Monday, September 29, 2014

Why Jon Snow Knows Nothing (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

The writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics .

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories.This post will highlight the pursuit of knowledge as discussed in Abraham Schwab's “’You Know Nothing, Jon Snow’: Epistemic Humility Beyond The Wall.”

Epistemology is the study of what we know and how we know. Epistemic humility is when we recognize what we don’t know. So how confident can we be that we know anything? A popular candidate is something called justified true belief. In order to have JTB, at least three criteria must be met:
  • One has to believe it’s true (Jon refuses to believe Benjen is dead)
  •  It must actually be true (I can know that George R.R. Martin will finish the series only if Martin finishes the series)
  •  It must be justified (A guess is not knowledge. Sam could not have given a reason why Dragonglass worked on the Other because he didn't know why it did. He was lucky, that's all.)
Unfortunately, even justified beliefs might be false. The Night Watch is certainly justified in believing dead people stay dead – at least until some of them come back as Wights. So what theories have been offered to help us see if we are justified in our belief that we actually have knowledge about anything?*

Option #1: Absolutism. The toughest criteria is absolute certainty. Rene Descartes said the only thing we can know with certainty is that we exist.  The rest of our knowledge lacks certain justification. A few things like geometry and the conclusions of valid and sound deductively logical conclusions can expand Descarte’s short list. However, most of life occurs outside of those options. How then do we go about knowing anything else to be true?

Option #2: Reliabilism. Reliabilism focuses on the processes that produce beliefs. Astronomy, for example, has proven to be a much more reliable way of producing true beliefs than has astrology. However, reliability is not certainty. The Starks have good reason to believe Ned will always return home with a good head on his shoulders – until he doesn’t. Because the criteria is not as stringent, the number of justified beliefs in reliabilism is larger than in absolutism, but  - ironically - more unreliable.  

Option #3: Epistemic trust. This is based on our observations and the testimony of others. These certainly count in our pursuit of knowledge, but once again we can be deceived by both. Our mind and senses can plays tricks on us; think of how a stick seems to bend when placed in water. People at times deceive us. Many times our trust is warranted, but other times it is not.

Option #4: Coherence. New ideas are justified by cohering to what we already believe to be true. It’s certainly a helpful way to filter new information, but its fatal flaw lies in its utter reliance of previously accepted knowledge. Any good conspiracy theory takes new information and shows how it coheres to what the theory already claims. But if the foundations are flawed, the building will eventually collapse.The most radical form of this is dogma. 

Option #5: Radical Skepticism. This approach questions everything (except the dogma of skepticism). As Schwab points out,“While dogma just knows, skepticism never knows.”

Gaining knowledge it a trickier proposition than it first appears. Thus the reason for epistemic humility. “You know nothing” is certainly an overstatement, but so is "You know everything." A healthy pursuit of knowledge is characterized by humility, curiosity, caution, and the willingness to commit to that which can be justified - or warranted -  to the best of our ability (see the link to Plantinga's discussion of 'warrant' below). And we should start that pursuit sooner rather than later because we all know one thing for sure: winter is coming.

*I wanted to let the article stay focused on what Mr. Schwab had to say. It's worth noting that Alvin Plantinga has argued that "what is lacking in current analyses of knowledge is the notion of proper function, i.e. of beliefs being formed by noetic processes functioning in the manner in which they were ‘designed’ (whether by God or by evolution) to function." He thinks it is important to distinguish between warranted belief and justified belief.  Click here for James Anderson's review of Plantinga's three-part series on this issue; click here for Steven Dunn's explanation of the difference between warrant and justification.

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