Ascension: Climbing the ladder of knowledge

· Personal Investigations

*Originally written, April 2011

Knowledge ~ Every person possesses and uses it to function in everyday life. But what is knowledge? To the average person, “knowledge” may simply mean “knowing something.” But in a philosophical sense, there is more to its definition. Most philosophers agree that having knowledge of something is having a justified true belief about it. So beyond simply “knowing something,” this definition draws upon the inherent trueness of the belief as well as upon a structure of justification that fundamentally surrounds it. In essence, for a person to have knowledge of a concept, the concept itself must be inherently true, independent of the belief formed about it, and the person must have a system of justification as to why he can form his belief about it. Since the quality of truth is independent of the observer, the question of a person truly having knowledge about something relies heavily upon the system of justification he uses. And of course, differing opinions of what qualifies for justification has led to many approaches to justification, which can then be grouped into the subject of epistemology. Differences in epistemic approaches to justification can be vast, and numerous theories exist that often conflict with one another. Each of these theories, however, has a common component ~ each one reaches a satisfactory justification of a coherent system of belief, based upon the priorities placed upon the elements of the belief system by its claimant. In addition, the level of justification required to reach satisfaction in each of these elements is directly influenced by the “amount” of rational, epistemic justification that is established for each. Once this point of satisfaction is reached, a less ideal form of justification can then be used to fill in the “gaps,” allowing the elements of belief to be arranged in a coherent matrix, i.e. the belief system, or forming an overall belief about something. This less ideal form of justification is usually built from a person’s natural inclinations, passions, desires, etc. that give the belief individuality and uniqueness.

The Model

As stated above, the amount of rational support a particular belief contains represents its level of epistemic justification. Some philosophers would argue in a sort of “all or nothing” way that knowledge does not occur in levels. However, I disagree. Taking a more skeptical approach to this “all or nothing” concept will reveal that to have a complete knowledge of something requires complete knowledge of how it is related to everything else in existence (a concept that I have come to call infinite relation), essentially requiring a state of total omniscience, which is not humanly possible to attain. The only alternatives to this are (1) denial that any knowledge can be obtained (skeptical approach), or (2) acceptance that partial knowledge can be obtained. In order to avoid the pitfall of skepticism, I will take the second approach. The idea of having a partial knowledge leads to the concept of levels of partiality within that knowledge. This is the point of conception for my model of justification.

Figure 1. Diagram showing the relation of the level of knowledge (right) to epistemic strength (top) based upon the amount of rational support contained within the belief system.

In this model, I have established three pivotal points in knowledge of a subject, simple awareness, intrinsic conversance, and extrinsic knowledge. Awareness knowledge is simple knowledge a person gains when made aware of the central concept’s existence. When a person becomes aware of something new, he gains knowledge of its existence without knowing anything else about it. He can say, “I know this exists because I’m aware of it,” but he cannot give a rational justification for his belief. To the strict epistemologist, however, this would not qualify for true knowledge since there is no justification. But as I shall demonstrate with intrinsic conversance, awareness can deepen into a justified true belief, suggesting it has at least the potential to be true knowledge. Thus, I have included it as the first level of knowledge. The second level of knowledge, intrinsic conversance, is the point at which the person can give an epistemic account for his belief about the central concept of which he has been made aware. This is the level of knowledge most people associate with the concept of epistemic justification. The intrinsic properties of the central concept are known and demonstrable, allowing sound arguments about its “guts” to be presented and defended. The uppermost level of knowledge is extrinsic knowledge. This is knowledge of the extrinsic properties of the subject and how it relates to everything else. Extrinsic knowledge contains levels within itself and could be the topic of an entire paper, so for the purpose of this paper I will treat it as a single level, only mentioning that the ultimate extrinsic level – omniscient knowledge – is a total knowledge of a subject and how it relates to everything else in existence, a knowledge that is humanly unattainable. I will discuss this concept more in the last section.

