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The Nature of Knowledge

A. Gavin 2013

Introduction
The word knowledge can only be understood
through experience and reflection.
TOK could be said to be a reflection on the
meaning of the word knowledge.
Starting point should be a definition for
knowledge lets explore knowledge as
justified true belief.

A. Gavin 2013

Justified True Belief


Examining the 3 things that make it up:
Truth:
The most obvious thing that distinguishes knowledge from belief is
truth.
If you know something it must be true if you just believe it, it can be true or
false.

Truth is independent of what anyone happens to believe is true even


if everyone believes something is true it may turn out to be false e.g.
in the middle ages people believed there were 7 planets orbiting the
earth, now we know there are 9.
Can we ever be sure that what we think we know really is true?
No there could be more planets discovered.
However, when we say something is true, we can say that it is beyond a
reasonable doubt.
Since we are willing to imprison someone or put them to death on the basis of this
evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt) then we can say that this is acceptable
criterion for saying that we know something.

A. Gavin 2013

Justified True Belief


Belief:
If you know something, then what you claim to know must not only be true,
but you must also believe that it is true.
If you have no conscious awareness of something, then it makes little sense to
say that you know it.
Task:
1. Can you think of any cases in which someone might be said to know
something without knowing that they know it?
2. As technology develops, do you think it will ever make sense to say that a
computer knows things?
Since the time of Plato, philosophers say that when you know something you
are in an entirely different mental state then when you just believe something.
When you know something you are certain of it but when you believe
something you are not certain of it.
If you take a continuum that has belief at one end and certainty (beyond a
reasonable doubt) at the other end.

A. Gavin 2013

Belief cont
-10
Impossible

-5
Unlikely

0
Possible

+5

+10

Probable

Certain

Belief

Knowledge

Vague Belief:
I may vaguely believe that eating tomatoes helps reduce the
risk of heart disease I dont know where I came upon this evidence and may
abandon it in the face of counter-evidence.
Well Supported Belief: I may believe that Smith killed Jones and be able to give
evidence for my belief but I am unwilling to say I know this is the case.
A Belief that is Beyond Reasonable Doubt: I may find evidence that Americans
landed on the moon in 1969 so convincing that I dismiss the conspiracy theories
because of flimsy evidence therefore I know that Americans landed on the
moon.
The important thing is to try to develop a reasonable and well-supported set
of beliefs as possible.
A. Gavin 2013

Task
Looking at the belief-knowledge continuum, running
from -10 to +10, where would you put the following
propositions?
a. Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.
b. If A is bigger than B and B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C.
c. Human beings are descended from apes.
d. Murder is wrong.
e. Aliens have visited the earth at some time during history.
f. All metals expand when heated.
g. Human beings have an immortal soul.
h. It is possible to constructs a square with the same area as a given circle.

A. Gavin 2013

Justification

In order to be able to say that you know something you must be able to justify your belief through
the 4 ways of knowing:

Someone told me (language)


I saw it (perception)
I worked it out (reason)
Its intuitively obvious (emotion).

So for example how do you know there are nine planets in the solar system? You read it in a
reputable science magazine or encyclopaedia.
Some kinds of justification are acceptable e.g. perception whereas some kinds of justification are
unacceptable e.g. telepathy.
Unacceptable justification versus acceptable justification perception is reliable as evidence
whereas telepathy is not for instance the sceptic and magician James Randi has offered a prize of
$1 million to anyone who can demonstrate that they have psychic powers, it is yet unclaimed.
Doubt when it is appropriate or when it is inappropriate you cannot raise sceptical doubts on
everything you see, you have to make a judgement e.g. your boss is in his office because you saw
him to in and could hear his voice through the wall.
When you know something you are taking responsibility for it e.g. if you say that the bridge across
a river will hold my weight , you are in a sense responsible for me if I cross it.

