What Is Knowledge?
A New Look at an Old Subject
Why do philosophers immediately jump from
“what knowledge is” to “the validity of knowledge,” usually in
the form of “justified true belief” (JTB).
JTB is a giant step beyond what knowledge is as an
entity. The pursuit
should begin with a definition of knowledge and then proceed to
an evaluation of the certainty of knowledge or whether it is
true or not? I
define knowledge as that
which a mind contains and about which it functions—carries on
What is the “that which?”
“That which” is the function of the mind because
knowledge cannot exist without a mind.
Knowledge is the functioning of the mind?
At this point I am not making a claim about whether any
particular knowledge is true or not, just how knowledge should be defined.
Reader, ponder this connection for a moment.
Knowledge and mind are inseparable.
While an object, for example, the moon may exist as an
independent object, any “knowledge” of it must be perceived by a
mind. Here, we shall
not reflect on what this link between knowledge and mind means
for the concept of monism (physicalism or idealism) or dualism,
but this association seems most consistent with dualism (the
A body of knowledge would be that which a
particular mind contains, as propositions.
We could rightly speak of a body of knowledge about a
particular subject, for example, neurology, which would be
knowledge about nervous systems held by a number of minds,
including written form.
But even writing is only the presence of symbols on a
page until a mind interprets them as knowledge.
Or, a body of knowledge could be that knowledge of
neurology known by one mind.
I read novels to help me relax, particularly
in the evenings, and to quiet my mind before I go to bed.
Now, a novel contains a great deal of knowledge—most of
it fiction. (See
particular notes at the end of this paper on “Fictional
knowledge.”) But it
is knowledge. I
“know” the characters, the plot, and the various events that
occur along the way.
Contained therein is a great deal of knowledge—mostly untrue
(fiction) except as it might touch on actual historical persons
and events. No one would
claim that the story and its characters are true, but they are
still some kind of knowledge.
Further, JTB inescapably infers that there is
knowledge that is not true.
That is, knowledge that is not JTB, is not true or at
least not worth considering.
If such knowledge is not true, it is knowledge that is
false. So, knowledge
as it is used traditionally in philosophy is really a concern
for truth. Then, why
is the focus on the word “knowledge” and not the word “truth.”
I don’t know the answer to that.
Maybe there is an historian of philosophy out there who
can answer that origin for me.
I would speculate that “knowledge” does not have the
demand and exclusivity that “truth” does.
Truth makes a profound statement that all that is
different from its own statement is false.
But one can say this JTB is mine and that you can have
There are four traditional “methods
of knowing” (epistemology):
implanted, mystical, inborn),
(experiential, experimental, inductive),
theoretical, derived), and
But are not these distorting what knowledge
is vs. whether it is
true or not?
(Concerning “innate,” I do not think that the actually
categories of Kant are important, as they could be listed or
defined in a different listing).
Further, we could not all agree on these caetgories.
Even further, I am not speaking solely of categories, but
innate, actual knowledge, as when the baby cries for some need.
Such is not a category, but a specific need.)
Picture a brain, as the physical repository
(storage place) of the mind (not fully accurate, but consider
this a working model).
Picture the knowledge that it might contain as printed
words. How could
those printed words get into the mind/brain?
There are only two possibilities: they were there when it
was formed or they came in later.
Since this mind/brain is attached to a body with
senses and motor functions, bodily mechanism can be a means to get words into
that mind/brain. Let
us call that process, active knowledge.
It is also possible that words could be implanted
directly into that mind/brain by someone else without any effort
on the part of the owner of the mind/brain with or without his
awareness in a passive manner. (I am
talking about knowledge
per se, not an implanted chip or other storage device.)
This source would be supernatural (mystical), since not
part of the natural efforts of the owner would be required.
So, how does our view of this mind/brain fit
with the recognized sources of knowledge?
simple and clear, but would also include supernatural sources
after the “creation” of the mind/brain, since both innate and
supernatural are passive.
Empirical is the process just described whereby the motor and
sensory functions of the body are used to acquire information.
Reason (rational, logical)
is taking the knowledge that already exists somewhere to gain
additional knowledge by induction or deduction or simply
transfer (reading or hearing).
Thus, reason is a tool.
So, any knowledge derived in this manner is dependent
upon knowledge that exists prior to the reasoning process.
Reason (rationalism), then, cannot be a means of knowledge because it
is dependent upon knowledge that is already present.
But, what about
Now, we face something different.
Belief says something about the
truth of knowledge,
whereby the sources already cited only described how the
knowledge got there.
Thus, belief is not a source of knowledge, but a commitment to
the truth of that knowledge.
Belief, then, is not a source of knowledge
but a commitment to the truth (value, worth, importance,
accuracy) or falsity of that information.
We are left with only two actual sources of knowledge:
passive (innate or supernatural) and active (empirical by
natural, bodily means, including transfer by reading and hearing).
