Sunday, May 13, 2012

[PHI 3000] So what if we don't know what we think we know?

It is often said that an analysis of knowledge that entails that we do not know anything except the truths of mathematics and logic must be wrong. But why?

In other words, many accept something like the following argument:
  1. According to a Cartesian analysis of knowledge, S knows that p only if p is absolutely certain.
  2. But few propositions can be known with absolute certainty.
  3. Therefore, a Cartesian analysis of knowledge must be incorrect.
But why should we accept this argument? So what if it turns out that we don't really know many of the things we think we know?


  1. This is a great blog!

    An analysis of knowledge that is so strong might be perfectly consistent; we might have fairly good reasons for thinking that it's true; etc. So, in a sense, there may be nothing wrong with it as a philosophical analysis. But one might be disturbed, surprised, indignant, and host of other things when one begins to consider such an analysis.

    I think there's an interesting connection between Robert Nozick's "experience machine" thought experiment and discussions of skepticism. Nozick seems to show that we care deeply about real relationships, actual accomplishments, and host of other things apart from the way things simply appear. If he's right, then maybe we should have a problem with this kind of analysis of knowledge because it doesn't allow us to know that we're engaged in real relationship, that we're really performing actions for which we're fully responsible, etc. Since I care about such things and since this analysis casts a very dark shadow on them, I've got a problem with this approach to knowledge. Of course, this is not a reason to think the analysis is false. All I've offered, I suppose, is a reason to be a little dismayed by the prospect of its truth.

    1. Thanks, Jesse.

      I agree that this is a reason to be dismayed.

      As you point out, it seems that we need to distinguish between reasons to think that an analysis is true (or false) and reasons to be dismayed (or encouraged) by the prospect of its truth. For example, some believe that teaching the theory of evolution has had negative social and moral consequences. Even if that is true, these consequences do not reflect on the truth value of the theory. That is to say, the theory of evolution is either true or false whether it is responsible for the perceived moral decay of society or not. Similarly, a Cartesian analysis of knowledge is either true or false regardless of how it might make us feel about the things we care about. Truths that are hard to face are still true.


This is an academic blog about critical thinking, logic, and philosophy. So please refrain from making insulting, disparaging, and otherwise inappropriate comments. Also, if I publish your comment, that does not mean I agree with it. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.