On Philosophy

September 1, 2006

Essay: Human Knowledge, Animal Knowledge, and the Role of Reflective Justification

Filed under: Epistemology,Essays — Peter @ 12:01 am

Some philosophers, disagreeing with Kornblith, think that there is something special about human knowledge that sets it apart from animal knowledge. One way to make this distinction is by arguing that human knowledge is justified in a way that animal knowledge is not. One could claim that human knowledge only exists when the person who has that knowledge has reflected on it and constructed reasons for it. Of course the most common way to construct such reasons would be through introspection, the process of looking inwards and discovering what reasons you actually have for believing it. This reliance on introspection was initiated by Descartes, who thought that with reflection we could examine each of our beliefs and know the reasons that support it, and this idea has found its way into many theories that would separate human knowledge from animal knowledge since then. To many modern philosophers, such as Chisholm, human knowledge is founded on a process of inner questioning and justification, which would seem to rule out the possibility of animals having knowledge.

Kornblith is, of course, against such a definition of knowledge. He argues that knowledge cannot be based on introspection because introspection is well known to be unreliable. For example we know that people have unconscious biases towards selecting items on the right, and that they are not aware of these biases [1]. Even when people are informed that such biases exist they will deny that they are influenced by them. So, not only does introspection fail to reveal some of the reasons for why we make choices, but it is unable to reveal to us that it is incomplete. However there are more problems with introspection than just this. Even if we are able to detect in some cases when introspection is in error we will be unable to correct for these mistakes, because we will mistakenly put more emphasis on our successes at introspection than on our failures, a phenomena called confirmation bias. Thus not only will introspection be in error, but it can’t be relied on for improvements in the way we approach introspection or finding reasons either [2]. Because of these problems Kornblith concludes that introspection is an unsuitable foundation for knowledge.

Kornblith also has two additional arguments against approaches that rely on some kind of justification inaccessible to animals, one against a coherence account and one against a foundationalist account. A coherence account can’t describe real knowledge, according to Kornblith, because requiring new knowledge to cohere with existing knowledge is impossible. The amount of knowledge we already possess is extremely large, and to ensure that a new statement was coherent we would have to compare it against all of our previous knowledge, at once (in case some combination of established knowledge was incoherent with it). But, since we possess limited mental faculties, this task is impossible [3]. Similarly foundationalism also requires an impossible task, evaluating a belief in light of the total evidence. The volume of evidence for many beliefs can be so great that it would be impossible to hold it in mind at once, as required by our desire to evaluate our new belief [4].

Kornblith has successfully argued against a distinction between human and animal knowledge based on introspection. However, he has not ruled out the possibility that reflective justification, not based on introspection, distinguishes human knowledge from animal knowledge. In fact Kornblith’s demonstration of the fallibility of intuitive judgments seems to make justification all the more essential to knowledge. Let us return to the example of picking items on a shelf. Let us further assume that the item on the right is usually not a bad choice, so in some sense the belief may even be reliable, and possibly knowledge according to Kornblith. The person making the choice, if they attempt to justify their actions, will surely come up with reasons for making that decision. However justification is not simply coming up with whatever reasons we feel like; that would be just as bad as relying on introspection. These reasons are instead reflected on, and compared to reasons for selecting other choices instead. It is true that there will still be an unconscious bias to favor the reasons in favor of the rightmost item. Even so this justification process makes it more likely that we will overcome our unconscious biases and make a better choice. We might even view, in a naturalistic sense, this kind of reflective justification as “super reliable”, more reliable than the non-reflective processes by which animals come to make decisions [5]. We then could argue that this new natural kind is real knowledge, and that the natural kind that Kornblith has identified is simply proto-knowledge.

Even if this account seems reasonable we still require a response to Kornblith’s argument against foundationalism, since it is typical to think of justification as requiring a foundation to be rational. Of course we could take a “naturalistic” approach to justification, and argue that it is simply a tool for making our choices more reliable, and thus that it doesn’t require any absolute foundation, since we aren’t arguing that it has normative powers. Or we could argue, again naturalistically, that justification doesn’t require support by all the available evidence, only enough to make it more reliable than intuition. But these are not the kind of arguments I would make. I think that it is possible to defend justification, in the form of a hypothesis supported by all the available evidence. A statement is supported by all the evidence if and only if there is no evidence that contradicts it. Given this a person attempting to justify a hypothesis could scan their memory looking for contradictory cases, and if they find none they can conclude that the hypothesis is supported by the evidence, and since they have to examine the evidence only one piece at a time, and since the unconscious is very good at retrieving relevant information, this can be done with limited mental resources. Of course there is still the problem of confirmation bias, which says that we are likely to ignore the evidence against a hypothesis we favor. All this proves, however, is that people are fallible when they justify, which should be no surprise. Still, we can learn to overcome our confirmation bias and approach the ideal with effort, and the mere fact that the ideal exists and is approachable is enough to defend justification as a normative basis for knowledge. Thus it seems that there is a natural kind of belief that only humans, as sufficiently intelligent animals, possess, a kind that seems best described as knowledge, meaning that what we thought was knowledge in animals must really have been something else.


