Discussion Question 3

Read: Republic, Books VI and VII, Selection of fragments from Parmenides, Selection from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides (latter two on Courseworks)

At the end of Book V (476), Socrates makes a distinction between the Philosopher and the Lover of Sight and Sound, where the former has knowledge but the latter only has opinion. Further, we get the interesting exchange at 476e, “[D]oes the person who knows know something or nothing? – He knows something – Something that is or something that is not? – Something that is, for how could something that is not be known?” You saw similar sorts of claims in the Parmenides fragments, which also suggest the one can only know things about objects that are (i.e. that exists).

A general, very abstract, question: do you know (vs. believe, imagine, etc) anything about an object that doesn’t exist (e.g. a unicorn, Santa Claus)? If you think you might, give a candidate example, what you know about it, and how you came to know that. Why do you think your psychological attitudes constitute knowledge? If you think you can never have knowledge about things that don’t exist, why do you think that? Do you have other attitudes? Why those attitudes instead of knowledge? Either way, what do you think separates the two cases of objects that are and objects that are not in the case of knowledge?

12 thoughts on “Discussion Question 3

  1. I believe that we can know about something that doesn’t exist, as we are capable of an abstract thought that allows us to treat things that are unreal as real, removing the difference between the two. *note for the purpose of this thought experiment I am defining something that is known about as something that can be indisputably perceived in the real world, such as touch, sound and the laws of physics.* We can do this in several ways, first is in the mathematical sense; mathematicians in general would tell you that i (√-1) is a number, even though in every sense of the notion i can’t be a number as it isn’t seen in the real world, and therefore can’t be percieved; however, even if we don’t see I in the real world we do still understand that it exists. Furthermore, the number 0 isn’t real as it is literal the lack of something we can perceive, meaning that it is formless and shapeless, and therefore would also not technically be real and therefore not exist. The same goes for negative numbers, as again we can’t actually be in lack of something to such an extent that we owe somebody something, as the notion of debt isn’t actually real as promises aren’t real as they’re nothing more than an agreement, which can’t, in the most literal sense, be perceived, that can be broken or changed at will of the two party’s (or at the very least the party with the most weapons).

    Second, we can understand it in the sense of a “cannon” that something is real take Harry Potter as an example. He isn’t real but you just pictured him when you read his name almost as though he was real, as though I had said anybody’s name who was real, and if we are treating him as though he was real then he is real. Now you may argue that Harry Potter is real, he’s Daniel Radcliff, a fair point as I don’t think anybody’s going to argue that Radcliff doesn’t exist. However, an important distinction between the two is that Harry Potter and Radcliff’s live in different cannon’s. Potter lives in the cannon where he is sent to a wonderful, blissful magical school, whereas Radcliff lives in the cannon where he is sent to an acting school, the exact opposite of wonder and bliss.

  2. I personally believe that one cannot have “knowledge” on something that does not exist , but rather has a belief about it. Such things such as Santa Clause, vampires, mermaids, etc. all originated as stories passed down from generation to generation. These stories were accompanied by traits that describe such things where one may confuse the so called belief of the traits with “knowledge”. Since there is no tangible evidence that such things exist, we only have belief to go off of. We can “believe” that such things exist, but to have knowledge of such things, we don’t have. For example, the story of St. Nicholas and the legendary Santa Clause was a story told to children passed down from generation to generation, encouraging kids to be nice so that they may receive presents for good behavior. As time passed many traits that describe Santa Clause were also passed down generation by generation, but no factual evidence was provided so that we may have “knowledge” about Santa Clause. We do not know if Santa Clause wears a red suit, but it is a common belief formed over time that he does. So no, I do not believe that we can have knowledge over things that do not exist.

  3. In another one of Plato’s dialogues, Apology, is the well know phrase “I know that all I know is that I do not know anything”, otherwise known as the Socratic Paradox. This is what I believe. What was known a hundred years ago is wildly different from what we know today and what we will know in another hundred years. When we dream we are convinced that is our reality, so what makes the one we are in during our waking hours more real than the reality of our sleep? The only thing we can be sure of is our own ignorance.
    To answer the question though, since a non-existant object has no restrictions set by reality, it’s completely possible to “know” it, though that knowledge might not be universal. The only limit to that knowledge is my own imagination. As an example, If I was to make up a fantastical creature, I would be the sole maker of it and as its creator I would know it inside and out. Though it may not be knowledge as a general term, it is up to me what this being would look and act like, therefore rendering my understanding of it complete.

