What is knowledge? What is a belief? What does it mean t be certain or to make a mistake?

These are more complicated matters than most people imagine, and it's the last topic Ludwig Wittgenstein, possibly the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, devoted his mind to. Not only was he a superior thinker, he was a superior writer who wrote in everyday language for the most part, little if ever did he use jargon. That didn't make his thinking obvious for he really liked to hone down to the skeletal remains of what a word or concept means.

His style in his later philosophy was to think out loud, asking himself and his students questions, using thought experiments and self-examination to proceed. These are the last paragraphs of On Certainty, his last work, assembled by his philosophical associates and published posthumously. 

671. I fly from here to a part of the world where the people have only indefinite information, or none at all, about the possibility of flying. I tell them I have just flown there from... They ask me if I might be mistaken. - They have obviously a false impression of how the thing happens. (If I were packed up in a box it would be possible for me to be mistaken about the way I had travelled.) If I simply tell them that I can't be mistaken, that won't perhaps convince them; but it will if I describe the actual procedure to them. Then they will certainly not bring the possibility of amistake into the question. But for all that - even if they trust me - they might believe I had been dreaming or that magic had made me imagine it.

672. "If I don't trust this evidence why should I trust any evidence?"

673. Is it not difficult to distinguish between the cases in which I cannot and those in which I can hardly be mistaken? Is it always clear to which kind a case belongs? I believe not.

674. There are, however, certain types of case in which I rightly say I cannot be making a mistake, and Moore has given a few examples of such cases.
I can enumerate various typical cases, but not give any common characteristic. (N.N. cannot be mistaken about his flown from America to England a few days ago. Only if he is mad can he take anything else to be possible.)

675. If someone believes that he has flown from America to England in the last few days, then, I believe, he cannot be making a mistake.

And just the same if someone says that he is at this moment sitting at a table and writing.

676. "But even if in such cases I can't be mistaken, isn't it possible that I am drugged?" If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

Religious people confuse belief and especially belief held with certainty with knowledge. This is a fundamental mistake. 

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"Religious people confuse belief and especially belief held with certainty with knowledge. This is a fundamental mistake."

Try convincing a theist that their belief system is not rooted in knowledge. They will thump their bibles and swear up and down that their holy scripture is the embodiment of knowledge.

Fat chance they'd study Wittgenstein.

.....maybe an apologist but what is that 1 in a million?

"Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain."

I have to confess I haven't read Wittgenstein but the above is an interesting statement. I understand the point he is making which is that the person's assertion in their dream is not an assertion about knowledge they actually have (whatever that means). Their assertion just happens to coincide with reality. However, from a pragmatic point of view you can consider all assertions in this manner.

Whilst it is interesting and useful as a philosopher to examine these concepts, pragmatically knowledge is useful because it is the word for things that work. By work, I mean it is information that you can take, apply and reliably achieve a result. Whether that information comes from a drugged individual, a madman or a knowledgeable fellow does not really matter from the point of view of outcomes (it only attests to the credibility of the source). Similarly, we do not call a belief knowledge because it is unreliable and often not transferable because it is specified ambiguously or not in a form that allows practical testing/application.

Ultimately this is just semantics. What is knowledge vs a belief? I think we use a different word for them because of how they can be used, rather than objectively whether or not they can be considered different things. That is, their pragmatic applicability defines the difference and therefore the word we use.

That's my 10 cents worth. I realise I am no Wittgenstein.

What Wittgenstein does is drill down on the core meaning of a word. He also recognizes what you are saying with his dictum that "Meaning is use." 

There is no such thing as "just semantics." It's like those people who use the conversation stopper, "Well, I'm not as smart with words as you, but I know I'm right."

Finding out what a word actually means—and contrary to your implication, Wittgenstein does so by examining the uses a word is put to, which he did in the quoted paragraphs—is not unimportant, though of course it's unimportant if being careful about language is unimportant, which is the attitude of religious people.

Just semantics was probably a poor choice in this case. A better expression of my view would be that the important difference between the two is semantic in nature.

As I say, I haven't read Wittgenstein so I don't mean to comment negatively on his work - I am not in a position to make a judgement. It is more that I am trying to understand.

The bit I quoted from the above where he says the dreaming man is "no more right" than when he said it was raining. Does that not mean that in that scenario Wittgenstein considers the man to have a belief rather than knowledge? (otherwise presumably he would say the man was right). However under the dictum of "meaning is use" for me the dreaming man has knowledge.

By the same token I would say someone who is lying about something but inadvertently tells the truth also is imparting knowledge (although they do not realise it). The only reason I have re-iterated the point is because that particular quoted passage doesn't seem in line with this.

To be honest, perhaps I should read Wittgenstein before I pursue this.

The bit I quoted from the above where he says the dreaming man is "no more right" than when he said it was raining. Does that not mean that in that scenario Wittgenstein considers the man to have a belief rather than knowledge? (otherwise presumably he would say the man was right). However under the dictum of "meaning is use" for me the dreaming man has knowledge.

I can't speak for a dead man, but I can anticipate him saying perhaps that a dream is a dream and when one is unconscious, can we even say they have a belief? I say that because we are passive before our dreams. I know there are people who think you can direct your dreams, but I find that notion very dubious.

Once you read Wittgenstein, you'll see that he views language as analyzable as a game system with certain rules, and if you want to learn the rules for the use of a word or vocal expression, look at how people use it.

BTW, Wittgenstein's career spans several schools of philosophy, starting with mathematics, he went to analytical philosophy, and finally linguistic philosophy. His main work during his last period is his Philosophical Investigations. That book and discussions of it would be a better place to start than the On Certainty book.

Thanks for that - looks interesting. It's amazing how much can be said about a subject if one chooses to analyse it thoroughly.

RE: Once you read Wittgenstein, you'll see that he views language as analyzable as a game system with certain rules, and if you want to learn the rules for the use of a word or vocal expression, look at how people use it.

Yaay!!! I enjoy directing arguments, thoughts, and dialogue from a more linguistic approach, because it DOES matter. I know the next book I'm reading!!!......

Not having read Wittgenstein gives me the advantage of having a common, naive citizen's perspective. For example:

It's like those people who use the conversation stopper, "Well, I'm not as smart with words as you, but I know I'm right."

In fact, sometimes they are right. Anyway, I've been trying to think of the best way(s) to converse with someone who feels more favorable toward faith than science. I'd like to hone one theme in particular that hightlights testability and predictability. There must be ten thousand easy-to-understand examples documented in history of how science predicted something, tested it, and were proven correct. And in everyday activities, e.g. going out for a drive, you can say you know the car is going to start, even if there's a .01% chance that it won't. Conversely, when it comes to religious faith, even if the success rate is reversed (e.g. someone with terminal cancer prays to God and survives), the faithful will still say that the survival is proof that prayer works.

I'm not trying to take away from a discussion of Wittgenstein... I'd like to learn more about him, too. I'm just saying there must be ways for people to get what we're talking about here without a college degree. Even 671 through 676 above will go over a lot of people's heads, or be insufficient to sway them.

Meh! I shouldn't mess up your thread, but take my campaign to YouTube. (Shit, it's hopeless.)

(What was the name of that depressed robot in Hitchhicker's Guide?)

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