Calculators: Knowledge-Producing Machines



Recently, my brother and I have been somewhat interested in how non-philosophers, specifically business scholars (if you will) and science students approach philosophical problems. Yesterday, we were at boxing practice, and Hui decided to ask about the topic discussed in our 400-level philosophy class. True: a meeting for pugilists is not the most likely place to engage in philosophical discourse, but better yesterday than tomorrow.


The question posed: A calculator shows the equation ‘2+2=4’. Can I now say that I know ‘2+2=4’, or in other words, the composition of 4?

I’d like to give you three accounts of the solution to the question. Perhaps, you’ll find it fun to see how others answer the question.


The Biology Major. He said that the composition of 4 cannot be known because there is an uncertainty in the calculator’s purport (presumably based on the idea of that there is always a probability of failure, in this case, in the calculator). And knowing something does not allow for uncertainty.

The Mathematics Major. She said a proof would be the only way of knowing whether 2+2=4 presumably because the calculator derives its purport from the proof and the theoretical (a priori) evaluation cannot be proven wrong.

The Police Officer. He said that he has no problem knowing the composition of 4 from the calculator because whatever makes ‘2+2=4’ known, whether it be a proof or experimentation, also makes the calculator’s purport known.

In retrospect, I believe all these responses characterize their major and occupation. This is not to say that the criteria for knowledge is relative or also that these accounts are incompatible. Both Hui and I are just surprised and humored at how others approach the question. As for our pick, surprisingly enough, we like the police officer’s austerity in reasoning and preservation of truth.

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Le Ho

I am currently a law student at the University of North Carolina Law School. As an undergraduate, I boxed for Carolina and earned its first men's national championship title.

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