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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Epistemology and Quasi-Gettier Considerations

"And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing."
1 Corinthians 13:2

In discussions over what constitutes knowledge there are some obvious axioms that have occurred to my mind. For instance, a person can know only that which is true. Furthermore, for something to be known it must be believed.  Although true belief is necessary for knowledge, with little effort it can been seen that it is not sufficient for knowledge to entail.  An example might prove useful. Say someone held the true belief that the President of the United States for most of the 1980’s had the initials R.R. yet thought him to have been Roy Rogers (and not Ronald Reagan). The belief would correspond to the truth merely by coincidence thereby not qualifying as knowledge.  But can such a belief be justified? Imagine, for instance, that the true belief was held by the child of a truthful parent who had in undetected jest told the child that Roy Rogers was the 40th president. In such an instance the child having not detected, say, a rare moment of dry wit in his parent could have been justified in believing that the 40th president was Roy Rogers and, therefore, had the initials R.R. After all, it’s not so strange that an American cowboy actor born in the Midwest in 1911 and dying in California (which is true of both R.R.s) could become President of the United States.
Maybe we should consider a scenario that includes a true belief that is less controversial with respect to its justification – a belief that would be warranted for an intelligent adult. By looking at a clock on the wall one can believe it is noon when actually it is noon, but what if the clock had stopped running at exactly midnight the night before? The true belief that it was noon would be justified, but would such a belief constitute knowledge? It seems rather intuitive that such a true belief would not constitute knowledge given the faulty clock. Accordingly, we must distinguish (a) a person being justified in believing a proposition from (b) the justification of the proposition itself. In other words, it can be most rational and even incumbent upon a person to believe a proposition (entailing justified belief) even though that which should be believed is not verified let alone true (entailing lack of justification for the proposition itself).

Certainly in the pursuit of defining the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge we may properly include in the mix a condition that would prohibit a justification that entails false beliefs, like believing the clock is working when it is not. Not only must the person be justified in his true belief, there can be no existing true proposition (e.g. the clock is broken) that if known would undermine the person’s reliance upon reasons for the belief. After all, if such were not the case – if one actually can know the time based upon a broken clock, then upon learning the clock is broken one would lose his justification for his belief and thereby any knowledge he was thought to have had. Therefore, we must maintain that a robust theory of knowledge cannot make room for a loss of knowledge due to at least some type or classification of acquired truth. Succinctly, one cannot know p if there exists at least some class of undermining evidence that if acquired would result in a loss of justification for the belief.  In such cases, that which defeats the justification for knowledge is not a believed proposition (that is internal to the subject) but rather an existing one that is external to the mind. What sort of existing propositions that would qualify as a type or class that would undermine knowledge needs further examination.

Feasibility of an undermining proposition
Now what if the clock was not broken? If the clock was not broken, then the conditions for knowledge that would be met are justified true belief (JTB) plus no existing propositional defeater of the justification. The question that immediately comes to my mind is whether the possibility of a broken clock should come into play. In order to have knowledge that it is twelve noon must the believer have positive verification of the accurate workings of the clock in question (as opposed to clocks in general), or is the mere absence of an existing defeater proposition (as opposed to the potential of one existing) enough for knowledge to obtain?  Should the possibility of the clock being broken, even when it’s not broken, be enough to relegate such  JTB to something less thank knowledge? In other words, must the defeater actually exist or can it feasibly exist in order to undermine one’s knowledge of the time?

For argument sake, let’s call such true belief “knowledge” when the clock is functioning properly. Without having verified the clock the person’s justification for his true belief of the time would be the same whether the clock was broken or not. Accordingly, when the clock is functioning properly the certainty of the time is no greater than when the time is not known (due to a faulty clock) yet possibly thought to be known. Accordingly, to tag such a non-defeated JTB as “knowledge” is not to be less skeptical than one who wouldn’t do so, but rather it is to define knowledge more inclusively. (It is often charged that not to call such inferences knowledge is to consign oneself to skepticism.)

Under such terms one can know the time while rationally believing that the time might not be known let alone true. In other words, the person could know the time while also believing with the utmost consistency within such an epistemic framework that the time could be other than what is believed. Such need not be the case with other sorts of knowledge, like knowledge of Scripture propositions for instance. It is not incumbent upon the subject to rationally question whether what is known from Scripture is actually true for the Holy Spirit provides the warrant for such true beliefs. But where "knowledge" is attainable without having positive verification of the source, then it is most rational to believe that something might be false yet while knowing it is true.

Given a functioning clock, what if there existed a publication of accurate statistical evidence unrealized by the subject that clocks made by that particular manufacturer were faulty most of the time? Would such existing evidence be a defeater? The question presents no problem to one who would consider the mere possibility of a faulty clock as undermining the possibility of knowledge. It does, however, pertain to one with a more inclusive understanding of knowledge. Can one know the time because of a lack of relevant evidence that most clocks from the manufacturer are not reliable?

