When do your beliefs become knowledge?

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy lately — Kierkegaard and Dawkins, Lewis, Hume, Calvin and Augustine, you name it — for a class I’m taking, as well as for my own enjoyment. One of the interesting things about philosophy is that it’s a discipline that takes the understanding of understanding seriously. As a teacher, that’s fascinating to me; has education — specifically, the way we in 2009 are trying to educate — really examined what knowledge is? Have educational systems considered what the wealth of literature says about knowledge, and responded to it responsibly?

[A few important insertions: I’m not supposing that to respond to philosophical ideas about knowledge, education needs to change. I am suggesting, though, that a responsible response entails understanding the arguments, and either adhering to them, or forming a sound counter-argument to explain abandoning them.]

Two theses in particular caught my attention. First, Thomas Reid makes this astounding statement (cited from Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays (1975), p. 275):

Another first principle is–That the natural faculties, by which we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious.

What does this say? It says that our natural senses don’t tend to fail us. Now, I know, many of you are freaking out over this quote, especially in light of particle physics or molecular biology. And we can argue that over a good cup of coffee. But I will suggest that Reid is right in the macro-world.


I see a piano falling, I rightly assume several things:

1. It is indeed falling, and I am not instead rushing up toward it.

2. That piano is dangerous to be under, given that it’s falling.

There are plenty of other observations, but you get the idea.

So why does this matter? Well, how much do we allow the learner’s senses (and by senses, I don’t mean “ears listening to 90 minutes of lecture”) engage in a typical learning environment? How much do we allow the natural faculties to assert themselves, create knowledge, and then refine and provide context for the knowledge already gained?

I think it’s an important question. I think Dan Meyer is a master at this (check out his blog for some amazing examples of using pictures to stimulate learning). How are you doing this? What effect on education would an increased (as in, significantly more than you’re currently doing) amount of sensory learning create?

Let me know what you think. Oh, and as for my other philosophical quote that I think is important? More on that later this week…