Knowledge and Consciousness, and other philosophical errors

By | April 20, 2010

I once argued that knowledge is not a state of consciousness before a group of philosophical acquaintances; but I must admit that my argument did not persuade many of my philosophical friends.

But it is fairly easy to show that there isn’t any significant relationship between consciousness and knowledge, in the sense that knowledge does not require any specific conscious state and any specific conscious state and that these mental states alone are not sufficient for knowledge.

Undoubtedly when we affirm the proposition that any person [e.g., Roberto] knows P (e.g. Roberto knows that Obama is the US President) we’re presupposing an intelligent individual who is minimally aware of his environment, e.g., we presuppose that Roberto is a conscious, mindful agent. But this does not imply that knowledge equals some state of consciousness or some mental act.

Here is my version of such an argument for the contrary thesis that
Knowledge does not imply and is not implied by any state of consciousness or any mental act.

Let ‘Roberto’ represent any person capable of knowledge:
The fact that Roberto experiences any specific state of consciousness [“C”] or performs any specific mental act [“M”] is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for correctly ascribing some knowledge to Roberto [e.g., Roberto knows that Alaska is the biggest state in the union or Roberto knows how to ride a bicycle].

Affirm that
Specific state of consciousness not sufficient for knowledge:

Neither C nor M is sufficient for the truth of ‘Roberto knows P’ (alternatively, the truth of ‘Roberto knows how to S’);
because whenever we correctly ascribe knowledge to Roberto we implicitly affirm that an objective state of affairs holds or that an objective event has taken place.

(E.G. Robert knows that GWB is US president in 2007 requires that in fact GWB is US president in 2007.)

[Examples relating to ‘know how’ are easy. Knowing how to ride a bicycle requires that in fact one can do that, namely, ride a bike.]

In short, being in a particular state of mind is not sufficient for knowing something. This is true regardless of how extra-ordinary or spectacular that state of consciousness might be.

Affirm that
Specific state of consciousness not necessary for knowledge:

• ‘Roberto knows P’ can be true when Roberto does not experience any state of consciousness or perform a mental act (specific to his knowing P). [E.G., Two minutes ago Roberto knew that María is his great-grandmother, but he was not thinking about that (two minutes ago) and had not thought about it for years.]

• ‘Roberto knows how to S’ when Roberto can demonstrate the ability to do S. [This will be an overt, public act, not a state of consciousness or mental act. In our example above, riding a bike.]

• Many (most?) cases of ‘knowing that’ can be reduced to cases of ‘knowing how’.

• It is at least arguable that most cases of ‘knowing that’ are verifiable only in terms of the subject’s disposition or ability to perform some overt act.

Caveat: There may be a sub-class [a residue] of cases in which knowledge intimately involves a special state of consciousness or special experience. Examples could be cases in which we talk of knowledge by acquaintance, i. e., only someone who has done such & such can know what it is like to do such & such. For example, only someone who has loved and lost, knows what a painful experience that is!
[Other examples are easy to find. E.g., Only someone who has climbed Everest knows what that experience really is like. Only soldiers who have been in combat know what they’re talking about when combat experience is the subject.]

More examples to buttress my case:
First, knowledge that ordinarily we know but do not hold in active consciousness:
Raul (just about anyone) knows that he has maternal grandparents; ..the earth existed 200 years ago; that he has a brain inside his skull;
..that if Henry’s head is cut off, Henry will die; that if Jenny’s arm is cut off, it won’t grow again;
..that automobiles don’t grow out of the earth (like plants);
.. that cats don’t grow on trees.

I know (but likely you don’t) that Ojo Feliz, NM has an abandoned morada.
I know what a morada is (related to the Penitente cult).

We knew in 1950 that nobody (from earth) had been on the moon. In 1970 we knew the contrary. We knew in August of 2001 that WTC twin towers were the tallest buildings in NYC. But in 2002 we knew that the Empire State bldg was the tallest building in NYC.
[What I know relates to what the facts are, relates to how the world is; and can be contingent on changing events.]