The traditional antithesis of reason and faith are not sources of
knowledge but the evaluation of whether the present knowledge
located within a (person's) mind is true or not.
They say nothing about how that knowledge came to be
epistemology is not really about methods
of knowing, but whether
the knowledge that is present is true or can be extended by
inference (inductive or deductive).
By this analysis,
nothing about the truth of the knowledge acquired.
Its truth has to be evaluated by criteria that do not
come with the knowledge itself.
The same can be said for
reason. Reason only uses
the knowledge that is already present.
Virtually all philosophers accept that the
valid application of
the laws of logic only determine truth when its stated
propositions are true.
Thus, reason really does not determine truth, it is only
able to make inferences from axioms initially
stated. It does not
determine the source of truth, but merely extends it to further
My conclusion is that the longstanding antithesis between
faith and reason is false.
Either or both are “givens,” not acquired actively.
Thus, my values and my criteria for reasoning are not my
own, but given to me.
*Added after initial posting: It comes to me
that the actual act of positing a position is a dependently
rational process. To make a statement of faith, one has to
have considerable understanding of language (a rational
system of symbols and concepts), logic (to arrange all those
symbols and concepts is a rational process), and some
rational concept of what it means to make a statement
of faith. It seems as if faith and reason are, then,
different words to state the same thing. This idea is much
closer to faith and reason than an antithesis.)
Anticipating Some Challenges
Some philosophers might challenge that I am
operating in a “premodern” context, that is, I am looking at the
world no differently from the church fathers and the ancients.
But now we live this side of Kant, Descartes, Hume,
Locke, and many others.
One could say that knowing has been made “problematical.”
But I counter with, “Who is authorized to determine how
knowledge should be discussed?”
Sometimes one can deal with all other discussion simply
by stating one’s own position and that statement is itself a
refutation of all other positions.
To say that I or anyone else has to answer all the
problems posed by all the “great” philosophers is to let them
determine the course of my argument.
That hardly seems “fair.”
Even in that statement, who are those who are “great,”
and why limit challenges to them only?
There may be some obscure philosopher who has a brilliant
idea that (1) either has not caught on yet (as Spinoza and
Kierkegaard lay dormant for some time), or (2) the
“mainstream” philosophers have ignored him into obscurity.
Cannot one even attribute this attitude to
How is it that we moderns have some corner on knowledge, truth,
and other matters simply because we live after those who have
There are more liberal Christians in the last 150 years
than ever existed on planet earth.
Is their knowledge an advance for Christianity?
There are more Muslims on planet earth than ever before.
Is that an advance for the world from an evangelical
It seems that the ultimate claim for my position is
that no modern advancements have shown the need for changes in
Biblical texts. The
Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries have shown that the Bible
today is not affected in anyway approaching “significance” from
such texts. No, the
claim of modernity is an empty claim.
Then, there is the problem of acceptance by
others. I have found
that one either accepts an argument of another or he does not.
Length and breadth of argument rarely, if ever, achieves
what clarity in brevity does.
Further, what standard would be used to determine when I have
There will always be the critic who wants another point
(As an aside, all these challenges just
embellish my dislike of JTB.
There is simply no recognized standard among
philosophers, past or present.
Trying to justify knowledge for every philosophical
challenge is not possible.)
At this point I am not proposing an apology
for Christianity or Biblical truth.
That process would indeed require engagement of other
For now, I am simply proposing that the consideration of
knowledge should not begin with its justification or truth, but
how it gets in the mind in the first place.
Consciousness and knowledge.
What about knowledge that exists in peripheral
consciousness or the “unconscious?”
These states do not change the concept of knowledge which
is not a matter of what is or is not readily available to the
mind. The mind still
exists as an entity with a “body of knowledge.”
We can equate “knowledge” with “consciousness”
of an object or idea.
I “know” an object if I am aware of it,
regardless of the extent of my knowledge of it.
I “know” that the Trinity exists, but I will never “know”
the fullness of what that means.
I mentioned the content of novels as “knowledge” above.
One reviewer asks, “How is it possible to know that which
does not exist?” It
seems that this question really penetrates to the core of what
knowledge is or is not.
Certainly, a novel contains knowledge: name of
characters, plots, and some sort of ending that usually
summarizes all these together.
I “know” that author X has written about characters A, B,
C, and D with QRS as the plot.
All that subject matter is in my mind, having first been
in the author’s mind.
Thus, this knowledge exists! Is this conclusion not
Again, the question is not really about knowledge
per se, but about
whether that knowledge is true and what it means to “exist.”
Existence is the area of metaphysics.
Is it then a proper consideration of epistemology?
All the areas of philosophy are linked and interrelated.
What I “know” about “existence” is central, as is how I
“exist” in order to “know” (Descartes).
It is simply a matter of what one chooses to posit as a first principle.
