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study of knowledge

  • deals with theories of knowledge


  • how can we prove to know something?

  • how do we know when a belief is justified?

  • when and how should we be skeptical?

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Rene Descartes + epistemology

“cogito ergo sum”

  • I think, therefore I am

  • expresses what should be inarguably true for even the most skeptical person

    • if you can feel yourself thinking, you know you exist, or you are at least experiencing something

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Immanuel Kant + knowledge

Critique of Pure Reason

  • devised 2 types of knowledge: a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge

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A Priori Knowledge

before experience

  • knowledge that is independent of experience

  • something that can be proven through reason alone

  • also known as rationalism


  • if Sam was born a year before Sally, he must be older

  • 1 + 1 = 2

  • January comes before February in a calendar year

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believing knowledge is derived from reason and logic

  • math is the tool to discover all knowledge

  • genuine knowledge is certain

  • you want the bigger pizza

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A Posteriori Knowledge

after experience

  • knowledge that is dependent on experience

  • cannot be proven through reason alone

  • also known as empiricism


  • the population of Canada is approximately 38 million people

  • the earth is closer to the sun than Jupiter

  • WW2 was fought through the years 1937-1945

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  • absolute empiricists hold that there are no A Priori concepts (knowledge independent of experience)

  • experience, observation, and sensory perception is the primary source of knowledge

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True knowledge

  1. true (turns out to be correct)

  2. justified (you have a reason for believing it)

  3. a belief (you believe it to be true)

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Ockham’s Razor

  • associated with English friar William of Ockham

  • argued that “entities should not be multiplied without necessity”

    • cut out unnecessary assumptions or explanations when you encounter them

  • while generally a good principle for making strong inferences, it won’t always lead you to the correct answer

    • sometimes the more complicated answer is the correct one, especially if it involves something naturally complex like science

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epistemic paradox

a counter-intuitive problem especially concerned with areas of knowledge

  • can be useful in demonstrating common errors in identifying and acknowledging new information

  • some are simply though experiments

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Monty Hall Paradox

based on game show Let’s Make a Deal

  • suppose you were a contestant and could choose to open 1 of 3 doors

  • behind 2 of the doors are goats and 1 is the car

  • pretend you picked door 2

  • before showing us whether door 2 is the winning door, host reveals that there’s a goat behind door 2

  • host gives you opportunity to switch your pick from door 2 to door 3

  • should you make the switch?


  • yes because its 2x more likely to be behind door 3

  • 1/3 chance it’s behind door 2, but 2/3 chance it’s behind door 3 because it was already revealed there’s a goat behind door 1 (probability shifted)

shows that we can oftentimes easily dismiss or reject new info when it’s presented to us and instead rely on gut instincts

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Surprise test paradox

deals with using logic to eliminate possibilities, only to find that the surprise can end up being unexpected anway

  • math teacher announces that there will be a surprise next week, and it most certainly will be a surprise

  • premise 1: can’t be Friday because if it got to Thursday and there was no test, then it won’t be a surprise anymore

  • premise 2: can’t be Thursday because of the same reasoning

  • premise 3: you continue to reason this way until you’ve eliminated every day of the week

  • conclusion: there will be no surprise test because no day will be a surprise

  • however, teacher gives test on Tuesday, which is a total surprise to you

it’s possible to eliminate Friday as a surprise test day, but it is nonsensical to use that reasoning for the entire week

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Moore’s paradox

problem that deals with stating a fact then stating a contradictory belief

  • e.g. it’s raining, but I don’t believe it

  • paradoxical statement because it’s contradictory in nature

    • ur indoors and away from windows

    • you get a text from someone in the same building saying it’s raining

    • weather app confirms this

    • it was sunny just minutes ago

  • for something to be true, you need to believe in it, so you can’t state a fact without believing in it

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Gettier problem

attacks the notion that knowledge is a true, justified belief

  • argues that it is possible to “know” something correctly with false or untrue information, or for the wrong reasons

    • e.g. someone looks at a clock for time, not knowing the clock is broken, but the clock happens to be correct

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Mary’s room

examines the differences between knowledge and experience

  • imagine a neuroscientist who has only every seen black and white things, but is an expert in color vision and knows everything about its physics and biology

  • if, one day, she sees color, does she learn anything new?

  • is there anything about perceiving color that wasn’t captured in her preexisting knowledge?

subjective qualities that you cannot describe or quantify are called qualia

  • many scientists would argue that qualia is what allows Mary to learn something new in the thought experiment

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subjective qualities that you can’t describe or quantify

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basing one’s beliefs on an anchor point / irrational benchmark

  • e.g. the holocaust killed 6 million people but Nanjing Massacre killed 300k, so it wasn’t that bad

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Sunk cost fallacy


  • a subject spends a significant amount of time or money on something and fails to get the result they desire

  • but after spending so much on it, it feels as though they have to continue to spend until they achieve the desired outcome


  • gambling

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Availability heuristic

when something that is easy to remember is deemed significant

  • seeing your own accomplishments as more important than others because you remember them more

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curse of knowledge

when a person engaging in conversation assumes that the person they are talking to has the same background knowledge as them, therefore leading them to come to inaccurate conclusions

