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Another Philosophy Course Discussion.

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Ok, I could really use some clarity on this. Here's how this discussion went:

TOPIC:

What does it mean to have knowledge? Is that different from having a belief?

ME:

Let’s put this question into more familiar concepts. Belief is another word for hypothesis. When one has a belief, they simply have an unproven hypothesis. Knowledge is attained when that hypothesis is proven via the scientific method, i.e. logic. One can believe anything they want, but if one is not willing to apply logic to that belief to determine if it is sound and valid, one can never attain knowledge of the world around them. I think some people need to be very careful when I hear them say that education is adequate for knowledge. This is not true, as per the fallacy of Argument from Authority. Just because something comes from a professor with a PhD doesn't mean it’s logically valid and sound. Education gives us the tools to pursue knowledge, but it is up to each and every one of us to apply those tools via logic and attain our own knowledge of the world around us.

INSTRUCTOR:

I'm not convinced a hypothesis and a belief are the same thing. Hypotheses serve as bases of investigations, they do not necessarily need to be believed. In fact, many people think science as a method of investigation is designed to falsify hypotheses, if they fail to be falsified, we'll believe them; otherwise, we won't believe them.

But these points aren't true of beliefs: to believe something we necessarily must believe it, and we don't believe things solely with the intention of trying to falsify them.

Another point: The scientific method and logic are very different things. For instance (this is just one, there are many many more) the scientific method is a tool for investigation (peculiar to the sciences), but there are many other methods of investigation, all of which use logic.

Good point about the Ph.D. stuff; that a professor, cop, preacher, etc. says something doesn't mean its right, or true.

ME:

I’m not convinced of your argument, and here’s why. You talk about beliefs and they way they are used. But isn’t that purely subjective? One person may choose to view their beliefs in one way while another does not. For instance, maybe I always view my beliefs in the same sense as scientific hypothesis, i.e. unless I have proven it sound and valid, I choose not to hold that belief. But I’ll also admit that this would bring up even more questions. Shouldn’t all beliefs be basis to be “investigated”? Does a belief have any place once something has been proven or falsified? Does a belief’s lifespan only exist from the moment in time when I first conceive the belief until the time when I actually apply logic and prove or falsify it?

INSTRUCTOR:

Before I respond, let me just clear up some confusion: valid is not something a belief can be. Validity is structural feature of arguments: specifically a structure that preserves truth from premises to conclusion. Also, since to be sound an argument must be valid, a belief can't be sound either. That being said, sometimes "soundness" is used synonymously with "true" in which case beliefs can be sound. But, for our purposes, we should probably distinguish the concept 'soundness' from that of 'truth'.

Ok, let me turn to the response. You seem to be suggesting that because you can use words to mean anything you want, their correct use can't be established. Or maybe a better paraphrase would be that if the use of a thing is subjective, there can't be a correct use of the thing. In your example, you suggest that because you always view your beliefs as hypotheses no one can tell you that hypotheses and beliefs are different things.

Is that a fair reconstruction? If so, let me try to show you what's mistaken about it.

It's not correct to think that because things vary in their use they must be subjective. This is a linguistic point. The notion of 'subjectivity' implies variation with the individual, so if a community of language users tend to use a word in the same manner, with minor variation across communities, that variation doesn't make the words use subjective. At best, that variation makes the words use dependent on the community of language users. Now, of course, you could respond by saying that you didn't mean to say that mere variation implies subjectivity, but, rather, that variation in use by a particular individual shows that a terms meaning is subjective. (This might be the reason you chose to argue that your particular use of 'belief' is always synonymous with 'hypothesis'.) Whatever that comes to, individual variation may show that something CAN be subjective, but it doesn't show that it IS subjective.

To see this point, let's look at a low key example. I have a friend who uses cotton swabs as toothpicks. He cleans off the cotton, sharpens the stiff part down to a point and cleans out his teeth. In this case, it seems like he has a subjective use of cotton swabs. Now, one day we go out to lunch and after we've finished eating I ask him for a toothpick. Well, sure enough he pulls out a cotton swab and hands it to me. I look at him puzzled. This isn't a toothpick, I say. He responds, well, that's what I mean by a toothpick.

Something here has gone wrong, and it's not my use of the word toothpick. Similarly in your case, you can use belief however you'd like, but if you don't use it like everyone else, then you've placed yourself outside the community of language users who use the word in its ordinary manner. Certainly, there are some similarities between hypotheses and beliefs (just as there are similarities between cotton swabs and toothpicks) but that there are similarities between two things, doesn't show that two things are the same (just as variation in meaning across a community of users doesn't show meaning to be subjective).

I realize I might be mistaken about symantecs, but I know there is something correct about what I am trying to say. Especially since when looking up the definition of the word "belief" I came upon the wikipedia topic flat out saying there is no consensus among philosophers what a "belief" even truly is!

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