Why not have a definition of "knowledge" for each major field?


If the prospects for a single consensus definition of “knowledge” is dim, why not, then, attempt to create an accepted definition of knowledge, one for each major field of inquiry (e.g., hard sciences, social sciences) rather than try to develop a definition of knowledge that applies to all fields of inquiry (e.g., sciences, ethics, and so on)?

- Terry G.

Why not create an accepted definition of knowledge for each major field of inquiry? That's a good question.

In practice, what you'll find is that practitioners within a given field already work with a rough, unanalyzed conception of what counts as well-justified beliefs in their field.

Mathematicians have some shared understanding of what a valid proof is. Scientists within a field have some shared understanding of what a well-justified theory looks like in their field.

But mathematicians as such are never forced to DEFINE mathematical knowledge in general; nor or scientists as such ever forced to define scientific knowledge in general.

And if asked for such a definition, you'd inevitably get a lot of bluster and disagreement, because this pushes them into the domain of conceptual foundations of their field, about which you will find considerable disagreement among practitioners in any field. There's no consensus agreement among physicists about what constitutes knowledge in physics.

So maybe the question is, how does science work if there's no consensus on foundational questions like this? Physics still makes progress (there's widespread agreement that we discovered the Higgs boson at the LHC, that dark matter makes up almost a third of the mass/energy in the universe, etc.) in spite of a lack of consensus on what counts as "knowledge" in physics.

I think the answer is that what matters for physics -- or any science -- isn't agreement on what constitutes knowledge, but agreement on what counts as a good argument for a particular conclusion within that field.

In other words, in physics there's a lot of shared agreement about what would count as having "good reasons" to accept that the Higgs boson exists.

And one can have that kind of agreement without ever having to settle the foundational question of what counts as "knowledge".

This is why physicists spend zero time lobbying for their field to resolve the question. What they have is a set of shared methods and procedures for answering questions. That's enough to do science that is persuasive within the scientific community.

And notice that in the material on argumentation that we cover in my courses, I never feel the need to define "knowledge". The concept of "rational persuasion", persuasion "for good reasons", doesn't depend on that concept.

I don't mean to dismiss the importance of these deeper philosophical questions. But science conducts itself quite nicely without having to resolve these philosophical questions for itself. That itself is a fact worth noting.