Broken Down Essay

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¶ … broken down to the question of 'what exactly constitutes knowledge?' This is a question that has plagued philosophers since the beginning of time. Although the majority of the great philosophers seem to equate knowledge with belief, in at least its most basic sense, questions remain regarding what is fact and what is only believed to be fact. In this essay I will attempt to explain the various philosophical arguments that address this issue, will infusing some of my own personal observations and understandings into the fold as well.

Does Belief Constitute Knowledge?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Rene Descartes developed a theory of "rational philosophy" that attempted to equate knowledge with reason. In Descartes' view, beliefs are usually constructed on a fragile foundation of reason in which belief and truth are considered equal. According to Descartes, this is a weak premise because to believe something is real does not necessarily mean it is real. The way I interpret this is with the following example: When I was a child I believed the Tooth Fairy was real. But that did not make it so. Therefore what I considered to be undisputable knowledge -- that is, I believed that the Tooth Fairy was real beyond a shadow of a doubt -- was actually false knowledge, or simply put, a lie.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Essay on Broken Down to the Question of 'What Assignment

To me, this explains why Descartes does not equate belief with knowledge. Instead, he views knowledge as something we are born with that comes from our innate ability to reason: "For God has established his laws in nature and imprinted them on our minds so "there is no single one we cannot understand if our mind proceeds to consider it" (Scharfstein, 1980, p. 138). Ultimately for Descartes, knowledge that is true is based on logic and reason, just like mathematics. In doing a math problem, the same result will happen every time (if done correctly) because math lies within the innate laws of reason that define it. By the same token, if something is really true, it will always be true, and no beliefs that it is not true will change that. For example I can believe that 1 + 1 =3 all day long, but that will not change that fact that in reality, 1 + 1 = 2.

Immanuel Kant is another philosopher who spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of knowledge and truth. His suppositions are similar to those of Descartes, however he adds the ingredient of 'experience' into the mix:

"Thus, on Kant's view, the most fundamental laws of nature, like the truths of mathematics, are knowable precisely because they make no effort to describe the world as it really is but rather prescribe the structure of the world as we experience it. By applying the pure forms of sensible intuition and the pure concepts of the understanding, we achieve a systematic view of the phenomenal realm but learn nothing of the noumenal realm. Math and science are certainly true of the phenomena; only metaphysics claims to instruct us about the noumena" (Philosophy Pages, 2001).

There are however some true beliefs that even when they are logical in nature, cannot be legitimately considered knowledge even when they are based on experience. I believe what he is trying to say can be summed in the following example: Let us say I am looking forward to watching my favorite TV show and I am sure that it will come on at 8 p.m. On channel 6 on Wednesdays because that is when it always has come on, and this being a Wednesday, I feel I know for sure that at 8 p.m. I will be watching it. After all, my past experience has taught me that this is something I can count on. However if my show is pre-empted by a basketball game, then my knowledge is still correct (that is, I know the show should be on at that time and on that channel) but my belief is actually false because unanticipated factors interfered with my pattern of experience.

I think that the main similarity between Descartes and Kant is that they both asserted that when beliefs are rooted in our five external senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing) as opposed to our ability to reason things out inside our own minds, they cannot be relied upon as actual knowledge. However beliefs that are "self-evident," or obvious and unchanging, such as 1 +1 = 2, then trying to question or doubt that truth is a waste of time. As Descartes asserts, "it is much more reasonable to believe than deny" (Meditations I)

Kant seemed to me to be particularly concerned with what he called "pure reason" He theorized that certain types of knowledge are seemingly "pure," but in order to truly be pure, knowledge must also be empirical. Accordingly, when human choice is thrown into the mix, the reliability of truth based on pure reason becomes even more fragile:

"That choice which can be determined by pure reason is called free choice. That which can be determined only by inclination (sensible impulse, stimulus) would be animal choice (arbitrium brutum). Human choice, however, is a choice that can indeed be affected but not determined by impulses, and is therefore of itself (apart from an acquired proficiency of reason) not pure but can still be determined to actions by pure will" (Kant, p. 214)

This understanding of human choice naturally brings up the theological and specifically, the ontological arguments that seek to decipher whether the existence of God can be considered knowledge, or is it merely a belief? Anselm is considered to be the founder of Ontological Argument, which can essentially be summed up in the following passage:

"If that than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one than which a greater can be conceived. Obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality" (Alston and Brandt, 1978, p. 22)

From this perspective, to deny the existence of God is to deny truth. However based on Kant's and Descartes' propositions, belief cannot be directly equated with truth. Therefore Anslem's understanding of knowledge cannot be reliably proven through logical reasoning and accordingly, a belief in God is not the same thing as a knowledge that God exists. Thus the ontological argument essentially boils down to the original question asked at the beginning of this section, which is "does belief constitute knowledge," for which the answer seems to be that it does not.

The Influence of Perspective on Knowledge

According to Foley (2001) "A perspective is a set of beliefs, but a convenient way of identifying these beliefs is by reference to the individual whose beliefs they are"(p. 29). Therefore, truth may be a relative entity rather than a fixed or permanent one. For example, I have always considered the fact that Albert Einstein is smart to be an absolute truth. However, there may be others who perceive his intelligence as a falsehood because they believe they can disprove his theory of relativity. Therefore, although Einstein's I.Q. does not fluctuate, perceptions of his intelligence can fluctuate based on personal experiences and biases.

Through the teachings of Locke in an Essay Concerning Human Understanding, perspective and perception play a significant role in our understanding of truth and knowledge because external cues spark internal understandings. He submits "It is evident the mind knows not things immediately, but only by the intervention of the ideas it has of them. Our knowledge, therefore is real only so far as there is a conformity between our ideas and the reality of things." Yet this understanding leads to the inevitable questions, "But what shall be here the criterion? How shall the mind, when it perceives nothing but its own ideas, know that they agree with things themselves?" (ch. IV).

Plato used our perceptions of permanence to help elucidate the meaning of knowledge. At the core of Plato's theory of forms are the dichotomous issues of permanence and transcendence. These dual states of existence can, according to Plato, only be reconciled by the human mind by dividing the universe into two distinct realms: material forms and non-material forms. Scientists had made similar observations regarding permanent forms and non-permanent forms, which Plato infused into his own theoretical musings. Scientists place their focus on the laws of nature and enduring patterns, suggesting that human beings derive meaning from the permanence of objects. For example, if I see my computer in the same place on my desk every day, then I begin to attach meaning to the notion of permanence of forms, because scientific logic dictates that it will not suddenly disappear without some type of intervention. However, this type of permanence is not attached to everything that we see. I may see a flower that is thriving one… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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