Introduction to Epistemology

By Coen de Heer | January 26, 2023

In this article we will be attempting to give you a quick overview of epistemology, depending on what you mean by quick…

Our goal is that you are, by the end of this article, better equipped to distinguish justified true beliefs from false belief and unsubstantiated claims. So that you can better determine for yourself what to adopt as true and false. In short, separate the bullshit from the truth. Since we, as powerlifters, operate in a sports & fitness context, we will provide some real world fitness examples of truths and unsubstantiated propositions at the end of this article. In a future article we will go in depth on logical fallacies and how they are sometimes used in the fitness industry. 


1. Epistemology


"the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion"


First, we must determine the nature of knowledge: that is, what does it mean to say that someone knows, or does not know, something? This is a matter of understanding what knowledge is, and how to distinguish between whether  someone knows something or does not. At first glance this seems like a simple question. but there is much more to it than what first meets the eye.

Second, we must determine the extent of human knowledge. That is, how much do we, or can we, know? How can we use our reason, our senses, the testimony of others, and other resources to acquire knowledge? Are there limits to what we can know? For instance, are some things unknowable? 


2. Types of Knowledge


The word “knowledge” and its derivatives are used in a variety of ways. One common use of the word “know” is an expression of psychological conviction. For instance, we might hear someone say, “I just knew I had it in me, but then didn't.” While this is appropriate usage, Epistemologists tend to use the word “know” in a factive sense. meaning you cannot know something that is not the case. 

Even if we restrict ourselves to factive usages, there are still multiple interpretations of “knowledge,” and so we need to distinguish between them. One type of knowledge is procedural knowledge, sometimes called competence or “know-how;” for example, you can know how to squat, or you can know how to vacuum your floor. Another kind of knowledge is acquaintance knowledge or familiarity. For instance, you can know your meet day competitors, or you can know where your venue is.

Epistemologists typically do not focus on procedural or acquaintance knowledge, however, instead preferring to focus on propositional knowledge. A proposition is something which can be expressed by a declarative sentence, which describes a fact or a state of affairs, such as “Dogs are mammals,” “2+2=7,” “It is wrong to punch innocent people for fun.” (Note that a proposition can be true or false, it does not have to express a fact.) Propositional knowledge, then, can be called knowledge-that; statements of propositional knowledge (or the lack thereof) are properly expressed using “that”, for example: “He knows that he should train harder,” or “She does not know that curls train the biceps.” From here on forth we will center our discussion on propositional knowledge.

Propositional knowledge encompasses knowledge about a wide range of matters: scientific knowledge, geographical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and knowledge about any field of study. Any truth might, in theory, be knowable, although there might be unknowable truths. One goal of epistemology is to determine the criteria for knowledge so that we can know what can or cannot be known

We can also distinguish between different types of propositional knowledge, based on the source of that knowledge. Non-empirical knowledge is possible independently of, or prior to, any experience, and requires only the use of reason. Examples are knowledge of logical truths (all powerlifters squat), as well as knowledge of abstract claims (I feel bad about my squat). 

Empirical knowledge is only possible subsequent to certain sense experiences in addition to the use of reason. An example is the knowledge of the color and shape of a 25kg plate. 

We can also distinguish between individual knowledge and collective knowledge. We often base our moral system on collective knowledge. For example “murder is bad”. A thorough epistemological standpoint should address all kinds of knowledge, although there might be different standards for knowledge in different cases.


3. The Nature of Propositional Knowledge


Let’s begin with the observation that knowledge is a mental state. Knowledge exists in your mind,  mute objects cannot know anything. Knowledge is a specific state of mind. While “that” claims can be used to describe desires and intentions, these don’t portrait knowledge. So knowledge is a kind of belief. If you don’t have beliefs about a particular matter, you can't have knowledge about it. Thoughts that have never crossed your mind are not among your beliefs, and thus cannot be included in your body of knowledge.


4. Truth


We stated that knowledge requires belief. But not all beliefs constitute knowledge. Belief is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. We all make mistakes in what we believe. As we try to attain knowledge. We are trying to increase our stock of true beliefs while simultaneously minimizing our false beliefs. (It goes without saying that it's good for day to day life to have more true beliefs than false.)

