Illustration of Plato's definition of knowledge
Illustration of Plato's definition of knowledge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human societies seem to revolve around the production, archiving and consumption of knowledge – from universities and scientific societies, to adult education to Wikipedia, we appear to prize knowledge highly. But why exactly is this? Dr Mona Simion (Cardiff Uni, Philosophy) invited us to consider several different – yet ultimately unsatisfying – answers to this question.

One obvious response would be that we value knowledge because it helps to navigate our way through the world and manipulate it to make things turn out better for us. This practical significance of knowledge, however, leads us to odd conclusions, as Plato has Socrates point out in his Meno dialogue. Suppose we have a doctor who makes medical diagnoses by tossing a coin. On those occasions where she makes a correct diagnosis, she happens to have a belief which turns out to be true. Yet we would not class this as knowledge per se. But what is the difference? On those occasions when she is right, she prescribes treatments which work just as well as they would if she had arrived at her conclusions through assessing evidence.

One might respond by arguing that knowledge is different because it is more robust. We tend not to give up beliefs arrived at through reasoning based on evidence as easily as we would beliefs derived randomly. But then, if we happen to be stubborn in our ignorance, then we might stay firmly wedded to a belief despite it being arrived at randomly.

We could look elsewhere than the instrumental value of knowledge to understand why we value it. For example, treating it as good in itself, as an achievement, might be one way to go. The effort involved in acquiring knowledge marks it out as something worthwhile in itself. But this won’t do either. Are conscious achievements necessarily better than lucky or random acquisitions? We value beauty and natural talent, despite them being the product of processes that are nothing to do with conscious achievement. What’s more, some conscious achievements – like murder, for example – are not valued.

One possibility we could pursue that might avoid these problems, Mona suggested, is to view knowledge not as simply instrumentally useful nor as intrinsically valuable, but as connected with freedom. When we advance claims around the world that are backed up with reasoning and evidence, this increases our freedom to speak and to act within the world. It opens channels of communication between people and builds edifices of beliefs that support social interaction. These properties are lacking in cases of random acquisition of true beliefs.

In discussion, it was suggested that another property of knowledge connected to Mona’s suggestion is that items of knowledge tend to fit together into structures of mutually supporting propositions that, when tested against reality, increase our knowledge of the world. This is in contrast to singular performances of knowledge like recognising a rare bird based on study of ornithology. The value attributed to such knowledge relates to enlarging our sense of the meaning and significance of things we encounter within the world. Further, this highlights how our knowledge of the world tends to be probabilistic and based on thresholds of certainty that allow us to define what counts as evidence and what should not.

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