1. “… we should not be influenced by their relative position, nevertheless, it seems that we are. Subjects in this study, however, are unaware that their judgments are affected by the relative position of the goods being evaluated. Moreover … asking there subjects to introspect more carefully … would not make them better acquainted with the source of their judgments.” Kornblith, Knowledge and its Place in Nature, page 111

2. “The existence of confirmation bias provides a global reason for thinking that responsible agents are unlikely to discover, at least by way of introspection, the extent of their epistemic shortcomings. Most agents thinks of themselves as tolerably reliable in their acquisition of belief … our natural confirmation bias will serve to insulate it from disconfirming evidence.” Kornblith, Knowledge and its Place in Nature, page 118

3. “It is not simply that human beings have difficulty in determining the consistency of large sets of sentences. It is simply beyond the powers of any possible computational device… In so far as coherence requires consistency we can be sure our beliefs are not the product of mechanisms that determine coherence because such mechanisms are fundamentally impossible.” Kornblith, Knowledge and its Place in Nature, page 129

4. “The appeal to the agent’s total evidence is absolutely essential here, because the probability of a proposition cannot be determined by appeal to anything short of the totality of the agent
s evidence. But … the total evidence requirement would thereby require a reflexive grasp of the agent’s total evidence, something very far out of the reach of any agent.” Kornblith, Knowledge and its Place in Nature, page 134

5. This is not to say that only humans could reason in this way, simply that it is a function of intelligence, and it does not seem that any other animals have this capacity (although they might, you never know).



  1. Well,

    There is fundamental difference between human and animal mind, due to which humans possess ‘knowledge’ whereas animals do not. Actually ‘knowledge’ is the ‘theoretical awareness’ of any thing or phenomenon. Only humans are theoretically aware about their surrounding environment as well as about their ownselves, so only humans possess ‘knowledge’. I have discussed this issue in brief, and in quite general way, in my following essay:

    The Knowledge Explosion in the Modern Times:

    I have been quite general in this essay because I had written it for general readers. I am still writing over this issue in technical way and so this work is still in process… Anyways… I have found your blod that deserves thorough reading.

    I already had commented the same.. but I think there was some technical fault.. Your essay page was still showing no comments.. so plz do not mind if you already had seen these comments.


    Comment by khuram — September 5, 2006 @ 1:50 am

  2. But to make the statement “There is fundamental difference between human and animal mind, due to which humans possess ‘knowledge’ whereas animals do not.” begs the question, since that is the very statement we are attempting to prove or disprove. Kornblith would certainly disagree with it. I would disagree with it too, unless the fundamental difference was said to be some degree of intelligence, but there is no reason an “animal” necessarily couldn’t be intelligent; humans are just such animals.

    Comment by Peter — September 5, 2006 @ 2:11 am

  3. Yes my statement, which you have quoted, did beg the question. But the very next statement of mine was the reply to that outstanding question which could arise out of my first statement.

    If Knowledge were defined as “theoretical awareness of any thing or phenomenon” then other animals, at once, would be ousted from the domain of knowledge. And if only humans possess knowledge and animals possess no knowledge at all, then surely there must be a fundamental difference between human and animal mind, which is responsible for the fact that only humans possess knowledge whereas other animals do not.

    The conclusion of your essay, as well as reply to my comments, is the same that you and Kornblith believe in some difference in the degree of intelligence, of humans and animals. According to both of you, only such a difference in the degree of level of intelligence could account far the difference in human and animal knowledge.

    Then, according to the conclusion of your essay, knowledge is just some advanced form of same animal intelligence. But I believe in the fundamental difference between ‘intelligence’ and ‘knowledge’ too. Other animals can be intelligent for they are able to learn what they have been taught, or they are able to associate related events or things etc. But animals possess no knowledge at all because they know nothing in the theoretical format. In other words, they possess no theoretical stuff at all. So ‘knowledge’ and ‘intelligence’ are two separate and distinguished entities. Generally animal childs are more intelligent than human childs. But it is only human child who possesses the potential of acquiring ‘knowledge’. It is due to the fact that there is fundamental difference between human and animal mind. And this fundamental difference has nothing to do with the degree or level of intelligence, which humans and animals possess. The most intelligent animal would be having no knowledge at all whereas the duffer most human would still be theoretically aware, may be even in incorrect or wrong way, of at least some aspects of his environment.


    Comment by khuram — September 5, 2006 @ 7:28 am

  4. “Only humans are theoretically aware about their surrounding environment as well as about their ownselves, so only humans possess ‘knowledge’.” is no less questionable. Many, including, myself, agrue that animals are concious, and thus self-conscious, and thus aware of their environments and themselves. As for “theoretical”, well as far as I can tell there is no reason to believe that human awareness is special in this way, except by being laced by our concepts, which is a product of intelligence.

