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The Problem of Learning

How do we come to know anything?

Why is this a problem? Here is why: If I come to know x, this means that I did not know x before. How did I come to know it then? I must have known something else, call it y; so, I came to know x because I knew y and y pointed me to x [allowed me to see and understand x.] So far so good. But, how did I know that other statement, y, in the first place? Shouldn’t I say that I came to know y at some point in my life. Then I must have come to know y in light of something else, z, which I knew previously. [This is the same operation we performed above with x and y.] OK. Then, what about z? How did I come to know z in the first place? Is this chain [x-y-z---] ever going to stop? Are we involved here in an infinite regress of reasons we have to give to justify our knowledge?

Here are the responses philosophers have given to this interesting problem:

A. Skeptical Responses

1. This infinite regress is indeed vicious – it is damaging for our chances, as human beings, of knowing anything. Let’s face. We don’t really know anything. We only have opinions and beliefs, which sometimes turn out to work; but we do not know anything for sure.

2. There is no infinite regress really. We do come to a final point – from x to y to z and so on, and then back to x again. This means that we are going around in a circle: We think that we can give reasons for our beliefs, and we think that we know some fundamental reason, but this is not the case. The reason we take as fundamental is actually one of the beliefs we have – one of the beliefs which we have to try to justify by reference to some other reason. So, we do not really know anything.

B. Non-Skeptical Responses

1. There is indeed an infinite regress of reasons – reasons we try to give to show that we know something – but an infinite regress is not a bad thing.

2. There is no infinite regress. We come back to where we started and we are going around in circles when we try to justify our beliefs. [See above A.2: the skeptic thinks this is bad.] But this circularity is not bad. When beliefs x, y, z, etc. can so coexist in a mutually supportive relationship – they obviously reinforce each other. We should say that we have a coherent system of beliefs in that case – and this is good. Coherence of beliefs – ability of one belief to support another – is a sign that we actually have knowledge.

3. There is no infinite regress of reasons. We terminate in certain truths which we know. We know those truths because they are self-evident – they are obvious to every human being with a mind. Such self-evident truths cannot be doubted and cannot be corrected. [Remember Descartes’ criteria of knowledge: indubitability and incorrigibility. See above.]

4. Certain beliefs are so credible from the very beginning that they are as good as knowledge. Variation of this: Certain beliefs are so credible from the beginning that they are knowledge.

5. If the beliefs are caused in the right way, they are knowledge. What is the right way? The beliefs must be caused by the same causes that also cause the phenomena of things we have beliefs about. Then the beliefs are knowledge.

6. Beliefs are like thermometers. If the thermometer is constructed in the right way, if no one has broken it or damaged it in any way, and if environmental conditions are normal, then the temperature is what the thermometer says it is. Similarly, if one has a mind that functions properly and the situation is not abnormal, his/her beliefs are knowledge.

There are problems with every one of the above approaches to the problem of knowledge. Can we spot some of those problems?