thinkingman1_thumb7This blog post is part of the ‘Epistemology’ series. In this series I hope to explain, in layman’s terms, the fundamentals of this fascinating subject for people who may not have encountered it before (particularly my fellow freethinkers in Kampala). As people who pride themselves as being skeptics and critical thinkers, its highly important that we develop a good understanding of epistemology.


In Part 1, we looked at how it comes to be that knowledge is defined as ‘justified true belief’. This deconstruction is known as the tripartite definition of knowledge – and it is used as a working model for knowledge by philosophers. According to this analysis, the three conditions — truth, belief, and justification — are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for knowledge.

This approach to understanding knowledge was presented with a potentially devastating problem from philosopher Edmund Gettier in 1963. In a paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" he presented some counter-examples that showed how the tripartite model, fails, in some instances, to establish knowledge. Here is one of the hypothetical cases he presented:

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 then 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 Smith’s 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. 

Job Interview - GettierPut simply: Smith has applied for a job, but has very good reason to believe that Jones will get the job (Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will win the job) . He also has justified belief that Jones has 10 coins in his pocket (Smith had earlier seen Jones with 10 coins in his pocket). He therefore concludes that…

“the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket.”

But it so happens that in fact Jones does not get the job. Smith does. However, Smith, unknowingly and by sheer chance, ALSO had 10 coins in his pocket. So, indeed, the belief that…

“the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket”

…was justified, and true. But then this can’t really count as knowledge on Smith’s part – for he was not aware that he’d get the job, and neither was he initially aware that he too had 10 coins in his pocket. It was by accident/luck that his justified belief coincided with the truth.

It would thus appear that there is problem with the notion of knowledge being defined as justified true belief, seeing as its possible to have a justified true belief that is still not knowledge.

Several proposals have been offered by various philosophers as a solution to Gettier’s problem:

1. Eliminating Luck Proposal:

One way to proceed in trying to address the problem posed by Gettier is by taking another look at the tripartite structure of knowledge, which takes the following form:

S (Somebody) knows that P (Proposition) if…

  1. S believes P
  2. S’s belief in P is fallibly justified
  3. P is true

This deconstruction of knowledge might be remedied by adding a fourth condition – such as “if P is true, it is not by luck that S belief in P coincides with it” in order to prevent the scenario from the above Gettier example from occurring. Applied to Smith’s situation, it would mean that his justified true belief that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket would not qualify as knowledge because it was by coincidence, that his belief coincided with the truth of the proposition. Inclusion of the proposed fourth condition would resolve this, as follows:

S knows that P if…

  1. S believes P
  2. S’s belief in P is fallibly justified
  3. P is true
  4. The justification for S’s belief in P (2) ensures that it is not by luck that S’s belief of P (1), coincides with P being true (3)

2. No False Evidence Condition:

No knowledge can be claimed if it relies on a false evidence.

In the case of Smith – if he had lacked whatever evidence that had led him to believe that Jones  would get the job, then he probably would not have inferred that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket. The same could be said for whatever evidence that led him to infer that Jones had 10 coins in his pocket. If he had not encountered such evidence he would also probably not have had a justified true belief that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket, which in the end fails to count as knowledge. So for the tripartite  model of knowledge to hold, one’s justified true belief must be supported by evidence, none of which is false.

3. Appropriate Causality Proposal:

There must be an appropriate causal connection between the knowledge and the belief.  This proposal was brought forward by Alvin Goldman in 1967, who suggested that a person’s believe in justified only if:

…the truth of a belief has caused the subject to have that belief (in the appropriate way); and for a justified true belief to count as knowledge, the subject must also be able to "correctly reconstruct" (mentally) that causal chain. Goldman’s analysis would rule out Gettier cases in that Smith’s beliefs are not caused by the truths of those beliefs; it is merely accidental that Smith’s beliefs in the Gettier cases happen to be true, or that the prediction made by Smith: " The winner of the job will have 10 coins", on the basis of his putative belief, came true in this one case.

4. Conclusive Reasons Condition:

Somebody’s belief in a proposition is based on a particular reason, such that if that proposition were not true, then that person would not have his stated reason as the reason for believing that proposition.

Fred Dretske (1971) developed an account of knowledge which he called "conclusive reasons", revived by Robert Nozick as what he called the subjunctive or truth-tracking account (1981). Nozick’s formulation posits that proposition P is an instance of knowledge when:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. if P were true, S would believe that P
  4. if P weren’t true, S wouldn’t believe that P

(From: Fred Dretske’s conclusive reasons and Robert Nozick’s truth-tracking)

5. No Defeat Proposal:

A justified true belief counts as knowledge if and only if it is also the case that there is no further truth that, had the subject known it, would have defeated her present justification for the belief. In other words something is known as long as there is no evidence to the contrary.

question mark

All of the above proposed solutions are not without problems themselves. There are several sources where you can find them discussed in great detail, such as:

The major responses to Gettier that we’ve so far seen suggest that potential solutions should have it that, among other things, beliefs are not based on luck or false evidence, they should be appropriately causally related to the claim of knowledge, should be based on conclusive reasons and should remain undefeated. This is indeed a lot to ask for. In what ways might beliefs be justified in order to meet such criteria, thereby attaining the status of knowledge? And is it even possible?

To answer these questions, we shall be taking a look at various Theories of Justification, in Part 3 of this series.


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