Friday, May 11, 2007

Knowing and not Believing

I know I am going to die some time in the future. I cannot, however, conceive of me dying in any manner. And so, I cannot believe that I am going to die. I think this is true of my psychology, and I also think it is true generally, of a good number of other humans. I think, furthermore, that this falsifies the traditional theory of knowledge in terms of justified belief, and that it also contradicts traditional views of moral inconsistency.

Call whatever it is that I know, but cannot believe, ‘a content’. For the former case to be so, it must be possible for humans to hold some contents as known without, therefore, holding them as believed. If this is so, it seems that knowledge is not belief at all, whatsoever. So it cannot either be a justified belief, whatever.

Here is another example. I know that my family is dead. I cannot, however, conceive of them dying in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for that matter, convince myself that they are dead. And so, I cannot believe that they are dead. I think this is true of my psychology, and I am confident it is also true of most (if not all) cases of grief.

Just like before, this seems to require some independence between holding a content as known and holding it as believed. The best way to understand this, I think, is to take the knowledge-belief relation in similar ways as we understand the belief-desire relation. The three of them, I propose, are, up to some degree, independent of each other. I cannot, it is true, know something without having any belief whatsoever. Just like I cannot have any desire without having any belief whatsoever. It seems, however, that I can have the desire to be able to fly, without having the belief that I can fly. Likewise goes for knowledge, I think. I can know something, and still not believe in it.

To hold this degree of independence between knowledge and belief allows us to understand, also, the otherwise problematic phenomenon of inconsistency. I haven’t met any perfectly consistent person, much less any perfectly consistent moral philosopher, which is able to do what their moral views tell them to. The traditional way to account for this is to criminalize the inconsistency. Some think we should punish the moral philosopher for never acting according to their theories. I think this is just a misunderstanding.

I hereby present a different story. A moral philosopher, and for that matter, any human being, will be able to have a theory, and know what to do, and still do something else, without thereby committing a crime. The reason this is so is not because the subject is inconsistent. Rather, persons are such that they can know something (or, better, hold some content as known) without thereby desiring, believing, or even conceiving it. There is no crime here. That’s just how we are.

We should perhaps not demand impossible tasks from our fellow humans.