A person can approach these levels using the two means that many hold as the dichotomy of human nature ~ reason and passion. Epistemic justification results from a person’s ability to reason; thus, the level of epistemic strength for a belief depends upon how much reasoning that person devotes to its support. This is the point where satisfactory justification becomes a factor. Any structure contains elements that are critical for its support, as well as elements that are basically irrelevant for its support. This is the priority for the elements (component beliefs) of the overall belief system. Considering that establishing a strong epistemic justification for an element of belief usually requires a great deal of rational effort, the efficiently rational mind will devote its efforts to a strong justification of the high-priority elements while allowing his less ideal form of justification – his passion – to construct a coherent matrix of low-priority elements to complete the overall system of belief. (Although passion is not an epistemic form of justification, passion can be used in the mind in non-epistemic justification that proves satisfactory in the mind of the claimant. From this point on, I will refer to justification by passion in the sense that it is not a truly justified form, but that it gives satisfaction to the claimant by completing the coherence of his belief system, even it is epistemically weak.) He justifies the use of passion as support simply on the claim that those elements are low-priority and that failure in one of these structural elements is only a minor issue. The model I have proposed is applicable to both component beliefs as well as the overall belief system, and epistemic strength of the overall belief can be “graded” based upon its relative content of reasoning and passion. Thus, this is the model of knowledge I have proposed. Now I will apply that model to reality situations in order to demonstrate its effectiveness.


In the previous section, I presented a model for the acquisition of varying levels of knowledge that are justified by means of either reason or passion, and I showed that the epistemic strength of the obtained knowledge is related to the relative amounts of reasoning and passion utilized in its justification, the strongest epistemic strength consisting of mostly reasoning. The true test of this model’s effectiveness will now be to apply it to reality situations to see if it is consistent with the real world.

The child’s mind: Awareness

Children’s minds are a beautiful thing to many. They are inquisitive, simple, and fanciful. But as humans, children share the same mechanics of mind with adults. Most of the differences between the mind of a child and that of an adult arise from varying amounts (not levels) of knowledge about their world. Children lack experience. It is that simple. Yet the child’s mind still functions as a processor of knowledge into a system of belief, even though her base of epistemic knowledge is only rudimentary. It is because of this lack of justified knowledge, along with a functional need for belief formation, that she uses her passions and fantasies to fill in the “gaps” of her belief system. Thus, her belief system will be extremely weak by epistemic standards. But it will be very rich in passion and fantasy, and it will satisfy her need for coherent belief in her fantasy world. Observation of a real child will show this to be true. Even for children who are mentally developed beyond their age, they still will contain flaws in epistemic knowledge simply due to their limited experience along with a lack of the time necessary to form strong epistemic justifications of their experiences. Few adults will criticize these epistemic flaws in children because adults understand (even if only subliminally) that the child’s mind needs time to learn and develop. Indeed, many adults envy that innocence.

For an example of this child-mind, most children will reach a point when they take notice of their attributes and ask the question, “Mommy, why do I have two eyes and one nose?” Of the many answers that “mommy” may give to this question, all must evade the true answer of genetic encoding because it is beyond the child’s level of comprehension. Still, whatever answer that is given is usually accepted by the child on a basis of authoritative knowledge, however true that “knowledge” may be. The child is inclined to take her mother’s answer as evidence because she trusts her. She then forms a belief about why she has two eyes and one nose based upon her inclination to believe rather than on epistemic justification. Her lack of evidence (both rational and empirical) forces her to fill that “gap” with inclination to give her a complete and functional belief. As she grows and gains real evidence about this question, she begins to strengthen her belief with epistemic justification, given that her mother gave her an answer that was broadly true (i.e., “That’s just the way you’re made,” which is true, broadly speaking). Thus, she gained a beginning knowledge of something simply by becoming aware of it, a knowledge of a truth presently unjustified but potentially justifiable. But at this level, her belief has justification only by her power of observation. Every other element of her belief is constructed by her passions. But for her young mind, that is enough. She is satisfied.

