Sunday, May 11, 2014

What is Knowledge?

For ages people have wondered on this question, but officially there are still no particular definition for this term. A lot of different explanations (or, it would be better to say, attempts of explanation) on what it means that we know something, exist; but a particular answer was still not given. Many philosophers have studied this phenomena since ancient times, and formed a special branch, which they have called “epistemology”. The question of knowledge seems to be not less interesting then, for example, the question of meaning of life, origin of universe, or, finally, famous Shakespeare's “To be or not to be”. Literally, what does it mean that we know something?
Among all others, Plato’s definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”, which was accepted as a traditional definition of knowledge, seems to be more clear. What does it mean? From his “Dialogues on Knowledge and Forms”, it can be referred that “in order to know that a given preposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for doing so” (from The Concept of Justified True Belief, which is the part of “Dialogues”). Let me try to explain what it means in more understandable words. Let’s imagine a person who knows something, in other words, he knows that some preposition (or statement) is true. However, we can claim that if and only if the preposition that the aforementioned person knows is really true, he believes that it is true and holds a belief, (or in one phrase, is justified in believing) that it is true.
The concept of justified true belief describes the three criteria of the propositional knowledge, which are Belief, Justification and Truth (which, obviously, form the standard definition of knowledge which was formed from the criteria and vice versa). Here is the life example: first of all, there must be a belief in something. Imagine a man, who was sleeping in his apartment, and suddenly woke up in the middle of the night from a knock on the door. However, a man cannot be sure if there really was a knock or he just heard a rat-tat in his dream. At this point, it’s only a belief, which can be whether proved to be a belief or not. Justification process comes as following: to justify the knock, a man can rush to the door to ask if there is somebody who wants to enter the apartment for one reason or another; or with an intention of telling or asking a man something. Otherwise, a man can wait for another knock, which is, however, not a trustable justification, because somebody who knocked, if there was somebody, can just go away with a belief that the apartment he knocked to was empty (which is another example of belief, justification and truth: in order to make his belief a truth, a knocker should knock the door several times repetitively in order to be absolutely sure that there is nobody in the apartment he wants to enter). And the last step is proving the belief, making it true by justification: a man will rush to the door to watch threw the peephole if there is somebody behind the door. In both cases whether there is somebody who knocked or not, a man will complete the process of receiving of knowledge by making a belief a truth (in case he will see somebody there), or proving that the belief was only a belief and cannot be true (in case there is nobody behind the door and he heard the knock in his dream). This case is universal, because it has only these two outcomes: even if a knocker decided to leave after he knocked for the first time, being sure that the apartment is empty, a man who lives in it will hear the footsteps and make sure that somebody knocked; or he will not hear them and will make sure that nobody knocked.
However, there is a problem with Plato’s theory of knowledge: some skeptics believe that he made a mistake in his statements. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, a 1963 three-page paper by American philosopher Edmund Gettier and commonly known as Gettier Problem, had put this statement under doubt. In addition, Robert Nozick, also a famous American philosopher and a professor at Harvard University, claimed that “the justification had to be such that were the justification false, the knowledge would be false”.
The Theory of Knowledge suffered a significant setback when Roderick Chisholm’s 1982 book, “Foundations of Knowing” was published, in which the author, a philosopher who received his degree at Harvard University, disagreed that anything is known at all. This hypothesis makes a sharp turn in our understanding of knowledge. What if everything we know, we are just believe to know, but in reality we do not? Do we really know anything? More deep thoughts on this problem, which popped up so unexpectedly, can lead us whether to a psychiatric hospital or to a different point of view on the understanding of knowledge as a specific term.
A very good illustration of what Chisholm meant in his work can be illustrated by The Matrix, a Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film which explained the doubt of the existence of knowledge as a trustable source of statements which are generally true. This motion picture appeared in the list of greatest science fiction films not by accident: its complicated plot is, however, easy to understand for any audience and explains the whole philosophical theory: Thomas Anderson, who works for a very big corporation as a computer programmer and as a hacker under the pseudonym “Neo” on his own, is absolutely sure in it. However, it turns out during the film that none of the things he knew before were true. After watching several colorable hallucinations and dreams, and following the symbols seen in them in real life, Thomas meets Morpheus who tells him the terrible truth and brings into the disappointing reality. This is the example of the lack of complete justification, or, in other words, absolute certainty, which according to skeptics, surrounds us. When Thomas finds out that a human being is a source of energy for artificial intelligence and never even used his muscles, that it’s not the summer of 1999 and New York City is ruined, he gained what in philosophy is called, absolute certainty, i.e. he saw the things as they really are.
It should me mentioned that The Matrix is the first film of its kind, and brought the philosophical dilemmas into the common level of understanding. This movie brought people to Descartes dilemmas, to his “I think, therefore I am”. The Matrix perfectly illustrated his proposition of existence, as well as his complete idea that his senses could doubt him, therefore he could be wrong about everything but the fact of his existence. To bring it down, I will cite Descartes’ own words: “Would it be possible for me to believe that I exist, and this belief be false? Well, if I believed that, then I would have to exist, because anything that believes or doubts something must exist. So if I believed that I exist, then my belief would have to be true. No one could hold that belief falsely”. Interesting, isn’t it? Descartes’ explanation of the fact that anything that can doubt if it exists has to exist to doubt, is more than impressing. I would even say that it is as impressive as a Liar paradox (This sentence is false).
“There are known knows; there are things that we know that we know. We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. This famous phrase was said in February of 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense, as a response to a question at a United States Department of Defense News Briefing, and became the subject of much commentaries and jokes. The phrase, however, is very wise at a second thought. Is that what Morpheus wanted to tell Thomas referring to his understanding of the World and reality itself? Probably. Nobody can prove that such a scenario as in The Matrix, cannot take place in real life. Nobody can prove that everything that surrounds us it real, and hence, Descartes was right. But it’s not the main point. He was especially right about the thing that anything that can think, exists, even if the surrounding reality doesn’t. This could be understood by Thomas Anderson before he took the red pill, but would he, spending most of his time working and sleeping, even think about it? I doubt if he would. In his case, it all began with Morpheus, and in our case, it begins with a skepticism, a skepticism of reality which leads to the question on which we will never find the answer.

Even if we really live in matrix, not necessarily like in the film but any kind of it, it is more likely that we will never wake up from it. Some people, however, believe that death is a total “wakeup” into reality. But again, is it true? And how can we know? I personally take a position that whether we live in reality or not, we certainly spend time in it, and the time is priceless anyway. I try to make my time more enjoyable, and do that by overcoming different life obstacles on my personal way to happiness. I also enjoy making the time of others more enjoyable. And I wish you, my reader, whoever you are, the same.

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