All posts by Morgan Hannah Goldberg

How Science Might Support Smart’s Theory

In “Sensations and Brain Processes” by J.J. Smart, Smart argues that sensations are brain processes. This thesis claims “that in so far as a sensation statement is a report of something, that something is a brain process” (Smart 145). The use of the word “is,” in this particular case, refers to strict identity. This does not mean that the two entities are simply continuous in time and space, this “is” also means it “is identical with” in the strict sense, which must be clearly distinguished from the other kind of “is” that labels things that are identical to each other only in that they are time slices of the same four-dimensional object.

In order to support his thesis, Smart presents multiple objections to his thesis and then goes on to reply to these objections in order to strengthen his thesis. For example, the fourth objection is, “The after-image is not in physical space. The brain process is. So the after-image is not a brain-process” (Smart 150). His answer to this objection is that the experience of having an after-image is a brain process because it is reported in the introspective report. Smart thinks of retorts such as this to dismiss any possible objection to this theory and he does this pretty successfully. I, personally, could not think of another question or objection to his theory that he had not already answered. In fact, I believe that Smart’s theory is correct for reasons that are more scientific than philosophical.

Scientifically, Smart is correct. Any sensation that one could experience is a brain process. From sight to touch to pain to hearing, all sensations must be processed by the brain in order to be perceived. And as Smart says, the brain process itself is not a “yellowy-orange” something, but it is the experience of having that “yellowy-orange” something, and “there is such a thing as the experience of having an image, and this experience is described indirectly in material object language, not in phenomenal language, for there is no such thing” (151).

For example, in terms of vision, when you perceive that you are seeing something, light rays are reflected off objects and enter the eye through the cornea, which is the transparent front part of the eye that does most of the focusing by bending the light that passes through the pupil. This leads the light to the retina, which is the layer of tissue at the back of the eye containing photoreceptors and neural circuitry. There are two main types of photoreceptors in the retina: rods and cones. Both rods and cones turn the light into electrical signals, which the optic nerve sends directly to the brain. The primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain then perceives these signals into images. I learned this process in my neuroscience class and it applies to Smart’s theory because it scientifically shows that sensations are brain processes.

My question for the class is, is there a way you think that science could undermine Smart’s theory? If not, is there another challenge you would like to make to his theory?

Can We Truly Define Knowledge?

Chapter three in Pritchard is titled “Defining Knowledge,” yet much of the chapter presents   different, conflicting ideas of what knowledge is. The reason that the definition of knowledge is seemingly impossible to agree upon among epistemologists and philosophers is known as the problem of the criterion. This problem is summarized by Pritchard as, “I can only identify instances of knowledge provided I already know what the criteria for knowledge are,” and, “I can only know what the criteria for knowledge are provided I already am able to identify instances of knowledge” (20-21). This is a Catch-22 of sorts because the claims make both finding criteria for knowledge and identifying instances of knowledge necessary to determine the other. This in itself raises the question if defining knowledge is a legitimate effort at all.

Instead of accepting that knowledge cannot be defined, philosophers have attempted to come up with other working definitions, such as knowledge as Justified True Belief, which is known as the classical account of knowledge. However, this theory hasn’t satisfied the need for a definition as it has “been shown to be completely untenable” (Pritchard 23) by Edmund Gettier. Gettier uses cases, such as John’s Justified True Belief that it’s 8:20am, to prove that one can have Justified True Belief and still not have knowledge. John is justified in his belief that it is 8:20am because his trustworthy clock reflects that time and he comes downstairs at that time every morning. The belief is also true, but he does not have knowledge because he is unaware that his clock happened to have broken at 8:20am the day before.

After deconstructing one of Gettier’s arguments in class, we found that he posed a sound argument. Yet, Feldman tells us that some philosophers such as D.M. Armstrong find fault in Gettier’s argument in that, “Gettier’s examples are defective because they rely on the false principle that false propositions can justify one’s belief in other propositions” (68). Feldman goes on, however, to reject the claim that Gettier’s examples are defective by creating a case in which the proposition that causes one to be justified in their belief is a true proposition, but that person still lacks the knowledge.

So we are faced with Gettier’s argument, Armstrong and others’ counter argument, and Feldman’s counter argument to the counter argument. What this tells me is that there are and have been talented philosophers and epistemologists who disagree about the definition of knowledge and perhaps will never agree on its definition. This brings me back to the problem of criterion. Immediately, I thought that the only solution to the problem of criterion would be that the criteria for knowledge and instances of knowledge are the same thing. Is it possible that an instance of knowledge might BE knowing the criteria for knowledge, and that neither precede the other, but happen at the same time? Perhaps that means that knowledge is self-defined, and each person’s instance of knowledge is knowing their own criteria for knowledge. For example, a scientist knows his criteria for knowledge is that it must be experimentally proved. This is both an instance of knowledge and criteria for knowledge. Do you believe that there is just one definition of knowledge? Is knowledge self-defined?