Pretend time: Imagine that I am authoring a dictionary. Under the entry “cat,” I write “A scaly, crawling eight-legged animal weighing no more than 1 lb.” Would you say that my definition is right or wrong? Wrong obviously.
It’s a curious thing that definitions of words can be wrong. After all, a word is just a combination of letters or sounds, and we can use these combinations to represent whatever we want, there is no right or wrong. Example: In English, “soy” refers to a species of legume native to East Asia. In Spanish, “soy” translates into the English equivalent of “am” (as in “I am”). Neither language, or those who use it, are wrong in doing so.
How is that both of the above conclusions can be true at the same time? Although we can use words in whatever way we wish, it is true that we (both as individuals and collectively as groups who speak the same language) tend to use certain combinations of letters consistently to represent the same idea again and again. Whether a definition is right or wrong depends upon whether it matches how we use the word which it defines.
Let me change track here for a minute: How is that you and I can know anything? Suppose that you come up with a method for finding knowledge. How do you know that the method will bring forth the truth? If use the method to justify itself, then you’re arguing in a circle. If you invent a new method to justify your old method, then we have to ask how that method is supposed to ensure the truth, and we’re back at square one. How do we know anything?
A key to unlocking this mystery is to spell out an explicit definition of knowledge that matches how we use the word in real life. If we do this, then finding out what we know is like putting a lock into a key: we find what matches our definition of knowledge in order to see what counts as knowledge and what doesn’t.
So, what does “knowledge” mean? “Knowledge” refers to a set of beliefs that can be demonstrated, on non-misleading grounds, to match reality. Let’s unpack that a little: when I say “can be demonstrated” what I mean is that the belief can be shown to absolutely or to probably match reality. The clause “on non-misleading grounds” means, to give an example, if you were on a jury and voted someone guilty of murder, your belief in their guilt would not qualify as knowledge if your decision was based on evidence that the police had fabricated (even if the defendant had really been guilty, a decision based on fabricated rather than genuine evidence doesn’t count as knowledge). “To match reality” or to accurately describe reality, is clear enough. I think it would helpful here to give a definition of what reality is, as it will come in handy later: Reality is anything which can possibly be experienced without being generated by the mind of the experiencer. In other words: If it is logically possible to experience something in the world as it is without that something being a hallucination or deception of some kind, then it is real.
What fits the definition of knowledge (belief that can be demonstrated… to match reality)? It must be true that you are now having the experience that you are, even if that experience is a dream or hallucination. By definition, you are experiencing anything that you believe you are. A equals A, and all other logical statements, must match reality, as they make a prediction which they themselves fulfill (the symbol on one side of the equals sign is the same as what is on the other side of it). Every time statements such as this are even thought about we can tell that they are true. They are always available for immediate verification. That you have the memories you do is also true. They may be distorted, or even false, but that you have them is indisputable. Moreover, your bank of memories is constantly being tested against reality to ensure that it matches. If, for example, all of my memories of living in Alabama to the present day were false and I really lived in North Dakota, this would something that I could falsify fairly easily and quickly. Other doubts one might raise, such as whether my sensory experience matches what goes on in the “real world,” are probably false in light of the fact that if I were not experiencing the real world, I could eventually have evidence to prove otherwise. That I do not have such evidence is predicted with greater certainty by the hypothesis that my sense experience of the world is basically correct than by the hypothesis that it is not (why this reasoning is logically correct will be discussed later on).
Foundationalism and its Discontents
Alvin Plantinga objects to a theory of knowledge called classical foundationalism. Classical Foundationalism, or at least my version of it, is the theory of knowledge which says that in order to be known a belief must be self evident, proven by logic, proven by evidence, or proven by some combination. One of his criticisms is that it is self-defeating: He asks whether foundationalism itself is self-evident, proven by logic, etc. If foundationalism cannot be demonstrated in any of those ways, then that means that it contradicts itself: it’s a belief that sets a standard for beliefs that it cannot fulfill. However, as I’ve shown, Plantinga is dead wrong. The very definition of knowledge, as I feel I and most other people use it, is such that in order for any belief to fit the definition it must conform to our experiences, which means conforming to the evidence and logical tools we have. In other words, foundationalism is true by definition, it only reiterates a thesis about knowledge that knowledge already prescribes.
Another criticism Plantinga has is that if foundationalism were true it would cut out a great number of beliefs that don’t seem to fit its criteria. As Robert M. Price once said in another context: “Is it the method or the result that is unacceptable here, as when President Nixon brusquely turned down the report of his own Commission on Pornography when it didn’t return the verdict he wanted?” (p.17 The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man). Second, and most importantly, the examples Plantinga gives of beliefs left unjustified by foundationalism are mistaken. Contra Plantinga, our beliefs in induction, other minds, the external world, the reliability of memory (and, I’d add, intuition) are all valid under foundationalism. In the links I’ve given defenses of each of these, and the ones that I haven’t linked to have been defended by other people, just do a google search.