Portrait Katalin Farkas
Philosopher Katalin Farkas’ research focuses on key questions about knowledge, truth, and their social functions. © private

The nature of knowledge itself is a central question that has occupied philosophers to this day. What is your definition?

Katalin Farkas: Knowledge is a non-accidental relationship to a true fact. The leading idea is to gain possession of the truth. There is truth and there is falsity and they are different. In other words, knowledge aims at grasping the truth in a non-accidental way. So a lucky guess that happens to be true is not knowledge. Whether or not you are in possession of the truth depends on how you form your belief.

How do you find the non-accidental way to knowledge?

Farkas: Philosophy distinguishes between various routes to knowledge, like the use of reason, empirical observation, or through the testimony of other people. The latter is a very important and growing area of research, which reflects on the fact that gaining knowledge is a social enterprise. Much of what we know we have learned from others.

So we have to rely on other people when getting information?

Farkas: In order to understand knowledge, we have to look at the function of the concept of knowledge. For example, every human language has a word for “know.” It shows that the concept of knowledge is employed by all human cultures. And already very early on in human communities, people realized that they alone cannot know everything but have to rely on others. Attributing knowledge to others is a way to flag reliable sources of information. Now more than ever, no individual is capable of accumulating all the knowledge that there is. We rely on others in almost everything that we do or use.

You are currently working on a publication entitled “The Unity of Knowledge.” What is the book about?

There are various ways in which people try to cognitively engage with the world and one is by gaining knowledge. Knowledge is definitely a very important form of human cognitive achievement. In this book, I argue that everything that deserves the term knowledge is in a non-accidental relationship to the truth. You know something, when you know a lot of truth (facts) about it.

Personal details

The philosopher Katalin Farkas has been teaching and conducting research at the Central European University (CEU) since 2000, where she heads the Department of Philosophy. Her research focus is the philosophy of mind and epistemology.

In recent years she has written a number of papers on the nature of knowledge. Currently Farkas is working on a book entitled “The Unity of Knowledge.” Between 2020 and 2023, she was the first woman president of the European Society for Analytic Philosophy.

“People choose to believe what is convenient to believe.” Katalin Farkas

The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously said: All men by nature desire to know. Do you agree?

Farkas: I’m not sure whether people are so interested in the truth. It seems to be much more comfortable to believe falsehoods that match with people’s self-image and cherished opinions. I think this has always been the same throughout human history: The fact that people choose to believe what is convenient to believe. So these questions about knowledge haven’t changed much since Aristotle. But there are other questions about knowledge that are specifically brought up by technology.

Which ones?

Farkas: One aspect of my research is whether you can have part of your knowledge parked in an information repository. If someone asks me if I know my brother’s phone number, I answer of course, because it is stored on my mobile phone. So we can say we know things, even though we don’t know them by heart, as we have reliable and trustworthy access to the information. As an educator at a university, where knowledge transfer is a key element of our work, this is especially of interest to me. If you can convey knowledge not just by making students learn everything by heart, but if it is a genuine form of knowledge, parts of it stored in a repository, consequently the nature of teaching has to change to some extent.

For example, at our university, legal students study case law – they have to remember legal cases which are precedents for a current legal trial. It used to be that they had to learn these things by heart. Nowadays this seems to be completely pointless. So what they have to know is how to look, where to look, and what to look for. They have to understand the connections and the content. Which means that we have to teach these concepts, and that is still knowledge.

What about artificial intelligence and the release of ChatGPT, which caused a lot of discussion? It seems to be becoming increasingly difficult to trace where technology is getting its “knowledge” from.

Farkas: ChatGPT is very different from other AI programs designed to harvest information from a database. For example, AI is used in the American legal system to see if people can be released on bail when they are facing a trial. If you feed in the person’s history and record, the program can calculate their flight risk before trial. Diagnostic AI tools in medicine are also really helpful for professionals in the health system.

However, what doesn’t seem to have an artificial counterpart so far, is what is called general intelligence for human beings, which is not something that has a specific goal. Human beings’ ability to use their reasoning and mind for whatever purpose comes up is an incredibly important feature of human thinking which hasn’t been mimicked artificially yet. As far as I know, there is nothing even close.

