.
Let me know what you think.