Thursday, October 16, 2014

Important Distinctions

A bothersome feature I've found prevalent among young people is an unwillingness to label beliefs, ideas and ideologies as 'good' or 'bad' or 'right' or 'wrong'. They are quite willing to judge behaviors, but not the beliefs that underlie the behaviors. I think this is totally wrongheaded. Part of the way we advance as a culture and as human beings is through the war of ideas. Ideas should be critiqued, and criticized and yes morally judged. People are deserving of respect, ideas aren't necessarily so deserving. One of the big issues I see in this regard, is that young people think that if you can't prove a belief wrong using evidence and argument that commands rational ascent, you can't claim to know it is wrong. This all stems, I think, from a lack of critical thinking skills that I really need to spend some time teaching. Maybe we'll do a class on it. But it shows me the dangers in philosophy becoming less valued in our culture. What we need to do is teach critical thinking, and philosophy (particularly ethics) in high schools. Here are some important distinctions people seem unable to make that I think need to be taught.

The Difference Between Knowledge And Truth- This is a big one that most people seem to have a hard time with. KNOWING is what you do. TRUTH is the object of knowing. Knowledge involves belief, justified confidence, and truth. In philosophy there is one field that broadly deals with truth, ontology, and one field that broadly deals with how we know the truth and what belief is all about, epistemology. Learning the difference between ontology and epistemology and how the two relate is so, freaking, important to being able to think straight. Most people have truth and knowledge all confused in their minds.

The Difference Between Believing and Knowing- Not all belief is knowledge. You can only KNOW what is TRUE. Knowledge also has to do with justified confidence in one's beliefs. You need all three, belief, justified confidence, and truth, to know something.

The Difference Between Knowing And Knowledge Claims- There are many conditions under which you have the right or rather are justified in saying that you know something. If you have belief, and have that X factor that brings justified confidence, then you can make a knowledge claim. You can be justified in saying you know something even when you may be wrong. One can right claim knowledge and still be wrong. What cannot make a knowledge claim when they have good reason to think they do NOT know or have no reason to claim they DO know. K

The Difference Between Knowledge and Certainty- People nowadays tend towards infallibilism, the idea that one can only claim knowledge about those things one is certain of. But that is really a weak position. Fallibilism, is the view that one can claim to know something while still knowing they could possibly be wrong. Knowledge does not imply certainty, necessarily.

The Difference Between Certainty and Certainty Claims- While I think certainty is something we should be careful of, and I think it is rarely achieved, there are times when we can assert certainty and be justified in doing so. Mathematics is one example. So are certain moral claims, like 'rape is wrong'. I may not be certain of some statement because the statement turns out to be untrue. But my subjective confidence can be high enough, and be justified enough, that I can claim certainty and be right in doing so. 

The Difference Between Proof and Knowing- While the proof paradigm is great, and when you can get proof you should use it, not all knowledge can be the result of absolute proof. Even science has certain 'basic beliefs' that have to go unproven. That doesn't mean they are unknown. One example is other minds or the existence of an external world. Even those who think almost everything we believe should be based on proof, and I mean scientists who argue for this, would admit that there are certain 'foundational' beliefs that are known without provability. Truthfully, if you required proof for every belief, you'd go down on an endless regress. Everything proven is known, not everything known is proven.

The Difference Between Morality and Moral Beliefs- A lot of youth tell me that a certain idea or belief is good TO someone. What they really mean is that the person THINKS the belief or idea is good. To say something "IS GOOD" is different from saying something is "BELIEVED TO BE GOOD". To say something is 'good to a person' is just the same as saying that the person LIKES this or that idea or belief. But we should use those terms that way. Don't say that X "IS GOOD TO" this or that person. Say "X BELIEVES IT TO BE GOOD" or more accurately "X LIKES THAT". Youth will often argue to me that morality changes. But that is to beg the question. What they really mean to say or rather should say is that moral beliefs change over time. The question then becomes WHY moral beliefs change. I'd argue it is because morality itself does NOT change, but our beliefs change to match them. Maybe you disagree. Maybe you don't believe in an external right and wrong and you think all there is to morality is people's beliefs about it. But then make that clear. Don't confuse the or assume the rightness of your position by saying something like 'morality changes'. Make the important distinction between morality and moral beliefs.

I could go on. These are just a few very important distinctions that people around me seem all but incapable of making. This is incredibly frustrating, and I think it is dangerous to believe that ideas or beliefs are beyond criticism or beyond moral condemnation. But these philosophical confusions and others like them seem to be a part of a growing cultural trend that lends itself to an inability to engage in ideological battle (and I use the term 'battle' deliberately). This is coupled with a desire to 'go along to get along' and to make loyalty one's highest value (another dangerous trend in our culture, see here: I worry about this trend toward "going along to get along" more than any other in youth culture.

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