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’10 Questions’ series looks at moral truth and the creation of knowledge

Victoria Marks (left), the associate dean of academic affairs at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, moderated the second week of the “10 Questions” lecture series. This week, UCLA faculty tackled the question, “What is Knowledge?” (Courtesy of UCLA Arts)

By Megan Son

October 10, 2019 12:22 am

UCLA faculty from the humanities, arts and life sciences answered the question, “What is knowledge?” Tuesday at the second lecture of a 10-week series.

Tyler Burge, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, said he thinks knowledge exists in many forms including common sense, scientific knowledge and historical knowledge, and should not be considered as a single, unified concept.

“I think it’s very important to be a pluralist about knowledge,” Burge said, “I’m much more fascinated with differences in types of knowledge.”

Burge was one of three panelists at the lecture, which was hosted by Victoria Marks, associate dean of academic affairs at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

This year’s “10 Questions” series is one of the UCLA Centennial Campaign’s events. It was sponsored by the Centennial Committee, the School of the Arts and Architecture and a grant from UCLA’s Interdisciplinary and Cross Campus Affairs, Marks said in an email statement.

Burge said he thinks moral knowledge is often underrated as a form of knowledge. While morality can be considered subjective in some senses, there are certainly some indisputable moral truths like the unethical nature of torture and slavery, he added.

Shane Campbell-Staton, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, said knowledge is always an incremental building on an existing foundation rather than a genuine unique discovery, and illustrated this through his research with elephants.

Campbell-Staton found that a lack of tusks in elephants is an X chromosome-linked trait that causes death in males before birth, leading to the prediction that two out of three offspring born to tuskless female elephants are female offspring, which served as an incremental increase in knowledge about genetic inheritance.

Campbell-Staton added the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment can help reveal the relationship between quantitative and abstract knowledge, as the abstract concept allows us to understand quantitative data. Schrödinger’s cat is a hypothetical experiment in which one would not know whether a cat placed in a box with poison released at a random point in time was dead or alive.

Sylvan Oswald, an assistant professor in the Department of Theater, read an excerpt of his piece about an insomniac searching for his estranged brother to illustrate the way that art does not fundamentally seek to produce knowledge, but can often generate knowledge as a byproduct.

Oswald added he wrote a play during college and felt a strong impulse that the male character be portrayed by a female actor. Oswald did not know at the time why he was so insistent on the detail, but later realized it was a manifestation of his own suppressed transgender identity.

Students enrolled in the class accompanying the public lecture series attend a workshop before the public lecture hosted by one of the faculty members answering the question of the week. Sylvan Oswald, an assistant professor in the theater department lead this week's workshop. (Courtesy of UCLA Arts)

“It’s a great example of how the subconscious can know more than the conscious,” Oswald said.

Campbell-Staton added it is remarkable how much the unconscious can understand, referring to the way humans react to a roar in the woods.

“There are aspects of our basal consciousness that are much older and much wiser (than other parts of our brain),” Campbell-Staton said. “If you heard a roar, you’d probably be scared. … You don’t know why but you’re doing it.”

Aya McGlothlin, a recent UCLA graduate who attended the talk, said she liked the seminar-style structure of the event and how the panelists discussed the many different definitions of knowledge.

“(The definitions) act as operant definitions, but they are all truth,” McGlothlin said.

Paul McGlothlin, a UCLA alumnus who attended the talk, said he thinks the event changed his perspective on the concept of knowledge.

“I think whenever anybody poses a really good question, it causes you to think differently,” Paul McGlothlin said.

The next lecture in the series, “What is justice?” will take place Tuesday in Kaufman Hall.

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Megan Son
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