Epistemology – The True Nature of Knowledge

How do People Really Know What’s True and What’s False in Life?

What does it really mean to know something? Knowledge comes from books and the world, but what’s really true and what’s only perception can vary from person to person.

The Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier coined the term “epistemology.” It’s a term relating to the nature and field of knowledge, and the determination of how people know what they know.

What makes knowledge “true,” and what makes knowledge “real” are concepts that are not easily understood. What someone knows can always be challenged, but does that make it actual knowledge, or only a belief?

In order to get to the nature of what’s true when it comes to knowledge, the following questions are generally asked:

What is knowledge?
How do people gain knowledge?
What do people actually know?
How do they know these things?

The Nature of Knowledge: “Knowing That” Versus “Knowing How”

Where knowledge is concerned, there are two kinds. “Knowledge that” is propositional knowledge, such as mathematics. “Knowledge how” is more fluid and hard to define, because it lacks the concreteness of what falls into the “knowledge that” category. For example, a person may know that three plus three equals six because that can be proven, but that isn’t the same thing as knowing how to add three and three together to get a result.

Both forms of knowledge are important, and there are times when the “knowledge how” is more significant than the “knowledge that.” Riding a bicycle would be an example of this kind of knowledge. It’s not necessary to know the physics behind how a bicycle works (“knowledge that”), but the rider must know how to pedal, steer, and balance (“knowledge how”).

Another issue with knowledge is that it’s not always such an easy thing for philosophers (and others) to agree upon. People often state that they “know” something, when in fact they only “believe” it, and that can be confusing for them, and for those who don’t agree with their position on the issue. Even today’s modern, online philosophers wrestle with this idea.

The Nature of Knowledge and Cognitive Dissonance

A conflict between what a person knows and what he believes can produce cognitive dissonance. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and it happens when someone holds two ideas that are contradictory. These ideas can include facts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. People who have this conflict want to eliminate that dissonance, so they try to change their attitude, behaviors, or beliefs to come more in line with the facts that have been presented.

If it’s later discovered that the facts were incorrect, this can make the dissonance even worse and a person is forced to adapt to new facts after they have already made changes in their life and in their belief system. Guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and embarrassment can all come out of cognitive dissonance, and can make life more difficult for those who experience this phenomenon. Since there will always be potential conflict between knowledge and belief, there will always be an opportunity for dissonance to occur. Fortunately, both philosophical learning opportunities and therapy are available for people who’re struggling with this problem — and much of what they need to know can be learned online.

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