Follow up to: The End of Cartesian Demons
I’ve now written a fair deal about knowledge: “The Origin of Truth” discussed how knowledge is derived by the interpretation of experiences, and “Meaningfully True” expanded this into a definition of “true” and “false”, which was clarified and emphasized in “The End of Cartesian Demons”.
While these essays were all rather lengthy and full of information, this essay will just be a short clarification of two points: what it means for knowledge to be “A Priori” and what it means for knowledge to be “absolute”. How do those two notions fit into the theory I’ve been writing about?
This essay is a bit more disorganized than usual because it is a summary of notes that I feel are rather relevant to the topic at hand, while still being a bit jumbled because they don’t fit directly into the narrative I’ve been writing, per se.
The Notion of “A Priori”
An interesting point to consider when suggesting that all knowledge is grounded in experiences is that of a priori knowledge, or the notion of knowledge that can be known without experiences at all. (The opposite is a posteriori; knowledge gained specifically from experience.)
However, when we look at what is actually merits the label “a priori”, we are met with examples such as the notion that “all bachelors are unmarried”. This is considered a priori because we need know nothing about who bachelors are and how they interact with the world, we need merely know that the definition of bachelors specifically excludes the idea of being married by definition; an unmarried bachelor is an obvious contradiction.
However, this is really just semantics: the people who mutter the words “a priori knowledge is knowledge not derived from experience” are using the word “experience” in a different way than I do, and I don’t feel the need to debate these definitions, but merely to choose one and stick with it.
For in this theory, knowing the definition of “bachelors” involves knowing what a bachelor is, and that requires you to have experienced the use of the word “bachelor” and to have derived meaning from it, further indicating a real or imagined experience of a bachelor. Only with these experiences, along with the experience of the law of noncontradiction, could one ever know that “all bachelors are unmarried”.
But does this mean that a priori knowledge doesn’t exist? It depends on how you want to squabble with the definition. I personally think that a priori is not referring to knowledge literally gained without any experiences, at least the way I am throwing around the word “experience”, but rather referring to knowledge we can simply infer solely by our experience of definitions and logic.
Distinctions in Knowledge
While it does seem that all knowledge is fundamentally derived from our experiences, it does make sense to distinguish knowledge based on which category of experiences we derived the information from. Possible distinctions would be whether or not the knowledge was gained from the scientific method, or the historical method, or whether knowledge is the product of rumor or hearsay.
The distinctions within knowledge also can give us some idea of how reliable that knowledge is, because of our experiences with other knowledge from that same category. We know that knowledge from rumor has often turned out to be true less times than knowledge gained from a rigorous application of the scientific method.
The idea of a priori vs. a posteriori also seems to be made based on one of these distinctions — if the knowledge is derived from our experiences with the scientific or historical methods it is often labeled a posteriori and that whic h is derived from our experiences with mathematics and the laws of logic are often labeled a priori.
Can We Have Absolute Knowledge?
Can we have absolute knowledge in our theory? Is there anything we can know for 100% certain, with no doubts? I think we can, with some reservations. Again, while many people say “absolute knowledge is impossible”, remember to beware of differences in definitions.
For instance, consider a tautology from the Law of Identity: “A is A”. I think we know “A is A” for 100% certain, with no doubts. However, I must admit that there is a minuscule chance that I’m completely mistaken about how logic works, or that I only think I typed “A is A” and I really made a typo, making me wrong. These background chances are what other people will capitalize on, indicating that I really do have doubts.
However, I think that these background cases are also needlessly nitpicky, and that once we forget about the possibility of typos, I know that “A is A” for 100% certain, with no doubts. So the existence of absolute knowledge really depends on whether or not you count those background cases, but regardless, we’re still pretty darn sure about the truth of “A is A”. As I spent a lot of time talking about in Part 1, we can’t even imagine something being A, but not being A.
That’s the law of non-contradiction at work. And if the law of non-contradiction is ever false, it will be false in a way I cannot currently comprehend, let alone anticipate.
There is also another way I feel we can get some semblance of absolute knowledge: statements that are true because they are defined to be true. For instance, the statement “A bachelor to be an unmarried man” is potentially false because I may be mistaken about how people use the word bachelor, but the statement “I define a bachelor to be an unmarried man” is not the kind of statement that can normally be false, thus “a bachelor is an unmarried man” is definitionally true.
These also include some of the things that must be true in order for things to be true at all: statements such as “at least one statement must be true” must be definitionally true in order for other things to be true, and statements such as “I exist” must also be definitionally true, because denying your own experiences means you cannot hold anything to be true, because only things that exist can hold propositions.
This is the distinction between definitionally true and actually true, because definitionally true controls for those nit-picky doubts about whether we are mistaken with the words that we are using, or about whether we are using logic correctly. The idea that only things that exist can hold propositions is only true if I’m correct about what I mean by “exist” and “holding propositions”.
Like the law of non-contradiction, things that are definitionally true also appear to closely approximate the idea of absolute knowledge.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated and reposted version of a previous post.
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