Review: The Gettier Problem

I recently reread one of my favorite papers in philosophy, “Is Justified Belief True Knowledge?” by Edmund Gettier. It’s my favorite for two reasons: 1). It challenges a (at the time) long-held definition of what counts as knowledge; and 2). It’s 1.5 pages. One and a half pages! Gettier is nothing if not succinct. Any paper that contributes to or sparks a vigorous and increasingly intricate debate in a mere 1.5 pages is exciting in my world. I aspire.

While many, many (smarter) people have tackled what Gettier is doing here, either challenging or agreeing with his conclusion, I wanted to try to do it myself. I thought I’d tease out what I find to be a potential solution and only then read what others have to say. So consider this my step 1!

In his paper, Gettier challenges the “justified true belief” account of knowledge, which goes as such:

  • P is true
  • Paul believes that P
  • Paul is justified in believing that P

If this account is to be a good definition of knowledge, it must provide both necessary and sufficient conditions for knowing. In two cases, Gettier shows two instances where P is true, someone believes that P, someone is justified in believing that P, and yet we would not count that as knowledge. Here is one, quoted in full:

“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.”

I think what Gettier might be showing relates to something I think I read from Richard Feynman. (I can’t find it for the life of me… MY BRAIN.) The gist of the long-lost quote is that the quality of a belief depends entirely on the grounding for and method of reaching the belief. Aka, a broken clock is right twice a day, but the fact that the clock tells the true time those two times twice a day does not mean it is “accurate” or “truth-telling” those two times. That it tells the right time happens to be true at those two moments. The clock fails forward, as it were, those two times.

Similarly, it’s not enough merely to have good reasons for believing P to be true when P is true; the reasons someone has for believing P to be true must be the same reasons that P is true. To make the formulation for “justified true belief” both necessary and sufficient, I thought of the following:

  • P is true
  • P is true on the grounds of Q
  • Paul believes that P
  • Paul’s reasons for believing P are Q

In the case of Smith and Jones, Smith believes, truly, that the man with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job. However, he believes that gentleman to be Jones, not himself. In order for his belief to be knowledge, he’d have to have a true belief about which person the general “man” of his belief refers to. Is it a name/referent problem. If he had formed a true belief about which of the two of them would get the job, then his general belief (“The man with ten coins in his pocket”) would be true. The truth of a general belief, one with a slightly ambiguous referent, relies on the truth of the belief to which referent the name refers.

I suppose this does risk infinite regress, because what are the grounds for Q being true, and for believing that Q? Are those beliefs well-grounded and justified, and do they need to be? But perhaps this highlights the inherent imprecision and limitation in our ability to know. Maybe we need to gray the lines around what it means to “know,” to admit the inevitable impossibility of getting to a full, exact, perfect way of knowing.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on The Gettier Problem to see what minds more learned than mine have to say about how to create a set of sufficient conditions for knowing… and if something additional or different is truly needed.

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