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Justified True Belief Speech

This is my speech about justified, true belief from September 2006 at a TCS seminar in Oxford, England. This copy could use editing, but I wanted to get it back up now. One of my dialogs used to link to it and someone tried to view it.

This is supposed to follow Lulie's speech so pretend that you already know about Popper.

The topic is: the conventional theory says that knowledge is "justified true belief", and we're going to look at some of the consequences that theory has for parenting and some of the ways that Popper's theory is better. His theory, very briefly, says that the way to create knowledge is to evolve it by making conjectures and guesses and then criticizing them and improving them.

So, the first part of "knowledge is justified true belief" is the justification -- if you -- if the parent regards himself as "speaking justification" this leads the child out of the process. The reason is that justification to truly completely justify a theory and prove that it's correct, it'd have to be a very complex and large thing drawing on many fields of knowledge, because if you don't do that then it won't be a full justification. So if you're trying to do this complex task, an inexperienced child isn't going to be able to help and he won't be able to be part of the process, at all. Whereas with Popper's view, or his epistemology, the child *can* play a role because we need to make guesses about what the answer is, and there's no reason a child can't do that, and we need to find problems with the guesses that we have and it's certainly possible that a child can do that as well.

And so, by letting the child be part of the thinking process you're going to get answers that are better for the child, and that involve the child and that better take into account his preferences, and so on.

The next part is "truth". So because of "knowledge as justified true belief" a lot of people think they have true belief, they think they've done it properly. You can't really get away from that unless you say we don't have any knowledge, and that's not a very good position and no one says that. So you get all these parents who think they have the truth and some of the results of thinking you have the truth are that any criticism of your position is a waste of time because it can't be right. So if the child makes any objections to some rule or policy the parent will just ignore them, and just in general anything the child says can be ignored if the parent thinks he has the truth. There's no point in further commentary, there's no point in discussion: any time the child thinks there's a problem with anything the parent has said then that's the child being silly and he should get over it. And if you think you have the truth then what your goal will be is to transfer the truth from you to the child and anything the child does except listen and absorb it, is a waste of time, it's perverse because it's inevitable that he either learns the truth from you or he just doesn't learn it and it's better that he does learn it and there's no point wasting time. There's no reason to do it later, you have it now, he should learn it.

So by thinking you have the truth, you're preventing any sort of error correction, any sort of input from the child, any sort of possible improvement, whereas Popper's epistemology is fallible-ist. It says we don't have the ultimate truth, and we can make improvements and it does matter what the child says and it also matters that the parent continues to think because the parent can come up with improvements as well.

So, a further problem is that because the beginner can't follow complex justification he's asked to take things on faith and authority. The parent says it's true so he should believe it even though he doesn't see why it's true. And that's not real learning, that's just memorizing what you're told, doing what you're told, being obedient. And that's not the sort of person that we even value in our culture. We value people who think for themselves and have their own opinion, so we shouldn't ask children to do differently than that.

Real learning should address the problems the pupil has, and then one of the benefits is the pupil can see: does this idea the parent suggested solve my problem. And if it did, he can see that it has some value, has some use to it. And if it doesn't, he can see that. So there's no need to take things on faith and authority because he can evaluate the results for himself.

A further issue is that if you take everything on faith and authority it's very hard to *change* the ideas you have and make improvements because you don't know why they work and you don't know how to tell if they're working. They're working because your parents said they're working, so if you make a change how are you supposed to tell if it's an improvement? You don't know the logic of what an improvement is and you can't even check if it's actually made things better because better is in terms of what the parent says is better and he just says that his idea is best and that's it, so there's no possible way to make changes and improvements and that's not a good life. It's not a good life for anyone. For the child if things go wrong he can't make them better and he doesn't get to learn about how to think and how to improve his life. So that's no good. But it's also no good for the parent because it puts this huge responsibility on the parent. Now the parent has to do all the improvements in the child's life for the child. The parent has to think of everything for the child. And if the parent ever doesn't notice a problem in the child's life, the child's going to be unhappy. And because the parent's taken on this great burden it's his fault and his responsibility. And that's very harsh and it puts a lot of pressure on parents and it's needless because if the child was part of the process then the parent wouldn't have to take on the whole burden.

