Ask a Philosopher: I often get questions in emails about my blog or books. I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.” Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?
Question: Dr. Anderson, thank you for your audio lecture on Gettier. Obviously he made a mistake in his example due to ambiguity and weak justification. Normally we don’t have certainty though. Is it really necessary for justification?
Reply: The various attempts to respond to Gettier involve trying to figure out the extra element needed for knowledge in addition to a true, justified belief. I think we can resolve this simply by defining “justification” correctly and need not add some extra element. But you are right that in most cases we don’t have certainty. You might look at my reading here about doubt and the various sources of information and how they are doubted. I also have a reading here on what it means to give an account.
Terms like “justified,” “warranted,” “account,” are used in other disciplines, especially law and business. A police officer must have a warrant to search a home. And a warrant does not guarantee that anything will be found. But it means that certain external criterion have been met (as opposed to an internal “hunch”). To be justified means that one’s behavior or case is explained and is not guilty. Or to give an account means to explain how the numbers balance. Perhaps a more direct term is “to understand.”
A colleague of mine at ASU wrote an article here. He considers how there can be a kind of pressure to be a skeptic even when enormous evidence suggests the probability of error is very small. He says: “Although there is no consensus about how it arises, a promising idea defended by the philosopher David Lewis is that skeptical pressure cases often involve focusing on the possibility of error. Once we start worrying and ruminating about this possibility, no matter how far-fetched, something in our brains causes us to doubt.” He applies this especially to global warming, and it could be further applied to how scientists themselves understand and interpret evidence for or against global warming. He says:
“Philosophers call scenarios like these “skeptical pressure” cases, and they arise in mundane, boring cases that have nothing to do with politics or what one wants to be true. In general, a skeptical pressure case is a thought experiment in which the protagonist has good evidence for something that he or she believes, but the reader is reminded that the protagonist could have made a mistake. If the story is set up in the right way, the reader will be tempted to think that the protagonist’s belief isn’t genuine knowledge.
When presented with these thought experiments, some philosophy students conclude that what these examples show is that knowledge requires full-blown certainty. In these skeptical pressure cases, the evidence is overwhelming, but not 100 percent. It’s an attractive idea, but it doesn’t sit well with the fact that we ordinarily say we know lots of things with much lower probability.”
So we can recognize that we don’t have certainty in many areas of life while we also use the word “know” in these areas. Go back to my link above and look at the various kinds of information sources. Most of these do not provide certainty. Most of these can be doubted even when there is significant evidence. How do we move forward and make choices in light of this? How do we avoid allowing skeptical pressure to freeze us in inaction?
On thing worth noting about the Gettier problem is that the supposed knowledge claim is a claim about the future. “The man with 10 coins will get the job.” When this failed to come about Smith’s knowledge claim “let him down.” It did not predict what would happen and so was worthless. He may have used reliable mechanisms to form the belief but in the end it was of no use. We want to be successful or accurate in our knowledge claims. It is of little value to us if we can say we did everything correct, we “knew,” but we were still let down and mistaken.
What I suggest we do is consider the idea of larger context. This will help us to draw good and necessary consequences. So context, and good and necessary consequences. If we knew what we need to know about some things then we could make the correct inferences about other things. And these “things” are ordered.
This particular belief is nested in, or contextualized in, many other beliefs about the world. These beliefs are ordered logically from less basic (not basic) to more basic to most basic. If we were to press Smith (the man from Gettier’s example) to further explain the meaning of his sentence and the rest of his worldview in which it operates we would get a better picture of how he understands what is real and how he draws conclusions. This would be true in other examples as well such as global warming mentioned above.
There is much valuable work done on when we can rely on our senses or testimony or other kinds of evidence that we can all benefit from. However, claims about probability must have knowns (8 times out of 100 known times x occurs). The same is true for reliability and function. For the context to be fleshed out we need to have some things that are clear so as to distinguish between what is probable and what is not probable. All such claims presuppose the laws of thought (8 is 8, times is times, 100 is 100, x is x, etc). We cannot get probability without the laws of thought and we do not argue from probability to the laws of thought (I believe them because they seem probable).
So we can contextualize our inability to have certainty in many areas of life by locating our beliefs as more or less logically basic. And at the most basic level we can see if a person believes anything at all is clear. We begin with some things are clear to reason so that we can then go on to establish what is probable and what is plausible and how to respond to doubt. Doubt itself can be addressed. Radical doubt, which is doubt even that a is a, sets itself outside of all discussion. We can use insights from someone like David Lewis to help us understand “skeptical pressure” and go further to see that some doubt, radical doubt, is incoherent.