Friday, October 26, 2012

Is knowledge a form of justified true belief?

To: Graham C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is knowledge a form of justified true belief?
Date: 24th October 2008

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 14 October with your University of London Epistemology essay, in response to the question, 'How should one respond to apparent counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief?'

I don't need to tell you that this is an excellent piece of work, and I can well understand how it took you a considerable length of time to write.

I have problems with this question. As a matter of principle, I don't look at the examiners' reports, so I may be being over-picky here. But to me, 'the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief' is consistent with the view that knowledge is justified true belief which meets some further condition, e.g. Goldman's. However, the question asked for your response to counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief. If knowledge is a form of justified true belief, then justified true belief is necessary for knowledge. Nothing has been said about sufficiency. Gettier's examples are intended as a counterexample to the view that justified true belief is sufficient for knowledge.

If I'm right, then a picky examiner will simply draw a line through all the stuff about Gettier and Goldman.

However, you have picked up on what I see as the main point of the question: which is looking for a general response to all apparent counterexamples, in the form of a strategy for 'having one's cake and eating it', that is to say, accepting that (maybe) a lot of the time, knowledge is justified true belief, but there are also correctly described cases of 'knowledge' which don't meet this definition: so much worse for the philosopher's attempts at strict definitions in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Which leaves a puzzle: why are we doing this, anyway?

The apparent counterexamples to the necessity of belief provide a good way to explore this question. As you show, from one point of view the nervous schoolboy certainly knows his stuff. The cheat, who knows this, knows that his answers are correct, and therefore she knows the answers.

One point to make here is that an examination is a peculiar setup which does not normally occur in everyday life. I've walked out of an exam before (a maths exam which I hadn't prepared for), but generally the rule which most examinees follow is, 'Give each answer your best shot even if you're not sure: you might be lucky.' (On second thoughts, this probably wouldn't work for maths.)

The schoolboy is giving it his best shot. But out there in the real world, there are serious choices to make and someone who acts without knowledge can end up in a ditch, or in hospital. Do you take the pills from the pill bottle with the missing label? If there is room for doubt -- even if, from an observer's point of view, it is pathological doubt -- aren't you taking an unacceptable risk? How can you 'know' if the state of your belief is such that it is risky to act?

Another thing you could have talked about in the essay are whether justification is needed for knowledge and the whole issue of reliabilism as well as externalist alternatives to the traditional, internalist concept of 'justification'.

Which brings us to the main part of the debate. You remind the reader of the things that are usually said at this point: about Wittgenstein's notion of 'family resemblances', suspicions about answers which are pitched at 'too high a level of generality', Russell's warning about knowledge 'not being a precise notion', etc. But we still have the basic question, What is knowledge?

Do you have to be a sceptic (of any variety) in order to question the value or importance of the concept of knowledge? In the real world, when we argue and debate, or investigate the world and form theories about it, the question at issue is, most of the time, 'Is this true?' rather than 'Do we know?' There is more point in raising the question of knowledge about *someone else*, on the assumption that we are sufficiently satisfied that the proposition in question is true. Do they know?

Putting the question this way, emphasizes that there is something worth investigating about another subject's cognitive relation to the world. Their state of certainty is one issue, which affects the way they will behave in different possible situations. Their state of knowledge, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Whether they 'know' or not turns on our assessment of their potential usefulness as a source of information about the world. It is a question, not of how the world appears from their point of view (belief and certainty) but rather how they and the world conspired to put them into this state in the first place, how the facts whatever they may be express themselves through them.

Or something along those lines.

Towards the end of 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein muses that the use of a piece of notation is not just governed by more or less arbitrary rules: 'So I am inclined to distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a game too. The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point.' (564)

I would argue that asking about the point of knowledge is a different way of approaching the question from the traditional 'necessary and sufficient conditions' view. Yet it is still connected with the idea of definition. It is still worth while proposing definitions and considering counterexamples, provided that we don't forget what these definitions are 'for'.

All the best,