A. Gavin 2013

Levels of Knowledge
There are also different levels of knowledge.
May have a superficial grasp, a good understanding or complete
mastery of a subject.
Much of what we claim to know is in fact second-hand knowledge
that we have acquired from other people and do not understand in
great detail e.g. we would struggle to explain to others what gravity is,
how a mobile phone works, or why the sky is blue!
Young children are constantly asking why which is really irritating
because it makes us realise the superficiality of our understanding.
However, if you study a subject in depth, your knowledge will grow
and develop e.g. if you study the theory of relativity in your physics
class, then study it as a university students, then for a doctorate and
finally you teach it as a university professor, your knowledge of this
subject has become deeper and more sophisticated and you realise
how superficial your knowledge on this subject was when you were a
secondary school student.

A. Gavin 2013

Knowledge and Information

We should make a distinction between knowledge and information e.g. sit down and tell
child 7X7=49, the chemical formula for water is H20, aardvarks live in Africa and the heroine
of Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth Bennet if the child does not know how to multiply, does
not know anything about atoms and molecules, does not know where Africa is, and has
never read Pride and Prejudice then there is clearly some thing missing from his/her
knowledge.
Drilling random facts into someone's mind may be good for quiz shows but it does not lead to
genuine understanding.
A person with a genuine knowledge of a subject does not just have information about the
subject but, understands how the parts are related to each other to form a meaningful
whole, e.g. like bricks in a building.
An area of knowledge is more that a heap of information the point is when you study a
subject you are not simply taught an endless list of facts, but you also learn various
background assumptions, theories, and informing ideas that help you to make sense of the
facts.
So, if you want to understand something, it is not enough to just acquire information you
need to think about that information and see how it all hangs together, e.g. Sherlock Homes
and Dr. Watson Homes says I see it all now, I know who did it , Watson says My dear
Homes, Ive examined the same room with you and I see nothing at all, Homes replies No
Watson, you see everything but you observe nothing!
A. Gavin 2013

Discussion Questions
Have you ever passed an exam by cramming the
week before, but felt that you did not really
understand the subject? What does this suggest
to you about the difference between knowledge
and information?
What is the difference between knowing in the
sense of understanding and knowing in the sense
of being able to recite the relevant facts and
theories without understanding them?
A. Gavin 2013

Second-hand Knowledge

The search of Knowledge is not an individual one communal one, we rely on


other people as our main source of knowledge.
Since we can communicate through the use of language we are able to share our
knowledge of the world than if we had to rely on just our own resources.
Question: How much do you think you could know about the world if you never
trusted what anyone else told you, or anything that you read?
Our ability to communicate also means we can pass on our beliefs and practices
from one generation to the next in the form of culture.
Isaac Newton once said If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

On the other had we should be careful of falling into authority worship and blindly
accepting things without thinking about them.
Just because something has existed a long time we should not blindly accept them e.g. that
some people were natural slaves they were wrong.

Second-hand knowledge is also known as knowledge by authority main sources


of such knowledge are: cultural tradition, school, the internet, expert opinion, the
news media.
While each are a valuable source of knowledge they are not infallible and we should be
aware of their limitations.

A. Gavin 2013

Cultural Tradition
The culture we grow up in has a strong influence on the way we see the
world.
We have a strong attachment to our beliefs and practices they provide a
point of reference for what we consider normal or reasonable
E.g. makes more sense to divide the day into ten equal hours but most
people would not want to decimalise it because they are used to dividing it
into two 12 hour periods.

Cultural tradition embodies the the inherited wisdom of the community


therefore, we should approach different traditions with respect.
At the same time we need to keep in mind that living traditions change and
develop over time, we do not have to feel bound by traditions inherited from
the past e.g. the role of women in political life in Britain.
We need to balance between respecting traditional ways of thinking but also
be able to question them.

A. Gavin 2013

Questions

Which of the following is natural and which is simply a matter of tradition or


convention (agreement)?

