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Epistemology for you all: Was Gettier a fraud?

Yesterday, while browsing through the Wikipedia page on epistemology I came across the following excerpt:

Edmund Gettier is best known for his 1963 paper entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, which called into question the theory of knowledge that had been dominant among philosophers for thousands of years.[19] This, in turn, called into question the actual value of philosophy if such an obvious and easy counterexample to a major theory could exist without anyone noticing it for thousands of years.

I did not know anything about either Edmund Gettier or the referred paper, but the way this paragraph attacked not only all philosophers but philosophy as a discipline left me infuriated, so without doing much research, I deleted it from the article, stating that “you can easily see many examples of philosophers claiming similar issues”. If I wanted to get into more detail, I would have added that I don’t think that there is such thing as a “dominant theory” in philosophy and especially such that has no counterexamples - philosophy, after all, is about arguments, so you really want to you can always construct arguments to support even the stupidest thesis (which was what I was planning to do if someone attacked me for messing with Wikipedia’s epistemology page).

More about Gettier’s problem

Of course, I went through Gettier’s paper before doing all that, to ensure that it wasn’t as ground-breaking as described. The few minutes I spent on it reaffirmed my belief that there isn’t, and that there probably would not ever be, anything ground-breaking in the field of epistemology. Gettier’s idea was to attack a specific notion of knowledge - that of justified true belief. So the “dominant theory of knowledge” as described in the paragraph I deleted is just the notion that if you believe that something is true and if that something is actually true, then we can say that you know that this something is true. Let’s go through his argument:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition: (d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket. Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would, in the end, be selected and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails: (e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket. Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true. But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in his pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Logical analysis

To me, it seems like the article has many superfluous details. Because it uses logical language, let’s try to strip it down to a logical problem:

We start with the proposition (d), which is false

(d) Jones will get the job, and Jones has ten coins.

And from it we remove the name “Jones” and get a more general proposition (e), which happens to be true.

(e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

And the author claims that (e) is a justified true belief, but not knowledge.

From first glance, it’s clear that knowing that (d) is false, we can hardly call statements that follow from it “justified”. The fact that (d) had some grain of truth in it is irrelevant. Every logical statement follows from contradictions. Does not mean that every (and any) statement is justified?

We now can see that all the confusion in the example is a result of the fact that our hero made an error from the start - namely the statement “Jones will get the job” is false. Also, we see that distilling Gettier’s argument to its logical form hardly does it any justice - we can claim that the conclusion is not even worth discussing, as follows from a false premise and, as we said, we can make any conclusion from false premises.

Knowledge - the gist of it all

So, while the logical method did help us dissect the Gettier problem and understand it much better, it did little to unveil why it is considered so important. From a logician’s viewpoint it seems like Gettier does not add anything substantial to the much earlier examples of similar logical problems like the following one which is written in 770 CE by the Indian philosopher Dharmottara:

Imagine that we are seeking water on a hot day. We suddenly see water, or so we think. In fact, we are not seeing water but a mirage, but when we reach the spot, we are lucky and find water right there under a rock. Can we say that we had genuine knowledge of water? The answer seems to be negative, for we were just lucky.

Quote taken from the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia

But when we look at the bigger picture, statement (d) (“Jones will get the job”) is not just any false statement - it is a statement that we have very serious grounds to believe. Let’s say that we are 99% sure that it is true. We are also 100% sure that (e) is true. So why isn’t that enough to say we know it (e)? This question is precisely the key to understanding what the Gettier problem is about - it isn’t about more than logic, it’s about concepts.

And “justified true belief” is more than just a dictionary definition of knowledge - it is an idea of what knowledge is (or can be) and one that resonated and still resonates perfectly the way many people think when thinking about knowledge, but that is still totally misleading.

Consider this: if we say that knowledge is “justified true belief” then statement (d) which is the premise in Gettier’s argument (“Jones will get the job”) is actually not knowledge - although justified, it is not true. And it makes little sense for us to justify knowledge using non-knowledge, which means not that “justified true belief” is not a good definition of knowledge - but that the phrase “justified true belief” is by itself contradictory.

When we think about it, the only way to justify our (true) beliefs is to use knowledge that we know to be 100% true by some other means (i.e. God told us). Everything that follows from that basic postulates will be justified true belief and knowledge (although one can argue that the “true” condition will be redundant as anything which follows from something which is 100% true is by definition 100% true).

Behind every “justified true belief” presented as knowledge, lies a hidden assumptions. But hidden assumptions are not knowledge.

The problem of induction

Let’s go back to Gettier’s example and see how he justifies the assumption which justifies his main assumption (d):

Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would, in the end, be selected and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago.

So Smith’s evidence for (d) is based on some other assumptions e.g. “the president of the company makes the decision all by himself”, “the president of the company will not lie to me.” “Jones’ pockets don’t have holes in them” etc. But how we justify those? If we keep God out of the picture, we can only justify those assumptions by making some (more general) assumptions on which to ground them (we may, for example, say that “The president does not lie because he is a devoted Christian”). The deeper we go, the more clearly we see that you may only justify a particular if you know a principle which is more general than it (i.e. deductive reasoning).

Or in other words, justification, which is a product of deduction, is incompatible with knowledge (which is inherently inductive). This brings us way back in time, to a problem which is often attributed to David Hume, but which actually is due to a philosopher called Sextus Empiricus who lived in the year 160 CE. Here is how he formulates it:

When they propose to establish the universal from the particulars by means of induction, they will effect this by a review of either all or some of the particulars. But if they review some, the induction will be insecure, since some of the particulars omitted in the induction may contravene the universal; while if they are to review all, they will be toiling at the impossible, since the particulars are infinite and indefinite.

Or to rephrase it using our example: if we propose to establish that Jones will get the job, we can either review all or some of the factors of him getting it. But if we review only some of the factors e.g. (the promise of the president of the company that he will get it) we may be wrong, while reviewing all of the factors is impossible.

In the real world we cannot determine the truth of a given statement by mere justification so the words “justified” and “true” in Gettier’s definition are just incompatible, so combining them would be, as Wittgenstein would say, “not wrong but senseless”.

Was Gettier a fraud: instead of conclusion

We examined Gettier’s argument from 1963 and found that at its core lies a thought that is very very old. Does that make Gettier’s argument unoriginal - as much as I love to unveil a conspiracy, I’d have to say “no”. For a simple reason - I never found a reference which compares Gettier’s problem to the problem of induction, although both problems are really famous. To my knowledge, nobody else sees a relation between the two problems.

In a discipline that is as multi-faceted as philosophy, you can never truly prove a ground-breaking idea. Neither a truly correct one. All you can do is have an idea and compare it with other ideas as I did here. And if different people see different connections, then the idea is probably original enough to publish it.

Or as Alvin Plantinga sums it up:

According to the inherited lore of the epistemological tribe, the JTB [justified true belief] account enjoyed the status of epistemological orthodoxy until 1963, when it was shattered by Edmund Gettier… Of course, there is an interesting historical irony here: it isn’t easy to find many really explicit statements of a JTB analysis of knowledge prior to Gettier. It is almost as if a distinguished critic created a tradition in the very act of destroying it.

Written on December 22, 2019

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