So there's a number of common objections to the things that I've been saying so we're going to look at those.

One is: a lot of people think they've seen knowledge transfer from one to another. The teacher said something and then the pupil knew it. So there's a few problems with this. The thing that actually happens is that the pupil makes guesses about what the teacher means and then after he guesses it he has created his own idea and it's not the same idea the teacher had, it's slightly different because there's no way to guess exactly the same thing. And the things that the teacher has said to explain it, the lecture, the lesson, whatever it is, they only have limited precision. The teacher hasn't said every single detail that's in his mind so there's no way that the pupil *could* get the same exact idea into his own head. There's all these little details and things he has to invent for himself.

So one reason this is important is that it means everyone has different and imperfect theories which contradicts the idea of "justified true belief" because it's not the case that everyone has the same theory so if the goal is to have this one specific theory that's true then everyone except one person doesn't have it and if the goal is to have "perfect justification" then they would need to all be the same and they would need to lead to the same conclusion. They can't all be slightly different or they're all not going to be perfect. So the practice doesn't fit with the "justified true belief" thing.

Another objection is: how can a child make criticisms without a full understanding of the topic. Now the first thing to note is that in the "justified true belief" way of looking at things, he can't. However, in real life he often does. So that again shows that that's not the right way of looking at things. Now in Popper's epistemology, knowledge is a fiddly thing that you tinker with. It doesn't have a huge, complex perfect structure. So you can criticize little parts of it and you can tinker with little parts of it and that's fine. Now the child who doesn't have a ________, he might make a criticism that's false, and in fact anyone might do that, a parent might do that as well. But false criticisms aren't a problem, because there's something to learn either way. If it's false, you can learn why it's false. You can find out that you had a misconception and you can correct it and then you're learned something about the situation and you'll have better views in the future. And then if it's not false, of course, you can make an improvement, you've criticized something correctly and then you can adapt it to no longer fall victim to that criticism.

Another objection is: isn't Popper's epistemology excellent for science but not for morality, and that's not correct at all. It applies to any kind of knowledge. The difference for science is that you have experimental tests that can differentiate between rival theories. But there's plenty of other methods for differentiating between rival theories, too. And those are what we use for all types of philosophy, and in fact we often use them for questions that could be settled scientifically because it's easier. For example, if someone said the moon was made out of cheese we could settle that scientifically by trying to eat it and testing whether it tastes like cheese and testing whether the consistency is correct and comparing it to other cheeses we have, however it's a lot easier to just say: why do you think it's made out of cheese? And to examine this theory which doesn't make a lot of sense. You can look at the physics of it: if the moon was made out of cheese, would it hold together, would it orbit in the same pattern that it does? Would it have the same amount of gravity? Would it look the way it does? And how would that cheese have gotten there? We know a lot about how planets got where they are, and asteroids, and moons, but nowhere in there is there a way that cheese can get to those places unless we put it there. So a lot of times it's easier to settle questions without doing any kind of science and just argue with them.

Another example, specifically about morality is: is stealing wrong? So, there's no way to scientifically test that. There's no way to measure wrongness. You can't use a ruler, you can't use a protractor, so it's a question outside the realm of science. However there's still plenty of things we can do. We can do thought experiments, we can think about: is a life that involves a lot of stealing a worthwhile life? Is it enjoyable, does it have good qualities and good merits or not, and we can say why do you think stealing would be right, what would be good about it? And the person can say: "Oh, well if I steal then I'll be rich" and then we could give economic reasons why stealing makes society poorer and prevents progress and prevents research toward immortality. Which, maybe a thief would rather be immortal than stealing something. So there's a wide variety of non-scientific reasons for objecting to stealing other things.

One more objection is: are children really capable of reason? So, suppose that a two month old child wasn't capable of reason. Well, that still wouldn't be very important because by the time the child is expressing opinions then we know that he can do reason because he is able to create those opinions. So this objection can only ever apply to a very brief period at the start of the child's life. And even then, suppose we're not sure if the child is capable of reason yet, then the best thing to do would be to assume that he is and to treat him humanely, and to treat him like he's capable of reason so we don't make a mistake, a tragic mistake. And also because he may remember this later.

So that's all.

Elliot Temple on May 14, 2007


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