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Plato on True Belief and Knowledge

 
 
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 07:49 am
In one of the greatest of his dialogues, Meno, Plato poses the question, why do we (or should we) prefer knowledge to just true belief? He poses that question in the following way:

Soc. ... If a man knew the way to Larisa, or anywhere else, and went to the place and led others thither, would he not be a right and good guide?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. And a person who had a right opinion about the way, but had never been and did not know, might be a good guide also, might he not?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. And while he has true opinion about that which the other knows, he will be just as good a guide if he thinks the truth, as he who knows the truth?

Men. Exactly.

Soc. Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as knowledge; and that was the point which we omitted in our speculation about the nature of virtue, when we said that knowledge only is the guide of right action; whereas there is also right opinion.

Men. True.

Soc. Then right opinion is not less useful than knowledge?

Men. The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and sometimes not.

Soc. What do you mean? Can he be wrong who has right opinion, so long as he has right opinion?

Men. I admit the cogency of your argument, and therefore, Socrates, I wonder that knowledge should be preferred to right opinion-or why they should ever differ.

Socrates seems to be right. True belief seems to be exactly as useful as knowledge. Yet, we all seem to prefer knowledge to true belief. Why would that be so?


(Socrates presents his own answer in (as usual) the form of a kind of analogy. But we can get to that later).
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prothero
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 02:06 pm
@kennethamy,
How would you "know" if it was "true belief" or not?
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 02:11 pm
@prothero,
prothero;103913 wrote:
How would you "know" if it was "true belief" or not?


I don't see why that would matter, although I suppose that you can find that out. After all, if the guide did lead you to Larissa, then you would know he had a true belief (barring he led you to Larisa by accident). But the question is whether, and why it would be preferable for the guide to know the way to Larisa than only to have a true belief about what is the way to Larisa.
0 Replies
 
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 03:07 pm
@kennethamy,
Well, if you look deeper in the Meno (other dialogues as well)--and consult a better translation--it becomes obvious that there are four categories to which Plato refers--some more so than others. These are, in descending order of concreteness, wisdom/understanding, stable right opinion, mere right opinion, and chance right opinion. Stable right opinion is a kind of knowledge, but it is not as good as the knowledge held by the wise because it still can be prove to error.

Really, all you are digging at is an issue in translating ancient Greek to English. Knowledge is a blanket term in English, but not in Greek. Thus, to us, some meaning of the types of getting it right alluded to in the Meno do not come across very clear.
ACB
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 03:19 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;103801 wrote:
Men. The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and sometimes not.

Soc. What do you mean? Can he be wrong who has right opinion, so long as he has right opinion?


What Meno obviously meant was that he who has right opinion on a given occasion will sometimes be right on future occasons and sometimes not. He was clearly not claiming that someone can be right and wrong at the same time!

Socrates's response looks like a cheap debating point. He must have known what Meno really meant.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 04:43 pm
@Theaetetus,
Theaetetus;103926 wrote:
Well, if you look deeper in the Meno (other dialogues as well)--and consult a better translation--it becomes obvious that there are four categories to which Plato refers--some more so than others. These are, in descending order of concreteness, wisdom/understanding, stable right opinion, mere right opinion, and chance right opinion. Stable right opinion is a kind of knowledge, but it is not as good as the knowledge held by the wise because it still can be prove to error.

Really, all you are digging at is an issue in translating ancient Greek to English. Knowledge is a blanket term in English, but not in Greek. Thus, to us, some meaning of the types of getting it right alluded to in the Meno do not come across very clear.


That may well be so, but I was addressing the question Socrates poses to Meno, which is why we should prefer knowledge to true belief when it appears that true belief is just as useful as is knowledge. The guide could not have done better had he known where Larisa is than he did if he had just believed correctly where Larisa is. As Socrates points out, true opinion cannot be proved to be in error, for if it could be proved to be in error, it would not be true opinion in the first place. We cannot prove what is true to be false, can we?

(I know that the Jowett translation is disparaged, but the purpose I am using it, it doesn't make any difference).
0 Replies
 
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 04:52 pm
@kennethamy,
Well, what is correct is correct. The problem with right opinion is that it can be stumbled upon by chance. Having right opinion on accident is not reliable and thus, knowledge is preferred in general. That is really the only place they can differ, but I would much prefer that someone has knowledge rather than be merely lucky to have stumbled across right opinion.
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 04:53 pm
@ACB,
ACB;103928 wrote:
What Meno obviously meant was that he who has right opinion on a given occasion will sometimes be right on future occasons and sometimes not. He was clearly not claiming that someone can be right and wrong at the same time!