It would seem somewhat intuitive that one would not be justified in believing the time if he also believed the true proposition that most of the clocks from the manufacturer were faulty. It is widely held by those with a more inclusive view of knowledge that such known statistics, even when not known by all, would undermine knowledge in such instances for all people, even for those who were ignorant of the statistic.  (see: Alvin Goldman, fake barns)

A problem with such probability?

Now of course probability is useful because mere humans cannot capture all the causal factors that go into any event. Notwithstanding, whether a clock will function or not is a binary consideration – it either will or it won’t. Whether it functions or not is causally determined and if we could know all the determining factors then we could know with a probability of 100% the outcome with nothing left to chance. Given that it is impossible that a functioning clock would not have functioned (due to causal necessity), the obvious (or not so obvious) question is whether an unknown, unpublished statistical probability of a particular functioning clock (which proves to be 100% by the nature of the case) should override  statistically rational inference about any given particular clock that is drawn from a lot of many clocks that yields less than a 50% success rate. Indeed, Jones would not be justified in believing it is twelve noon if he were also to believe most clocks from this manufacturer are defective. That Jones happened to look at a functioning clock would be a matter of chance. Yet if the clock was working properly then there exists some statistical affirmation that the particular clock would necessarily have worked properly. Would the existence of such a true statistic about a particular clock override another true statistic that reported most clocks from the manufacturer were faulty?

It seems to me that most that hold to an inclusive view of knowledge would negate the possibility of knowledge obtaining through the means of a functioning clock manufactured by a disfunctional manufacturer. The reason being that had the subject known about the manufacturer he would not be rationally justified in believing the time based upon such a clock. But if we're talking about statistics not known by the subject-knower, then why is the manufacturer's track record for clocks more relevant than the statistics pertaining to the particular, functioning clock in question? Maybe that clock was made during a shift where the clocks never have failed. Again, if the clock works properly then there exists, whether known or not, some statistical reflection of that reality. Again, this presents no problem for those who have a less inclusive view of knowledge.
This leads to many other questions, not the least of which are: What is the scope of relevant defeaters? Are they statistical in nature? Must they be true, or does a well promulgaged lie yet not heard by the subject-knower come into play? Might they only be feasible, even if not spoken actually, let alone true? Must they be humanly knowable or merely true? Again, these do not come into play for those with a less inclusive view of knowledge, which of course does not undermine subjective certainty of what is rational to believe.

Other actual existing propositions
Other sorts of information, defeaters of a different variety than external propositions, can impinge upon warrant for beliefs. Beliefs that are actually acquired, as opposed to propositions not known yet true, are now in view. An acquired strong belief can prevent someone from believing something newly introduced and contrary to an earlier belief, but new evidence can also cast doubt on older beliefs. Indeed, new evidence can reduce even override previously held beliefs depending upon the epistemic or psychological commitment to them. Such defeaters are internal to the mind, already acquired and not only external.

Now then, say a mother is informed that her son has stolen money from one of his teacher’s desk. Until then she has been thoroughly justified in believing her son is truthful – and count it is true that he never has stolen property.  Yet she has recently noticed that her son has been wearing a lot of new clothes and that some of her loose change has been disappearing. In realty the son has not stolen; he has been working after school and buying clothes with money he has earned. Moreover, it is false that he stole from his teacher’s desk. At this juncture we can at least appreciate that even strong justification for beliefs can be diminished by contrary evidence. It is possible that the mother would not be as justified as before in believing in the integrity of her son. To some degree, even if minimally, the integrity of the son might become to some degree suspect in the mother’s mind; so it’s not hard to see that experiences can serve not only to bolster but also downgrade one’s justification for a given or set of beliefs, if not also render beliefs that were once justifiable no longer such.

Continued later, Deo volente
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Joshua Butcher said...

The distinction between a person being justified in believing a proposition and the justification of the proposition itself is such an apt reminder of how vital the doctrine of sola Scriptura is for Protestantism. Hanging our epistemic hopes upon God's express Word instead of a papal pronouncement or a set of ecumenical confessions seems obvious, even moreso when the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox justifications for their opposing doctrines are made, which seek to equate or at least prove the infallible consistency of their nonbiblical sources with the Word of God.

As to the remainder of the post, it is another good reminder of how fleeting can be our judgments that do not involve the direct meaning of Scripture, but rather their application. The mother who may possess evidence that lends itself to rationally justified belief of her son's deceitfulness that runs counter to her opposing rationally justified belief of her son's trustworthiness must be evaluated against the Biblical standards for weighing evidence as well as for how one ought to consider a brother or sister in Christ, principally, or prior to the evaluation of evidences.

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search it out (Proverbs 25:2)

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Josh,

I hope to Blog soon on something that might be of interest to you.

Clark affirmed that men can know propositions that are not contained in Scripture, like the Bible is word of God. He likened such knowledge to Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. He also believed that unbelievers know things, a disagreement he believed he had with Van Til. (That disagreement should have been quarantined to the discussion pertaining to analogical-univocal considerations; yet it spilled over to a misunderstanding Alvin Plantinga shared as well about Van Til. I indeed agree with Clark and Reymond about the deficiency of Van Til’s take on analogical knowledge, yet notwithstanding he did believe that unbelievers know things.)

