Great Discussion on Epistemology

by phil on Monday Feb 14, 2005 12:32 PM
philosophist goals, wikipedia gem

I once entered an epistemology class at Stanford and I was like, "what the heck is this stuff." Oh yeah, it was a philosophy class, my bad. epistemology is the study of knowledge, like on a technical level. I think I just left the room frustrated muttering well that's what YOU think.

Recently, though, I stumbled upon a great discussion about knowledge and life. It's from wikipedia's discussion on NPOV (neutral point-of-view):

Wikipedia is a general encyclopedia, which means it is a representation of human knowledge at some level of generality. But human beings disagree about specific cases; for any topic on which there are competing views, each view represents a different idea of what the truth is, and insofar as that view contradicts other views, its adherents believe that the other views are false and therefore not knowledge. Where there is disagreement about what is true, there's disagreement about what constitutes knowledge. Wikipedia works because it's a collaborative effort; but, whilst collaborating, how can we solve the problem of endless "edit wars" in which one person asserts that p, whereupon the next person changes the text so that it asserts not-p?

A solution is that we accept, for the purposes of working on Wikipedia, that "human knowledge" includes all different significant theories on all different topics. So we're committed to the goal of representing human knowledge in that sense. Something like this is surely a well-established sense of the word "knowledge"; in this sense, what is "known" changes constantly with the passage of time, and when we use the word "know", we often use so-called scare quotes. In the Middle Ages, we "knew" that demons caused diseases. We now "know" otherwise.

We could sum up human knowledge (in this sense) in a biased way: we'd state a series of theories about topic T, and then claim that the truth about T is such-and-such. But again, consider that Wikipedia is an international, collaborative project. Nearly every view on every subject will be found among our authors and readers. To avoid endless edit wars, we can agree to present each of the significant views fairly, and not assert any one of them as correct. That is what makes an article "unbiased" or "neutral" in the sense we are presenting here. To write from a neutral point of view, one presents controversial views without asserting them; to do that, it generally suffices to present competing views in a way that is more or less acceptable to their adherents, and also to attribute the views to their adherents. Disputes are characterized in Wikipedia. They are not re-enacted.

To sum up the primary reason for this policy: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, a compilation of human knowledge. But since Wikipedia is a community-built, international resource, we cannot expect collaborators to agree in all cases, or even in many cases, on what constitutes knowledge in a strict sense. We can, therefore, adopt the looser sense of "human knowledge" according to which a wide variety of conflicting theories constitute what we call "knowledge." We should, both individually and collectively, make an effort to present these conflicting views fairly, without advocating any one of them, with the qualification that views held only by a tiny minority of people should not be represented as though they are significant minority views, and perhaps should not be represented at all.

There is another reason to commit ourselves to this policy. Namely, when it is clear to readers that we do not expect them to adopt any particular opinion, this leaves them free to make up their minds for themselves, thus encouraging intellectual independence. Totalitarian governments and dogmatic institutions everywhere might find reason to be opposed to Wikipedia, if we succeed in adhering to our non-bias policy: the presentation of many competing theories on a wide variety of subjects suggests that we, the creators of Wikipedia, trust readers' competence to form their own opinions themselves. Texts that present multiple viewpoints fairly, without demanding that the reader accept any one of them, are liberating. Neutrality subverts dogmatism, and nearly everyone working on Wikipedia can agree this is a good thing.

The author is Larry Sanger, a co-founder of wikipedia.

This is a great example of positive philosophistry. Note how the author doesn't necessarily try to pin down the precise definition of knowledge. Instead he gives the English language his best shot at describing what knowledge should be construed as in wikipedia. The discussion also involves a heavy emphasis on the applications of this discussion.

Check out wikipedia's entry on God as an example of where they shine. Their entry on George W. Bush, on the other hand, should count as a failure.


Larry Sanger said on September 2, 2005 5:29 PM:

Just found this while doing another Google search.

Nope, the co-founder of Wikipedia, me, wrote it. I got my Ph.D. in Philosophy from Ohio State in 2000. I don't see anything sophistical about it at all!

Philip Dhingra said on September 6, 2005 5:33 AM:

Thanks for writing in. I've corrected the entry to give you credit. About the sophistical part....

The association to "sophistry" has more to do with my personal worldview than with an effective assessment of your work. My position is that there is no knowledge, no truth, and no accuracy (except for math). Therefore, the best that any discussion can reach is sophistry, leaving an authentic philosophy as an unobtainable ideal for humans.

Needless to say, my post really means that I, being someone with no philosophy background, found your discussion of knowledge to be great for its nice mix between the philosophical tradition of pinning down the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and its application. And my worldview would nominate your NPOV article as being one of the best products of epistemology.

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