Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tools To Transform Our Thinking (Part One)

Knowledge: Justified True Belief

Epistemology is a big word, don't be intimidated by the term. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the search for a theory of knowledge. There is always a theory behind how we approach these things, anytime one is questioning "how do I know what I know" they are questioning their own theory of knowledge. If one stops and thinks about it, it is a fascinating set of questions. We make knowledge claims all the time. Everybody does. It is something we do every day. We are consistently claiming to know things. How do we know them?

Epistemology is my favorite branch of philosophy because I find most people are not actively aware of their own thought processes. We are notorious for NOT being reflective of our methodology. We all need to think more self consciously about the tools we use and how we use them. If only people would stop and think about their thinking, we would solve many social problems, big and small. Family problems, fights, disagreements - you name it. Just getting people to perform a little meta-cognition now and again would make the world a happier place. 

On the flip side, I found that going too deep into epistemology can take a lot of fun out of life. Epistemology is a dangerous thing to study because the more you study it, the more you realize that you do not know a damn thing. You will find yourself questioning everything from the air you breath to the earth you stand on. Going deeply into epistemology can drive one into a very destabilizing life. If you just so happen to be the kind of person that likes to live in a comforting delusion, then epistemology is not for you. 

I do not subscribe to any one theory of knowledge, yet I actively reject several theories. I reject the theory that something can be known through faith and intuition. Neither authority nor spiritual revelation provide any reliable path to knowledge. I accept empiricism, but only in the science lab, yet recognize that things can be true without experiencing them. Reason is the best guide to have knowledge of anything in the world. There are many layers to epistemology. No matter what area you like, one thing is certain, studying it will certainly make you a smarter person. 

On another note, what about credibility? The concept that one can be trusted? Credibility does belong to the study of epistemology only to the degree that one "knows" a person's word to be good because they "perceive" the opposing party to be untruthful. The idea that John Doe is truthful because we perceive Jane Doe as being untruthful is completely absurd. How do we know we can take John's word over Jane without empirical evidence to support such claims. The problem is - we can't. 

The idea of credibility is a tough one for me because credibility tends to be right, yet when it is wrong it is disastrously wrong. When credibility fails us, in philosophy we call this a Flaw of Inductive Logic. Allow me to explain. Credibility presumes that past behavior (all based upon perception) is a good indication of future behavior. When the system fails, and John Doe's behavior does not turn out to be what we thought it would,  the whole system (theory of knowledge) must be thrown out and recycled for a new one because it probably means, that credibility never existed in the first place. 

In common discussion, a "statement of belief" is an expression of a person's faith or trust in something. When someone believes something, it only means that they accept as true a certain cognitive content. Beliefs are not all true, all true things can be beliefs. Many beliefs are false. The goal is to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible. 

If something is known, then it cannot be false. This area confuses people because they do not know what it is to know something, and they do not know how to show their epistemology. For example, if a person believes a bridge is safe enough to support him, and attempts to cross it, but the bridge collapses, it  could be said that he believed the bridge was safe but his belief was mistaken. It would not be accurate to say that he knew the bridge was safe, as it obviously was not safe. Lets say that the bridge was safe, then the man can say he had believed that the bridge was safe, whereas now, after testing it by crossing it, he knows it to be safe. 

One of the mistakes people often make is that they use belief and know interchangeably. The words are not the same thing. When we think about what we know to be true, often times, we are thinking about beliefs and not knowledge. 

Knowledge has standards, it must be tested, verified, and and subject to falsification. Beliefs are cheap. They are a dime a dozen. Anyone can have a belief like anyone can have an opinion. Beliefs have no value until they are put to the test.

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