Knowledge: Which camp?

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, theory that is, as debated and derived by philosophers that think deeply about the very roots of things. In brief, there are four standard positions to choose from or four contrasting beliefs that are supported by various people. These positions are summarised below. You may wish to consider whether your own thoughts about knowledge align themselves more with one position than another. A good summary of the philosophical issues concerning knowledge can be found in: ‘Think’ by Simon Blackburn, (Oxford University Press).

The starting point for the four positions is a consideration of what things a person, really ‘you’, can actually know. This starting point takes the reasonable stand that things that are known are also true. So, if you think you know something that is in fact not true, then you don’t really know it.

The problem with deeper thought about what you can know ends up with the realisation that evidence for anything that you think you know is provided by your senses and these may provide incorrect information. For instance, we have all experienced optical illusions where we think we see things that do not appear to be the way they really are.

The first position is called ‘scepticism’. This is the extreme yet compelling position that nothing can be known. The reason that nothing can be known is that everything that I think I know is delivered to me through my senses, a source of information that cannot be proven to be reliable. I can’t even know for certain that anyone else actually exists.

The second position, ‘rational foundationalism’, is made famous by the phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’. This phrase could also be, ‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, because it is only thinking that can lay claim to existence not the capacity to do it. Descartes made the claim that one thing that could be known for certain was the existence of the thinker, or himself in his case. Even then he had great difficulty moving from that position to a position where the existence of other things could be known for certain. He resorted to the use of God to do this.

The third position is called ‘natural foundationalism’ because it proposes that our senses, as the source of the things we all experience, are a reasonable foundation upon which to reason about other things. This foundation is developed during the life of a person who learns to detect errors and spot inconsistencies with sensing experience. Hume is said to be the originator of this challenge to the more extreme rational foundationalism. The position does not claim to address the extreme sceptic stance but instead aims to adopt a position of a more natural and sensible foundation for reason. The idea of knowledge through sensory experience rather than reason sometimes attracts the label ‘empiricist’ as opposed to ‘rationalist’ as developed by Descartes.

The fourth position is called ‘coherentism. This position proposes that there is no need to resort to a foundation upon which reason can be built. It notes that there is a coherent structure about the things that we experience and believe and that the elements of this structure are each supported by other elements within the same structure. For instance, an aeroplane may not have a foundation that supports all of the rest of its parts. Each part is supported by its surrounding parts. So, knowledge is supported by knowledge of other things without the need to resort to a fundamental supporting element.

So where do you sit?

John L. Gordon