This is a mind-boggling (at least, to me) essay that my grandson Branch Tanner Archer IV wrote last year for his Philosophy class at UT.
DEGREES OF KNOWLEDGE
While on a vacation in a foreign land, you find yourself lost on the way to the beach. A local says to you, “I know the directions to the closest beach.” Normally, you would not hesitate to trust the local. However, this is the last day of your vacation, and you want to bask in the tropical sun as long as possible. In order to not waste time and make the most of your hard-earned trip, you want to know the directions without even a sliver of doubt. Upon reflection, you realize that this may not even be possible. For, quite obviously, you cannot be completely certain that anyone knows the location of the closest beach. This deeply bothers you, so you decide to sit down and ruminate about what is needed to truly know something without a doubt (for you did not know the dangers of philosophical inquiry). You realize that you may not know anything at all. After all, you must doubt everything to some degree – “What if an all-powerful God is tricking me with a cruel illusion? How do I know that my body even exists? Egads!” You have stumbled upon Descartes’ grand doubt-generator.
To cease this existential crisis, I propose that we define knowledge as a spectrum of information that holds true when held to a varying degree of doubt specified by the certainty one requires. I will partition this spectrum of knowledge into different stratifications according to the rigorousness of doubt one must apply. With each successive stratification, one must accept a greater level of doubt to make a knowledge claim (which is a necessary cost to be explained later). This hierarchy of knowledge will allow one to differentiate between the kind of doubt a scientist can have and still know something and the kind of doubt a philosopher can have and still know something.
To perform this partition, I will use a similar technique to the one simulated in the introduction to this essay – the very same technique that René Descartes uses in his work Meditations on First Philosophy. In Meditations, Descartes seeks to find what he can know without doubt (if he can know anything at all). To do this, he needs a doubt-generating “machine” – some philosophical consideration that allows one to doubt as much “knowledge” as possible. He considers the possibility that an omnipotent, evil god is seeking to deceive him with a host of illusions and false realities. I will use this evil god to ascertain the qualifications for the purest form of knowledge, the information one cannot doubt at all. First, let us examine what Descartes learned from his meditation. Descartes claimed that the possibility of the evil god’s existence allowed him to doubt most things. For example, one cannot be completely certain the physical world exists because the evil god could be simply plugging one’s brain into a machine that generates various sensations and perceptions.
However, Descartes later concluded that, despite the efforts of the evil god, “I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever I utter it or conceive it in my mind”. I disagree with this notion. It seems to me that the evil god, if it is truly omnipotent, could warp the rules of logic to make something that does not exist at the same time exist. An all-powerful evil god could defy the rules of mathematics by making a four-sided triangle or summing one and four to find seven. Without this fundamental structure of logic, one cannot know anything without a doubt. The only being that could have this pure knowledge would be the omniscient, omnipotent God. I will call this God’s knowledge “ideal knowledge.” Each form of knowledge below ideal knowledge is subject to some degree of doubt as a result of the evil god’s logic-bending powers.
Already it seems we must digest a hard truth: humans can never know anything without a doubt. Though it may make the hurried vacationer uncomfortable, we must be willing to accept some sliver of doubt and carry on with lesser knowledge. If everyone felt they could not know the laws of gravity because of the lingering doubt that the possibility of a logic-bending god introduces, no one could feel safe knowing they would not float off into space when they jumped out of bed. So, for practical reasons and the perpetuity of societal growth, we must accept some doubt in what we consider knowledge.
One rung down this ladder of knowledge, we must accept some criterion that rids us of the doubt generated by a logic-bending god. This criterion is the assumption that even an omnipotent god is bound by the rules of logic, and I will call this type of knowledge “logical-ideal knowledge.” In this realm, mathematicians can rest easy in their analytic truths and know that a triangle has three sides, for we no longer consider the possibility that an evil god can change this. However, we still know very little, and what we might know is controversial. According to Descartes, by thinking “I exist,” I can prove to myself that I, a thinking thing, exist. If I subject my existence to doubt, the very act of doubting is in itself a thought, and I confirm even further that I exist. However, some philosophers, like Pierre Gassendi, disagree. Among other concerns, Gassendi explains that the cogito argument presupposes “I,” and that the only thing one cannot doubt is that a thinking thing exists. In conclusion, it seems that logical-ideal knowledge can definitely certify the existence of mathematics, analytic truths, and that some thinking thing exists.
One step down the ladder, we must again add another criterion and accept a little more doubt. Since we have validated analytic truths, ostensibly the next move should be to make room for synthetic truths and the scientific body of knowledge on which society relies on so frequently. Thus, the next criterion requires that anything considered knowledge must be testable and have a rational justification. Thus, I will call this rung “justified knowledge.” We will essentially assume that the universe operates on immutable laws that can be observed and tested. If there is no testable reason to believe that something is true, we cannot consider it justified knowledge. For example, we will accept doubt originating from the possibility that an evil god is deceiving us, for there is no way for us to test this as a possibility or rationally prove its existence.
What belongs in justified knowledge? We can accept certain synthetic claims as part of justified knowledge. For example, the scientific method, when used properly, can be used to gather substantial evidence to accept or reject a piece of knowledge and its justification. However, one might counter this suggestion with some of Hume’s thoughts about causality. Just because the fire from a match burned my finger last week, how do I know a fire from another match under the exact same circumstances will burn my finger this week? Well, we must acknowledge that all the evidence collected so far indicates that the fire will burn me, and we also must recognize that we have a detailed justification for the mechanics of heat and fire. Since we can cannot test the laws governing pain and heat forever to see if they spontaneously change, we can accept that we know the fire will burn me (at least to the degree of certainty justified knowledge can provide).
One rung down and we have reached what I call “courtroom knowledge,” named after the circumstance for which it is supremely important to society. For this rung, we must once again add an additional criterion. We shall consider claims true so long as they can be proven beyond a “reasonable” doubt. This is the most ambiguous form of knowledge because the conditions for reasonable doubt varies from person to person. This form of knowledge may be testimonial or built upon probabilities. For example, consider a man working at a convenience store in South Africa charged with a murder in China on a particular night. An array of video evidence proves that the man, on that particular night, was working at the South African convenience store. We do not know for certain that the man did not commit the murder in China by the principles of justified knowledge. We can conceivably construct a rational justification for how he committed the murder. Perhaps he flew a supersonic plane there and back. However, if there is no way to test this claim, we cannot say we know he is innocent with the certainty of justified knowledge. Courtroom knowledge allows us to determine truth in situations just like this, situations where justified knowledge can fail to produce a claim. In this case, the man most likely does not have the means to fly a supersonic plane to China, so we can safely conclude that we know he did not commit the murder.
Though this is not an exhaustive collection of all types of knowledge, this essay demonstrates how the partitioning of knowledge into degrees of applied doubt has great utility. The process shows that ideal knowledge may never be attainable. That and a deep understanding of the criteria in each section can allow one to know how much information is required to know something with a certain degree of permitted doubt. For example, I know that the heat from a match will burn my finger if it is too close, and I know how much doubt I am accepting in my knowledge claim. With this construction, a philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and a lawyer can safely make knowledge claims on their proper rung of the knowledge ladder, and a hurried vacationer can decide how much doubt to accept when making a navigational decision – no existential crisis required... Branch Tanner Archer IV
I feel slightly enlightened - I think. Therefore, I am - I think..