Thursday, 10 January 2008

101 Philosophy Problems Part 2 - Whaddya Know?

It's taken me a while to write this post because I wasn't sure if I really had anything interesting to say. Well, apparently I did have some stuff to say - I'm probably not a good judge of whether or not it's interesting.

This is the second problem in the book, and it is also available online here (same place as the last one). It's about knowledge, and I'm not sure how interesting it is - I think it's probably a real philosophical problem as opposed to one of those which doesn't even make sense to think about. It's about the nature of knowledge:


Farmer Field is concerned about his prize cow, Daisy. In fact, he is so concerned that when his dairyman tells him that Daisy is in the field, happily grazing, he says he needs to know for certain. He doesn't want~ just to have a 99 per cent idea that Daisy is safe, he wants to be able to say that he knows Daisy is okay.

Farmer Field goes out to the field and standing by the gate sees in the distance, behind some trees, a white and black shape that he recognises as his favourite cow. He goes back to the dairy and tells his friend that he knows Daisy is in the field.

At this point, does Farmer Field really know it?

The dairyman says he will check too, and goes to the field. There he finds Daisy, having a nap in a hollow, behind a bush, well out of sight of the gate. He also spots a large piece of black and white paper that has got caught in a tree.

Daisy is in the field, as Farmer Field thought.

But was he right to say that he knew she was?

Well, I think the answer is obviously no. He wasn't, was he? Imagine the dairyman had found out that Daisy wasn't in the field, then it couldn't possibly be true that he "knew" she was there when she wasn't? Could it?

One issue which Cohen fails to address in his discussion of this problem which I think is actually interesting is whether or not it is possible to know something that isn't true. Cardinal Ratzinger "knows" that Christopher Hitchens is going to Hell (I was going to say he knows I'm going to Hell, but I doubt he knows who I am, I guess he's heard of Hitchens). Hitchens "knows" that he isn't. Clearly one of them is wrong, but both would be very confident in their knowledge. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to untestable propositions like the existence of Hell - homeopaths "know" that their medicine works. I "know" that it doesn't. We both know that I'm right - but in what way does this affect our definition of knowledge?

Cohen proposes that knowledge be defined as that which is true, believed, and believed for a good reason. He then asks us what we need to add to this definition to explain why we don't think that Farmer Field knows that Daisy is in the field. He doesn't come to any conclusions. Nor can I - which leads me to wonder whether this is an interesting question after all. When we both know what knowledge is - "we know it when we see it" - does it really matter if we have a concrete definition? And if we did have a concrete definition, would "knowledge" necessarily be the same thing as "connaissance" - I think the problem of translation is one of the main reasons I can never get too interested in debates about the meanings of words.

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