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Epistemology and the True vs. Metaphysics and the Real

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  • 0:01 How Do You Know?
  • 0:20 Knowledge and Truth
  • 1:51 What is Real?
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll look into some of the most important questions in philosophy: How do we know what is true? What is the nature of reality? What does it mean to exist?

How Do You Know?

I want you to convince me that you are not a robot. What will you say to help me know you're human? Can you ever know for sure that you're not a robot?

In this lesson, we'll consider this question as we explore two branches of philosophy: epistemology and metaphysics.

Knowledge and Truth

Epistemology, put simply, is the study of knowledge. In particular, epistemology focuses on how we come to acquire knowledge and what types of limits there are to our knowledge. In other words, how do we know what is true?

You might believe something that is appealing to you, but it's quite another thing to feel that you are justified in believing this. Epistemology deals with how we know that what we believe is true and justified.

Perhaps you believe that there is some intuition inside you that tells you that you are human, that you are not just a programmed computer. You might also point to your experience of the world, giving different examples of where you have more in common with a person than a machine. Most likely you would mention both your intuition and your experience to help you justify why you think you are human.

There have been philosophers who believe that your intuition that you are human is a valid form of knowledge, while others would disagree. Others believe that what is true must be determined by experience, like what can be scientifically proven.

Why is epistemology interesting to philosophers? One reason is that it helps us to more thoroughly define what is true and even question if we can know that something is definitely, absolutely true.

What Is Real?

A different branch of philosophy deals with a related question: What is real? The study of reality is known as metaphysics. It focuses on determining what, if anything, can be said to be real.

At this point, you might wonder whether there is really a difference between what is true and what is real. In philosophy, the terms do mean different things, even though we use them interchangeably in everyday life. What is true has to do with what beliefs we can justify, while what is real is about all of existence.

A question related to metaphysics and what is real is: What is the nature of being? Let's use an example of robots again to help you make this question more concrete. We'll imagine that today you discovered that you are indeed a highly advanced robot with a manufactured, human-like body. You have obtained your identity from that of the memories of an actual human being. In this case, are you still that human being, even given these changes? What defines a person's identity and existence? Are you still you if you have consciousness and memories of your former self?

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