  4. Sorry, my question was posted incomplete and I am unsure how to edit it:

    It is possible to know an object that does not exist. Some potential examples for how we may know an object that does not exist may be seen in Harry Potter, the cloud, and blockchain. There is no physical object for the interactions we have made on the internet, but it does exist in some imaginary way. Similarly, the invention of blockchain has allowed for the creation of the Cryptokitty into the imaginary. There is no physical cryptokitty, but the cryptokitty is real in the sense that we can know it’s value, what it would look to a person should it be created into reality. These are things that are understood and solid about the imaginary even if we can’t know that in the traditional sense. All of these things aren’t tangible objects as we would normally consider them. They exist in the imagination so strongly that they might imagine themselves into existence. The knowledge we have regarding these things may not be knowledge in the fact that we may apply that knowledge tangibly but it is knowledge in that it is defined for all and exists in the imagination. I think there are distinctions to be made between objects that are and objects that are not, but I don’t believe that difference is that one can be known and the other can not.

  5. It is possible to know an object that does not exist. Some potential examples for how we may know an object that does not exist may be seen in Harry Potter, the cloud, and blockchain. All of these things aren’t tangible objects as we would normally consider them. But they do exist in the imagination so strongly that they might imagine themselves into existence. The knowledge we have regarding these things may not be knowledge in the fact that we may apply that knowledge tangibly but it is knowledge in that it is defined for all and exists in the imagination. I think there are distinctions to be made between objects that are and objects that are not, but I don’t believe that difference is that one can be known and the other can not.

  6. The question of whether we can have knowledge about an object that does not exist is certainly tricky, because in order to answer it, we first need to establish some reasonable understanding of the terms ‘knowledge’, ‘existence’, and ‘object’. And as Socrates has shown us, this is no simple task!

    To me, ‘knowledge’ suggests a grasp of certain facts or ideas about a thing, or an awareness, or familiarity with a thing. I take ‘existence’ to mean a state of being. An ‘object’ can be a physical thing that we apprehend through our senses, like a chair, or an abstract representation of a thing, like a mathematical idea. We may also consider as objects things that are inferred to exist, but that have never been directly observed, such as black holes. I will also suggest that the idea we have of an object that does not exist, such as a unicorn, can constitute knowledge.

    So how can I know about unicorns? Since I am able to construct an idea about a unicorn from my knowledge of other things, in this case horses and animals with horns, I can know what a unicorn is. This process of construction is more simply termed imagination, which is, in my view, a slightly weaker form of knowledge since it is not fact-based. It is nonetheless a component piece of my overall understanding of everything outside of myself. I believe then that ideas, whether they are about real or fictional objects constitute valid knowledge.

  7. To analyze the question about whether or not one can know something that does not exist you have to examine what it means for something to exist. There are many ideas that are simply thoughts that don’t materially exist, but the knowledge of them alone brings them into existence (i.e. religion, superstitions, ideologies, etc…) Perhaps what allows certain ideas to exist is to create a knowledge of them. For example, Santa Clause would not exist if we did not have knowledge of him through movies, books, and our parents telling us that we had to be good for Santa to bring presents.

    I believe this can actually be translated into more serious societal issues such as racism. Often times prejudices are taught by parents, teachers, media etc.. and it is only through this knowledge that: “one race is better than the other” that a person exists as a racist and therefore racism exists. I would argue that it’s not “can you know something that doesn’t exist”, but rather that “it is knowing something that creates existence”.

  8. Last week we discussed that admitting to not knowing about something is already knowing SOMETHING.

    I like using mythical creatures for these types of questions; how do we know that there are such things? Or rather how do we know about their existence (doesn’t have to be “real” but the idea is real).

    Passed down through stories from various cultures we are always almost met with dragons, centars, mermaids…. current Disney movies romanticize these, but I’m talking about the nit grit. Kind of like the question brought up above, almost everyone knows about vampires. We never met one but we know about them because of documented fiction/non fiction. They’re existence is brought to life through word of mouth or writings.

    I hope I’m making sense in this.

    You can’t see the laws of nature, but you know it’s all around you through scientific research and just how the world revolves around you. Just knowing or having a hunch about it is enough to spark something.

  9. I don’t think we can know anything about an object that does not exist. First, we must consider the definition of “knowing”. We should agree that if someone knows a statement P, P must be true, meaning P can be proved to be true (or never false). Thus, let us examine an example of an object that does not exist––vampires. What people claim they know about vampires is that they drink humans’ blood. However, strictly speaking, no one in fact knows this since we cannot prove anything about something that does not exist––the distinction is, we only believe that vampires drink blood.

    The question is, if we do not know anything about vampires, why is “vampire” a commonly known word that must mean something? Imagine that we ask someone: “don’t you know what a vampire is?” Most likely, the person will answer: “of course I know what it is.” How is this so? Personally, I think people simply confuse the statement “I know about vampires” with that “I know about legends/stories of vampires”; after all, all we know about vampires is from fictions or others’ mouths. We may know any literature about vampires, but we can only believe what a vampire is (until we actually meet one).

