Course: The Epistemic Quest for Truth: Introduction to epistemology
Length: 6 hours total
School/platform: Erasmus University Rotterdam
Instructor: Tim De Mey
The introduction of the internet and of social media has drastically changed our information position. We live in a time of ‘truth decay’: the distinction between opinions and facts is blurred, opinions have more impact than facts, and sources of factual information are increasingly distrusted. Since philosophers love truth, they deplore these tendencies. But what can they do about them?
In this course, you will be invited to reflect on whether, in what sense and to what extent, 2500 years of normative epistemology, or theory of knowledge, can be put into practice and help to reduce truth decay. You’ll be invited, more specifically, to reflect on
– the theory of knowledge,
– the analysis of knowledge,
– the possibility of knowledge,
– the structure of knowledge,
– the kinds of knowledge, and
– the value of knowledge.
I initially had some complaints about this course, but the more I looked at them, the more I realized they were the result of my misconceptions and lack of diligence. I’m still a bit surprised that this is listed as a beginner course. There’s a lot of material here, and while much of it isn’t covered in great detail, there’s still a lot of coordinating and organizing of ideas required. I ended up with a lot of concepts and definitions, and little structure. The Learning Objectives included with each week helped me create an outline so I could better understand how they related to each other.
Week 1 is a fairly general introduction, but it began with a notable passage:
Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the White House is occupied by a bully president, whose blunt lies not only ever increase in number but also in preposterousness. Or suppose that, to subvert the call for political or legislative action, “merchants of doubt” call into doubt well-established scientific facts such as climate change or evolution. Or suppose that almost every dramatic, politically sensitive event triggers a proliferation of conspiracy theories. Or suppose that journalists and the media continuously get bad press because they are accused of producing fake news. Or still, suppose that although in theory, communication technology allows for maximum freedom of expression of opinion in an ideal marketplace of ideas, in practice, the real marketplace of ideas blocks rather than facilitates the free and open exchange of views.
Yeah, suppose. There was a glimmer of a response to this in the material – foundherentism, connecting the ‘raft’ of convoluted conspiracy theories to reality – but this does not mean there’s a way to combat it, only to recognize it. Too bad. Oh, and a later passage assured us this was a fictional example, of course. It’s interesting, though, that anyone complaining about it would have to admit to being, or at least being seen as, a bully and liar.
In Week 2, the traditional justified true belief definition of knowledge is outlined, followed by Gettier cases and proposed solutions to them: no false lemmas, no defeaters, replacing justification with causality or truth sensitivity, using a purely subjective conception of knowledge. It took me a long time to just come up with that sentence, rather than having all these words floating around. Outlining is a superpower.
Week 3, covering skepticism, was even worse: while I’ve dealt with the Cartesian ‘evil demon’ and the brain-in-a-vat problems before, tons of stuff came up here that needed to be organized, and I still don’t think I’ve got it: the difference between contextual salience, and exclusion of irrelevant alternatives, are still problematic for me. I’ve revisited a couple of quiz questions maybe a dozen times to see if I’ve got it: sometimes I do, but then it slips away from me again.
In Week 4, the solutions to Agrippa’s trilemma got complicated as well, with solutions, and the arguments against them, presented linearly. Here again is where outlining helped. I think this is probably full of very useful approaches, particularly coherentism and foundherentism, in dealing with conspiracy theories, but again, it’s all rather vague to me. This cried out for practical examples.
Week 5 reviewed reliabilism, and included a tantalizing reference to Sosa’s view of animal and reflective knowledge, but again, I desperately wanted examples or at least more information. And Week 6 was either a throwaway – how the field of epistemology should progress, focusing on heuristic methods of determining knowledge – or I completely missed the point. I suspect the latter.
Each unit includes a reading assignment, presented as an “elaborated and updated version” of the lecture. I call bullshit. The reading (available online) turns out to be a chapter from an introductory text; there are some differences, but to call them elaborations is misleading. Whether the chapter is a text version of a lecture given every semester, or is a script read in the videos, is uncertain. I will give great credit to the instructor for presenting the lecture in an animated and engaging way, rather than the stiff manner so often resulting from reading a script. I suppose that lecturing from the reading is one way to get students to at least hear the readings, if not actually read them.