For a negative example, the idea of a jolly bearded man in a red and white suit that rides a magic sleigh drawn by flying reindeer who delivers gifts to every household on planet earth in less than a day is absurd by any means of adult logic. Yet untold thousands of children in Western society hold a very strong belief that Santa Claus is real. Once again, this same child believes in Santa because “mommy says so” and because she is so inclined by the appeal of gifts she perceives are from him. This false belief is strengthened by empirical evidence from “mommy” when the child awakens Christmas morning, and “Santa” has eaten all of the cookies and left lots of presents. She believes with all her innocent heart that Santa came because she has been told so and has been shown evidence which she doesn’t realize is both false and completely unjustifiable, epistemically speaking. This shows how critically flawed a passion-driven belief can be ~ even to the point of justifying a belief that is inherently false. Her “knowledge” of Santa contains elements of truth (as I shall show in the next section), but her final belief is completely false, based upon a misplaced trust in authority. Yet her awareness of Santa has started her on an epistemic journey toward finding the truth of her belief.

Basic Justification: Intrinsic Conversance

The child’s mind is fully functional in the process of belief formation, but as I showed in the previous section, a lack of evidential justification causes a child’s beliefs to be very epistemically weak and subject to gross error. With a greater and greater acquisition of both rational and empirical evidence, however, the child’s mind grows to become an adult mind capable of holding fundamentally justified beliefs. Potential epistemic knowledge becomes actual epistemic knowledge, and a person becomes an independently-thinking adult, able to form and defend beliefs based upon reason.

Consider once again the child who asked her mother why she has two eyes and one nose. She now has grown into her school years and has learned about DNA, genetic expression, phenological symmetry, and the many other elements necessary for her, by science, to epistemically answer the question she asked as a child. She now knows that the inherent electromagnetic symmetry of atoms leads to symmetry of molecules, which leads to symmetry of proteins, which ultimately leads to the symmetry of phenological expression and the “golden ratio” found throughout the natural world. These are her elements of belief that now, instead of being “gaps” filled in with inclination and fantasy, are in themselves epistemically justified. By the epistemic strengthening of her belief elements, her overall belief system (the answer to her question) becomes a very sound scientifically-based belief. The more she can strengthen her epistemic knowledge of these elements by virtue of her capacity for reasoning, the stronger her overall belief becomes. She has gained a satisfactorily justified knowledge of why she has two eyes and one nose based upon knowledge of the intrinsic components that epistemically justify her answer. She has become intrinsically conversant with her knowledge of “why.”

The child follows a similar means of justification in her belief of Santa Claus, but her journey leads to a quite different end. She has held the awareness that Santa exists and has formed a belief based upon her inclination and fantasy. But now that she has entered school, older students begin to cast doubt into her belief system by suggesting the logical problems that exist with such a belief, logical problems that her mind is now able to comprehend. She begins to relate her own limitations to this man, Santa. She begins to think about how vast a distance such a man would have to travel in such a short amount of time; she begins to think about how easy it would be for her to forget some of the houses; she begins to wonder how he gets into houses that have no chimney; and all these sorts of rational and empirical evidences contradict her belief. Her own reason begins to cast doubt upon her inclinations and fantasies because of the falsity of her belief. At some point when her passionate justification for her belief gives way to her epistemic justification for denial of that belief (essentially, her satisfaction fails), she will be faced with the decision to follow either her reasoning or her inclinations and fantasies. The subject of her choice in this matter could be the topic of a paper in itself. She may choose to accept reason and modify her belief based upon its epistemic strength, realizing that Santa exists only as a fictional character. Or she may choose to hold fast to her fantasy and begin seeking epistemic support for the existence of Santa. Either way, however, her belief can no longer be based almost entirely upon her passion and starts to become based more and more upon her reasoning, giving her an intrinsic justification of her belief. She is not a child any more, and her young adult mind requires justification for her to be satisfied.

Ultimate Justification: Extrinsic Relation

I have shown how this young woman has grown from a child’s awareness to an epistemically justified belief based upon her gaining of experience and knowledge of reality. This is the point on the ladder of knowledge where most adults stop their ascent. They hold their ideas and beliefs as satisfactory because they can explain and defend each belief in terms of its intrinsic properties. These people can live fully functional, reasonably sound lives, but there will be conflicts between different peoples’ beliefs and even between different beliefs within the same person.

