The issue of what we can hope to know and how is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – questions in all of philosophy. It is also arguably the most important one – not least because it provides the underpinning for everything else. So I shall describe a couple major ideological schools on this question.
There are a couple of major schools of thought on this notion which attempt to address the question of “Can we lay claims to knowledge of anything philosophically important?” and expsecally “Is the world, more or less, as we ordinarily take it to be?”. My goal is to lay these out in a simplified manner in this article.
Most of us claim to know a number of things as real for various reasons. Some philosophers, however, propose cases where virtually all such things could be wrong.
Generally speaking, we have two major ideological rivals as far as this issue is concerned:
- That the world should be assumed to be more or less as we ordinarily take it to be, and
- That the world cannot be assumed to be accurately represented by our usual impressions.
Let us examine these in turn.
2. Conventional wisdom and rivals
The first of these positions, in it’s canonical form, holds that
- We have some important well-founded claims to knowledge of the external world, because
- We have a firm basis for assuming the world to be reflected by our experiences thereof.
The second canonical position, contrawise, holds that
- We do not have important well-founded knowledge claims about the external world, since
- We have no firm basis for assuming the world to be accurately reflected by our experience.
There are undoubtedly a number of variations of these positions, but these two are the prime ones. In essence,
- One idea is that we can have a pretty good idea of what the world is like because our perceptions supposedly represent self-evident truths.
- Detractors, however, hold that we cannot know pretty much anything of importance because we could be deceived about the status of the world.
Thus, the former shall be called “foundational dogmatism” for ascribing “foundational” properties to some claims, and the latter is known as “Cartesian skepticism” after one of it’s main popularizers. (See notes.)
The two main epistemic philosophies, represented by supporters and opponents of “common-sensical knowledge” are a theoretical topic of interest. Yet they can also have various practical implications, depending on how one looks at them. So Position A consitists of an assertion of support for ordinary claims of realism, while Position B is a statement of opposition to such notions, and one can have variations of these two along the lines of “within my current experience” or “as far as I am currently concerned” clauses, to refrain from definite inclusion or definite exclusion, and these are the primary epistemic philosophies. In sum:
- Most of us ordinarily claim to be assured of things like “It is about 9 pm where I live” or “I am in the kitchen” or “I am writing this on my phone” or similar notions.
- Many, however, argue that such assurances are misguided, holding that “I could be dreaming” or “For all I know, I’m in the Matrix” or similar stuff.
The question of which argument to pick turns then, not on logic as such, but on the question of which proposition to jettison. Which one seems the least plausible?
The former claim says that you know that X. This is obviously going to depend on your choice of X, but why not make X as plausible as you like? Let X be ‘it is now about 9PM’ (if it is about 9PM), ‘I am in the kitchen’ (if you are), etc. It can be the most run of the mill, ordinary knowledge claim you can think of. By definition, X should be very plausible, if any knowledge claim at all can be.
The latter claim says that you cannot rule out the matrix, or evil daemon hypothesis. It seems very plausible, at least to anyone who has read Descartes or watched the Matrix. Denying this premise seems to require a refutation of skepticism.
Where is the weak link?
What are some proposed solutions?
What do epistemic philosophers have to say here?
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