Even Crampton acknowledged that it is consistent with Clark that Clark could know whether or not he owned land, another proposition not found in Scripture. I also plan to show that Clark believed that he could know himself, just not know himself exhaustively. This has to do with his view of infima species. Basically, he would have said we can’t know x – whether a thing or person, because x is the entirety of something. Yet we can know some propositions contained in x, thereby in another sense knowing x, which was foundational to his belief that one need not be omniscient to know some things that indeed relate to other things. I hope also to spend time on showing that his view of the senses, properly understood, is no different than say Robert Reymond’s and his other critics. On that matter, Clark was simply misunderstood yet he went to great lengths to elaborate on the matter in the face of strict empiricism.

We've been bringing those effected by your former dissertation advisor before the Lord as well as Brandon.

Joshua Butcher said...


I've been glad to read your recently renewed activity on the blog, and it is doubly enjoyable to know you'll be posting on Clark.

I also thank you for your prayers; may the Lord be pleased to grant them in accordance with His good pleasure.

Ben Wallis said...


Interesting blog post. I much enjoyed it. But I'd like to see if I can turn you back somewhat from the externalist direction you appear to be taking.

You write:

" cannot know p if there exists at least some class of undermining evidence that if acquired would result in a loss of justification for the belief."

Apparently this condition is motivated by Gettier (or "quasi-Gettier," if you like) examples. But we are by no means required to exclude Gettier examples.

I prefer to keep them, for two reasons: First, my intuition tells me that Gettier examples do count as knowledge. So if intuition is what we are trying to satisfy, then we have reason to accept Gettier examples as constituting genuine knowledge.

I understand that not everyone shares my intuition. That's fine, but I don't see why my intuition is any less valuable than some other person's conflicting intuition.

Second, excluding Gettier examples risks undermining most if not all of our knowledge. In particular, I have no idea whether or not the bulk of my knowledge satisfies Gettier-like conditions. So if I was to deny that Gettier examples constitute knowledge, then I would commit myself to skepticism that I know anything at all.

That second difficulty can be generalized to any externalist account of knowledge. For suppose we rely on some sort of externalist fourth condition E on knowledge, i.e. suppose we decide that a belief that P counts as knowledge only if it satisfies an external condition E. In that case, if a person wants to believe he knows P, he is committed to believing that E has been met for his belief that P. Similarly, if a person wants to justifiably believe that he knows P, then he must justifiably believe that E has been met for his belief that P.

In other words, for any condition E on our belief that P, we will want to secure an avenue for believing---with justification---that E has been met.

This difficulty is not necessarily insurmountable. But it is another hurdle which I have never seen addressed by externalists.

Reformed Apologist said...

Apparently this condition is motivated by Gettier (or "quasi-Gettier," if you like) examples.

Actually, I came to these understandings quite apart from Gettier, though I suppose that my thoughts could have been influenced by those who were influenced by him.

First, my intuition tells me that Gettier examples do count as knowledge

It’s hard to believe that you would think all Gettier examples count as knowledge, but maybe you do. With Gettier cases justification is always fallible, meaning there is some probability that the belief is false, which is not the case for all JTB. The probability can be quite great that the belief is indeed false. Even minimally, the justification in all Gettier cases does not entail a conclusive proof that the belief is true; it only entails a rational basis for believing the proposition. Yet the more commonly associated aspect of Gettier cases is that they can entail some element of “luck”. We could “know” that p and later know more things that would rationally cause us not to believe that p. Finally, we could never know that we know, which is not to say: if one knows that p, then one knows that one knows p. I don’t believe that we must know that we know x in order to know x. Notwithstanding, I’m most sympathetic to the idea that one must be “in a position” to know that he knows, but even that would need further qualification. Having said that, that position is more of an internalist position but not necessarily so. I only mention it because of your externalist remark at the end.

Second, excluding Gettier examples risks undermining most if not all of our knowledge.

That statement, of course, presupposes that Gettier cases are indeed examples of knowledge. But if they’re not then of course Gettier cases wouldn’t undermine knowledge. Accordingly, I will not take that statement as an argument, lest you beg the question and merely assert your thesis.

In particular, I have no idea whether or not the bulk of my knowledge satisfies Gettier-like conditions. So if I was to deny that Gettier examples constitute knowledge, then I would commit myself to skepticism that I know anything at all.

It would seem that your thesis is, after all, the same as your argument; for the only point you seem to be making is that if Gettier cases do not constitute knowledge then you can’t know anything. Couple of things: if Gettier cases do not provide an example of knowledge does not imply : non-Gettier inferences do not constitute knowledge. There are non-Gettier inferences after all. Secondly, what seems to be driving your definition of knowledge is the desire to “know” more things but as I pointed out, defining knowledge in a more inclusive way does not entail more certainty of what should be rationally inferred. Moreover, if Gettier cases are examples of knowledge, then Jones knows p while rationally believing that p can be false; therefore, so much for making Jones less skeptical about the truth of P.