Monday, July 15, 2024


A Process-Based Theory of Knowledge

by Francois Tremblay

A theory of knowledge may sound like a ponderous topic. Why do we need one at all ? Well, it would be nice to have an idea of what we mean when we say about a proposition (i.e. a sentence which can have a truth-value) “X is true” or “X is known”. Otherwise we cannot consistently judge truth and falsity.

There are two main types of answer to this question right now. One is called correspondence theory, and can be expressed as “X is true because it corresponds to a fact of reality”. But this answer is ultimately circular because it gives us no means to know what is “in reality” in order to compare it to our propositions. If we already knew what was in reality, we would not need to evaluate propositions at all.

Another theory is semantic theory, which can be expressed as “the proposition X is true if and only if A, B and C”. One concrete example is :

“If “Socrates” is a name and “is mortal” is a predicate, then “Socrates is mortal” expresses a true proposition if and only if there exists an object X such that “Socrates” refers to X and “is mortal” is satisfied by X”.

This theory was thought by its creator only to apply to artificial languages, although formalization of propositions in natural language can be done. Either way, it is of no help to our daily experience, because all it does is clarify instead of justify. While it tells us exactly what we mean with “Socrates is mortal”, it does not help us determine whether that proposition is known or not. Furthermore, other limitations of this theory have been pointed out by various philosophers.

Another way out of this is to deny foundationalism altogether and take the coherentist route, with a coherence theory. Another way out is to say that there is no truth at all but only a demand for other people to take a certain mental attitude, a position which is called performative theory. Being a foundationalist and holding the position that there is such a thing as truth, I reject these theories also.

Having rejected all these alternatives, I must now present mine.

My theory of knowledge is partially based on Objectivist epistemology (for the interested, see “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”). However, I reject the notion of contextual certainty. Since this is a considerable part of Objectivist epistemology, I may safely dissociate myself from it. It is also partially based on scientific terminology and the scientific method.

First, I must define what I mean when I say “X is true”.

A proposition X is true iif X a rationally-held proposition.

Or to unpack this :

A proposition X is true iif there is sufficient objective evidence to defeat the burdens of proof necessary to make X a known proposition.

These burdens of proof are a scale describing proposition that goes from “syntactically invalid” to “known”. These burdens of proof are necessary because of the cardinal rule of rationality, which is :

(1) Something is rational only to the extent that it is supported by objective evidence.

Which entails a number of corollaries such as :

(2) A proposition can only be rational if all its parts are supported by objective evidence.
(3) Invoking explanatory entities that do not add any explanatory power is irrational.

(2) and (3) express the same exact fact, but seen from two different angles. (3), of course, is the basis for Occam’s Razor. This disproves the assertion that Occam’s Razor is “just a preference” or “just a convenience”. (3) is a corollary of (1), therefore to reject a result of Occam’s Razor is to reject Reason itself.

Because of our correlation between truth and rationality, (1) also entails the following :

(4) Our provisional conclusions are comparative.
(5) Truth is relative.
(6) Truth is probabilistic.

I will examine (4), (5) and (6) in a moment. First I must present the scale of burdens of proof. This table is taken from James Lazarus’ “Argument from Non-Cognitivism”, with a few exceptions.

* Syntactically Correct—expressing a coherent sentence structure in one’s assertion. Simply, it is a statement made in accordance with the rules of language. * Meaningful/less ness – One must prove that the term(s) in the proposition that they are presenting forward has actual referents that can be all be meaningfully specified. * Coherent/Incoherent – this next step requires one to make certain that their claims are not self-defeating or contradictory in nature. Incoherency breaks the laws of logic, thereby falsifying the statement in a fundamental way. * Hypothesis – A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation. All propositions do not have to be hypotheses at some point, but all hypotheses must be meaningful and coherent. * Possible – reaching the point where two or more propositions compete with a limited amount of evidence supporting each of them. * Probable – reaching the point where the majority of evidence available seems to point to one’s own provided conclusion. * Known – where all the evidence on hand points conclusively to the given proposition as being correct.

Meaningless or incoherent propositions may be said to be outright “false” even if we have no knowledge on its topic, because the inability to clear these fundamental burdens is sufficient evidence in itself to prove that “X is false”. Syntactically incorrect sentences cannot be true or false since they are not propositions at all.