Socrates's response looks like a cheap debating point. He must have known what Meno really meant.


It seems to me that what Meno said was what he meant. He said that someone who has a true belief ("right opinion") may sometimes be wrong. But, as Socrates points out, that certainly is not true. It is true, of course, that a person who has only a belief may be wrong. But, as Socrates points out, a person who has a true belief is not wrong.

(There is, however, an interesting and important modal ambiguity here, however, as between whether a true belief cannot be wrong, and whether a true belief is not wrong).

---------- Post added 11-16-2009 at 05:58 PM ----------

Theaetetus;103941 wrote:
Well, what is correct is correct. The problem with right opinion is that it can be stumbled upon by chance. Having right opinion on accident is not reliable and thus, knowledge is preferred in general. That is really the only place they can differ, but I would much prefer that someone has knowledge rather than be merely lucky to have stumbled across right opinion.


I wonder why you say that when it is still true that if the guide correctly believes where Larisa is, he will guide you to Larisa as well as if he knew where Larisa is. Why should you care as long as you get to Larisa just as efficiently?

By the way, true opinion need not be just a lucky guess as you seem to be assuming. You can have a true opinion, and have good reasons for it, except that those reasons are not enough for knowledge.
ACB
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 05:57 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;103942 wrote:
It seems to me that what Meno said was what he meant. He said that someone who has a true belief ("right opinion") may sometimes be wrong. But, as Socrates points out, that certainly is not true.


But it is true that a person who has a [one] true belief may sometimes be wrong. It's only untrue that he may be wrong about the thing that he truly believes. But that's obvious, isn't it?

kennethamy;103942 wrote:
(There is, however, an interesting and important modal ambiguity here, however, as between whether a true belief cannot be wrong, and whether a true belief is not wrong).


"Cannot be wrong" is itself ambiguous. In one sense, a true belief cannot be wrong, because a wrong true belief is a contradiction, and a contradiction is necessarily false. In another sense, of course, a true belief can be wrong - or rather, could have been wrong - because the thing believed is a contingent truth.

---------- Post added 11-17-2009 at 12:08 AM ----------

kennethamy;103942 wrote:
I wonder why you say that when it is still true that if the guide correctly believes where Larisa is, he will guide you to Larisa as well as if he knew where Larisa is. Why should you care as long as you get to Larisa just as efficiently?


As Theaetetus says, it is a question of reliability. It is useful, for future occasions, to know whether the guide is knowledgeable or whether he was just lucky.

kennethamy;103942 wrote:
By the way, true opinion need not be just a lucky guess as you seem to be assuming. You can have a true opinion, and have good reasons for it, except that those reasons are not enough for knowledge.


But it could be just a lucky guess...
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 06:34 pm
@ACB,
ACB;103948 wrote:
But it is true that a person who has a [one] true belief may sometimes be wrong. It's only untrue that he may be wrong about the thing that he truly believes. But that's obvious, isn't it?



"Cannot be wrong" is itself ambiguous. In one sense, a true belief cannot be wrong, because a wrong true belief is a contradiction, and a contradiction is necessarily false. In another sense, of course, a true belief can be wrong - or rather, could have been wrong - because the thing believed is a contingent truth.

---------- Post added 11-17-2009 at 12:08 AM ----------



As Theaetetus says, it is a question of reliability. It is useful, for future occasions, to know whether the guide is knowledgeable or whether he was just lucky.



But it could be just a lucky guess...


Of course one can be wrong about other beliefs, and could be wrong even about a true belief, but he isn't wrong about any true proposition he believes is true. Any true belief (except for a necessarily true belief) could be wrong, but no true belief is wrong.

The future is not at issue. What is at issue is whether the guide who knows the way to Larisa is a better guide at this time than the guide who has a true belief about the way to Larisa.

Perhaps we should look at what Socrates says about this.
Arjuna
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 08:51 pm
@kennethamy,
In English it doesn't really make much sense to talk about having an opinion about where a place is.

In my opinion Canada is east of Texas. What?

I may believe Canada is east of Texas, but surely there is some basis for this belief... maybe somebody told me that. If I say I believe it, but don't know it, that reflects a lack of confidence in my source.

If we're trying to see a distinction between knowledge and belief by suggesting that one is based on authority and one is not, we're going to flounder.

To base knowledge on authority is equating knowledge to belief: belief in the authority.
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 03:55 am
@kennethamy,
this would be part of the attempt to differentiate doxa from episteme, might it not? Where doxa is an opinion, and episteme, true knowledge. It seems to me to be much easier to judge the equivalence of the two in a case where the outcome can be settled easily, such as the directions to a town, than in regards to abstruse questions regarding the nature of life.