  10. Kind of prefatorily, I have to take issue with the ambiguity of the term ‘exist.’ Of course, for a layman, ‘exist’ is a pretty cut-and-dry term, but my experience with philosophical rigor has made me very wary of epistemological ambiguity. I could conceive of ‘existence’ in a number of ways, each with implications that affect my answer. However, since I don’t have much space and since I don’t want to be “that guy,” I will operate on ‘existence’ as a term simply describing physicality.
    I don’t think there is a nonexistent object about which anyone can ‘know’ anything. Admittedly, there are many conceived, nonexistent entities to whom we have ascribed certain popularly agreed upon traits. However, these traits of which we conceive cannot possibly be ‘known’ to be characteristic of mythical beings were they to miraculously materialize. Take, for example, Santa Claus. If someone matching the description given to him were to materialize, this person would not be Santa Claus as we conceive of him; this person would simply match a kind of taxonomical description. There are two points that need to be made to explain why the materialized person wouldn’t be Santa Claus. Firstly, whoever materializes exhibiting the traits of our conceived Santa Claus is not properly Santa Claus – just someone who looks like him. This sounds a little involved but it’s really not: if you simply call anyone who exhibits certain traits Santa Claus, then there is not a distinct person about whom things can be, in the formal sense, ‘known.’ Secondly, because there is no distinct body that can materialize as Santa Claus, all the traits we ascribe to him simply create the idea of a nonexistent being, an aggregation of conjecture and mythos; there is no isomorphic analogue that our envisaging could possibly describe – which I view as a pretty substantial criterion for truthful knowledge about a thing. Santa.

  11. According to Socrates’ example, someone knowing that something is or something is not seems to be a kind of ability to tell the difference between two opposite objects. Thus, factors which influence one’s judgment could be the knowledge towards the thing, such as attitudes towards beauty. The word “beauty” is a very abstractive term as one imagines, but it can be applied in the real world when you see flowers by the street or masterpieces painted by Van Gogh, which means these objects mentioned above are the incarnation of beauty. Also I ask myself whether they share some common properties of beauty. However, here comes a question, how can you attain the knowledge of beauty? Or even we can say that—are you sure what you think is beautiful is a real form of beauty? As beauty itself does not truly exist in daily lives, so I believe that the only access to the knowledge of beauty is one’s ability to appreciate, and this kind of ability sometimes is affected by your growing environments (your family’s taste of beauty), or is teachable in the painting class by teachers. Their cognitions of Beaty potentially help you construct your own value of beauty, turning external factors into internal one. So when you see the painting which is beautiful, you might get the enjoyable and satisfying sense and discover the passion in life, and vice versa.

    One thing I believe that it may exist could be samsara, though I do not have any knowledges of it. I know it from Buddhist sutras of my grandma. It utilizes a graph to illustrate “The Six Great Divisions in the Wheel of Karma”. And I have the initial image of samsara, and it is kind of supernatural and mysterious. Nevertheless, I never examine it because I do not know what my prelife is. Someone used to tell me that I may share certain properties with my prelife, for instance, if you love water, you could be a sailor in your precious generation . I cannot apply this theory to explain any phenomenon as I do not experience the process of death and samsara. If I have my prelife, I must have some memories of what I’d done. Unfortunately, it could be removed before I was born. So I just know what samsara is but never know how it works or put into practice.

    In a nutshell, people will believe the existence of samsara could be the purpose of religions, however, no one could truly explains them as it is just a model based on the assumption towards one’s previous life. Maybe it exists in an invisible way. So if people tend to know something is or something is not, they must own the knowledge with strong and supportive evidences, examining it in the real life.

  12. To begin within, I actually believe that it is very difficult to successfully determine whether or not you truly ‘know’ something, or have accurate knowledge about anything, real or imagined. Given that it can be assumed that the easiest and most accurate way to gain knowledge is through experience, i.e., using your various five senses to confirm the existence of, say, a chair, to be able to gain any ‘knowledge’ about something that doesn’t exist already proves to much more difficult.

    Now, to look at a few of the examples given. For example, Santa Claus. There is, quote unquote, a lot of ‘common knowledge’ about the story of Santa Claus. However, because Santa Claus does not exist, what is known is what is expressed between people, through story-telling. That, I believe, is knowledge not about Santa Claus, but about what has been shared with you, or the common ‘story’ that has become known, and by extension, this is just a byproduct of shared imagination. The difference between what is physically here, and what is not, may be the degree of certainty that we can say that we know anything about it, or whether or not it is just conjecture.

    For example, in theoretical physics, although there are ideas that are taken to be true (until proven otherwise) it is still hypothesis, and there is no degree of certainty to which someone can say they ‘know’ something—however, that is assuming that to ‘know’ something about anything, the knowledge must be true. If otherwise, what’s to separate ‘knowledge’ that is false, and pure guesswork/hypothesis?

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