In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates makes a distinction between knowledge and true opinion. The distinction, he says, is that true opinion is accidental — whereas knowledge is opinion tethered by reason.

What’s the difference, you ask? And why does it matter? And how many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?

I have no answer for the last question; however, I can offer my knowledge of the first two.

Consider two people:

  1. A consummate guesser, skilled at rolling the dice, who guesses the correct number on the first try and who acts utterly confident in his opinion.
  2. A typical digital denizen who he has digitalized his mind and offloaded much of the burden of remembering information to the internet. When we ask questions like, “How many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?” He’s able to immediately access that information with a quick Google search. Ah ha! He’s found the answer and says, “Now I know.”

Who is superior? We would say, probably, the second person — he has knowledge of the fact of the matter whereas the first person has at best an opinion and at worst a correct guess.

But suppose another person comes along and says, “Mr. Digital Denizen: can you explain to me why you believe that the night rainbow has that many shades of color? Why should I believe you?” Suppose, too, he went to the consummate guesser and asked the same question. Who would have an answer? Suppose, too, that this person is a clever person, fully capable of making an argument against the number that the two give. Don’t you suppose that they would be frustrated and confused?1

That’s because, as far as Socrates would be concerned, both of them have nothing but true opinion — it just so happens that their knowledge is correct but they have no idea why it is correct. And when we don’t know why something is correct, we lack the ability to defend the truth — even if we have it.

Socrates, on the other hand, defined knowledge as true opinion tethered by reason. Beliefs are like balloons; they often float away and, when challenged, make our voices squeak and pop like a chipmunk.2 What is the reason for Socrates? That’s an entirely different beast for an entirely different time — but it seems to have something to do with connecting known objects of knowledge together in ways that produce clear, distinct, and consistent conclusions.

So why does it matter? It doesn’t unless you like to be the kind of person who is tricked into believing that there are more or less colors in a night rainbow than there actually are. But if you want to want to stay grounded and tethered to the truth, put down your cell phone: memorize facts and figures and know the arguments, not simply the conclusions.

  1. I had a friend like this, who once spent several hours stubbornly claiming — in all confidence — that there were 364 days in a year in order to frustrate me.
  2. Socrates used a much more interesting metaphor. There once was a man named Daedalus who created statues with such skill that people thought they needed to be tied to the ground — lest they run away. Also, to be clear, I’m referring to a chipmunk’s voice. I am not referring to an exploding chipmunk.