How Do You Know?

18 November, 2021

In an article for Aeon, Nate Sheff, a writer and adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, takes a deep dive into epistemology – the philosophical study of knowledge, belief and evidence – to ask how we decide whether something is worth believing. As Nate describes, unfortunately correct information doesn’t always come with its own bright halo of truth, so we each look for signs to sort the good beliefs and opinions from the bad.

You can’t be wrong on purpose. To see this, try one of my favourite philosophical parlour tricks. Right now, believe something you think is false: that the Sun is just a big lightbulb, for instance. Don’t imagine you believe it – really believe it. Become so confident in it that you’d bet good money that it’s true. When I try this, I feel a funny cognitive block, as if there’s a built-in aversion to believing on command, especially anything I already think is wrong. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean it’s easy to believe only truths. If learning and thinking were as easy as deciding to let nothing but the facts in, we would never make mistakes. And yet we stumble into falsehood all the time. We can all think of times we were convinced of something that turned out to be wrong, and we all have our favourite perceptual illusions, ambiguous images and pictures of impossible scenes, which drive it home that things aren’t always how they seem.

With such a track record, it makes sense to reflect on why our thinking sometimes goes awry, and why it sometimes goes right. Epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, belief and evidence, starts here, with our fallibility. And from this beginning, there are many paths for epistemology to take, and many sorts of questions to set us down these trails.

For instance, we could continue by asking about the nature of thinking itself. Does thinking amount to nothing more than forming and reforming beliefs? Or is it something else entirely? Another option is to ask what counts as ‘success’ or ‘correctness’ in believing. This second path concerns what epistemologists call ‘justification’. Since true thoughts don’t come with a special glow announcing themselves as true, we can’t use truth as a marker for well-formed, worthwhile beliefs. Rather, we might look for something else to sort the good beliefs and opinions from the bad – something that justifies some beliefs rather than others, and that explains why some are credible and some aren’t. Indeed, this is the big question for many epistemologists: what justification and credibility actually are. But, along the way, the path narrows, and a new question arises over the role justification plays in finding out things. While a just-the-facts filter can’t solve the problem of avoiding falsehood and getting the truth, does the credibility of a thought need to make itself obvious to you in a way that truth can’t? Or is it enough for your opinion to be credible, full stop? These questions lead to the forbiddingly named internalism/externalism debate in epistemology, but don’t let the -isms scare you off. As we’ll see, academic questions about justification lead to much deeper questions about the subject matter of epistemology itself.

Via Aeon, Nate Sheff, 2 November 2021. Read the full article here.

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