Knowledge: A Dennettian Approach That Dennett Would Hate
I want to say at the outset that this is not Daniel Dennett's take on
knowledge, and in fact he would probably have a lot
of scorn for what I say here. I'll get to the reasons for this in a bit,
but first I want to talk about the way philosophers traditionally ask
questions about knowledge.
Epistemology is one of the major branches of philosophy. It is
the study of how we know what we know. It has been studied for about as long
as we have had philosophy, which is to say for thousands of years in one
form or another.
My problem with epistemology, as traditionally done, is that it is infected with
the same crypto-Platonism that plagues the
philosophy of language.
Traditional epistemologists spin theories of knowledge, apparently guided
by common colloquial usage of the word "knowledge" and by their man-in-the-street
intuitions of what counts as knowledge and what does not. This would be fine
if they openly declared that usage and everyday intuitions were the explanandum, such
that what they were really after was a theory that explained usage and
intuition, but I've never seen anyone come out and
make such a declaration. It would also be fine if
they openly declared (and argued for!) the claim that our usage of the word
"knowledge" and our intuitions about it were true and faithful reflections
of some underlying natural kind, and that using this usage and intuition
as falsifiability criteria for their theories was the best way
to get at the truth about this natural kind,
but they never seem to make this declaration or
argument either. I find it frustrating that they do not see the need to even
nod in this direction.
My accusation of crypto-Platonism stems from my impression that traditional
epistemologists do not, in fact, think that they are studying "mere"
usage and fallible intuition, but are zeroing in on some Fact Of The Universe.
We are left to infer that epistemologists
believe that there is some perfect unchanging
definition of knowledge but we just haven't found
it yet. So they dive in and "study" this stuff called knowledge,
and start coming up with "theories" of it, with various definitions
and theories being ruled out because they are susceptible to
counter-examples that "clearly" don't constitute true knowledge.
This approach is self-defeating in that to the extent that you
elevate your initial intuitions to the status of being the final
arbiter of the truth of your theory, you can never reach a
counter-intuitive conclusion. The earth revolves around the sun,
and not the other way around; time and space behave differently for
observers in different frames of reference; whales aren't fish.
If you throw away any theories that contradict your initial
intuitions, you are pretty much guaranteed not to
find any deep but hidden truths.
To get a sense of who I am talking about here, read a little about
Gettier problems, or
epistemology in general.
Is Knowledge Something Philosophers Ought To Study?
Is knowledge, then, a natural kind, like hydrogen, a really-there
category of stuff in the universe? Is it the sort of thing about which one might have
real predictive theories, theories that might turn out to be right or wrong,
perhaps in defiance of our initial intuitions?
Or is knowledge more like most of the loosey-goosey
cluster concepts we use in everyday life? Or is it the case that
in everyday conversation we are sloppy and broad in our use of the term, but
when we zero in on a real, rigorous definition, we will find that True Knowledge
actually applies to a subset (or superset) of what we have been
calling "knowledge" all this time?
Scientists and philosophers refine terms like this, jargonizing everyday words,
all the time. They start out investigating
something that people call by a certain term, then they find some
natural kind at the core of that usage, and they decide to restrict the
technical usage of the term to the natural kind (as when we figured out that
whales aren't fish). Perhaps they also decide that this term also includes
some things that weren't covered by the term before, as in the case of
some fish that do not look like fish to the untrained eye.
If investigation reveals a natural
category that simply does not line up at all well with any particular
commonly used terms, the investigators might decide instead to
come up with an entirely new technical term. For example, scientists
are content to let people colloquially use the term "light" to mean
visible light, while they themselves use "electromagnetic radiation" to
refer to the much broader natural kind that actually constitutes light.
Alternatively, investigators can continue to use the common term,
but stretch its usage to accommodate new facts, using it in a more precise
way than most people do in everyday conversation.
The decision to tweak the usage of an existing term or come up with a new
one is a judgment call, one that is made collectively by the specialists
and the entire community of language users as a whole.
The point is that as we investigate,
even if we do find some natural kind that lies at the core of our
notion of knowledge, we may end up finding that this natural kind,
in itself, may or may not line up perfectly with our common usage of the term.
In this case we may end up redefining the term "knowledge" in a more technical sense,
and this new redefined usage may well exclude some things we might ordinarily
call knowledge, and include some things we would not ordinarily call knowledge.
On the other hand,
if there is a natural kind down in there somewhere but it is just too
disjoint with our common usage of the term "knowledge", we may just coin
a new term and say that our ordinary notion of knowledge is based on this
new thing. Moreover, if there simply is no natural kind that undergirds
our everyday notion of "knowledge", we might just stop talking about it
altogether in philosophical papers.