Which of the following would you be unwilling to eat or drink?

A seven day week.


A 365 day year.
A based 10 number system.
The value of pi.
Reading from left to right.
Wearing clothes.
Cows
Pigs
Dogs
Snails
Cockroaches
Alcohol
Sulphuric Acid

To what extent do you think our beliefs about what is disgusting are determined by
the culture we grow up in? What, if anything is considered disgusting in every
culture?
A. Gavin 2013

School
Since the introduction of universal education, schools have played
an important role in transmitting education from one generation to
the next.
The 14,000 hours you spend at school are supposed to give you a
mastery of various subjects as well as preparing you for life.
It is impossible to teach absolutely everything so any school
curriculum will be selective and cover only a limited amount.
Raises questions about what should be included in the curriculum.
What is the difference between education and indoctrination.
Many people would argue it is not about what is taught but rather as
the way it is taught that is the sign of a good school and that the
curriculum should encourage you to question things and think for
yourself.

A. Gavin 2013

Questions
1.

2.
3.
4.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed that In most countries


certain ideas are recognized as correct and others as dangerous.
Teachers whose opinions are not correct are expected to keep silent
about them. What opinions, if any, are teachers in your country
expected to keep silent about, and to what extent can this be justified?
What qualities would you look for if you were appointing a new teacher
to your school? How far would they vary according to the subject that
was to be taught?
If you were asked to design a curriculum for students aged 14 to 18 living
in a colony on the moon, what would you include in the curriculum and
why?
How would you rate the International Baccalaureate as an educational
programme? To what extent do you think it is genuinely international
and to what extent do you think it is culturally biased?

A. Gavin 2013

The Internet
When you have schoolwork, the first place you look for
information is the internet.
Advantage of this is its speed and accessibility.
Disadvantage is that there is no quality control. E.g. 3 urban
legends which circulated widely on internet:
American astronauts conducted sex experiments while orbiting
the earth in the space shuttle in 1996.
Nostradamus predicted the attack on the World Trade Centre.
Waterproof sun-screen can cause blindness in children.

We know that we should not believe everything we read on


the internet but in practice we sometimes judge the
reliability of information on the internet by a websites
appearance (if it looks good)
A. Gavin 2013

Task
1. Find two articles from the Internet, one that you believe
and one that you do not believe. Give reasons.
2. What criteria would you use for distinguishing generally
trustworthy websites from generally untrustworthy ones?
3. Do some research and try to determine which of the
following commonly held beliefs is true.
a.
b.
c.
d.
e.

Dinosaurs went extinct because they were slow-moving and


stupid.
The Intuit have hundreds of different words for snow.
We use only 10% of our brains.
Human beings are the only animals that kill their own kind.
Christopher Columbus contemporaries believed that the earth
was flat.
A. Gavin 2013

Expert Opinion
Because of the amount of information available now it is impossible for
one person to be a universal genius.
In a specialised world, we have to rely on the opinions of experts to justify
much of our claims/knowledge e.g. I know that the sun is 93 million miles
from earth but I dont know how to prove this myself, I have to rely on an
astronomer to supply the evidence.
On a practical level, we show our reliance on experts when we call a
plumber or visit a doctor.
But, we have to remember some important things!
Experts are fallible and sometimes get it wrong, e.g. biologist Theophilus
Painter said in 1955 that humans had 24 sets of chromosomes, however, thirty
years later it was discovered that Painter miscounted and we only have 23
pairs!
Experts have a limited range of competence Albert Einstein, the physicist,
constantly gave his opinion on politics, ethics and religion so much so that
Physicist Richard Feynman once said I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.

A. Gavin 2013

Questions

Which of the following would you consider to be a reasonable appeal, and which
an unreasonable appeal, to expert opinion? Give reasons.
a.
b.
c.
d.
e.
f.

