Why So Serious About Philosophy Part 1

Why So Serious About Philosophy Part 1

So you claim to know things, eh? You know your name is so-and-so (I assume it is not actually ‘so-and-so’ but rather whatever it is). You know that the sun rises each day and you know that naming your abdominal muscles unironically should be a source of shame rather than pride.

So you think you know stuff, eh? What are you, some kind of big shot?

Well, knowledge is a tricky thing- tricky as in difficult not tricky as in ‘a unit of prostitution’-y. So tricky, in fact, that by the conclusion of this post you will still not have a satisfactory definition of what it is to know something. The problem is that most ways of describing what ‘knowing’ means includes cases that we would not want to call knowledge or leave out cases that we are pretty sure count.

Aristotle was appropriately smug. Among his countless other contributions to philosophy and science, he banged out a theory of knowledge (philosophy of knowledge is called epistemology) that we call ‘justified true belief’. You know X if you have justified true belief X. If you know XXX, you may have a bit of a sticky mess on your hands.

So, what does JTB mean? Well, belief is just used to mean you think the thing. I believe that the sky is blue, for example, and I believe that frat boys have ruined the otherwise functional popping of collars on polo shirts. But people can believe false things, obviously, like that Sarah Jessica Parker should regularly appear in movies.

The belief being true is a pretty uncontroversial requirement for that belief to be knowledge. The old saying is that you cannot know falsehoods – a saying just a bit older than ‘wish in one hand, fart in the other and see how embarrassed you feel’. If you ‘know’ that all horses have six legs, then most people would be rightly comfortable in saying you don’t actually know that- you erroneously believe it.

The ‘justified’ part of justified true belief is more than just a true belief in the seductive aural canoodling of Justin Timberlake. Basically, the justification requirement prevents correct guesses from counting as knowledge. If you draw a card from a deck and, without seeing it, I tell you that I know it is the 8 of spades and it turns out that it is the 8 of spades, I would not really have known that. I am, of course, leaving aside ideas of telepathy and magic and all that because the contents of my skull are mostly brain matter as opposed to jello and loose twine. I had the true belief that the card was the 8 of spades but lacked any compelling justification for it. You would still have to do a shot of O’Douls, though, cause hey, that’s apparently the rule in the shitty imaginary game we were playing.

Well, we are all done here.


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