The situation with knowledge is a lot like the elements of Aristotelian
physics. I'm not saying there is no such thing as knowledge as
traditionally conceived, any more than I would say that air, water,
earth and fire don't exist. It's just that you can spend centuries
calculating the exact ratios of the four "elements" in the various
substances you see around you, and you won't have really explained
anything in terms of anything more fundamental; you won't have
carved Nature at the joints. I suspect that our
everyday understanding of "knowledge" is more like Aristotle's
earth, and less like hydogen.
So before we spend hundreds of pages arguing about whether or not knowledge is
justified true belief, and coming up with counterexamples,
we should take a step or three back and figure out
what, exactly, the explanandum is. We should try to nail down
why we think there is any such thing as knowledge in the first place,
what makes us think it might be a natural kind, and what intuitions we have
about it that we might be willing to sacrifice for the sake of retaining the
name "knowledge" to apply to whatever natural kind we end up identifying at
the core of our everyday usage of the term.
Types of Knowledge
What kinds of things do we generally count as knowledge? What makes us
think there is any such thing as knowledge, even as a sloppy,
colloquial concept, let alone as a perfect unchanging Platonic Idea?
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor do I mean to imply that these are
fundamental categories with crisp boundaries and no overlap, but here are
a few different senses in which we use the term "knowledge".
First, there is knowledge by direct acquaintance. When I see red, I know
that I am seeing red. When I am in pain, I know that I am in pain.
This gets back to that troublesome second orderliness of qualia. Qualia
and knowledge of qualia seem pretty inseparable. This observation alone
is pretty much all that constitutes
Higher Order Thought (HOT) theories.
Closely related to knowledge by direct acquaintance is knowledge by
brute association, like the knowledge that fire is hot. Simply reacting
to something based on past experience may count as this sort of knowledge.
It could be argued that a dog can know that fire is hot, or that
it knows it will
be smacked with a rolled up newspaper if it steals the meatloaf off the
counter. Moreover, I think that you could argue that a dog can know that
fire is hot, but that it can't have knowledge by direct acquaintance,
e.g. I am hot right now.
Making the brute association is a lower bar to clear than possessing the sense
of self necessary to know that you are experiencing what you are experiencing.
Then again, forming a brute association and acting accordingly might only
count as knowledge in a very loose, broad sense. You might be able to
think without words, but can you really know without words?
There is also factual, verbally encoded knowledge like
Shakespeare quotes or the fact that Moscow is the capital of Russia.
Although, as I have argued
before, this kind of "dry cognition" is shot through with qualia of its own.
Nevertheless, this is the kind of knowledge that rubs up against all kinds of
questions about language and the role it plays in our mental lives, since
this kind of knowledge seems inherently linguistic. It is digitally encoded,
so to speak. Using the power of language, we can know far more complex things
than we could ever keep straight using direct acquaintance or brute
Moving even farther along in terms of abstraction, we
have definitional knowledge, which is even more linguistically
encoded, and really is about the way we define the terms
themselves. The paradigmatic example of this kind of knowledge is that
all bachelors are unmarried. That all bachelors are unmarried is a
fact, and a fact that I know, but it is not an empirical fact that I
found out somehow, but rather it is inherent in how I define my terms
in the first place. It is a form of a priori knowledge.
I would also include 2 + 2 = 4 in this category.
Of course, this opens up all kinds of possibilities about mathematical truths and
the extent to which we are discovering anything "out there" when we do math, as
opposed to playing with our own minds. Without going down the philosophy of mathematics
rabbit hole too far, I think we can say that I am saying something about how I
define 2, 4, +, and = when I assert that 2 + 2 = 4. There is no
possible universe in which 2 + 2 does not equal 4. If you
say there is, then you are defining your terms quite differently than I do, and it is
just a matter of you using a different language, at least with regard to these terms (for
instance if you decided that "+" means minus, or that "4" means -9).
We also have inferential, or implied knowledge. If all men are mortal and Socrates is
a man, then Socrates is mortal. This is related to definitional knowledge, in that
the truth to be known here is implied by the way the terms are defined, but instead of
automatically falling out as soon as you know what the words mean, you have to
put a little more work in to connect the dots. You can be a perfectly competent
language user, with a good command of the terms and their meanings and still
not grasp all of the implications of the premises that you know. Indeed, lots
of the work people do in mathematics is that of working out obscure implications
that are implicit in the premises that are well known to every freshman.
Logical inference does not come for free. Knowing the premises is not the
same thing as knowing the conclusion.
Once we connect those dots, however, maybe implied knowledge is just a kind of
factual knowledge, since once we make an inference, it is knowledge, full stop.
Moscow is the capital of Russia, Socrates is mortal.
