Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Justified... Again.

When do you know something? The study of epistemology is pretty much obsessed with that question and it's one of the few areas of modern philosophy that I feel has real ramifications on everyday life. As opposed to just jerking off your mental meat for the sake of feeling smart, I like intellectual endeavors that result in some sort of lesson, or nugget of wisdom that I can then apply to my next conversation, or automobile accident, whichever comes first.

Being able to focus on whether I am actually justified in a belief or not is really important. Just think about what would have happened if the entire country and applied that sort of thinking on the Iraq war. Would we be there? Because that entire invasion was predicated on whether we were justified in believing that Saddam Insane had atomic bombs. I think, especially now, that regardless of all the government's posturing and grand-standing, that we did NOT know that Iraq had very big go-booms.

Knowledge is also a complex situation. Can we ever know something. What does it mean to know something? If I believe something, and it's true, did that make it knowledge? What if I believe something because I'm nuts, and have no real reason to believe that there is a man named Robert currently hunting for lemurs on Madagascar. If it turns out there is that man, did that mean I knew it. Pretty obviously not.

So it means that I must believe something with good reason and then have it be true. But what is good reason? I won't even get to what makes something true or untrue. We'll simply go under the assumption that something is true if an observation of reality confirms it. It is true that Robert is hunting lemurs if someone sees him doing it.

But how can you know that person isn't lying? And even if you saw Robert, yourself, how do you know it wasn't someone dressed up as Robert. How can you be sure? Your belief may not actually correspond to reality. Even your observations may not correspond to reality. These sorts of questions are critically important in legal cases and they get brought up frequently because witnesses are so frequently wrong. People believe they are correct but turn out not to be. But from their perspective, they were totally correct and justified. They had a belief, it corresponded to reality, so where's the problem?

I'm someone who believes that truth can, sadly, never be attained. We have one real truth, and that is I think, therefore I am. Doesn't help us much when we're trying to finger a bank robber. The best we can hope for is degrees of justification. You can really name them whatever you want. Not/sort of/mildly/very/perfectly. It doesn't matter. What matters is that any knowledge is subject to what we can observe. That's the very foundation of science. And as such knowledge is forever in doubt. And because of that, you can never have knowledge. Since knowledge requires believing something that is true, and we can never be sure if a belief is true. Thus, knowledge doesn't exist and all we're left with is beliefs that have varying degrees of justification. Again, I point to Iraq as a great example.

Because of this, I always work towards justification. I actually think that there is a dividing line. One that, if we could apply a number to each of the variables that affect the decision, we could arrive at and say "I am 47% justified." Unfortunately, in a complex belief system like the one of everyday life, it's impossible to actually apply numbers to every, single belief. If we could, we could actually draw a line between justified and unjustified.

Many people would argue that real truth must exist. Statements can be made, reality, whatever it is, is sure to exist, and as such statements must be able to be made that correspond to reality. I agree. But truth and knowledge are different things. Even if I make a statement that is true, because of imperfect perceptions of reality, I can never know it to be true, and as such do not have knowledge. If I can't have it. I don't care. Most people who disagree with me are foundationalists.

Stop obsessing about something you can never have! We can be justified in our beliefs and actions. I think that's fine in a world defined by uncertainty. We can get awfully close to truth and knowledge, and that's a shit-load more than most people ever think about or achieve, all you have to do is look at Iraq.


Daniel said...

I agree with you but I see a flaw that some might bring up. "Thus, knowledge doesn't exist and all we're left with is beliefs that have varying degrees of justification." How do you "know" this to be true, do you have 100% "justification" for this statement?
I am working on a response for similar arguments but was wondering if you had any input.
Thanks, Daniel

Aaron MC said...

Hey Daniel,

Thanks a lot for the comment. I'm sorry it took me so long to respond.

I know it sounds like a contradiction, but I think that's semantics and has nothing to do with the fundamental concept.

If I can recognize that I do not know A, and then use the same mental process to determine that I do not know B, and then expand that to all points, I can determine that I know I do not know. Because if everything about me and my world save for my own existence is in doubt, then true knowledge is impossible.

I guess in a sense it can be called the second foundationalist statement. I know I am and I know I do not know, but I don't think that knowing I do not is knowledge. I think that it is the recognition of the lack of knowledge.

Just as with legal proceedings, it is the positive that must be proven, not the negative. I do not need to be justified to fall to a negative.