- The study or theory of knowledge.
Part of epistemology is an attempt to define knowledge. In a general sense knowledge is simply a justified true belief. It’s perhaps a bit more complex than that but justified true belief (JTB) is a decent starting point for general purposes. From that starting point, the goal is to make sure we have some clarity on the meaning of justification, truth, and belief. Epistemologists have been working on defining these terms going all the way back to the ancient world. While there may not be consensus on the exact meaning of these terms, we have a rough sketch of what consensus would entail. With the caveat that these are not precise definitions but at best rough outlines, let’s look at some general ideas regarding what these terms boil down to.
- Justification = evidential or coherent based reasoning used as support for our beliefs.
- Truth = An affirming value based on states of affairs that correspond to the way the world is.
- Belief = Internal state representing acceptance of statements, experiences, memories, etc…
Comprehending these conditions of knowledge gives us a better understanding of what and when we can know something or have knowledge about something, and also when we don’t. One can’t know that Santa Clause exists, because while one (presumably a child) may have a justified belief in Santa, it isn’t true. That is, the world is not such that there is a magical being living in the North Pole judging kids for their actions and distributing presents accordingly. Kids may have an unquestioned belief in Santa, but that belief can never aspire to the level of knowledge, because truth is a necessary condition, and not simply a strong recommendation.
In applying some of the standards of epistemology to rock climbing, several avenues of exploration open up. What is the meaning of climbing? What is it to be a rock climber? What is it to be good/great/best at climbing? Knowledge about any of these questions or rather the responses to these questions would have to include all three parts of the definition, i.e., justification, truth, and belief.
Thus the seemingly innocuous statement ‘rock climbing entails climbing rocks’, wouldn’t be quite as open and shut as it seems.
With the growing popularity of climbing gyms, it wouldn’t be objectionable to claim that most climbers never touch rock. Should we then designate gym climbing as polyurethane-climbing rather than rock-climbing? What if one route in a gym is composed of granite holds, what if one hold is made of granite, would that one granite hold allow us to conclude that this is now a rock-climbing gym? I’m not saying that rock climbing does or doesn’t entail climbing rocks, I’m just pointing out that it isn’t as simple as it seems. While we may be justified in believing rock climbing entails climbing rocks, the truth remains to be seen, and thus knowledge about this statement remains to be seen.
Stubbornness in our beliefs is a major obstacle to overcome when it comes to knowledge. Suppose I live on a somewhat secluded island, and I have a friend named Rose. Rose is the best climber I’ve ever seen. Suppose further that Rose is incredibly arrogant and totally convincing. Rose is generally a trustworthy friend who claims to be the best climber in the world. Now since I trust Rose, and I have never seen a better climber I would be justified in believing the statement ‘Rose is the best climber in the world’. On our sheltered island I have witnessed Rose’s best climb which amounts to the equivalent of a 5.13b. Now suppose you come along with news that some climber on the mainland has recently completed a route in the 5.14 range. Rose hears this and with persuasive conviction convinces me that this cannot be true, and she is in fact the best climber in the world. Another witness shows up with a similar report, and Rose continues to do the denial shuffle. With more reports, more scaffolding must be built to support the claim that Rose is the best climber in the world. Now rather than consider the possibility that maybe my belief about Rose is wrong, my stubbornness has kept me from getting closer to the truth. Before you know it, we are six months after an election and Arizona is partaking in an absurd recount based on conviction rather than fact. ROSE, ugh!
All this leads me to wonder, what it means to be a rock climber? If we are quick to conclude that all it takes to be a rock climber is to climb a rock, or structure designed to replicate the experience of a rock, then I think we’d be making a mistake. Analogously, being a writer takes more than just writing. I’m pretty sure that everyone I know has written something. Whether it’s an email, a grocery list, or a book, we all write. But, despite nearly every person alive having written, I’ve met very few people who are considered writers. In addition, I’m also reluctant to believe that it’s a matter of how we identify ourselves. It seems insufficient to think that simply declaring oneself a rock climber makes one a rock climber. Maybe it takes a certain skill level, or dedication, or understanding in addition to how we identify. Or perhaps being a rock climber isn’t binary in the sense of you either are one or you aren’t. Maybe like most things there is a spectrum, where one can perhaps be a bit of a rock climber, and others can be a bit more or a bit less.
All this is to say that I don’t really know? And I am confident in asserting that those who claim knowledge probably don’t really know either.