Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Gettier Problem

In an earlier post titled Externalism I linked to an article by Gettier that has shaped epistemology for the past number of decades.  Here I’m going to discuss it and suggest how keeping in mind the distinction between truth and meaning can avoid the Gettier problem.

I was told in graduate school that the only thing philosophy has proven is that knowledge is not true justified belief.  This is due to Gettier’s article.  In that short article he gave examples that cumulated in a person having a true justified belief but not knowledge.  The past 50 years have involved trying to figure out what else is required to have knowledge.  I believe that if we understand justification and meaning then we can keep the definition at “true, justified belief.”

Gettier examples are like the following:

Hank knows that he has seven coins in his pocket, and is told by his boss that he will get the promotion that day.  Hank concludes that the person with seven coins in his pocket will get the promotion.  In fact, Bob gets the promotion, and it happens that Bob has seven coins in his pocket.  So Hank had a true belief, (the person with seven coins in his pocket will get the promotion), and he had justification (his boss told him so), but did he have knowledge?  It doesn’t seem so.

I believe there are two problems here.  One is that the justification spoken of is weak justification, in this case testimony.   The boss was evidently wrong.  His testimony is weak justification and did not count to provide knowledge.  Strong justification is justification that leaves no possibility for error.

Second, Hank’s belief is “the person with seven coins in his pocket will get the promotion.”  By “the person” he doesn’t mean just anyone, he means Hank.  Therefore, if we translate this it becomes “Hank, who has seven coins in his pocket, will get the promotion.”  This is not true. 

Hank has neither a true belief, nor justification. 

One reason for objecting to the idea of strong justification is that the implication is knowledge is rare.  The masses, when they say “here is my hand,” may not have knowledge.  When pressed, they cannot give justification for this belief besides a simple appeal to sense data. 

It is true that we do not require strong justification in all areas of life and for all beliefs.  However, I do believe that as the consequences get higher, we do expect higher levels of justification.  The highest consequences require the highest levels of justification, they require certainty.

Is it surprising, however, that many people do not know much?  I often begin a class by asking my students what they know, and after a few initial attempts based on sense impression or memory, they concede they don’t know anything but only have opinions.  While I believe that anyone who can form beliefs can also have knowledge, I don’t think it necessarily follows that knowledge is common.  Indeed, I’d be willing to grant that no one seeks and no one understands. This is contrary to the Modern assumption that people are basically good, and that common sense is knowledge.  Common sense breaks down quickly in the face of Socratic questioning.


1 comment:

  1. ha! the Hank and Bob thing was thrown at me in my philosophy 101 class a couple years ago. though i never thought critically about it and seemed to have forgotten it. but it is out of weak justification. good point about it being a testimonial justification that Hank held.

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