Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Munchhausen Trilemma

The Munchhausen Trilemma serves as a criticism of justifying knowledge that goes like this:

If we ask of any knowledge: "How do I know that it's true?", we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The M√ľnchhausen trilemma is that we have only three options when providing proof in this situation:

  1. The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point)
  2. The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)
  3. The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)
As a layman, the Trilemma is helpful in summarizing the ways we can justify knowledge, but does what it says represent a declaration that knowledge is ultimately impossible? For me, the answer is no.

First, i’ll acknowledge the ways the term “knowledge” can be used:
  1. ”knowledge that” - comprehension of concrete facts or abstract concepts that can be demonstrated in the real world.
  2. ”knowledge how” - comprehension of approaches or techniques in accomplishing simple tasks or complex endeavors.
  3. ”knowledge of” - acquaintance with people
I also have to declare my belief that absolute knowledge of anything is unattainable. When I say this, I mean that with regard to any of the three ways the term “knowledge” can be used, I can never be genuinely 100% certain that I know something is true. I may be certain to a reasonable doubt, or certain beyond conceivable doubt, even certain that my belief will never be falsified in human history - but I have to acknowledge that there could be a 1-in-a-centillion chance that I could be wrong about it.

Given my skepticism about absolute knowledge, the Trilemma sorts itself for me in the following way:
  1. circularity is unacceptable - I won’t knowingly go there.
  2. Infinite regression will get me closer to the truth, but never fully reach absolute truth. There’s a point of diminishing returns in this approach.
  3. Axioms are useful when regression has proceeded to an absurdly detailed level. This serves as a practical substitute for 2).
This becomes part of my toolbox for thinking.

My work here is done.

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