“Existence,” “substance,” “essence,” “real,”
and other such words are more than we can discuss here.
However, we can at least from the opposite direction of
Descartes, say that there is some factor of “knowing” to
anything that “exists.”
A planet in a galaxy beyond the most powerful telescope
“exists,” but to be given the name “planet” or a proper name
that identifies That Planet with particular characteristics
(universals) necessitates a mind that knows.
Could one say that
identification of an object requires a mind, even though
identification is not required for its existence?
Perhaps the most important role here of
whether something exists is the question of truth that was
discussed above. Is
knowledge in a novel true?
That is an interesting question.
I just read a passage in a novel that made me laugh and
laugh and laugh. Can
I interact with “non-knowledge?”
I think not—I know not.
But such consideration takes us to back to the core
importance of knowledge—whether it is true of not.
As a Bible-believing Christian, I can posit
that the great majority of knowledge in all the minds of the
world is false because that knowledge exists without God being
its ontology and epistemology.
Does That Planet truly exist without a mind to perceive
it or to create it? In a dualistic
universe, yes. In a
physicalist, monergistic universe, no.
Chemical reactions and “epiphenomena” are not minds.
There can be no consciousness of inert materials, no
matter how strongly these “minds” want to deny their own
we say that knowledge and perception are the same?
I perceive a chair with certain material, arms, rollers,
and a soft fabric. I
perceive the particulars of a particular chair.
My knowledge of that
chair is the same as my perception of it. Knowledge and
perception are the same thing.
Again, the issue is what is true.
We have three synonyms so far: knowledge,
perception, and consciousness.
As an aside, the plethora of synonyms in both theology
and philosophy cause a great deal of confusion.
I can construct a sentence with either one of our three
words here, and without some definitive reflection, the
sentences will seem to differ in their meaning.
I know my favorite recliner, and what about it
appeals to me.
I perceive my favorite recliner, and what
about it appeals to me.
I am conscious of my favorite recliner, and
what about it appeals to me.
person ever born (with the exception of those with limited brain
function) knows God sufficiently to be without excuse.
But exactly what do they know?
Such particulars have been and will be debated until the
end of time. But the
most important point is (1) that such knowledge is either innate
or implanted (comes from outside the person) or (2) that it is
acquired by the speech or writing of someone else that is heard
laws of logic. What
is interesting about certain states of mind that trouble our
concept of “existence” and “knowledge” is that the laws of logic
still apply. In a dream,
the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction still apply
within the context of the dream.
In an hallucination, it is the perception of its being
“real” that is frightening. The
demons that an alcoholic perceives are “real” enough to
frighten him. The voices
of a schizophrenic are “real” or else he would not be concerned.
In both these states, the
laws of logic apply or there would be no problem.
So, it would seem that
the laws of logic govern
thoughts whether they are true or not.
and the Original Warranted True Belief
Early in the Socratic dialogue with Theatatus,
Socrates asks him whether knowledge and wisdom are the same.
Theatatus answers, "Yes." And, thus we have
needless confusion from the beginning of this warranted
(justified) true belief. The problem is that
knowledge and wisdom can be synonyms,
but they are not always synonymous. The wise men (Sophists)
were know for their duplicity of beliefs, arguing for either
side of a position equally forcefully. Were they wise?
What reasonable person would think so? In fact, their
actions have caused "sophistry" to have negative
Wisdom would have been a better
choice for justified true belief. Wisdom is commonly
associated with truth. So, wisdom would need to be
justified and determined whether it was true or not. But
that is not the major point here.
The major point is that Sophists have
knowledge that is both true and false. They are
identified for this duplicity. This bolsters my argument
above, that knowledge is that which occupies the mind.
Knowledge is anything with which the mind is engaged. So,
the simpler process is to determine whether a particular bit or
set of knowledge is true or not, rather than the complex
"justification," "truth," and "belief." On the last term,
knowledge can be "believed" to be true, but not embraced (James
The Westminster Confession of Faith shows is a
philosophically sound document because Chapter
1, Section 6, directs that knowledge (truth) that is not
explicitly stated in Scripture may be “deduced” from it.
Thus, Scripture may be more widely applicable and
that such valid deduction has the same authority as
Alvin Plantinga’s primary concern in
Christian Belief is
whether “classical Christian belief” is
(his emphasis). David
Hall rightly calls this attitude
Arrogance of the
Modern (the title his book on the subject).
can demonstrate that the only advancement of moderns is
their technology, not their ability "to know" or their
who have this attitude (and it is widely prevalent, even
among Christians) are simply demonstrating the
intellectual vacuity of their times in a foolish manner.
I choose “peripheral consciousness” to separate myself
from the psychological concept of the “subconscious” or
If some knowledge is truly one of these latter
states, it cannot be "conscious."
And studies of techniques for probing these
areas, such as, hypnosis, have been shown to be
I have written on this subject