My maths teacher said Fermats Last Theorem has recently been proved by someone called
Andrew Wiles.
Gosh, a popular mens magazine, quotes the pop star Hank Johnson as saying that for good
dental hygiene you should floss your teeth three times a day.
The Oxford historian Dr. Trevor Packard says that the newly discovered Hitler Diaries are
genuine; but this is disputed by fellow historian Dr. Suzanne Ferguson of Cambridge.
There is broad agreement among art critics that Pablo Picasso was one of the greatest
painters of the twentieth century.
According to Dr. Daniel Clarke, head of scientific research at Cigarettes R Us, the health
hazards associated with tobacco have been greatly exaggerated.
Mona Jakes, a well-known astrologer, says that Derek and Jane will be happy together
because they have compatible star signs.

Advertisers sometimes appeal to the authority of science in order to sell their


products. Find and analyse two such examples.
Can we speak of expert opinion in all areas of knowledge, or only in some of
them? Give reasons.

A. Gavin 2013

The News Media

News media plays a key role in shaping our picture of the world.
There is some bias in both the selection and presentation of news stories e.g.
you will get a different story from a story presented on Fox News to one presented
by Aljazeera.
There seems to be three common criteria for deciding what to put into a news
bulletin.
Bad News most news bulletins concentrate on bad news, wars, crimes and natural disasters
some people argue that this causes bad news bias which makes people more fearful and
pessimistic.
Extraordinary News the news only reports on extraordinary things therefore they do not
report on gradual changes that happen in society because such stories cannot be squeezed
into a short time slot and packaged in a dramatic way favoured by TV news.
Its Relevant News news is considered relevant if it concerns domestic citizens therefore a
plane crash in India will only get coverage in Britain if there were Britons on board.

Years ago radio station had as its slogan Dont trust anyone not even us!
trying to get people to think critically about the news but we do have to trust
someone if we are to find out what is happening in the world.
However, some news outlets are more objective than others the problem is that people
usually subscribe to a news outlet that reflects their own opinions (right or left) maybe we
should watch the other side sometimes to see a political view that is not our own???

A. Gavin 2013

A. Gavin 2013

Task
Think of a major news story compare and
contrast the way that different newspapers cover
the story. To what extent is it possible to
establish the underlying facts of the matter?
How objective do you think television news is in
your country? How could it be improved?
There are various other sources of second-hand
knowledge in addition to those we have
mentioned. Discuss the reliability of two other
sources.
A. Gavin 2013

News Stories different stations


You tube: News stations covering John McCains
stance on insurance companies paying for birth
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eMLSL3Xl
control. 3U

A. Gavin 2013

The Limitations of Second-Hand


Knowledge

Despite its importance second-hand knowledge can never be an original source of knowledge.
e.g. I may claim that Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June, 1815
because I read it in a textbook, but the writer of that textbook probably read that
information in another textbook and so on sooner or later the chain must end at the eye
witness that was at Waterloo on that day!
Since authority is not an original source of knowledge our knowledge claims must be justified by
such things as perception, reason and intuition.
Problems can arise if you rely exclusively on your own judgement if you do not test your beliefs
and opinions against other peoples you will end up believing what you want to believe and not
what is true this can be very true when dealing with beliefs about ourselves, we tend to
overestimate our strengths and underestimate our weaknesses, it is only by talking to other people
with different opinions that we improve our self-knowledge and develop a more balanced picture
of the world.

Questions:
1.
When, if ever, would you be willing to trust the authority of other people rather than the
evidence of your own senses?
2.
Have you ever done a science experiment and got a result that differed from the textbook? If so,
which did you trust your own result, or the textbook? Why?

A. Gavin 2013

Conclusion
Difference between knowledge and belief.

Truth
Belief
Justification
Levels of Knowledge
Knowledge and Information

Second-hand knowledge.

Cultural Tradition
School
Internet
Expert Opinion
News Media
Limitations of Second-hand knowledge
A. Gavin 2013