Home > epistemology, philosophy > Practice Exercises — Gettier’s Problem

Practice Exercises — Gettier’s Problem

To copy and paste viciously from Wikipedia,

Plato suggests, in his TheaetetusMeno, and other dialogues, that “knowledge” may be defined as justified true belief. For over two millennia, this definition of knowledge has been reinforced and accepted by subsequent philosophers, who accepted justifiability, truth, and belief as the necessary criteria for information to earn the special designation of being “knowledge.”

In 1963, however, Edmund Gettier published an article in the periodical Analysis entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, offering instances of justified true belief that do not conform to the generally understood meaning of “knowledge.” Gettier’s examples hinged on instances of epistemic luck: cases where a person appears to have sound evidence for a proposition, and that proposition is in fact true, but the apparent evidence is not causally related to the proposition’s truth.

This problem provides for us a nice change of pace, in that the way I will examine this does not hinge on fuzzy categorical boundaries (although I probably could take that route and simply bitch about the category of thought-objects called “knowledge” being fuzzily defined). It seems to me as though such an attack would reduce what can be understood as a fascinating question of experience into a dry semantic debate, and the English-speaking world has been doing far too much of that this past century or so.

So the problem persists. It persists, in fact, as no shallow problem at the periphery of philosophy. It appears to be yet another one of these boundary-conditional problems, yet another one of this issues of resolution of scale; like the progress of scientific models, if we simply hone our thinking we can create a more accurate model of knowledge that derives its creative foundation from the currently accepted “justified, true belief.” But this makes the problem too easy, allowing us a apologetic “it’ll do for now”, and does not allow for the wider methodological space available to philosophy that cannot be approached under a scientific method.

In the first sense, we must criticize those philosophical directions that consider this a prescriptive problem. It is a dishonesty to try to sculpt a definition of what one can or should call “knowledge.”  I think it safe to say that even philosophers who approach this problem in that vein will try to bind the scope of their definition into some resemblance of that which is called “knowledge” in ordinary conversation, otherwise the word simply becomes a vacuous word-symbol, and the resolution of this problem can stem clearly and effectively from that definition. Since any legitimate approach will attempt to bind itself to that meaning of the word which is used in daily conversation, it is most honest to simply drop the prescriptive attack and just attempt to describe what knowledge is, and not what it ought to be.

The problem so revised, we are immediately and rather gracelessly confronted with perhaps one of the most inelegant and undying problems in thought: subjectivity. “Knowledge” to me is not necessarily “knowledge” to you, and you and I can both believe ourselves to know facts which are mutually contradictory. How is this resolved? The answer to that question, I would say, is “functionally.” More specifically, in our experience of the world, knowledge is not a static entity, not a simple aggregate of information with some positively correlating operator against the real world, but it is a body of function-serving tissue. The function which knowledge serves is to provide us with a framework for realizing and operating in the world around us.

Gettier’s Problem, then, resolves itself thusly: knowledge is not “justified, true belief” as much as it is that particular reflection of the world held within the individual psyche that re-projects itself back out onto the world, shaping the way the world presents itself to the experiencing agent. With this, we can begin to break down the boundaries of the epistemological and phenomenological questions and resolve them into a single, experienced moment of understanding where knowledge and world meet at the locus of the experiencing agent. In this sense, any belief or understanding which is sufficiently compatible with the objective world as to not cause a cognitive dissonance can be considered knowledge. This allows us to respect and distance ourselves from the individually solipsistic worlds of our neighbors while continuing to exist inside our own solipsisms, while still preserving the integrity of the intersubjective and objective spaces.

With this reconceptualization of knowledge and, more specifically, the relationship between knowledge and the experiencing/knowing agent, we resolve Gettier’s Problem by cutting off the source from which it would have spawned: prescriptive definition.

Categories: epistemology, philosophy
  1. Jon Stevens
    July 19, 2011 at 8:12 am | #1

    Here we run into the problem of “What exactly is meant by justified, true belief”? And of course, what separates “Knowledge” from mere “Perception?”

    Taking certain definitions of these, we can arrive at a definition of knowledge that is immune to the “luck” issue described.

    1. True: In accordance with the shared perceptions of infinitely many hypothetical observers, presuming their perceptual capabilities were not altered. “The ball is red” can be a true statement but “The ball is pretty” cannot be.

    2. Justified: Having predictive value. Statements which follow from this mental data also generate true, justifiable statements. “The ball is salty” is a justifiable statement; “The ball is God” is not. A statement passes from “Justifiable” to “Justified” after receiving, in the mind of the holder, a level of reinforcement that passes above a particular threshold.

    3. Belief: Shared with the internal perceptions of the holder of the information. “The ball is red” is knowledge when you see it’s also red, but it’s not knowledge if you see it as blue. Then it’s just Someone Else’s Idea.

    So knowledge becomes stored data that accurately reflects the world around it, carries predictive value and is internalized by the holder of it. Subjective truths, unconfirmed theories, individual preferences and philosophical hypotheticals are not knowledge, but other phenomena.

    Your definition of knowledge, I feel, is too broad. What you are actually defining with it is “Perception” or “Thought,” as every mental phenomenon we experience shapes the world around us for us. The word knowledge, I feel, should be restricted to those thoughts and perceptions which meet additional criteria, or else we’re redefining a square to be “any four-sided figure.”

    What you call “Knowledge for you” and “Knowledge for me” I would simply call thought or perception, reserving the word “Knowledge” for what you might call “Knowledge for us, that both of us can use to shape the world in ways that not only us but others can also experience.”

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