Some basic ideas regarding knowledge

This is information for students and may be less than entertaining, provocative or illuminating for others. The following are some ideas related to knowledge and how philosophers regard knowledge:

Realism–This is a belief that there is a “real world” outside of our minds that has features corresponding to certain facts that are not dependent on our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices.

Anti-Realism–While it may seem that this would claim there is no such world as described by the realist, the anti-realist claims that whatever world exists outside of our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices, whether it exists or not, cannot be known.

Verificationism–Some feel that we should attempt to improve our knowledge by verifying what is true and what is not true. Verificationism typically involves testing our knowledge against our experience through observation, mathematical analysis, or, in some cases, our emotional responses to things (this last one is quite controversial and will be discussed later if I get around to it). While the attempt to verify knowledge seems an attempt to discover the “real world,” one may claim that any form of verificationism is a form of anti-realism, given that verification relies on our perceptions, observations, language, and beliefs to be practiced.

Relativism–Relativists believe that our beliefs and knowledge claims are formed by our individual or cultural experiences and that there is no unifying conception of reality shared by all humans. In its crudest form, relativism claims that no claim to knowledge is superior to another. If someone from one culture believes that disease is caused by angry gods and someone from another culture claims disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, then it is a kind of arrogance, or worse, cultural imperialism to claim that one view is better than another. A more nuanced view would claim that cultural perceptions form our descriptions of things and those descriptions form our thoughts, given that thoughts are expressed through language.

Skepticism–Skepticism is a view that it is impossible to know what is real or not real outside of our own minds. Skepticism manifests itself in a variety of ways. The skeptic may approach life with a great deal of humility, recognizing that claims to truth are ephemeral and fleeting. The skeptic may be committed to verifying truth claims with the understanding that any truth claim may be modified. Or, the skeptic may decided to focus on the only thing any individual can truly claim to know, the contents of one’s own experience. This last approach leads directly to something called phenomenology, which is not the subject of this blog.

As for myself, I attempt to approach life from a standpoint of skeptical humility. I think that beliefs should be based on the best available evidence, but I also believe that modifications to such beliefs are always possible and, indeed, necessary. With hard work and attention, we can improve our lives by discovering beliefs that enhance our lived experience rather than impeding it.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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