True Beliefs, Good Reasons (2)

(Part 1)

Crispin Sartwell (1991, 1992) thinks that knowledge is merely true belief. Most philosophers think it takes more than true belief to know something (e.g., Alper Gürkan). And many say it even takes more than justified true belief. Who is right? Do they even believe these things? Who knows what knowledge is? (Cf. Lycan 1994) I’m not going be able to answer those questions, of course. But here’s what I think.

Knowledge is true belief held with good reason. It’s not “merely” true belief, nor is it merely belief held with “reasons” (as the kids say). To know something, you must believe it and you must have your reasons, but the belief must also be true and your reasons must be good ones. When writing, then, you should know what you’re talking about and when you’re trying to decide whether or not to write something you should ask yourself (1) whether you believe it, (2) what your reasons are, (3) whether those reasons are good, and (4) whether it’s actually true. Maybe that’s also the best order to do it in. Let me try to think about each in turn.

In academic writing, the most important thing is to believe what you say. That’s because the purpose of academic writing is to expose your ideas to criticism, to give your peers a chance to correct you if you are wrong. Students unfortunately sometimes get the impression that the important thing is to say what their teachers believe. They are often rewarded for this with a good grade but this leaves their own beliefs on the subject untouched. From a strictly educational point of view, it’s better to get a C on your own ideas than an A on someone else’s. After all, you’re still going to believe your own ideas; you just don’t know that they deserve a C.

The same goes for working scholars, who may be tempted to write papers about ideas they think are publishable rather than their own. Here, again, they are missing the opportunity to be corrected on what they actually think by people who are qualified to tell them that they are wrong. At best, they are testing their hypothesis about what people want to hear, or, rather, about what their editors think people want to hear. They are not exposing their own thinking to the scrutiny of other knowledgeable people.

Beliefs and reasons are “subjective” in the sense that they belong to individuals. They are “states of mind”. It’s probably best to think of “reasons” as just more beliefs, but, if so, they are also beliefs about beliefs or at least beliefs that are held in relation to other beliefs. I may believe that my house is on fire and I may believe that smoke is rising from it. I take the second belief as a reason for the first. Importantly, if I discover that the smoke is coming from my neighbor’s house rather than my own, I no longer have a reason to believe that my house is the one that is on fire. Having a reason, rather than a mere belief, works that way. It’s still a belief, but it is implicated in other beliefs.

Now, those implications may be more or less, let’s say, tenuous — more or less of “a stretch”. Many people think of their own house for a brief second when they see a fire truck — sirens blaring, lights flashing — driving by. They don’t believe (not even for a second) that their house is on fire. It’s just that the thought occurs to them and they do a mental check to see if it’s possible that they left their iron on. Then they put it out of their minds. They believe that the fire truck is going somewhere and there’s probably a fire of some kind (or a false alarm, of course) but they don’t think that it’s their house. That’s just too unlikely.

Seeing smoke rising from your roof is, let’s say, a good reason to believe that your house is on fire, while seeing a fire truck drive by isn’t a good reason. You can make up your mind accordingly. But, at the end of the day, you may believe that your house is on fire though it isn’t. And we’re not going to say that you know something if it isn’t true. If you believe something and you have very good reasons to believe it you are being perfectly rational but you may still be entirely wrong. The question, then, is whether all those reasons you had were really so “good” after all. And what was the point of having them?

My answer is that the important thing about “knowing” something isn’t just that you believe something that is the case but that you believe a number of things in a ways that hold implications for each other. If you’re a knowledgeable person, then revising one of your beliefs should affect some of the other beliefs you hold. The better your reasons are, the more easily those revisions can be made, because the implications of your beliefs for other beliefs are simply clearer. Being knowledgeable isn’t just a matter of having your mind made up about it and happening to be right. It’s about being in a position to change your mind in an orderly fashion.

This isn’t over yet. More later.

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