  • e.g. tapping out the melody of a song and assuming that others can tell what song is being tapped out

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confirmation bias

you look for ways to justify your existing beliefs

primed to see and agree with ideas that fit our perceptions and ignore info that conflicts with them

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Dunning-Kruger effect

the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be

  • experts know how much they don’ know whereas non-experts don’t know how much they don’t know, so they overestimate themselves

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self-serving bias

you believe your failures are due to external factors, yet you’re personally responsible for your success

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backfire effect

when your core beliefs are challenged, it can cause you to believe even more strongly due to emotional response being triggered

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the Barnum effect

you see personal specifics in vague statements by filling in the gaps and making connections

  • e.g. personality tests, astrology, fortune telling

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you let the social dynamics of a group situation override the best outcomes

  • sheep

  • individual raises opinion, but is ignored because they go with the flow of the group

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Negativity bias

allowing negative things to disproportionately influence your thinking

  • pain of loss and hurt are felt more keenly and persistently than the fleeting gratification of pleasant things

  • amplified emotional responses to negative events compared to positive events of equal magnitude

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you remember the past as better than it was, and expect the future to be worse than it will likely be

  • “back in my day…”

  • nostalgia

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framing effect

allowing yourself to be unduly influenced by context and delivery

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fundamental attribution error

you judge others on their character, but yourself on the situation

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optimism/pessimism bias

you overestimate the likelihood of positive or negative outcomes

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just world hypothesis

your preference for a just world makes you presume that it exists

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in-group bias

you unfairly favor those who belong to your group

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Placebo effect

if you believe you’re taking medicine, it can sometimes “work” even if it’s fake

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area of epistemology that questions the possibility of certainty and knowledge

  • Greek verb skeptomai - to look carefully

  • there are varying degrees of philosophical skepticism that will determine how one internalizes new information

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tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true

  • being gullible or easily convinced

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choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth

  • if often used in discussions about science, history, and public health

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  • one of the earliest forms of philosophical skepticism

  • founded by Pyrrho of Elis

  • we can’t know anything for certain, and even the ability to reason is doubtful

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academic skepticism

  • developed as a school of thought around 266 BC in

  • founded by Arcesilaus

  • argued that knowledge is improbable, but we can still make probabilistic judgments

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cartesian skepticism

  • atrributed to Rene Descartes

  • similar to academic skepticism

  • argued that knowledge of the world is virtually impossible considering everything we can plausibly be skeptical about

  • “I think, therefore I am” is meant to be the sole truth claim accepted by Cartesian or Academic skeptics

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common sense hypothesis

  • argued by George Edward Moore

  • argued it’s unnecessary to reject ordinary beliefs about the world

  • we are justified in believing our own common sense

    • “here’s one hand… and here’s another”

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  • popularized by William James

  • argued that philosophy (especially epistemic philosophy) is only really relevant of true if it has a practical impact on our everyday lives

  • thus if different answers to an argument make no difference to us, then the dispute is trivial

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representative theory of perception

  • by John Locke

  • argued that although everyday objects exist as distinct and separate entities from us, they exist in the mind as psychological entities

    • when you see something, your senses trigger the thought of the object, which is different from the object itself

  • objects and ideas are separate and distinct

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  • knowledge comes from what we experience with out sensory perceptions

  • we see only appearances of objects and the physical world

    • there is something more behind these appearances

  • there are many different ways for people to perceive the external world and material objects

  • there is a nature of material objects beyond what we can see in its appearance

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CT: the moon landing never happened

  • fake because of the rush to beat the Russians to the moon

  • think they filmed it somewhere in area 51 or Hollywood

  • 2001 space odyssey looks too similar


  • scientists believe the way flag was waving was impossible on the moon (but it could have waved from carried momentum)

  • boot prints were different????

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CT: aliens have visited earth at some point

  • not many people in scientific community support this theory

  • no evidence to back up these claims

  • many people have claimed to see extraterrestrial things like UFOs

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CT: extraterrestrials built the pyramids

  • vast size and heaviness of stones = too impressive for that time because many construction methods and tools didn’t exist yet

  • no concrete record to show how they moved the heavy stones without a wheel

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CT: covid19 was created in a lab

  • not natural phenomenon but an artificial creation stemming from genetic engineering research

  • most commonly connected to the proximity of the Wuhan virology lab to the market where the virus infected patient 0

  • lab was only 8 miles from sites of early cases

  • majority believe it was of natural origin

  • researcher claims with a variety of witnesses that he isolated the virus from a series of engineered proteins, which genetic studied reveal may have happened

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CT: JFK was assassinated by the CIA

  • he cut CIA’s budget by 20%

  • fired the director of the CIA

  • highly probable that a second gunman did fire on Kennedy

  • group of right wing extremists were supposedly involved with elements of the CIA in a conspiracy to kill JFK

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CT: flat earth

  • earth is a flat disk, either circular or square shaped

  • believed because horizon is flat, water doesn’t stick to a curved surface, and opposite gravity

  • comes from lack of trust in authorities

  • science says otherwise

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  • we can only ever know something for certain if we can trace it back to an undoubtable, irrefutable truth

    • this truth = foundation from which all other knowledge and beliefs can be built and justified

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