How do you know?

In philosophy, the textbook definition of knowledge is, “Justified true belief.” This is also called, “propositional knowledge” because it can be embodied logical propositions. Most of the controversy in this definition occurs over what is ‘justified’ and ‘true’. Few people question that humans have beliefs. After listening to a podcast by James A. Lindsay about his new book Everyone is Wrong About God, in addition to a book I read nearly a decade ago, called Laboratory Life, early-twentieth century American philosophers James Dewey and William James, and N. N. Taleb’s ideas about religion. I’ve been thinking about alternative approaches to defining knowledge. I’ll explain these sources and try to tie them together into a new method of defining knowledge.

The problem with current epistemology is that it creates a problem out of how people logically express the contents of their mind. This bias in epistemology is taken as an axiomatic assumption, and it descended through philosophical practice from big names like Plato and Aristotle. I admit that this approach is valid and useful, but I wonder if there are other ways to understand human knowledge that may also shed different light on how we demonstrate what we know.

There is an alternative epistemological tradition, stemming from ancient writers such as Seneca and moving through history via thinkers like Nietzsche, the Pragmatist philosophers, and Taleb. In addition to our propositional knowledge, these writers describe performative knowledge, or knowledge based on what we do, but cannot necessarily describe in propositions — instincts are an obvious example of such knowledge, but I think some cultural traditions are also part of this kind of knowledge. In the field of cybernetics, such knowledge might be called an “emergent property” of an information processing system. In other words, there are actions that people do that are useful or valuable, but their value is not propositional. Moreover, Taleb claims that religious propositional knowledge is a second-order effect of religious actions; in other words, religious actions are primary to reasoned arguments people write to advance a particular religious tradition — according to Taleb, religions are nothing but performative knowledge that has been dressed up with post-hoc justified true beliefs; the theology books are post-hoc work that doesn’t necessarily defend a religious position. This idea is interesting to me, since much of our propositional knowledge is often wrong or at least inaccurate — consider that most human knowledge has been replaced over the recorded history of humanity.

If much of our knowledge is wrong or inaccurate, and we’re constantly revising and correcting it, what else can people rely on to provide useful information about the world, or do useful work? I think that behavior presents a useful alternative to propositions that we believe to be justified and true, since we’re typically interested in what we can do with those propositions: it’s not enough that we know how to build a house, cope with emotions, or treat a disease; we need to act on those statements to actually do those things. So, to say that knowledge is justified true belief seems to only address half of the problem. The other half is what we can do with those beliefs: do they work?


4 thoughts on “How do you know?

  1. SkepticMeditations

    What’s wrong with constantly revising beliefs or actions when new information presents itself that also warrants change in beliefs?

    When I was a monk, my premise for being a monk even, was based on absolute beliefs in Truths that I thought could not, would never change. My whole self-world framework changed later and continues to change gradually, slowly over time.

    Belief revision seems to be the only constant, as unsettling and uncertain as that makes my self-world context.

    1. My Other Feet Post author

      Hi Scott,

      You wrote, “What’s wrong with constantly revising beliefs or actions when new information presents itself that also warrants change in beliefs?”

      I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with revising beliefs or actions when new information presents itself that warrants change in beliefs. However, the crux of that statement is determining what information warrants the change in beliefs? There is typically quite a bit of review and consideration that goes into making the change from one epistemic view to another. I’d guess that you didn’t make the decision to leave the monastery lightly.

      Thanks for reading.

      1. SkepticMeditations

        Correct. My decision to leave the monastery was years in the making. Actually, I don’t even know if you could say I “decided”. It was a visceral knowing I had to leave based on overwhelming evidence against staying. Simply put: I outgrew my old beliefs.

      2. My Other Feet Post author

        That gets at what I want to convey in this post: so much of what we “know” isn’t propositional. In empirical terms, the explanation follows the observed event. The problem with non-propositional knowledge is: it’s hard to talk about propositionally — damn.

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