An Evaluation of Fred Dretske’s Conception of Knowledge and Beliefs - Sample Essay

When looking to evaluate Fred Dretske it is important to consider both the vehicle based approach and the vehicle-less approach. Information is a key concept when it comes to understanding Fred Dretske and his conception of knowledge and belief, however before one is able to fully understand this concept of belief and knowledge we need to first need to understand his conception of what a belief is. This essay aims to create comparison between the vehicle based and vehicle-less approach that will assist with the understanding Dretske’s conception of knowledge and belief before a final evaluation and conclusion will be made.

When examining the vehicle based approach it is important to grasp what Dretske describes a belief to be. He describes them as a representation. These representations are divided up into three types of representational systems. Within these representational systems, there are elements of functionality and power. Dretske describes these systems as “any system whose function it is to indicate how things stand with respect to some other object, condition, or magnitude” (Dretske, 1991:52) A Type 1 representational system is something that is completely conventional.

An example of this is a map. Through convention the symbols and drawings on the map have come to mean something, however if they were to stand alone the meaning would be lost. A type 1 representational system has no power, yet it does function as people, as long as they can understand the markings and symbols are able to read the map and go in whatever direction they might need. Before being able to efficiently differentiate been Type 1 and Type 2 one must be able to distinguish between a symbol and a sign.

A symbol is something that has been given a conventional meaning. A symbol stands to represent something in a specific context, however when removed from the intended context it may lose its meaning. An example of this is the mathematical sign alpha (? ) when used in mathematics it carries a specific meaning, however when it is removed from this context it appears more like a squiggle. A Type 2 representational system is a combination of conventional and natural aspects. An example of this is a thermometer.

The conventional aspect of this is that in order to be able to understand what it is indicating you need to be able to understand the specific symbols on the thermometer. The natural aspect is that when the temperature changes, so does the indication on the thermometer. A type 2 representational system has both power and functionality. It has the power to indicate that the density level of glass is higher than mercury which is thus the power that indicates the changing temperature. The function of the thermometer is to display the temperature.

Dretske gives a second and possibly clearer example to us through a bathroom scale. Dretske acknowledges that although hard work and effort went into the creation of the scale, once it has been fully manufactured and put into place, there is nothing conventional about it. The scale is able to signify it use without any assistance from either the creator or user. The symbols on the scale assist to understand what the pointer is indicating however they do not change the meaning (Dretske, 1991: 54) A Type 3 representational system is a completely natural system.

Type 3 representational systems are not assigned a function; the function is part of its existence. Dretske belives that beliefs are a Type 3 representation. Information is a key concept to grasp when it comes to understanding Dretske. He believes that information is to be something that comes from a source. A signal carries this information about a source in a particular state. This signal that is being carried about the source is what we can pick up and interpret. For Dretske this meant it was an objective commodity that can exist independently.

What is essential to Dretske is that the source and the signal stand in a lawful relationship. Dretske understands that if a signal is carrying information about a source it must be true because a signal would not carry information about a source that is false, as this would not be information. Dretske believes that false information is not information. (This belief will later be contrasted as it is placed against the vehicle-based approach. ) In turn, this means that if there is not a lawful relationship we cannot take the signal as being information.

An example of this given to us by Dretske is that when A’s telephone began to ring so did B’s. There is no lawful relationship between the ringing of A’s phone with the ringing of B’s. Even if every single time A’s phone began to ring B’s did as well. This could only be put down to coincidence. If B’s phone rings every time A’s phone does one may be able to begin to predict one event from knowledge of the other but the two events still remain statistically independent (Dretske, 2000:106). Dretske also believed in a flow of information in that he believed information to be fluid and so easily transported.

An example of this is that X knows information about Y and Y knows information about Z therefore X knows Z. This is clear for this must be the way that information such as gossip travels around. The final thing that is important to Dretske is intentionality, as he believes it is the distinction between the thermometer and humans. As humans, we have a sense of intentionality through our beliefs and ideas; inanimate objects such as a thermometer do not posses such qualities. It is this idea and understanding of intentionality that helps to differentiate between Type 2 and Type 3 representational groups.

Dretske believes that knowledge is an information caused belief; therefore, if belief is caused by information then you have knowledge as they stand in a lawful relationship. It is also important to understand that information is not unique. For example by saying that a table is rectangle, you are therefore saying that it is not round. This is essentially the essence of the vehicle based approach. An important phrase to consider is “I believe that p but not-p”. On first reading this sentence it seems not to make sense, however it all becomes clearer when put into the third person.

An example of a third person sentence is Jane says John believes it is sunny outside but it is not sunny outside. This makes sense and is easily understood as it is saying something about John’s psychology. This however becomes complicated when a first person example is applied to the p but not-p equivalent. For Jane to say that John believes it is sunny outside but it is not sunny outside makes sense as Jane is talking about John in the third person. Jane is not making any comment on the outside world around her, she is concentrated more on making a comment about John’s psychology.

When we turn this into a first person example it becomes slightly different. To say John believes it sunny outside but not sunny outside does not make sense as it feels to be a contradiction. To say I believe it is sunny you are committing yourself to the truth that it is sunny, however you are also committing yourself to the truth that is not sunny. This becomes a flaw in Dretske’s theory as the example works in third person, however when it is place in a first person example a fundamental problem is created. . It is this fact that helps to motivate the vehicle-less approach.

First, we need to ask why p but not-p is puzzling. The answer is because it is contradictory, however it is not a logical contradiction. Dretske himself said that false information is not information, so a person saying that I believe p but not-p in a first person example is contradictory to this. If information is false information, therefore not information one cannot gain knowledge from it. If one cannot gain knowledge from it, a belief cannot be formed; therefore, one cannot believe p but not-p as it is not information.

One can either believe p or not p, as truthful existence only exists when the two elements are separated. When one inscribes a belief to oneself, it is very different to inscribing a belief on someone else. When one does it to oneself one is undertaking the commitment to the truth of the claim. Inscribing is very different to attributing, as when you attribute something to someone else you are not stating p but not-p, you are rather committing something to John from which he can make his own commitment.

The conception of knowledge and belief in the vehicle based approach can be summarized as this, a belief is a vehicle conception. It is a representational system, which is found to be most prominent in the Type 3 representational system. There is a process to which we get our beliefs. One is able to pick up on the signal that is being carried with particular information of a source in a certain state. If there is a lawful relationship between this source and the signal, this results in information. This information is turned into knowledge. The conditional probability of s is F = 1.

Dretske also illustrates that false information is not information therefore it is not knowledge, and finally knowledge is an information caused belief. In contrast this, a summary of the vehicle-less approach is as follows. The vehicle based approach is comprised of contradictions. For one to gain knowledge and beliefs there has to be knowledge. If knowledge is false knowledge, there is no knowledge. Therefore, to say for example, you believe it is raining but not raining does not make sense. You cannot commit yourself to the truth of either belief.

This demonstrates that Dretske’s vehicle approach is flawed in that it creates contradictions in the first person. Dretske’s vehicle based approach is very convincing in many aspects of his theory. His development from a source to a signal to a receiver is logical and easily followed. Although his points are clear when it comes to illustrating how knowledge and belief are created through this process, I find myself unable to completely attach myself to his theory. The fact that his theory is flawed when it comes to placing his examples in first person makes me think twice before fully engaging in his beliefs.

References

* Dretske, F. 2000 Perception, Knowledge and Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 28-37

* Dretske, F. 1991. Explaining Behaviour: Reasons in a World of Causes. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 51-64

* Bernercker, S., Dretske, F. 2000. Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford: University Press, pp. 103-117