Philosophy With Selvi – What Is Knowledge? (Epistemology For Beginners)

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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’?”

Epistemology: Image from

Epistemology: Image from

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.

About the author

Ajita Kamal


    • I have two month old pup living in my courtyard. He is abandoned by his mother and other three siblings.

      I can not fathom out the reason.

      The family is living only 50 meters away. But whenever this pup tries to go in their domain, all of them chase him away.

      They allow him to exist beyond their circle though.

      They ‘know’ some thing about him, we can only guess.

      I am watching this pup every day, and trying to work out how is he building up the knowledge of the world around him. He has some very trusting instincts and lot of patience.

      He will learn things eventually, albeit on his own.

      He does not yet know that Horses exist.

      It is unlikely that he will see and hear about a horse soon enough.

      Even his mother is not likely to see a horse.

      In our colony away from city, Horses will never be allowed.

      We have many peacocks in our colony though.

      With beautiful long ornamented feathers, they often visit our courtyard.

      This pup , we call him ‘Lucky’ chases them away.

      He is more active when we are around.

      On Sunday some of our visitors were happily engrossed in watching the beautiful unique birds.

      Lucky thought it was his chance of showing his loyalty to household.

      He chased the peacocks away in a patch of jungle.( Dr Wadhawan used to stay in the house beyond this patch of Jungle).

      My visitors were disappointed.

      I was amused that for their size and magnanimity , the peacocks allowed this, nine inch tall excuse of an existence, to chase them away.

      I showed my clear disapproval to Lucky of what he did.

      Let us hope , if not Horses, he will know about peacocks and let them live peacefully too.

      Still I am sure some one like Selvi can certainly help him lead a life of a well adjusted rational being.


      • Checked with Selvi. She adores Lucky, but doesn’t think he can or needs to be rational in any way. She says, “All Lucky needs is love and some training”.

  • Loved the post, I’d like to see more of it! It reminds me strongly of “Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder.

    • Thank you, Waldheri, for that compliment. I have not read Sophie’s World, and it sounds like a very interesting piece of work. I do plan on writing a whole series of these, but I’m not done experimenting with styles yet. Your comments are very helpful!

      • Yes, I do recommend it. It’s a great introductory read to philosophy. You might be familiar with most of the subjects that are described in it, but it’s a great one to recommend to people new to philosophy.

        Also, a question: is it not possible for knowledge to be false? The chart and text say that knowledge requires both truth and justification. It is however still possible to come to a justified, wrong conclusion based on an incomplete set of facts. We have to update our “map of the territory” all the time, and we can never be sure we’ve actually uncovered “the truth”.

        For example, the ancient Greeks understood the principle of parallax: the stars in the night sky should apparently be moving back and forth between two opposites ends of orbit if the earth was orbiting the sun. However, because they had no equipment that would detect the small parallax effect, they concluded that the earth was not orbiting the sun. Were they not justified in rejecting the heliocentric model? Was their model not knowledge?

        • I think the general consensus is that if a belief is not true, even if justified in believing it, it cannot be called knowledge. By this criteria, knowledge cannot be false. So, although the Greeks properly justified their belief by rejecting the heliocentric model, most philosophers will say their justified belief was not knowledge.

          But you have a point. The simple description of knowledge that I presented is not complete. I left out certain essential clauses in order to keep things clear and simple.

          There are cases where justified TRUE belief is not knowledge. These cases involve luck. This is a very technical point, but it is relevant nevertheless. Let me demonstrate it using an example.

          Say your luggage gets mixed up at the airport, and you end up with a bag that is identical to yours, with the exact same contents as yours, but it is not yours. If someone asks you what’s in the bag, you might be accurate. You are right in your belief about what is in the bag. You are justified in that belief, because as far as you know, it is your bag. But, you don’t have knowledge about what is in the bag. You are right by sheer luck.

        • Waldheri, I just realized what you are actually asking me here. I think your question will be answered when I get to the section on Naturalized Epistemology. But, yes, under the scientific criterion it could be said that knowledge is defined differently (in pragmatic terms, one could say).

  • Hi Ajita,
    Your article is interesting and rational. I was an atheist and a great proponent of Science alone.

    Until, in 2004/5, out of curiosity, I started reading about the Shankaracharyas of Kanchi. And my experiences have blown me away.

    Let me narrate one such. I was going through extremely tough times, with my husband’s fasting sugar at 400s, and because of insulin created blackouts, had been refusing to visit a doc. for 5 years now, economic recession hitting us, and so on…

    At that time, these seers of Kanchi and Shringeri used to come in my dreams and give me instructions on some shloka to read and so on.

    All my close relatives, including my parents thought I was crazy to give importance to dreams and follow instructions.

    I started asking my Gurus, if I was foolish to place so much importance to dreams, or if these were real.

    Around that time, I offered glass bangles to Goddess and prayed that my husband’s brother, married for 18 years and childless, to have a child. They had tried everything under the sun.

    Within a month or so, I had a dream that the foetus was impregnated. The next month, I had a dream that it was one month now. And I had a dream every month, saying a baby is on the way, and they had not informed anybody of the conception, with the foetus correspondingly older, like now it is 2 months…

    In December, I had a dream that the foetus was 4 months and they had informed only my in-laws.

    These dreams went on for 4 more months. In April, I had a dream, that the baby was 8 months, and apart from my in-laws, nobody else was yet informed.

    Because of the consistency of the dreams, I enthused to my husband, that it was probably true and maybe the baby was on the way. My husband asked me not to have my hopes high and then get disappointed, and that if there were any news, they would surely have informed us.

    Three days later, my husband received a call from his brother, that they were expecting a baby, and it was 8 months now, and was due the next month. He also said that given what they had been through, they were unsure of the baby staying, so had kept this news to themselves, initially and informed my in-laws alone, only in December. Since the baby was due in a month, they were informing extended family.

    My husband was flabbergasted.

    At that time, I had been asking my Gurus, Shankaracharyas of Kanchi and Shringeri, if my dreams were a message from them, and if they were true and I needed to act on them.

    I got my answer.

    Needless to say, I followed their instructions reg. the shlokas and poojas, and my husband one day suddenly, on his own volition, decided to consult a physician, is on regulated insulin, his job security got better and so on…

    I had many many , many more such experiences, of being pulled out of excruciating circumstances, by Them.

    Unfortunately, there is no way I can prove all this to a sceptical world. But these experiences have changed my path, made me more spiritual and given me hope that someone is looking out for me. It has also opened up Advaitha for me.

    But my previous life has had repercurssions. My older son is agnostic/atheistic and his choices hurt me greatly.

    I have no one to blame but myself. I realised that Parents are the Worst enemies of our children. We foist our beliefs on our children, they absorb every one of our opinions. If I had taught him blind faith, he wouldn’t be doing so many mistakes that have an action-reaction effect on us, that this universe is based on. There is a dosha for everything that we disobey in our shastras, a a brownie point , punyam, for following it. That I now know, thanks to my Gurus.

    And yes, there is no proof. If I had, would I not be able to convince my own kid….

    Just wished to share with you, in the hope that you and your children may benefit.


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