This young woman is not one of those people. She can now intrinsically defend all of her beliefs, but she still is not satisfied when she looks in the mirror. She may think, “I know why I have two eyes and one nose. But what does that really mean in the big picture of me? Does that define me as a face? as a person?” So she begins to explore these questions of how the concept that she has two eyes and one nose relates to other attributes of her person. She sees that she has her grandmother’s eyes. She knows this about herself because she inherited her eyes from her mother, who in turn inherited her eyes from her mother. Then she thinks about all the other things that she inherited from her parents and grandparents and thinks about how all her attributes are related to theirs in a network that is virtually infinite. She has had an intrinsically justified concept of why she has two eyes and one nose. But she now knows something about that concept that goes beyond its intrinsic properties. She has a new knowledge that reveals a new level of depth. She now has extrinsic knowledge of this concept, knowledge as to how this concept is integrated into a larger matrix of knowledge, as a part of a greater whole. Essentially, she has come to the point where she has made her “overall belief” about this concept a simple belief element in an even greater belief. In such a manner, all true “beliefs” are seen to be both a complete unit and a component in a universal network of relations that indeed is infinite. In the case of her false belief, both intrinsic and extrinsic knowledge will converge at some point to show her that Santa does not fit into the matrix of reality, and her erroneous belief can be addressed.

The example of this young woman’s development in both of these beliefs offers insight into differences in current belief systems in society. Granted, since the subject of Santa’s actual existence is intrinsically false, epistemic support for this belief will inevitably fail. But many “fanciful” beliefs that people hold are not so easily discounted, such as holding a belief in the existence of God. The interpretation of evidence for the belief in the existence of God is just as rationally and epistemically strong as that for the denial of the existence of God, depending upon what elements of belief each person holds to be critical and those he holds to be fundamentally irrelevant. Thus in the next section, I will show how personal priority is a required element of belief, and I will show how that requirement explains the concept of personal choice of belief and individuality in the belief system.

Individuation: The Final Touch On Reality

Figure 2. Diagram of diminishing influence in extrinsic knowledge. As the relational factor of the shells increases, the influence upon the central concept is diminished to a point of negative infinity.

In the last section, I concluded the example of the young woman’s belief development by presenting the idea that everything is inter-related in a universal matrix of knowledge. Complete knowledge of this infinite relation can be nothing less than total omniscience. Epistemic justification requires evidential support, whether rational or empirical, but complete universal evidence will never be achieved by a single human mind. This is the point where the Skeptic might attack this model, claiming that since omniscience is beyond human capacity to obtain, knowledge itself is inherently unattainable. My answer to the Skeptic is a concept that I have come to call diminishing influence. I do not deny that omniscience is humanly unattainable. But to say that such a limitation prohibits the acquisition of any true knowledge is a bit of a slippery slope. Diminishing influence is a simple concept that shows that as extrinsic relational distances increase, the influence of a particular relation upon the central concept decreases. This suggests that there are levels, or “shells,” of extrinsic knowledge, each level having less of an influence on the central concept than the one before. By this picture (see Fig 2), I can mathematically show that as the level of relation becomes infinitely large, the influence upon the central concept becomes infinitely small, converging to essentially zero influence. The inherent trueness of the central concept (recall, the second requirement for epistemic knowledge) is established by convergence of other beliefs within the universal knowledge matrix, with more and more assembled pieces forming a more and more complete picture of independent truth in a sort of a jigsaw puzzle manner. In a biological sense, this is to say that the influence upon the young woman in the example from her great, great, great, great grandmother is much less that of her own mother, which is in fact the case. In a strictly epistemic sense, this is to say that the knowledge of mathematics is much more of an influence upon knowledge of physics than it is upon knowledge of art, even though all three are connected by relations. Knowledge of mathematics may enhance the knowledge of art, but it is critical to the knowledge of physics.

† I am not taking a coherentist view here. I believe that as humans, we are reconstructing a picture of the universal, independent truth that is completed knowledge. I believe that as all areas of knowledge grow, convergence will reveal this “big picture” in time. Taken with universal convergence, diminishing influence of relation eliminates the necessity of omniscience and answers the Skeptic’s attack.