What I found most useful about the readings was they were a lot more legible than the transcripts, particularly when it came to proper names and punctuation; eventually I used them instead of the transcripts. The poor quality of lecture transcripts is an ongoing problem with Coursera; I served as a CTA in one course, and begged them to fix the transcripts which referred to Socrates’ daimon as ‘diamond’, to no avail.
The first five units each included a ‘quiz’ that consisted of… two questions. I just mentioned, in my comments about the Genetics mooc I took last month, that it was through quizzes that I was able to put material together and discover what I had and hadn’t learned from the lectures. Two questions didn’t help much, with the exception of two questions in the final unit. And, by the way, one of the questions in unit 1 asked about material not covered until unit 2, which is kind of unfair.
The quiz for the final unit consisted of ten questions, which served as a sort of final exam. As I mentioned before, two of those questions, in fact, still puzzle me, and I’ve gone back maybe dozen times to look at the differences between the contextualist view of salience, versus the relevant alternative theorist view, to understand the answers. The quizzes are multiple choice and allow multiple attempts, standard for Coursera classes, so it’s possible to pass even if you haven’t bothered to listen to or read the material. But here, even armed with the correct answers, I’m not sure how the concepts work. I left a message expressing my confusion and asking for further clarification on the discussion forums; I’ll check back to see if anyone replies.
Each week also includes a Discussion question which seems to be sparsely answered, also standard for Coursera. Don’t get me started on the forums that once upon a golden time were bursting with activity, and how Coursera decided that was a bad thing so changed their format.
If it sounds like I’m complaining a lot, well, I guess I am, but overall I still ended up, after some grappling with my complaints, with a positive impression. There are several bright spots. For one thing, it exists. Moocs on philosophy – on the humanities in general – seem to be fading away as business and computer science become the focus. And it’s a completely free course; no paywalls, no “in order to see how you did on this quiz, sign up for the verified track” messages (which, I’ll admit as an observer, is brilliant marketing, but as a victim, er, student, is incredibly annoying).
Another positive was the professor, who, as I mentioned, was animated and engaging throughout. I also enjoyed the little 30-second vignettes that preceded most of the units, titled “For All We Know.” This was a whimsical cinematic prelude to the material, silent B-roll footage of a small group of students who can’t find their professor, with a voice-over, in Dutch (with English subtitles). The first unit’s entry:
Suppose that we arrive at the ISVW [a lecture hall at the school], but we cannot find our lecturer. As he is late quite often, we wait an academic quarter, but then we really try to find out why he isn’t there and what his whereabouts are instead. What kind of knowledge are we looking for and what kinds of knowledge do we need to find that out? What should we be able to do and with what should we be acquainted to find out our lecturer’s whereabouts?
As I wondered about what seemed to me a lack of explanation of the material, I went hunting for more information on the university of Youtube and found that Jennifer Nagel (no relation to Thomas) of the University of Toronto had a nice playlist on Epistemology for Wireless Philosophy; using that, and creating my own Outline, helped organize the material in a more comprehensible way.
I considered carefully the question of whether I ‘liked’ this course, whether it was ‘good’. Initially I wasn’t even going to write it up; when I have a lot of negatives about a mooc, I skip posting about it, since I feel like I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking, or from creating, learning materials just because they don’t happen to fit my particular needs and preferences.
Then I realized that I did a lot of work to understand what was being taught. I was reminded of Derek Muller’s study (one I refer to often) in which students given a confusing dialog presentation on a scientific concept actually performed better on post-test than those given a clear lecture presentation of the same concept. Maybe that was at work here. Because I was confused, I had to put more work into figuring out the organization of the material, and perhaps learned it better than if it had been presented with bullet points and a pre-made outline. Then again, this is a mooc; my motivation was the only factor that kept me from saying “The hell with this” and unenrolling, so while it seems to have worked, it might not be an effective strategy in all circumstances.
Score another point for blogging about these moocs: had I not done so, I would’ve just shrugged off this course as a bad experience. Since I put in a little effort to document what I didn’t like, I not only changed my mind about the effectiveness of the course, but have discovered a whole bunch of courses by the same professor – and have started one already. That’s probably the strongest indicator that this was, in fact, a Very Good mooc. But you have to want it.