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This is the first part in a series of introductory level articles on Philosophy for Freethinkers. The second one can be found here. This series is written for children of ages 14 and below.
The question caught Sandanam by surprise. Without giving it much thought, she pointed at the trees through the window of the living room they were sitting in and said “It’s how the universe talks to us. We have to listen hard to make sense of it”.
The house was situated on the grounds of a small park. Sandanam has just finished her evening ritual of watching the sun set over the trees, before settling down in front of the television.
Now she was looking at her daughter who was standing in front of her. Selvi had questions for her mother- questions that were not very clear to her, and yet seemed somehow profound and central to her purpose. These questions came to her at every turn. This time she was struck when she was doing her math homework. Her little head was filled with a deep desire to understand how the rules of mathematics related to reality. After talking about it to her dog, Puli, for an hour, she had worked her way down to some really fundamental questions. She tried to give form to her ideas, but the words fell short. Now, standing in front of her mother, she cleared her throat and began again.
“Ma, how do we know these things… I mean, how do we know that anything is true at all?… I mean—“
“OK, let’s look at this.”, her mother interrupted. She was starting to realize that metaphors would not be sufficient to satisfy Selvi this time. The girl was thinking.
“What do you mean when you say the word ‘know’?”, Sandanam asked her daughter.
The girl frowned.
Sandanam continued, “It is good to first make sure that we both understand what we mean by ‘knowledge’ before we go any further. Knowledge has three parts. The first part is belief. The second part is truth. The third part is the way in which we connect belief with the truth. This part is called justification.” She paused for a few seconds and said,
“Do you believe that horses exist?”
“Yes” said Selvi stoutly.
“Is it true that horses exist?”
“Do you know that horses exist?”
How do you know that horses exist?
Selvi’s lips curved mischievously as she looked at her mother and she giggled. She quickly composed herself when she realized her mother was being serious.
“Because … I have seen them…I just told you its true that horses exist and you didn’t object to that”, she smiled.
Sandanam smiled back at her daughter. “Okay, then let’s try to understand how you think about ‘truth'”, she said. “Is ‘truth’ the same thing as ‘knowledge’?”
“No. Something can be true without me knowing about it”. Selvi smiled, realizing how her mother had led her to the answer.
Puli, the dog, stretched his legs lazily on the floor and turned his head at Selvi. She look at him, then cocked her head until it was at the same angle as Puli’s head.
Sandanam urged Selvi on, saying “So, ‘knowledge’ is not related to ‘truth’?”
Selvi thought about this as she stared into Puli’s face, then turned to look back at her mother. She crossed her feet and swung her hands to and fro. Then she said, “Knowledge needs truth and it needs me to be the knower”.
“Very good!”, said Sandanam. “Knowledge requires both the truth as well as a person to know that truth. This person can be called an ‘observer‘. For something to be true, it must exist even when there is no observer. Then the thing can be said to be true “objectively”.” She pointed at the TV and said, “Do you see that TV screen?”.
“Yes”, said Selvi.
“Okay. Imagine you are the only person who can see it. Everyone else sees a vase where you see the TV. In a situation like that, it would be difficult to say that you ‘know’ that the TV exists ‘objectively’. Fortunately for us, the universe acts in certain predictable ways that we can use to construct and justify informed beliefs. In reality, we both see the TV. The TV exists ‘objectively’, because we can confirm that it would continue to exist in this living room if you and I walk into the kitchen.”
“Is that justification?”, asked Selvi.
“One kind of justification, yes.” Sandanam paused. She took a deep breath, then said:
“In regular conversation we often justify actions rather than beliefs. This is a different type of justification from the one we are interested in. For example, I can justify picking oranges over apples at the market by simply stating that I don’t want apples; by pointing out that I am not obligated to pick apples. However, this form of justification cannot apply when we are dealing with true belief and knowledge. I cannot say that I know something because I am not obligated to believe that it is wrong. To overcome this, philosophers have come up with various rules that can be applied to make the idea of justification more accurate when we are talking about knowledge.
When you want to confirm that something is true, you must first look for the evidence (more here). Also, you must ask how reliable is the source of the evidence obtained (more here). Based on the type of justification, knowledge can be internalist or externalist. To put it in a simple form, internalist justifications consider that complete knowledge is possible from within an internally consistent framework, often by studying observations born out of sensory experience. This form of justification includes some schools of thought such as Rationalism. Externalist justifications take into account the relationship of an event with objects and events outside the sphere of the event (often outside subjective reality). This form of justification accommodates the notion of causality, which we spoke about earlier.”
A few seconds passed with neither of them saying anything. Puli was resting his head on his paws, taking a nap. On the TV, a famous charlatan was talking about quantum mysticism. Outside, the crickets chirped loudly, their mating calls echoing off the buildings on the street across from the park. Selvi decided that the steady chirping made more sense than the man on the TV.
Another thought came to Selvi.
“The evidence… isn’t evidence also a belief?”, she asked her mother.
“Yes”, said Sandanam. “Each and every observation that is claimed as evidence requires justification and belief. This brings us to another aspect of justification, called the structure of justification. How do all the beliefs that we hold relate to each other? And how do those relationships between beliefs create knowledge? These are just some of the questions that are asked and answered within the discipline of philosophy called ‘Epistemology’“
Puli was snoring softly. On the TV, a man was talking about the earthquake in California. He was announcing a special guest on the show; the man named Deepak Chopra, the one who distorts quantum physics to suit his own mystical interpretation of reality, all the while seeking the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. This time, Chopra claimed to have caused the recent earthquake by the power of his meditation. On the show he was going to talk about how the energy flow from his chakras was consciously guiding the universe to do his will, but the skeptics with their negative energy were inducing power fluctuations in his meditation field, causing unfortunate accidents like the recent earthquake.
Selvi began placing playing cards face down on the floor. She announced to her mother that she had invented a game. For every unjustified knowledge claim that Chopra made, she would turn over one card after first trying to guess what it was by counting the open cards and calculating the odds. Sandanam tried hard to keep a straight face as she turned up the volume. The chirping of crickets faded into the background as the calm, soothing voice of blissful unreason filled the room.