Friday, July 27, 2012

Is justified true belief the same as knowledge?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is justified true belief the same as knowledge?
Date: 29 January 2008 13:26

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 January, with your University of London Epistemology essay written under examination conditions, in response to the question, 'Can you have a justified true belief that you are sitting an exam without knowing that you are sitting an exam? What consequences does your answer have for the analysis of knowledge?'

I am amazed that you hand wrote over 2000 words in an hour. I have been telling my UoL students that they are doing well if they can write 1000 words! In fact, I would go further and state that I 'knew' that it was impossible to write 2000 words.

(Mmm... that's two seconds a word. Thinking about it in those terms, I guess it can be done. But I've never taken the trouble to think about it in those terms.)

You give a great deal in this answer, which should earn you a good mark.

I have to say, however, that imagining myself in the position of an examiner, I would assume from the length and coherence of the essay that a large part of this was memorized. In fact everything from two thirds the way down on page 2 to the end of the essay could be plugged in to any number of similar questions.

My strong impression is that examiners don't *like* memorized answers. However, you will only be scored down on the basis of irrelevance. In other words, if, by purest chance, the portion that you memorized precisely fits the question, then you should not lose any marks.

As a revision strategy, however, I tend to advise my UoL students against this approach. It is better to stay loose and be 'prepared for anything'. The student who has not memorized stands a better chance with a question which has an odd dink or twist, than one who has. But that's my view. It could be argued that it is up to the examiners to devise questions which can't be answered by a pre-memorized essay.

Another point in favour of the non-memorizing approach is that an examiner can see that you are thinking on your feet and will give you allowances for infelicities of expression, or even wrong turns in the argument.

You do tackle the particular example, the 'belief that you are sitting an exam' and this is a plus. It would have added to the credibility of your answer -- as a live answer rather than pre-memorized -- if you had managed to keep the exam example going the rest of the essay, using it as the peg on which to hang the various offered solutions.

I like your conclusion, which adds significant depth to the standard Wittgensteinian 'family resemblances' point. In this connection, you might find it useful to look at a paper by Colin Radford, 'Knowledge: By Examples' which I recall is on a similar theme. Radford's point is that our concept of knowledge is determined by the paradigm cases of knowledge -- and this plugs nicely into the idea that there are various paradigms because the concept of knowledge does the kind of work that you describe.

About your Gettier example. The question says, 'belief that you are sitting an exam' and your point (I take it) is that in order to 'sit an exam' you have to sit the right exam. To sit down at a desk in a room where other people are sitting an exam, and write answers to the questions in the exam paper, is not to sit THAT exam, because you are not registered for that exam, nor (obviously) is it to sit the exam you did register for. Therefore you are not 'sitting' ANY exam. (It is irrelevancy that the exam you barged in on is a mock exam.)

I wonder whether this answer was in the examiner's mind. I have the suspicion that the examiner might have been thinking along the lines of 'Can you have a justified true belief that you are sitting at a desk writing an essay without knowing that you are sitting at a desk writing an essay?'

At least, it would have been worth making this point, and examining what the consequences would be for your answer. The only way (it seems) that you can have the justified true belief that you are sitting at a desk etc. and not know that you are sitting at a desk etc. is if there really is a possibility that you are not sitting at a desk etc. Examining this would lead to questions of the 'brain in a vat' or 'evil scientist' variety.

Or, maybe there could be a non-sci-fi case built around the scenario of someone who has very vivid exam dreams (I'm thinking on my feet now). The night AFTER the exam, you have your first vivid exam dream. When you wake up, it occurs to you that the dream was SO real that HAD you been dreaming that you were sitting at a desk etc. when you thought you really were sitting at a desk etc. you wouldn't have been able to tell the difference...?

Why doesn't that work? Or does it?

Imagining myself as the examiner, if I had a script to mark where the candidate was wrestling with this question -- even if it ultimately led nowhere -- I would give a lot of credit for trying, possibly more than simply for writing a model answer on 'responses to the Gettier problem'.

All the best,

Geoffrey