Friday, September 21, 2007

Epistemology: Back to the Basics

The term epistemology refers to the study of what people know and how they know it. There is a particular group of philosophical skeptics who believe that people cannot know anything. Skeptics of this type might argue that, for the sake of accuracy, people should preface all knowledge claims with phrases such as “It appears highly probable that …” or “It seems to me that…” For example, one might say, “It appears highly probable that I exist” or “It seems to me that the sum of 5 and 7 is 12.” There are others, however, who believe that people can know some things. They would argue that definitive claims to knowledge such as “I exist” or “The sum of 5 and 7 is 12” are perfectly acceptable. For those people, the question has ceased to be that of whether or not people can know something and becomes one of how people know something. It is those people who are the focus of the discussion that follows.

Some people believe that all of the knowledge that we acquire concerning ourselves and the surrounding world comes through the senses. They would argue that human minds are essentially devoid of anything that can be characterized as knowledge from conception until the time at which the mind is capable of receiving and processing sense data. As embryos, fetuses, and possibly even newborns, our minds are blank slates. At the time that our minds begin to collect information, however, our knowledge starts to grow. This isn’t to say that everything we experience becomes knowledge, but rather that anything we consider to be knowledge ultimately comes from experience. People who believe that knowledge comes from experience are often referred to as empiricists.

There is another group of individuals who believe that people are born with certain “built-in” knowledge. They would argue that our minds come pre-packaged with a set of basic information that we can rightly claim as knowledge. Not everyone who believes in built-in knowledge rejects the notion that knowledge can come through the senses. Some believe that we know things both a priori and a posteriori. The phrase a priori comes from the Latin and literally means “from what comes before.” It refers to knowledge which exists in the mind prior to experience (i.e. built-in knowledge). The opposing Latin phrase, a posteriori, literally translated “from what comes after,” refers to knowledge that comes after or posterior to experience.

Anyone who claims that our minds come prepackaged with a fundamental set of knowledge (i.e. a priori knowledge) should be prepared to face some challenging questions. Actually, the people who say that our minds do not come prepackaged with bits of knowledge have some pretty challenging questions to answer as well. At any rate, some of the questions that should concern the advocate of built-in knowledge are as follows:

  1. What is the ultimate source of this built-in knowledge?
  2. How does built-in knowledge get into our minds?
  3. How do we identify and categorize this kind of knowledge (i.e. logic principles, mathematics, etc.)?
  4. How do we accurately express built-in knowledge linguistically or propositionally?
  5. What other propositions can we build off of the ones that express our built-in knowledge, and can we properly claim those propositions as knowledge too?

Given the brief description of the two basic epistemological camps above, think about where you come down on this subject. Do you believe that people have knowledge that is built into the mind, or do you believe that knowledge only comes from experience? If you do believe that human minds come prepackaged with knowledge, how would you respond to the questions above?

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