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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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It’s not often that a large majority of philosophers come to agree on controversial topics. And when it does happen, it’s usually a case of “negative progress” — agreement that a particular philosophical position is bad, and should be rejected. This sort of progress typically creates a great deal more disagreement, rather than solving anything. The biggest example of this is the demise of the “justified true belief” account of knowledge.

Epistemology is one of the main subfields of philosophy. It involves questioning what knowledge is, and how we can come to know things. It’s important then, to define the idea of knowledge — what does it mean to know something? For the first half of the 20th century, the dominant account of knowledge was the “justified true belief” account.

According to this account, I know that it is sunny outside if and only if:

  1. I believe that it is sunny outside.
  2. My belief is justified, i.e. I have good reason for having that belief, like looking out the window, or checking a weather app, rather than consulting the lines on my palm.
  3. It is true that it is sunny outside (although the definition of “truth” is another controversial philosophical question, we can just use the fairly intuitive meaning of “truth” here — that it is actually the case that it is sunny outside).

If any one of these requirements aren’t met, I can’t be said to possess knowledge. I can’t know that it is sunny outside without believing that it is sunny outside. I can’t know that it is sunny outside if my belief is the result of a process that fails to provide justification, like palm reading — in that case, I’ve just made a lucky guess. And I certainly can’t know that it is sunny outside if it is not, in fact, sunny outside. So it’s uncontroversial that these are all necessary conditions for knowledge.

But are they sufficient conditions?

As I mentioned, for the first half of the 20th century, most philosophers thought that the justified true belief account was correct. That changed in 1963, with the publication of a two-and-a-half page paper in the philosophy journal Analysis, written by Edmond Gettier. Gettier offered two counterexamples to the justified true belief account — cases where it seems clear that we have justified true belief of something, but we don’t know that thing. Gettier’s examples are somewhat awkward and boring, so let’s use a slightly different formulation (there are many variations on his original example, nicknamed “Gettier problems”).

Imagine the following situation: you’re on a train which is passing by a field. Out of the window, you see a cow in the field, and thus you believe “there is a cow in the field.” But unbeknownst to you, the “cow” is in fact a dog dressed like a cow. Yet, further back in the field, there is a real cow hidden behind a tree. So the belief that there is a cow in the field is both justified (after all, you saw a “cow”). Yet it seems strange to say that you’d know there is a cow in the field. In some sense, you are mistaken; you do not possess knowledge. If that is true, then the justified true belief account of knowledge must be false. Gettier’s examples were widely seen as devastating to the justified true belief account, and few philosophers now accept it.

This question of the definition of “knowledge” may seem like a meaningless semantic dispute. But it is relevant to many more important problems. For example, can we ever claim to know moral propositions like “murder is wrong”? One way to respond to sceptical arguments is to argue for a more expansive definition of “knowledge.” So the question of the definition of knowledge is relevant to questions which we presumably consider to be quite important.

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