The Nature of Knowledge

The Nature of Knowledge

November 19, 2018 0 By Felso

Knowledge is the goal of belief. It is what belief aims to be, or, more precisely, what we aim at in believing.

There may be some types of belief, for example religious, for which knowledge is seen to be impossible and belief itself sufficient (in its effects). But knowledge is always to be preferred to mere belief where it is possible; it is, other things being equal, the ideal form of belief. An analysis of knowledge must reflect this fact. What must knowledge be like to function properly as our cognitive goal? We want our beliefs to be true, but we want more of them as well.

We want not just truth, but secure truth, truth that will be resistant to pressures against its acquisition or retention. If the truth of a belief is not firm in this way, then changes in the world or in the subject that are unrelated to the fact believed will likely alter the belief and render the resulting changed belief false. Beliefs acquired similarly in the future will be likely to be false as well, and we will not be able to tell as easily whether they are true or false. Thus, we want our beliefs to be non-accidentally true, so that they will not be subject to such whims of fortune.

We want to remove luck from the acquisition and retention of true belief, just as we want to remove moral luck from the actions of agents. Acting in a morally right way by accident (when rightness is no part of an agent’s intention) does not produce faith in or praise for the agent; similarly, believing the truth by accident does not produce faith in one’s cognitive abilities or positive grades for the achievement.

It is relatively uncontroversial among epistemologists that knowledge involves true belief, and most would accept the claim that the truth of a belief must be nonaccidental if it is to amount to knowledge. But controversy will arise over how to understand this crucial requirement. Certain kinds of luck or accident can enter into the acquisition of knowledge, while other kinds must be ruled out. And the absence of accident in certain senses will not guarantee that a true belief counts as knowledge.

Regarding the first point, I might be just lucky to run into a friend of mine in Paris and hence to know he is there; but despite the fact that my running into him was accidental, I do know he is there. Regarding the second point, a perverse epistemologist might deliberately trick me into believing the truth when my belief is based on the wrong reasons or is unconnected in the right way with the fact I believe. He might trick me into believing that someone in my department owns a Ford by convincing me that he himself does, when he but not I know that only another member of my department owns a Ford. There is a sense here in which it is non-accidental that I believe a true proposition, but I still lack knowledge.

These two examples can help us to begin to sharpen the sense in which knowledge must be non-accidental. In the first example, given the context in which I acquire the belief, that in which I see my friend, it is non-accidental that I believe he is there.

And in the second example, while my perverse colleague deliberately sets up the context in which I acquire my belief, given that context, my belief that someone in my department owns a Ford is only accidentally true. Thus, we can say that a belief must be non-accidentally true in the context in which it is acquired in order to count as knowledge. Beyond this point, however, it will remain a matter of great controversy how to interpret the requirement of being non-accidental. Ordinarily, when our beliefs are only accidentally true, they result from lucky guesses.

A venerable but suspect tradition in epistemology seeks to eliminate lucky guesses by requiring that believers be justified in their beliefs. This concept of justification has its origin and natural home in ethics. In morally judging persons by their actions, we demand that they be justified in acting as they do and that they act as they do because of this justification. Similarly, in judging persons by their beliefs, we may demand that they be justified in believing as they do and not achieve truth by lucky guesses. But it remains questionable whether justification is either necessary for knowledge or sufficient when added to true belief.

Before attempting to answer these questions, it is necessary to clarify the concept of justification to which appeal is being made. While we often talk in nonphilosophical contexts of agents being justified in acting as they do, ‘justification’ is a technical term of art in epistemology, rarely used in reference to beliefs outside the context of philosophical analysis and debate. And it is a concept about which epistemologists themselves have conflicting intuitions.

The analogy with ethics suggests that justification is a matter of fulfilling one’s obligations as these can be determined from an internal perspective, from the subject’s own point of view. Moral agents are justified when acting in a subjectively right way given the information available to them. Similarly, believers might be said to be justified when they have fulfilled their epistemic obligations given the evidence available to them, for example, when they have critically assessed the available evidence.

But there are many problems with this internalist conception, based as it is on what subjects should believe from their own perspective. First, the analogy with ethics may be out of place, since we do not have the same degree of control over the acquisition of beliefs as we do over our actions. If we cannot help believing as we do, then talk of epistemic obligations is suspect, although we can still exercise control over the degree to which we gather evidence, seek to be impartial, and so on. Second, it must be clarified to what degree the justification for one’s beliefs must be available and able to be articulated from one’s own perspective.

