Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: Knowing, Believing, and (Avoiding) ‘Truthiness’

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.


What should you believe in? How do you know? In today’s climate of ‘truthiness*’: fake-news, post-truth, propaganda, denialism, conspiracy theories, and skepticism about expertise – can epistemology provide clarity?

Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge and is usually discussed in reference to belief, truth, and justification.

This course is an introduction to epistemology, with a focus on what grounds or justification our beliefs might have, even when we fall short of certitude in knowledge. Our discussion will move away from theoretical debates that portray knowledge and scepticism as ‘either-or’ choices. You will leave this workshop with ideas from epistemology to apply to more recent phenomena, including denialism and conspiracy theories.

*‘Truthiness’ refers to the quality of seeming to be true but not necessarily or actually true according to known facts. It was voted in 2006 as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.

Aims

This course aims to give you a solid introduction to epistemology specifically in relation to truth, belief and justification. The secondary aim is to equip you with the practical know-how to deal with recent social phenomena such as conspiracy theories and denialism.

Outcomes

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • compare various approaches to understanding knowledge and belief
  • identify the key components in traditional accounts of knowledge
  • discuss counterexamples to the traditional accounts of knowledge
  • develop a practical approach to epistemic questions
  • apply these findings to recent sceptical social phenomena.

Content

This course covers the following topics:

1. Introduction: virtues and vices

  • What kind of person are you as a knower?
  • Virtue, epistemology and the intellectual virtues
  • Kinds of Knowledge
  • Different ways of knowing: perception, memory, testimony, inference (deduction, induction and abduction)

2. Theories of truth and other details

  • Correspondence theory, coherence theory, pragmatic theory, redundancy theory, truth as a performance
  • Which theory of truth is true and does it matter?
  • Some difficulties: ‘truth-in’ religion, ethics, science and metaphysics

3. The traditional account of knowledge

  • Being lucky with the truth: the problem of epistemic luck
  • The Justified True Belief Theory of Knowledge (JTB)
  • Gettier and his counterexamples to the justified true belief theory
  • Contextualism in epistemology: different senses of 'know'

4. Two theories of justification: foundationalism and coherentism

  • Reasons to be a foundationalist
  • Reasons to be a coherentist
  • Criticisms of foundationalism and coherentism
  • Discussion: If neither foundationalism nor coherentism is satisfactory, should we be skeptics?

5. Social epistemology: depending on others for the truth

  • A look at a critique of traditional epistemology: too individual, too male, too stringent
  • The epistemology of testimony: its importance in today’s climate
  • Some epistemic fallacies and non-fallacies:
    • Arguments from expertise and authority: judging credibility
    • The burden of proof
    • Arguments from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantium)
    • Subjectivist fallacy
  • A brief classification of kinds of 'truthiness'

6. Practical applications for consideration:

Depending on time and interest, we will discuss one or more of the following topics.

  • Reasoning on a jury, knowing the truth versus 'beyond reasonable doubt'
  • Understanding the epistemology of denialism, and conspiracy theories
  • Truth in communication versus managing impressions: Harry Frankfurt’s theme in 'On Bullshit'

Intended audience

Anyone with an interest in philosophy and the theory of knowledge. It will appeal to those with an interest in combatting certain kinds of socially induced skepticism.

Prerequisites

None

Delivery style

This is a one-day course consisting of lectures and class discussions. Class participation by way of asking questions to the lecturer and other participants is encouraged.

Materials

Course handouts are provided.

Recommended reading

Pre-reading:

‘Epistemology’ entry in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/epistemo/ Accessed 19 November, 2019

The main resource book is the following (Parts I, II, & III):

Pritchard, D 2014, What is this thing called Knowledge?, 3rd Ed, Routledge.

Alternatively, any good introductory text on epistemology can be used for background reading, eg, texts by Robert Audi, Dan O’Brien.

Further reading:

Coady, D 2012, What to believe now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues, Wiley-Blackwell.

Especially chapters:

  • (1) Introduction
  • (2) Experts and the Laity
  • (5) Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists

Goldman, A & Whitcomb, D 2011, Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, OUP.

Especially chapters:

  • (1) A Guide to Social Epistemology – Alvin I. Goldman
  • (4) Testimony: Acquiring Knowledge from Others – Jennifer Lacke
  • (5) “If That Were True I Would Have Heard about It by Now” – Sanford C. Goldberg
  • (13) Wikipistemology – Don Fallis

Of interest:

Frankfurt, HG 2005, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press.

Cassam, Q, “Why Conspiracy Theories are Deeply Dangerous”, New Statesman, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/north-america/2019/10/why-conspiracy-theories-are-deeply-dangerous, accessed 19 November 2019.

Features

  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

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