We might say that the most typical purpose of belief is to describe the way things actually are. When you form a belief, you are seeking a match between your mind and the world. We sometimes form beliefs for other reasons, to create a positive attitude, to deceive ourselves, etc. But when we seek knowledge, we are trying to get things right. 

5. Justification


We now know knowledge requires factual belief. Knowledge is successfully achieving true belief. So what is the right way of arriving at beliefs? In addition to truth, what other properties must a belief have in order to constitute knowledge? We begin by acknowledging that sound reasoning and solid evidence seem to be the way to acquire knowledge. 

By contrast, a lucky guess cannot constitute knowledge. Similarly, misinformation and faulty reasoning do not seem like a recipe for knowledge, even if they happen to lead to a true belief. A belief is justified if it is obtained in the right way. Justification seems to be a matter of a belief being based on evidence and reasoning rather than on luck or misinformation. 

The requirement that knowledge involves justification does not necessarily mean that knowledge requires absolute certainty. If I hear the weatherman say there is a 90% chance (or even 100%) of sunshine today, my belief that the sun will shine is justified but not true. The day first has to play out with the sun shining in order for my justified belief to be true.


6. Sources of Knowledge


Given the above characterization of knowledge, there are many ways that you can come to know something. Knowledge of empirical facts about the physical world will necessarily involve perception. Science, with its collection of data and conducting of experiments, is the paradigm of empirical knowledge.

All knowledge requires some amount of reasoning: Data collected by scientists must be analyzed before knowledge is yielded. We draw inferences based on what our senses tell us, and knowledge of abstract or non-empirical facts rely upon reasoning. 

Once knowledge is obtained, it can be sustained and passed on to others. Memory allows us to know something that we knew in the past, even if we don't remember the original justification. Knowledge can also be transferred from one individual to another via testimony. My justification for a particular belief could be because a trusted source told me so (my friend told me he set a new pr). 

Mind that testimony is only sufficient (if even) for mundane claims. Setting a new pr is possible and worldly. If my friend told me he saw a flying space pirate he would have to come with more evidence than just testimony. 


7. Burden of Proof


The burden of proof (having to provide evidence for a claim) lies with someone making a positive statement. For example if I say “there is a barbell flying towards you from the sun” I have to provide evidence to support my claim. Just because the other party cannot disprove my claim does not mean I'm right. So being unable to prove that there is NOT a barbell flying towards does not get you anywhere.


There are layers to the burden of proof as well. There is a saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. In the case of the flying barbell i need to provide mountains of empirical evidence in order to convince you because you have never seen or heard of a flying barbell. 

We also have “mundane” claims. These are claims that are easily verifiable throughout daily life. “I squatted 100 kilo’s” and “I just got a new dog” are examples of this. You can go into almost any gym and see someone squat 100 kilo’s, and you only have to walk outside for a minute to see multiple dogs. I do not need to see you squat or see your dog to be justified in believing you. It is highly plausible that what you told me is the truth


Let's relate this to a current in field example: “a lat pull around is better for latissimus hypertrophy than a lat pulldown for x reason”.The given reason in this claim is irrelevant because the outcome has not been studied or compared yet. There is no data to back up the claim. The person or entity making this statement has now adopted a burden of proof. So saying “you can't prove that it is not a better exercise” is fallacious reasoning as explained before. The statement “a lat pull around is better for latissimus hypertrophy than a lat pulldown for x reason” might however still be true. BUT, because it has not been demonstrated. Holding the belief that “a lat pull around is better for latissimus hypertrophy than a lat pulldown for x reason” is by definition unjustified and unreasonable. All the indirect arguments in the world won’t and can't justify this belief until it has been demonstrated to be true through direct empirical evidence.

8. Conclusion


In conclusion, epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically the methods, validity, and scope of knowledge. It aims to distinguish between justified true beliefs and false or unsubstantiated claims. Propositional knowledge, which is the focus of epistemology, encompasses knowledge about various fields of study and can be either non-empirical or empirical in nature. The goal of epistemology is to determine the criteria for knowledge so that we can know what can or cannot be known. Understanding epistemology can help us better separate truth from bullshit in the fitness industry and other fields, and it is a skill that is unfortunately missing in many fitness “experts” and influencers.





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