On the most extreme view, in order to be justified in a belief, one must be aware not only of the evidence for it, but of the justifying relation in which that evidence stands to the belief. But, given the motivation for this view, it seems that one’s belief in that justifying relation must itself be justified, and that one’s belief that it is justified must be justified, and so on. Even if that regress were to end somehow, it seems clear that ordinary subjects are not aware of such complex sets of judgements and so could never fulfil this requirement.

A weaker internalism regarding justification would require only that evidence for one’s beliefs be in principle recoverable from one’s internal states. One question here is whether subjects must be able to articulate their evidence as such. This requirement would disallow the perceptual knowledge of children, for example, who cannot articulate the ways things appear to them as ways of appearing. Even without this requirement, there seem to be clear counterexamples to internalist concepts of justification as necessary for knowledge. (The internalist distinguishes between a person’s being justified and there being some justification not in the person’s possession, the latter being irrelevant.) A clairvoyant who could reliably foretell the future, an idiot savant who knows mathematical truths without knowing how he knows them, or a person with perfect pitch who can identify tones with almost perfect accuracy have beliefs that count as knowledge without having any apparent justification for those beliefs.

Certainly they are not justified in their beliefs until they notice their repeated successes, but they have knowledge from the beginning. In more mundane cases, we all have knowledge when completely unaware of its source, when that source or the evidence for our beliefs is completely unrecoverable. I know that Columbus sailed in 1492, and I assume that I learned this from some elementary school teacher, but who that teacher was, or what her evidence for the date was, is, I also assume, completely unrecoverable by me. More generally, knowledge from the testimony of others requires neither that one knows the evidence for the proposition transmitted nor even that one have evidence of the reliability of those providing the testimony (what it does require will be discussed below).

Thus justification in the sense in which the concept is derived from ethics is not necessary for knowledge. It is more commonly accepted since Edmund Gettier’s famous article that justification, when added to true belief, is not sufficient for knowledge (Gettier 1963). Many examples like the one cited earlier about the owner of the Ford exemplify justified, true belief that is not knowledge. They show that a person can be accidentally right in a belief that is not simply a lucky guess. Other examples that show the same thing include beliefs about the outcomes of lotteries, which falsify many otherwise plausible analyses of knowledge, and beliefs of those in sceptical worlds (also to be discussed later), such as brains in vats programmed to have experiences and beliefs, or victims of deceiving demons.

A brain in a vat programmed to have the beliefs it does can occasionally be programmed to have a true belief grounded in its seeming perceptual experience about an object outside the vat, but that justified, true belief will not be knowledge. I can justifiably and truly believe that my ticket in this week’s Florida lottery will not win, but I do not know it is a loser until another ticket is drawn.

Thus, justification in any intuitive sense is neither necessary nor sufficient, when added to true belief, for knowledge. Some philosophers have sought to beef up the notion so as to make it the sufficient additional condition for knowledge by requiring that justification be ‘undefeated’. One’s justification is said to be defeated when it depends on a false proposition, such as the proposition that my colleague owns a Ford in that earlier example (Lehrer 2000, p. 20). There are two fatal flaws in this position. One is that it takes justification to be necessary for knowledge, and we have seen that it is not. The other is that it cannot distinguish between examples in which one’s claims to knowledge are threatened by misleading evidence one does not possess. Suppose in the Ford example that my colleague does own the car and gives me good evidence that he does, but that he has an enemy who spreads the false rumour that he is a pathological liar. If that enemy is also in my department and the chances were great that I would have heard his false rumour, then my claim to knowledge will be defeated. It will then be a matter of luck that, given the context of being in my department, I did not hear his testimony and so believe as I do. If, by contrast, my colleague’s enemy is in some distant city, his attacks will be irrelevant to my knowledge. No way of unpacking the notion of ‘depending on a false proposition’ will distinguish correctly between these cases.

That knowledge is the goal of belief indicates yet again that the epistemologist’s notion of justification is largely irrelevant. In a court of law, for example, where it is of utmost importance whether witnesses know that to which they testify, jurors must assess whether the evidence they present connects in the right way with the facts they allege. Jurors want to know whether the best explanation for the evidence presented by witnesses appeals to the facts as they represent them, or whether the explanation offered by the opposing attorney is just as plausible. They do not care whether the witnesses are justified in their beliefs, only again whether their beliefs hook up in the right way with the facts. Sceptical worlds also reveal that justification can be worthless, hence not a goal of belief, as firm truth is. One such sceptical world mentioned earlier is that of brains in vats programmed to have all the perceptual experiences that they have. Brains in vats are normally justified in their beliefs on the basis of such experience, but such justification is unrelated to truth and knowledge, not the sort of thing we seek for itself.