    Comment by Peter — September 5, 2006 @ 10:53 am

  5. “Many, including, myself, agrue that animals are concious, and thus self-conscious, and thus aware of their environments and themselves.”

    Mr. Peter, please reconsider your above quoted statement. I accept your right of considering my assertion as still questionable. Here you are arguing that animals are conscious. Ok I accept you’re this point also. But how do you arrive at this conclusion that animals are self-conscious too, just because they are conscious? Animals are conscious only in this sense that their instinctive faculties can interact with the environment via sense perception.

    And there is basic difference between animal perception and human perception. In animal perception, sensory data interacts only with the instinctive faculties of animals such as hunger, thirst, fear, pleasure, comfort/ discomfort etc. and animal actions are thus guided in this way.

    Human perception, on the other hand, happens to have additional features also. In human perception, sensory data would interact not only with instinctive faculties, but also would interact with some additional features which are (i) psychological feelings and; (ii) theoretical propositions. At the most which I can reasonably accept is that for determining the differences between animals and humans, any hard boundary line cannot be established between the instinctive faculties and these two additional features because practically this boundary would penetrate, up to some extent, to the area defined as ‘psychological feelings’ also. This boundary line however, in no way, reaches to the area of ‘theoretical propositions’. Animal perception therefore, may have just something to do with ‘psychological feelings’ but can have nothing to do with ‘theoretical propositions’.

    ‘Consciousness’ is basically is a manifested form of ‘sensitiveness’ and ‘responsiveness’. Only instinctive faculties, and in some cases, instinctive faculties plus fractional part of psychological feelings can generate these forms of ‘sensitiveness’ and ‘responsiveness’. ‘Self-Consciousness’, on the other hand is much-advanced feature. It is a ‘concept’ basically. This type of concept has to do only with the theoretical type knowledge. So self-consciousness is the property of only humans.

    I still firmly believe that ‘theoretical awareness’ is the unique property of humans. Secondly you are considering ‘concepts’ as product of intelligence. It is your generosity that you are giving as much honor to ‘intelligence’. As I believe that some animals can be more ‘intelligent’ than some humans and in any case whatsoever, I would like to pay more respect to humans, so I do not consider ‘concepts’ as product of ‘intelligence’. Instead, I believe concepts as the product of human ‘rationality and wisdom’. This ‘rationality and wisdom’ is comprised of only those aspects of intelligence that can interact with theoretical propositions. So these aspects of intelligence have to be the part of only human intelligence and cannot be the part of animal intelligence.


    Comment by khuram — September 5, 2006 @ 12:18 pm

  6. Hello Khurram and Peter,

    Guys, I have been reading your discussion. You both have been swimming against the tide quite well. The conflict between you guys, what I believe, is more or less revolving around the definitions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘intelligence’. You both look at those two qualities differently which is why disagreements have arised.


    Comment by Adil Memon — September 6, 2006 @ 12:07 am

  7. simply put, mankind has culture. the very essence opposed to nature. the animal in us is confined by cultural knowledge, which defines us. Animals have no such deception. animals have no religion, organised or not, and in so doing disclose their inability to phillosophise.
    So is sentience the distinction? I suspect so.

    Comment by johnant — April 3, 2007 @ 2:08 am

  8. Culture is opposed to nature…???

    Culture can be considered opposed to “animal nature”.

    Humans live cultural life because “human nature” compels them for it.

    Comment by khuram — April 7, 2007 @ 12:00 pm

  9. Animals and Human both acquire knowledge. The expansion of knowledge and thinking on information experienced is very different between anaimals and humans. Animals mostly consider knowledge that directly effect them, as in hunger and danger. Where humans are more complex as we can see today.

    Comment by ANON — April 28, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

  10. I’m surprised that with all the research that has been done on dolphins, chimps, octopuses, parrots, etc., that this issue is still being debated. Of course the issue has really moved from philosophy to science, but there are fairly clear, well documented examples of animals with self-awareness, symbolic thought, culture, compassion, etc. In addition to behavioral experiments, brain scans can reveal much. Among mammalian brains I do not believe (baring some recent discovery) that there are any structural differences; only a difference of size.

    Comment by Bruce — May 1, 2007 @ 3:39 am

  11. Confusing thing for me is that during that research, Dolphins might have attended the class-rooms of Modern Physics! Might be they also had given some presentation on some new discoveries that they recently have made in the Oceans.

    I have gone through that “scientific” research which has shown that a female elephant happend to be aware of her own forehead as she tried to touch or feel some symbol on her forehead by her trunck when she was shown a jumbo size mirror.

    Those “great” researchers might not be knowing that sparrows also become amazed before mirror and keep on hitting the mirror with beak. But since sparrows don’t have trunck, so they remain unable to show any try to feel their own body parts.

    To be “self-aware” is different from having “self-conception”. Please have a look on my article “Human Knowledge and its Expression” on my blog under the category of “Human Mind vs. Animal Mind”. My this article is actually an attempt to explain those outstanding issues which could arise out of the discussion on this page.


    Comment by khuram — May 1, 2007 @ 7:52 am

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