Not quite, though. There is a sense of certainty that clings to knowledge that
we derive from other knowledge. Also, depending on context, we sometimes attribute
knowledge of this sort to people even when they haven't connected the dots
explicitly, but might perfectly well be expected to be able to do so:
The power went out, so you know you won't be microwaving a frozen burrito
in the immediate future, even if you are just starting to get hungry and had not
quite articulated to yourself the desire for a microwaved burrito.
Finally, there is knowledge of missing knowledge.
This is not really another category of
knowledge itself, but a form of knowledge about our own minds, and how
knowledge fits into it. It is really meta-knowledge. Imagine being locked in
a room with a numerical keypad lock. You can't get out of the room, and you know
that you could if you knew the right combination to type into the keypad. You
know that you lack knowledge, and you have a pretty good sense of the scope of the
particular knowledge you need, and where it would fit into the store of other
knowledge in your head and how you could use it. In the same sense, I know that
I don't know more than a few constellations in the night sky. There are many
things that I don't know, but I find it odd in these cases that I know pretty
much exactly what it would be like to know the keypad sequence, or the
constellations, or the types of birds in my back yard. Yes, I am missing the
actual knowledge, but the scope of the knowledge I am missing is so narrowly
circumscribed that it is defined by its negative space in my mind.
The Phenomenology of Knowing
As I said above, these examples of types of knowledge are just meant to
mark some of the territory covered by the term. When we do the philosophy of
X, we need to review why we think there is any such thing as X in
the first place. In this, we can only be guided by our intuitions
and common usage (keeping in mind that we declare this up front,
and allow intuition and usage to point the way to the phenomenon in
question, and do not take them to be any kind of final authority).
Do we have any other intuitions about knowledge that
might help to constrain the problem? Sometimes, when talking about science,
we use the term "know" very broadly, anthropomorphizing: the oceans on
Earth know about the moon through its gravitational influence. In this case,
to know is to be causally influenced. I think we can safely write this
off, at least provisionally, as a case of speaking metaphorically.
What do our intuitions and usage have to tell us about hypothesized
knowledge blindsight? What if you had some kind of post-hypnotic
suggestion embedded in your mind, so that in certain situations, with
certain cues, you would, with 100% reliability, say the appropriate thing,
or perform the appropriate action, without "knowing" ahead of time?
For instance, if you, as far as you could tell, had no idea of the order
of the elements in the periodic table, but if someone asked you what the
31st element was, you found yourself, to your surprise, saying "Gallium".
To an outside observer you
definitely knew something, even though you did not know that you knew
it, and could not summon any sense of the knowledge being there.
Would this kind of knowledge, construed in purely functional terms,
count as true knowledge? The question is analogous to the question of
blindsight with regard to visual qualia, and I suspect has the same answer.
What if your knowledge of the geography of the continents
disappeared for 5 minutes while
you were driving home from work listening to a song on the radio?
Would you notice? We would like to think that we would, that our
knowledge is somehow integrated and present even when it is not being
actively used at the moment. As with other qualia, however, I think that
we might not miss huge swathes of it missing or different, as long as
it is not the stuff we are paying attention to right now.
Again, there is an analogy with qualia in general here, with similar
questions of each.
What is it like to know?
In all of examples above of types of knowledge,
what does it mean to know? I know I am seeing red
because I am seeing red. I know that fire is hot, because if I reached my
hand out into a fire, it would burn me; if I put a piece of metal in a fire,
it would get hot, and it would burn me. If I got on a airplane to
Moscow, I would end up in the capital of Russia, and all of the assumptions
and expectations I would have on the basis of that expectation
would be validated. If I act on
my inferred knowledge, my expectations will likewise be validated, and
if I only had the combination to the lock, I could get out of this room.
If, if, if. In all but the first case, the word "if" plays a role. When asked to
explain or even describe our knowledge, we almost always immediately turn to
hypotheticals. In the first case, my direct knowledge of my own
conscious state, there is no hypothetical, since the "if" clause is already
happening - it is the degenerate trivial case of a hypothetical, in a
I know the cast resin garden Buddha is hard, and I know this with
certainty. What does it mean that I know this? I have an immediate,
palpable sense that if I were to touch it, if I were to
drum my fingernails on it, if I were to rap it with my knuckles,
it would feel hard.
Some of our expectations regarding these hypotheticals are immediate
and sensual, while others are complicated and a little more abstract.
I know that I have a certain balance in my checking account because
if I wrote a check to buy a new roller coaster for my back yard, the
check would bounce, with all the various consequences that would entail.
