Review by Leland R. Beaumont
Could it be that truth itself is the problem child? Plato defined knowledge as justified true beliefs. But author Keith Sewell believes that including truth in that definition is either redundant or absurd. If we define truth as justified beliefs, then it is clearly redundant. If we define truth as something different, perhaps as unjustified beliefs, then we are leaving the definition open to an arbitrary range of indefensible claims.
Applying the now-revised formula Knowledge = justified belief requires only an effective procedure for determining what is justified and what is not. Calling this a knowledge selection procedure (KSP), he states that it must meet these three conditions:
As an example he presents his own KSP as a hierarchy of five rules based primarily on on-demand repeatable physical observation, his own observations, and reliable testimony offered in good faith by an unbiased expert. He challenges us to write our own KSP and to improve on his if we are unwilling to adopt his.
He proposes that conflicts are best resolved at the level of the governing KSP, and therefore presenting each proponent’s KSP is the logical prerequisite to any productive dialogue undertaken to resolve a disagreement. There is no reason to present specific proposals until both parties can agree on some clear governing KSP.
Equipped with our KSP statements, the dialogue can then proceed with careful statements in the form of: “I believe X because it passes the following test established by my KSP.” Disagreements are then resolved by examining the justification given in the context of the accepted KSP. There is no longer any need to tolerate “talking past” each other because we know why we believe what we believe and can defend it on that basis.Before exploring the practical implications of leaving truth he challenges skeptics by asking “exactly what more do you guys mean by your ‘truths’?” If there is a coherent answer he agrees to listen and apologize, if not then we can safely dismiss the truth illusion and accept only justified beliefs as knowledge. With untethered faith no longer presenting a challenge to reason, he goes on to dismiss theist dogma. This he believes will help clear the way for humans to face and better solve the grand challenges such as poverty, famine, war, violent conflict, and other miseries, that have persisted throughout humanity. He quotes Voltaire: “Those who continue to believe absurdities will continue to commit atrocities.” There is no need to reject subjective and emotionally appealing works; however we need to identify them as art rather than as knowledge.
This rather short book often resorts to erudite language and difficult logic to defend its thought provoking thesis. I look forward to seeing a more accessible treatment of the core thesis that would promote wider acceptance and application of these ideas.