However, the Skeptic’s claim does present an interesting principle about ultimate knowledge ~ omniscience may not be necessary to have true knowledge, but its unattainability shows that, at some point, the limited human mind must rely upon personal passions and inclinations to form belief, even in the strongest of epistemic claims (see Fig 1). There must always be a “gap,” filled with at least a trace of passion. This trace, or “fingerprint,” of the claimant is the residue of his self-influence that affects his priority of belief elements that helps him achieve personal satisfaction of belief. It causes his belief system to have a personal, individual overtone or bias that is unique to his own inclinations and passions. If his belief system is epistemically strong, this bias will be minimal but still present, causing a non-objective, personal perspective. If his belief system is epistemically weak, this bias will be a major influence that will inevitably drive him to belief error that is essentially only his own passions rationalized to a reasonably coherent level. As shown in the example, an erroneous belief will at some point require a choice to be made. That concept of personal choice is related to the necessary bias in belief. An exploration of how these ideas are generated and the purposes they serve falls outside the scope of this paper and within the domain of self-knowledge. Perhaps at some point I will amend this paper with a section dealing with the self-knowledge aspect of the ladder of knowledge, but that will be for another day.

Possible Objection and Response

As a test of this model, I will explore an objection that challenges my claim that omniscience is not necessary for the acquisition of true knowledge. One might object to my statement that as the level of relation becomes infinitely large, that the influence upon the central concept becomes infinitely small based upon some perspective of mathematical philosophy such as chaos theory. Chaos theory is basically the claim that something small may have a large influence by a random amplification (such as the classic example of a butterfly that flaps its wings on one continent causes a small turbulence that becomes a hurricane on another continent). If this objection proved to be true, it indeed would cause my model to fall into a skeptical classification. But I believe I can form an adequate response without recanting my separation from skepticism.

At first glance, the chaos objection seems to be a significant threat to this model. There is sufficient evidence that chaos theory applies to the natural, scientific world to validate it as a  factor in my extrinsic relational model. Upon closer inspection, however, chaos theory has a critical element in the natural world that in fact may not apply to knowledge ~ the element of time dependence. In the classical example of chaos theory I mentioned above, the small turbulence grows as a function of time until its influence is no longer negligible. Without that required time, it either is or is not a significant influence. When an application to knowledge is attempted, we must then question whether true knowledge of something (and thus truth itself) is a changing process over time, a sort of “fertile ground” for negligible influence to grow upon. According to my model, knowledge is acquired by levels of depth over time rather than change over time. Of course, there are concepts that change over time, but the knowledge of those concepts is a knowledge that change is intrinsic to that particular concept itself rather than to the knowledge of that concept. But based upon this distinction, I can respond by stating that since knowledge, as universal truth itself, does not change (but can only be explored by expansion and by trial and error of the mind), a seemingly small influence from a distant relation can only “grow” into a significant influence on the basis that it was always a significant influence, but one previously unknown. It is the level of significance in influence that defines distance relation in my model, and without demonstrating that universal truth can change over time, I believe the chaos objection is forcing a false conditional upon knowledge.

Conclusion Statement

In the preceding pages, I have proposed a model for knowledge and epistemic belief in which knowledge is represented in levels from beginning awareness to intrinsic conversance to extrinsic knowledge. I have shown that a person’s belief can contain varying amounts of justification by reason and justification by passion, and I have shown that personal priority, inclinations, passions, and choices influence the amounts of each type of justification used in belief formation to a point of satisfaction. I have shown that, even though total omniscience is humanly unattainable, true knowledge can still be obtained because of diminishing influence of infinite relation. Finally, I have shown that since omniscience is unattainable, a self-influence is inescapably necessary in the formation of belief and contributes to the personal satisfaction of a belief system. This proposal is far from complete, and some of my claims may be similar to claims other philosophers have made. But since I am a very new student to philosophy, this is essentially only the development of my own mind, influenced only by my limited philosophical education in the classroom and by personal experience. In the future, I will continue to develop this proposal as well as classify it under whatever epistemic domain it falls, if any.


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