Basics of Epistemology
Pretend, for a moment, that someone has just made a claim, and you are trying to decide whether or not that claim is true. How do you go about evalutating their assertion? How do you decide if that person is right or wrong? How do you know the truth?
Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. It is the area of philosophy which attempts to create methodologies for discerning truth from falsehood. So, for example, if I were to claim, “I am wearing a green shirt,” how could you verify or disconfirm my statement? Well, if you’re in the room with me, you could simply look at my shirt. However, what if you’re not in the room with me? You might place a phone call to someone who IS with me, and ask them– but how would you know that this new person was telling the truth, and not lying?
With this, let’s begin to define our terms.
BELIEFS are thoughts regarding reality by which we inform our actions. If I believe that stepping on a crack will break my mother’s back, I will likely try to avoid stepping on cracks. If I do not believe that taking Tylenol will aid my headache, I will be unlikely to try that medicine.
KNOWLEDGE is justified true belief. I can say, “I know it is raining,” if– and only if– it is actually raining, I believe that it is raining, and I have justifiable reasons for believing it is raining. Without any of these parts, I do not have real knowledge. For example, if I believe that it is raining, and the Weather Channel tells me that it is raining, but it is not actually raining, then I am wrong to claim, “I know it is raining.” Similarly, even if it is actually raining, and I believe that it is raining, I would be wrong to claim, “I know it is raining,” unless I had justifiable reasons for that knowledge (for example, if I looked out the window and saw the rain falling).
TRUTH is that which corresponds to reality. If I claim that a particular apple is red, my claim would be true if that apple really is red. However, if that apple is not red, my claim would not be true.
The goal of epistemology is to define ways of demonstrating which of our Beliefs are True, and can therefore be considered real Knowledge. Generally, these methods follow and expand upon the basic principles of logic– principles like the Law of Identity (“a thing is what it is”), the Law of Non-Contradiction (“a thing is not what it is not”), and the Law of Excluded Middle (“a thing is, or else it must be that it is not”). By properly defining and agreeing upon epistemological methods, it becomes possible to demonstrate to others whether or not a particular Belief is both Justified and True.
Epistemology forms the basis of Knowledge.