Is knowledge of something, then, (just) a big bundle of hypothetical
expectations? Could it be that
we think we have a map, and know things from above, as it were,
but really we just have a very elaborate set of directions, situation-specific
instructions and chains of if/then clauses that present themselves
instantaneously on demand? Does what we think of as descriptive
information in our minds end up resolving into a whole lot of prescriptive
information with no remainder?
And what, in turn, does it mean to have mastered
the hypothetical? To know that
if . . . then . . ?
If/then clauses have a decidedly algorithmic, prescriptive ring.
One associates them with computer programs. To resolve them, you
run through the cases. You compute.
Could it be, in fact, that we do not actually know in the direct sense that
we think we do, for instance, that the Buddha is hard? We only
cognitively judge ourselves to know, and have a very good system
for coming up with justifications on demand? If this were true, our
"knowledge" of something is really just a warm, fuzzy confidence that
we know rather than what we normally think of as true, immediate,
internalized knowledge. When does complete, just-in-time
predictive power and mastery of the hypotheticals become essence?
This is what I think of as Dennettian. What I've just said about
knowledge is what he says about qualia. He claims that we don't actually
directly experience in the way we think we do, but we (merely)
judge ourselves to experience. We actually have a really good
mechanism for answering any questions immediately about our field
of "experience", and we tell ourselves cognitively that we experience
"directly". Could knowledge be that way?
No, and for the same reasons that
Dennett is wrong about qualia.
I can know that the Buddha is hard, and really sense its
hypothetical hardness without actually taking the time to run through
any of the imaginary scenarios of touching, drumming, rapping.
a smeared-out process becomes a single, unitary thing, grasped all-at-once.
In our minds, the prescriptive becomes descriptive. Process becomes thing.
The counterfactuals are not just our way of expressing or explaining
our knowledge, but are right there, baked into the knowledge itself, and
into our sense of having that knowledge. There is a what-it-is-like to
know the Buddha statue is hard.
I know the Buddha statue is hard with the same sort of certainty that
I know that it is hard when I am actually stubbing my toe on it.
I am directly acquainted with my knowledge of its hardness.
The functional, prescriptive construal of knowledge sounds plausible
in the abstract, but fails on subjective, qualitative grounds, just as
a purely functional construal of qualia does.
There is such a thing as really-there (as opposed to may-be-seen-as)
descriptive information, if only in our minds.
In fact, (and if you have been following along you probably saw this
coming), I'll take it to its next logical step: knowledge is a quale.
Like a lot of qualia, it is a complex all-at-once kind of quale.
Interestingly, it is also a Lego-stackable quale, in that it
constrains or modifies, or calls into being other qualia.
Knowledge applies itself on the fly as the situation calls for it,
or seems to present an opening for such application, and
incorporates all those implied hypothetical scenarios
instantaneously in some way, so that they
don't actually have to play out through time in your mind.
The ways in which a piece of knowledge can construct or constrain other
thoughts you might (or might not) come up with is an inherent part
of the knowledge itself.
Pieces of knowledge seem to insert themselves and stack and self
organize as appropriate; they are, in fact, what I have been calling
demons. As such, we must ask the demonic
questions: how are they individuated? How do they merge, split apart,
fight, reproduce, form alliances, change over time? For what "resources" are they
"competing"? What are the rules that govern their Darwinian memescape?
The troublesome second-orderliness of knowledge mirrors that of qualia:
seeing red seems inseparable from knowing that you see red, just
as knowing that Moscow is the capital of Russia seems inseparable from
knowing that you know that Moscow is the capital of Russia.
If knowledge-qualia constrains other qualia, and aggressively seeks
to apply itself, it makes sense that it would insert itself in any
declarations of state by whatever our self-model might be, and we
would know that we know, and know that we know that we know, etc.
As with inferred knowledge, we don't have to drag the whole derivation
of the knowledge into play when we know that we know something;
you can know that you know your own phone number without
reciting it mentally.
Treating knowledge as a particular kind of qualia, or a way of thinking
about qualia, I think, is the most promising approach in terms of
zeroing in on knowledge as a natural kind. This echoes my
internalism about language and meaning.
If you choose to define your terms in such
a way as to be an externalist about such things, I can't stop you, and you
may be able to come up with an internally consistent system for talking
in the terms you define, but you won't have carved Nature at the joints.
The take-home message here is that qualia are not just some magic spray
that coats our otherwise functional machinery, or some kind of mood that
washes over our minds. Qualia are what our minds are made of, the girders
and pistons as well as the paint.
The big question, then, is how should we think of this
process-as-thing, data-as-algorithm, all-at-once, seen from above, that we see in our
own minds but nowhere else in nature? Thinking in terms of computation
will only take us so far, and at a certain point, thinking in computational
terms will actually mislead us. We need a new model, a new way of thinking