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A Parable on Knowledge

Tim and Jim find an old calculator in an old shed. 

Tim: I wonder whether it works.

Jim
: We’ll have to check with the manufacturer to determine whether the calculator works.

Tim
: What good would that do? Even if the computer was carefully manufactured, that does not mean it is still reliable. It might have been damaged.

Jim
: Well, yeah, but unless you acknowledge that it is the product of a reliable manufacturer, you can never know that it is reliable. 

Tim
: How does that follow? Why can’t we simply turn it on and test it? 

Jim
: How would you test it? 

Tim
: Look, it’s on! At least the batteries work. Now let’s enter 12 x 4 = … 48! It works! 

Jim
: But how do you know that is the right anwer? Unless you know the calculator was manufactured to produce the right answer, you can’t conclude that is the right answer.

Tim
: Well, I recommend testing that answer against reality. Hand me four of those egg cartons. Let me count … 48! It matches what the calculators say!

Jim
: But that may have been just an accident, a coincidence.

Tim
: That’s true. But if we keep testing the calculator in this way, our confidence in its reliability will justifiably rise as it consistently outputs answers that map to what we find in reality, right?

Jim
: No! You can not be absolutely certain the calculator is reliable without identifying a particular manufacturer, and assuming that manufacturer properly designed it to arrive at the correct answers. 

Tim
: I agree. We can never be absolutely certain the calculator is not giving all the correct answers by accident. But, at the same time, our confidence in it’s reliability increases as its track record of successsful reflections of reality increase, right? Let’s try again. 48 / 3 = … 16! Now let’s take our 48 eggs, and place them in 3 boxes. Look! There are 16 eggs in each box! Let’s try again. 

[After 50 trials, all 50 answers of the calculator are found to accurately predict what happens when dividing the eggs into groups.] 

Tim: Well, we can certainty now increase our confidence that the calculator is reliable, right?

Jim
: No! That is circular since your assumption there were 48 eggs was a previous calculation of the calculator. 

Tim
: But it has consistently accurately reflected our manipulation of the groups of eggs. It is giving us predictive power on future attempts to group the eggs.

Jim
: It doesn’t matter. Unless you are aware of the particular manufacturer, and know that the manufacturer designed the calculator for accuracy, you can not determine whether the calculator is accurate. 

Tim
: That’s an interesting perspective. 

{For those unfamiliar with the debate, the calculator reflects the human mind and the theist claim that we cannot be confident in the reliability of our minds without the notion of a creator of our minds.}

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