Friday, June 28, 2013

Knowledge, justified true belief and self-justifying beliefs

To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge, justified true belief and self-justifying beliefs
Date: 1st April 2010 11:27

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your email of 2 March, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'How should one respond to apparent counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief?', and your email of 29 March, with your essay in response to the question, 'In order to amount to knowledge a belief must be justified. So, unless some beliefs are self-justifying, there is no knowledge.' Discuss.

Counterexamples to knowledge as justified true belief

Recent discussions of epistemology have been dominated by the Gettier problem: in fact one could say that Gettier's 'paradox' defines the task for the contemporary epistemologist.

The question asks, 'how should one respond', and I take this to mean that the examiner is looking to you to make a case for your favoured solution, against alternative solutions.

In your discussion of Gettier, you mention two key points: the cases where justified true beliefs fail to be knowledge are all cases where the justification includes a false belief, and/ or where it is a mere accident that P is true relative to the justification for P.

According to your reading of these requirements (or this joint requirement) we are ineluctably drawn towards scepticism. My justification for believing that P can be ever so good, or ever so persuasive. Yet there is still a chance that I have made some false assumption somewhere. Even if P is true, it does not follow that I know that P, because it is still possible that the truth of P is an accident relative to my justification for believing that P.

However, it is important to distinguish the challenge of traditional scepticism from the kind of scepticism which potentially arises out of the Gettier paradox. The starting assumption is that there is lots of knowledge around. One does not require infallible justification. All we ask is that the justification is sufficient to give us the 'right to be sure' of P. I am right to be sure of the truth that I haven't won the lottery this week, as I checked the numbers on the TV. However, if I had checked the numbers and discovered that I had won the lottery, I would not feel that I had the right to be sure until I had double-checked, and checked again. This is perfectly rational behaviour.

So, I check the numbers, discover I haven't won, and moreover my belief that I haven't won is in fact true. So I know I haven't won. The problem is, if you try to apply extra conditions -- like 'no false assumptions' -- in order to meet the Gettier challenge, you get pushed right back into scepticism. In other words, having seemingly resisted the traditional argument for scepticism, we are forced back to a sceptical conclusion by the Gettier paradox. The revised definition of knowledge is such that we can never be fully satisfied that the required conditions are fulfilled.

Some would think that this is not a very satisfactory conclusion. However, you are perfectly entitled to defend your view, if this is what you believe. The essay would make a stronger case, however, if you considered alternative approaches offered by the various 'externalist' accounts of knowledge such as reliabilism, or Nozick's account of knowledge in terms of 'tracking truth'.

In terms of length, if you can achieve something like this in the exam, you would be doing reasonably well. 800-1000 words is a good target to aim for.

Self-justifying beliefs

In your essay, you focus on the foundationalist view, according to which some beliefs are indeed self-justifying, and therefore capable of being used to justify those beliefs which are not self-justifying.

A full answer to this question would have to consider the challenge which a coherentist about knowledge would mount to this argument. According to the coherence theory of knowledge, there can be knowledge even though no beliefs are self-justifying, because beliefs form a stable network where beliefs are mutually justifying. What, if anything, do you think is wrong with that idea? At the very least, you need to state why you are ruling out the coherentist response.

What exactly is the foundationalist committed to? You refer to Bertrand Russell, who held that the foundations of our knowledge of the external world are propositions about sense data. (See e.g. Russell's lectures on Logical Atomism.) However, you don't mention this, instead referring to Russell's claim that 'a theory of truth must be such as to admit its opposite, falsehood.' I am not quite sure of the significance of this point here. My beliefs about my own sense data are certain, immune from doubt, incapable of being false. That's just what makes them suitable as foundations for knowledge. Isn't it?

But what kind of 'truth' can this be, if a belief about sense data cannot, in principle be false? It would be like shooting an arrow at a target, where the target is attached to your arrow. You can't miss. But if you can't miss the target, you can't 'hit' it either. Clearly, Russell did not seriously consider this point, as a potential objection: if he had, he would have been led to reject the sense datum theory. (The argument I have just given is, in effect, a version of Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language.)

Wittgenstein, in his later work 'On Certainty' makes a powerful case that certain basic propositions do not need justification, even though, unlike alleged propositions about sense data, we can conceive of, or imagine their being false. He argued that to merely imagine that a belief might be false is not yet to 'doubt' its truth in any meaningful sense. I can imagine that a yawning chasm has opened up just behind my chair. But as I get up and turn to cross the room I do not entertain the slightest notion that there is any danger of falling down into a bottomless pit. I know without looking that the floor is safe to walk on.

In the 'Philosophical Investigations', in response to a sceptic who asks, 'If you are certain aren't you merely shutting your eyes to doubt?' Wittgenstein responds, simply, 'They are shut.'

Wittgenstein's view supports a modified (non-Cartesian, non-Russellian) foundationalism. We do justify beliefs by other beliefs. But some beliefs do not require justification, because they are like the hinges on which our view of the world around us turns. Wholesale questioning of our basic beliefs is out of the question. Our eyes are indeed shut.

At the end of your essay, you introduce a new idea, from Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Perception'. In the argument which you quote, Hegel adds that it would be like 'trying to catch a bird with a lime twig...surely the bird would laugh our ruse to scorn'. (I assume Hegel is referring to some old-wives tale.) I am prepared to buy the idea that this connects to the later Wittgenstein's view that basic beliefs can be justified without requiring justification by other beliefs. However, you don't really spell this out sufficiently to make the case. I would have liked to have seen a few more words on this particular point.

All the best,

Geoffrey