“orbits Earth, the around Sun the” is not a proposition.
“The Earth orbits around the Sun” is a known (true) proposition, based on astronomical facts.

Of course, we may concede some burdens of proof if convenient for the sake of the argument. For instance, the proposition “A god exists” is meaningless. But in most arguments, such as the Problem of Evil, we assume that the word “god” is meaningful in order to address other problems with it, namely the fact that it contradicts the existence of evil.

Here are some more examples :

“The kookyklaks created the universe” is syntactically correct but meaningless.
“My name is Francois Tremblay and James Lazarus” is meaningful but incoherent. “I made the Eiffel Tower” is coherent but impossible.
The current positions on the emergence of life (abiogenesis) are possible but improbable. When sufficient evidence will have accumulated one way or another, we will be able to say that one of the positions are probable, and eventually known.

(4) Our provisional conclusions are comparative.

Here I must start by defining what a provisional conclusion is :

A provisional conclusion is a proposition that is held as if true, for the purposes of action, given a lack of knowledge on the relevant topic.
A provisional conclusion must be the most credible proposition on the relevant topic at the time of its use, and cannot be false at the time of its use.

The Ancient Greeks felt validated in their position that “the gods control all natural events”. Obviously, such agency was the most reasonable option at the time, since they had no knowledge of natural law and thought such knowledge was impossible. This is not to say that their position is true and that our position is false : we now know better.

The Ancients’ context of knowledge was very limited, and as we will see, this makes the credibility of “the gods control all natural events” very low. The credibility of a proposition is the amount of trust we can put in it. Credibility, to a certain extent, follows the scale of burdens of proof that we have seen above.

The proposition “the gods control all natural events”, as understood by the Ancients, was coherent and meaningful. Their pantheons were naturalistic and clearly defined. It was also the best position available on the problem of natural events and their causation. Therefore, despite its low credibility and its mere status of possibility, a person living at that time should consider it as a provisional conclusion.

We need provisional conclusions because we need to act regardless of whether we have knowledge or not. For instance, one may decide to make a sacrifice to the gods based on one’s provisional conclusion that there are gods, regardless of how credible that conclusion is. A decision must be taken on whether to make such a sacrifice or not, there is no choice about that. What must be determined is what our provisional conclusion is and how much it warrants.

(5) Truth is relative.

The evaluation of a proposition is relative both to the knower and the transcendent knowledge base (which together form our context of knowledge), and the object of knowledge.

We have already seen how provisional conclusions are relative. But truth is relative also. One obvious example would be Newton’s Law of Gravitation and General Relativity. One cannot argue that Newton’s Law of Gravitation should have been considered merely probable on the basis of quantum physics, because awareness of that discipline did not exist at the time.

Another case would be personal experience. I know things about my immediate surroundings that you cannot know unless I tell you, and even if I do tell you, you know them with less credibility than I do.

A consequence of the relative nature of truth is that we are obligated to hold as true things which may later be revealed false. Someone who did not support Newton’s Law of Gravitation as a scientific law should be considered as irrational as someone who does not support General Relativity today. We now know that Newton’s Law does not apply to all contexts, but this would be a fact not known to people at the time. Therefore it is irrational to expect them to know this.

Remember that we know based on our rational conclusions. These conclusions are made in a context of knowledge. Our context of knowledge can also improve our understanding of the object of knowledge, as for instance the invention of new tools of perception or measurement such as the microscope or telescope.

The fact that truth is relative does not mean that truth is subjective. Truth-value judgment is objective. The fact that it is relative simply expresses that the facts at hand are just as important in our determination of truth-value as the object is.

(6) Truth is probabilistic.

It should be obvious by now that knowledge and truth are not binary systems. While propositions remain either true or false, that evaluation must be inscribed in a context of both burdens of proof and credibility. I have defined the burdens of proof but not credibility.

The credibility of a proposition is its probability of corresponding to an omniscient understanding of objective reality.