“ChatGPT doesn’t convey any knowledge because it is not designed to.” Katalin Farkas

How can ChatGPT support us in a meaningful way?

Farkas: This language model is an interesting experiment on whether AI can mimic a human conversation or human way of speaking, and it’s fantastic at that. But the conversation that it gives you is totally random. ChatGPT doesn’t convey any knowledge because it is not designed to. It has no respect for the facts at all! If you ask ChatGPT to write a philosophical paper about a certain topic and you ask it to provide references, it will give you fake references that consist of the names of people who publish in that field, a plausible-sounding title, and the name of a journal in the field. The point is, the whole thing is non-existent.

However, digital technologies and virtual realities permeate our everyday life. What does this do to our perception of self, subject, or ego when the boundaries between the real and artificial world dissolve?

Farkas: That is a very important question. To a large extent, this will have to be answered by empirical research, in order to see how people are affected by these changes. Still, I think philosophy has something to say about this, too. There is a philosophical concept that sees a very big difference between us meeting in real life or virtually. This has been underestimated throughout the early period of Western philosophy because of Descartes’ influence. The corrective to that is called embodied interaction, i.e. the mind is not just in the head, but in the real material world, which makes face-to-face interaction so important. It is a very fundamental aspect of being human.

“Face-to-face interaction is a fundamental aspect of being human.” Katalin Farkas

In cooperation with several universities, you will be investigating “knowledge in crisis” over the next few years. What is the thesis behind the project?

Farkas: The title has this double meaning. Knowledge itself is in crisis because of the enormous decrease of trust in certain sources of information. Levels of trust in science, in politicians, and in news have dropped – but at the same time, we see an unlimited trust in opinions shared on social media. So knowledge itself is in crisis. At the same time, we are in a crisis because of climate change, pandemics, war, and so forth. That means we need knowledge more than ever. This is the starting point for the project.

What is the goal of this large-scale project?

Farkas: We are going to investigate the philosophical conceptual questions that lie behind various aspects of this crisis. The project tries to bring together different areas of philosophy in a quite unprecedented way. It involves not just epistemology, the area of philosophy that normally deals with knowledge, but also political and moral philosophy, philosophy of technology and metaphysics, philosophy of language, and of education. All areas of philosophy will be trying to contribute to understanding what is happening.

“We want to analyze what happens exactly when people lose the faith in facts.” Katalin Farkas

So the project will try to answer the question of why skepticism and the loss of trust in facts are on the rise?

Farkas: The answer to this is going to be very complex and to a large extent will have to be looked at by social scientists and historians, economists, and people from other disciplines. The way we are trying to contribute to this is by analyzing what happens exactly when people lose this faith. One part of the project, for example, deals with what happens when people are skeptical about the notion of truth. When I say to people outside philosophy that knowledge is a grasp of truth, often the reaction I get is: How do you know what truth is? People argue that truth is relative. They have the feeling that it is a kind of imperialist and oppressive attitude to say that there is one truth. At the same time, people do not question truth when they are putting forward their individual beliefs. So, one part of the project is trying to understand how this is possible.

And how we can counteract that notion?

Farkas: Yes, that’s a very important element, one that we have to consider in the educational context, i.e. how we transfer knowledge, given that knowledge itself has changed. Part of our project therefore focuses on concrete activities, like contributing to high school curricula and supporting critical thinking in early school education. We also plan to develop adult education courses. A possible topic of interest here is the advantages and challenges of AI. So educational outreach is a very important part.

We also will be organizing public events in all of the four cities where the project is based. Our experience is that people are very interested in philosophy if it is formulated in the right way. We do believe in the spirit of the Vienna Circle, that research is going to be the best way to solve the crisis we face, and this is what we are trying to contribute to: How scientists can better reach the public, politicians, and decision makers and make a difference.

Katalin Farkas is a board member of the Cluster of Excellence “Knowledge in Crisis,” funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) ant the participating research institutions. As of 2023, the CEU and the universities of Vienna, Graz, and Salzburg will be cooperating in this research network. The large-scale project is endowed with €14.9 million for a period of five years.