Anyway - I would like to hear what further Socrates had to add....
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 07:13 am
@Arjuna,
Arjuna;103973 wrote:
In English it doesn't really make much sense to talk about having an opinion about where a place is.

In my opinion Canada is east of Texas. What?

I may believe Canada is east of Texas, but surely there is some basis for this belief... maybe somebody told me that. If I say I believe it, but don't know it, that reflects a lack of confidence in my source.

If we're trying to see a distinction between knowledge and belief by suggesting that one is based on authority and one is not, we're going to flounder.

To base knowledge on authority is equating knowledge to belief: belief in the authority.


If by "basis" you mean justification, some people believe things without any justification at all. If by "basis" you mean cause, then, of course, all my beliefs are caused in some way or other. But the cause need not be a justification. My belief in God may be caused by my upbringing. But that doesn't justify my belief in God.

The Greek is "doxa" which can be translated either as "opinion" or as "belief". Sometimes my justification for what I know is authority. For instance, I know that the word, "weird" is spelled that way because I looked it up in the dictionary, and the dictionary is the authority on how words are spelled. It is my justification for believing (and also knowing) that "weird" is spelled that way. Belief and knowledge are different, but that does not mean that they exclude one another (although Plato did think they did). In fact, I cannot know that Quito is the capital of Ecuador unless I also know it is. Knowing implies believing; although believing, of course, does not imply knowing.

---------- Post added 11-17-2009 at 08:33 AM ----------

jeeprs;103996 wrote:
this would be part of the attempt to differentiate doxa from episteme, might it not? Where doxa is an opinion, and episteme, true knowledge. It seems to me to be much easier to judge the equivalence of the two in a case where the outcome can be settled easily, such as the directions to a town, than in regards to abstruse questions regarding the nature of life.

Anyway - I would like to hear what further Socrates had to add....



There are two important differences between believing and knowing:

1. You can believe what is false, but you cannot know what is false. Believing does not imply truth, but knowing does imply truth.
2. You can believe without any justification, or very little justification. But you cannot know without adequate justification.

What Socrates says is no mystery (although what he means, or whether it is true, may be)

Men. I admit the cogency of your argument, and therefore, Socrates, I wonder that knowledge should be preferred to right opinion-or why they should ever differ.

Soc. And shall I explain this wonder to you?

Men. Do tell me.

Soc. You would not wonder if you had ever observed the images of Daedalus; but perhaps you have not got them in your country?

Men. What have they to do with the question?

Soc. Because they require to be fastened in order to keep them, and if they are not fastened they will play truant and run away.

Men. Well. what of that?

Soc. I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when fastened, they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honourable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.

Men. What you are saying, Socrates, seems to be very like the truth.

Soc. I too speak rather in ignorance; I only conjecture. And yet that knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of conjecture with me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them.

Men. Yes, Socrates; and you are quite right in saying so.

Soc. And am I not also right in saying that true opinion leading the way perfects action quite as well as knowledge?

Men. There again, Socrates, I think you are right.

Soc. Then right opinion is not a whit inferior to knowledge, or less useful in action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to him who has knowledge?

Men. True.

Soc. And surely the good man has been acknowledged by us to be useful?
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 10:18 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;103942 wrote:
I
I wonder why you say that when it is still true that if the guide correctly believes where Larisa is, he will guide you to Larisa as well as if he knew where Larisa is. Why should you care as long as you get to Larisa just as efficiently?

By the way, true opinion need not be just a lucky guess as you seem to be assuming. You can have a true opinion, and have good reasons for it, except that those reasons are not enough for knowledge.


I am not saying that right opinion is necessarily a lucky guess, but it can be. I could say that Larisa is somewhere--even though I have no clue that she is there--and still be right about it. That is why there needs to be a distinction between chance right opinion (or true belief if you choose since it can be translated as either), mere right opinion, and stable right opinion. In this case, I can guess right where Larisa is; I can have a general idea where she usually is, thus, there is a good possibility she is there; or have just seen her there, thus knowing in all likelihood that she is there. Sure, all of these possibilities can lead me to being correct, but the latter makes me a more reliable guide. That is why people prefer that people have knowledge, which the latter is in the context of the Meno.

Part of the issue we are having is that many translations use knowledge instead of wisdom. In the context of the Meno, stable right opinion is knowledge in the traditional sense.
0 Replies
 
fast
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 10:30 am
@kennethamy,
[QUOTE=kennethamy;104026]
Soc. Because they require to be fastened in order to keep them, and if they are not fastened they will play truant and run away.