You may note the appearance of Correspondence Theory in my definition. Here I am using Correspondence Theory as an unattainable yardstick. There is no such thing as omniscient understanding. In practice, all credibilities are less than 1. We can prove this with the following argument :

(1) To demonstrate that the credibility of a proposition X equals 1, it would be necessary to show :
(1a) that all the acts of cognition that led to X are valid.
(1b) that there are not enough evidence left in the universe to contradict X.
(2a) We cannot demonstrate that all the acts of cognition that led to X are valid.
(2b) We cannot demonstrate that not enough evidence is left in the universe to contradict X.
(3) No proposition X can have a credibility of 1. (from 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b)

One should be wary not to confuse my argument with epistemic skepticism or nihilism. As a proponent of knowledge (including ethical knowledge), I am far removed from such a position. A common straw man is that knowledge must have a credibility of 1 : this is, however, a religious conception, not a reasonable one. To ask knowledge to have a credibility of 1 is unscientific and unreasonable.

I must also define what I’ll call the propositional assessment.

The propositional assessment of a proposition is the nature and probability given, within a proposition, to a sub-proposition.

For example, “there is a 2% probability that it will rain tomorrow” has a propositional assessment of 2% to “it will rain tomorrow”.

Now for the difference. Suppose that I tell you the following : “there is a 2% probability that it will rain tomorrow”. I feel very confident in that proposition – that is to say, after measuring all the relevant factors, I think I am almost certain of that figure. I can say that the propositional assessment is 24% and yet the credibility of the proposition, at least for me, is, say, 0.9. 0.9 is very different from 0.24. I think that it will probably not rain, but I am very confident about that fact.

This question becomes important when we discuss propositions that have a high propositional assessment, such as “there is a god” or “there are no gods”. People tend to think that strong atheism demands certainty, because its propositional assessment is 1. But as we’ve seen, that is impossible. There is no such thing as certainty, and neither is it needed to know anything.

Perhaps another example can illustrate this. Suppose a theist tells you that he is 100% sure that God exists. You point him to a resource, say on the Big Bang, and he starts wavering on the topic. Now he’s 75% sure. But his belief has not changed ! He still believes “God exists”. His propositional assessment is still 1, but his confidence in it is now .75. If eventually he becomes an atheist, he may change his propositional assessment to, say, .2 or .1, but his confidence could come back also. As he deconverts, we would expect him to gain confidence in his conclusions again.

Likewise, a strong atheist may not be very confident in his proposition, or very confident. Knowing that he is a strong atheist alone does not tell us how credible he thinks strong atheism is.

As we have seen, credibility is correlated with the scale of burdens of proof, but they are not equal. One may know something in which he has only average confidence, or not consider something known despite its great credibility. Perhaps there are other alternatives with as much credibility. Whatever the reason, they are two different measures.

Credibility represents how likely it is for a proposition to be true, or how unlikely it is to be proven wrong in the future.
Credibility is proportional to our context of knowledge and the validity of the operations we make on its basis.

Unlike the scale, credibility is an absolute measure. But credibility can only be estimated or used as a relative measure, given that we cannot predict what we will discover (or not discover) in the future. What I mean by using it relatively is to compare the context of knowledge at two different times. For instance, we can compare the context of knowledge when Newton discovered his Law to today’s context of knowledge.

Some other considerations :

1. Another consequence of this theory of knowledge is that there are no “analytic” or “synthetic” facts. This distinction is erased by the fact that both are evaluated in the same way – “analytic” propositions are not certain, and do not refer to anything but empirical evidence. The difference between these assumed categories lies more at the level of how the evidence is gathered, as “analytic” propositions are acquired by concept-formation and “synthetic” propositions are acquired by other means.

2. Despite my rebuttal of Correspondence Theory, I do not deny the existence of actual objective objects about which we gather evidence in order to find facts. On the contrary, a theory of knowledge centered around beliefs acknowledges the fact that the mind is not diaphanous (on this, see “The Diaphanous Model of Awareness : Using Illusions as Arguments”). It is only possible to speak of “reality apart from our minds” if we presume that the mind is diaphanous, but we know this is not the case.

Now, this complication may make knowledge seem more complicated, but in fact it is not any more complicated than it needs to be. Simply perceiving the attributes of an object is relatively uncontroversial, as it should be, unless we are faced with a special situation or context with our senses (being drunk or on drugs, etc) or with the object (effects of refraction, for example). These are only considerations that already applied to the senses, and are not complicated by this theory of knowledge.

Last updated: October 20, 2004