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pending
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Rethinking Knowledge

We don't know everything

I recently read an interesting piece by David Papineau called Knowledge is Crude.
His thesis is that we have a concept of knowledge that goes back through evolutionary history to at least chimpanzees that doesn't fit our present world very well.

He uses a legal example: say there was a prison riot in which 99 people assaulted guards and one did not. There is no direct evidence (in the hypothesis) about which inmates had done the assault. Each has a 99% chance of being guilty and a 1% chance of being innocent. What would you do? Let them all go rather than convict and innocent person? Or convict them all knowing that one innocent person would be punished.

Papineau imagines knowledge in the context of a troop of chimpanzees. There is an alpha male who hoards all the bananas. The lesser males have to 'know' that the alpha male can't see a particular banana before they will go for it. This is a pretty sophisticated cognitive capacity. But Papineau is thinking of it as ancient and primitive.

He turns to a legal context again by noting that eye-witness testimony is surprisingly unreliable. Say eye witness testimony is correct 95% of the time. We intuitively trust that more than a statistical case that is 99% certain.

With the chimpanzee the knowledge of the location of the banana and the alpha male would be very direct. The chimp would basically have no doubt. With statistical knowledge there is always some doubt. And it seems that we call ideas and facts that we don't doubt, knowledge.

As Papineau points out we have evolved, even in the legal system to a slightly looser standard. Rather than beyond doubt we have beyond reasonable doubt. This involves checking the case against evidence and what we already know. This is not a perfect or automatic process but it also works pretty well.

Science presents a similar issue. Since Hume we have had to acknowledge that scientific knowledge is contingent. Many times things have been discovered that changed the meaning of much of what is 'known'. But this is a feature, not a bug. It has allowed science to evolve to be the body of knowledge we use (if not trust) so much today.

Papineau points to a distinction between knowledge and belief. The idea is that a belief is an inner judgement that can be true or false. I'm not sure if it makes sense to distinguish between beliefs and knowledge. Both beliefs and knowledge can be correct or incorrect and that will influence our interpretation of our situation and how we behave.

Papineau touches on an evolutionary account of why we tend to trust direct knowledge over indirect knowledge and then loses that idea. But if direct knowledge predates homo sapiens then I'd see it is a pretty fundamental structure in our brains. We feel it directly like we feel vision or emotion. Indirect knowledge involves capacities that evolved later that enables abstract ideas and language. And I suspect that in humans there will always be a tension between the two. Direct knowledge involves motivation by emotion. Indirect knowledge involves motivation based on what we have learned. Don't we need both?

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.