Soc. I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when fastened, they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honourable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.

Soc. I too speak rather in ignorance; I only conjecture. And yet that knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of conjecture with me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them.

Soc. And am I not also right in saying that true opinion leading the way perfects action quite as well as knowledge?

Soc. Then right opinion is not a whit inferior to knowledge, or less useful in action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to him who has knowledge?

Soc. And surely the good man has been acknowledged by us to be useful?[/QUOTE]
If I'm interpreting this correctly, then we should prefer knowledge to true belief because knowledge (unlike true belief) is dependable. He suggests that beliefs (like opinions) are fleeting and that we can't rely on them like we can knowledge. Perhaps Socrates might say something to the effect that only people with knowledge (and not people with mere true beliefs) have earned the position to command our respect-useful as they may be.

He seems to confuse true beliefs with beliefs though. To say back to him as he might talk: True beliefs are forever abiding! No, they are not fastened by the tie of the cause, but no true belief need be, for they are never subject to truancy. Like loyal slaves, they shall always be just where you would expect them to be.

Mere beliefs (or mere opinions) yes; they may go with the wind and do remain unfastened to the tie of the cause, I agree, but no true belief dare need a lock and chain or tie of any kind. They endure.
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 10:51 am
@kennethamy,
For Plato, one can have "pistis" or knowledge sufficient for action, that may be correct, but without knowing the ground for such beliefs. One can also have knowledge through the application of logical reasoning ("dianoia"). But, as we read in the Republic, when he writes of the "divided line" true knowledge ("episteme") not only is "correct belief" but the understanding of why it is correct (giving an account by reference to the Forms).

Thus an individual might chance on a true belief, but it remains a belief unless it can provide the assurance, or ground, for its truth.
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 10:52 am
@fast,
fast;104072 wrote:

If I'm interpreting this correctly, then we should prefer knowledge to true belief because knowledge (unlike true belief) is dependable. He suggests that beliefs (like opinions) are fleeting and that we can't rely on them like we can knowledge. Perhaps Socrates might say something to the effect that only people with knowledge (and not people with mere true beliefs) have earned the position to command our respect-useful as they may be.

He seems to confuse true beliefs with beliefs though. To say back to him as he might talk: True beliefs are forever abiding! No, they are not fastened by the tie of the cause, but no true belief need be, for they are never subject to truancy. Like loyal slaves, they shall always be just where you would expect them to be.

Mere beliefs (or mere opinions) yes; they may go with the wind and do remain unfastened to the tie of the cause, I agree, but no true belief dare need a lock and chain or tie of any kind. They endure.


Plato (Socrates) is not confusing true belief with beliefs. There is a language barrier caused by translation. Socrates is making a distinction between mere and stable right opinion (or true belief). The word for belief in Greek can be translated as either belief or opinion and true also means right.

In the Meno, Socrates leads the slave boy to mere right opinion by asking him questions in a way that the boy finds the answers in himself. Then by habituation or repetition the boy can tether his mere true belief causing him to have stable true belief--which in the Meno it is in fact knowledge--although weaker than what Socrates calls knowledge (but may be better understood as understanding or wisdom).
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 11:12 am
@jgweed,
jgweed;104080 wrote:
For Plato, one can have "pistis" or knowledge sufficient for action, that may be correct, but without knowing the ground for such beliefs. One can also have knowledge through the application of logical reasoning ("dianoia"). But, as we read in the Republic, when he writes of the "divided line" true knowledge ("episteme") not only is "correct belief" but the understanding of why it is correct (giving an account by reference to the Forms).

Thus an individual might chance on a true belief, but it remains a belief unless it can provide the assurance, or ground, for its truth.


So, in the metaphor Socrates suggests, true belief becomes knowledge when it is "fastened by the chain" of justification (the account or "logos"). But how, "fastened"? What does "fastened" mean here?
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 11:17 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;104086 wrote:
So, in the metaphor Socrates suggests, true belief becomes knowledge when it is "fastened by the chain" of justification (the account or "logos"). But how, "fastened"? What does "fastened" mean here?


It means that it is not forgotten or better, less likely to be forgotten. The act of "fastening by a chain" is the process of habituation or repetition. This process anchors the information in one's own memory so it can be recalled when needed.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 11:28 am
@Theaetetus,
Theaetetus;104087 wrote:
It means that it is not forgotten or better, less likely to be forgotten. The act of "fastening by a chain" is the process of habituation or repetition. This process anchors the information in one's own memory so it can be recalled when needed.


But I used to know many things I have now forgotten. I used to know the name of a very pretty girl in my third grade class. I have now forgotten it.
 

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