Knowledge, adequacy, and approximate truth

Consciousness and Cognition 83:102950 (2020)
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Abstract
Approximation involves representing things in ways that might be close to the truth but are nevertheless false. Given the widespread reliance on approximations in science and everyday life, here we ask whether it is conceptually possible for false approximations to qualify as knowledge. According to the factivity account, it is impossible to know false approximations, because knowledge requires truth. According to the representational adequacy account, it is possible to know false approximations, if they are close enough to the truth for present purposes. In this paper, we adopt an experimental methodology to begin testing these two theories. When an agent provides a false and practically inadequate answer, both theories predict that people will deny knowledge. But the theories disagree about an agent who provides a false but practically adequate answer: the factivity hypothesis again predicts knowledge denial, whereas the representational adequacy hypothesis predicts knowledge attribution. Across two experiments, our principal finding was that people tended to attribute knowledge for false but practically adequate answers, which supports the representational adequacy account. We propose an interpretation of existing findings that preserves a conceptual link between knowledge and truth. According to this proposal, truth is not necessary for knowledge, but it is a feature of prototypical knowledge.
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Archival date: 2020-06-30
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