You might think that the following examples involve specific mental content or state of consciousness:
I know what ‘A <--> B’ signifies. He knows what R=MC2 signifies.
He knows that sub-atomic particles behave like waves and like individual particles!
[However, it can certainly be true that I know that those propositions are true, but had not thought about them for years. I had not thought about them recently; but if asked, I could reply with a statement (or demonstration) of the relevant knowledge.]

Second, a few examples of ‘know how’ which surely support my case.

He knows how to perform a successful retinal surgery.

He knows the way to Kansas City. He knows how to pitch to Mickey Mantle. He knows how to run a marathon. He knows the best route to the summit of Mt. Everest, meaning he knows how to take the best route.

He knows how the theory of structured programming works in program coding.
He knows how to code, test, and implement a batch program.

[He knows theory, but lacks the practical knowledge (experience)]
He has completed the required courses and attained the degrees and certification, but he lacks the experience of applying all that theory in the real world of data processing.

Third, other ‘knowing’ situations that might lead you to think that knowledge is equivalent to some mental state or state of consciousness:

Secret: I know where the scrolls are, but I don’t tell anyone.
I know who killed OJ’s wife and Eric Goldman, but I keep it to myself.
I know how to solve the puzzle, but I never show anyone.

But even in these cases it is not clear that the knowledge at issue is identical to a state of consciousness. For in each case, there is a crucial connection to the something (an object, an act) in world apart from the subject’s mental state.

Related Reflections and observations:

Admittedly these are affirmed by someone impressed by a Rylean, Wittgensteinian approach to problems of mind and knowledge.

Knowing other person’s mind: We learn about other ‘minds’ by observing other person’s behavior, expression, capabilities, etc. In short, what other people say (orally, in writing) and do (relevant intelligent behavior) tell us much about their ‘minds.’ Just like the sciences, philosophies, literature, art, engineering feats, architecture, political and economic institutions of a society reveal an advanced culture, so the behavior and creativity of a person reveals that person’s mind, both the intellectual and creative ‘mind.’

We learn what a person knows by observing that person’s behavior and disposition to behave in specific ways. When that person displays particular ‘know-how’, skills, dispositions, and capabilities, we have reason for ascribing knowledge to him. We don’t have to inquire as to any specific state of consciousness or any specific mental act taking place ‘behind the scenes.” [See argument above.]

Although people can say things in sotto voce and keep secrets they never reveal to others, we do not have to become mystified over what happens in other peoples’ heads, or in some mysterious, ghostly place called “the mind.”

Despite the brilliant work of Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Husserl and arguments to the contrary, the fact remains that we do not learn much (anything?) about other persons’ minds by meditating on our subjective consciousness and attempting to describe the ‘structures’ of consciousness. We must turn our attention to the world, and to social and natural phenomena.

We commit the ‘Category Mistake’ when we speak of ‘the mind’ as an entity in the same category as our body and other material things, but distinct from our body and hidden to all but the immediate subjective consciousness. The mind is not an entity hidden behind the scenes, so to speak. When we refer to a person’s mind we are simply referring to the mindful behavior of that individual, one who is capable of intelligent behavior and aware of his environment.

None of this should be understood as denying that people often keep what they’re thinking and what they know to themselves. We cannot always learn what another person thinks or knows. People are capable of keeping secrets from the rest of us. People are capable of pretense, deception, and great acting, dissimulating what they really don’t feel or think.
Actors, salesmen, and politicians (among many others) often deceive us concerning what they really think and feel. We could say that we cannot always decipher their ‘minds.’ But this is the exception. Much of our culture and way-of-life rests on the ability to ‘read’ each other’s minds quite well.

Recommended reading for someone interested in this approach to problems of knowledge and philosophy of mind:

The Concept of Mind, by Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, by Richard Rorty

The Mind’s I, collection of essays edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter

Discovering The Mind, by Walter Kaufmann

The Theory of Knowledge, by D.W. Hamlyn

Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett

On Certainty, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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