The Gettier problem

I’ve started preparing to teach PHIL 4300 (Epistemology) in the spring, and while doing so I’ve been kicking around the Gettier problem in my mind. What? Haven’t heard of it? Allow me to explain.

A standard account of knowledge in philosophy (since Plato) is this. I know something (call it “x”) when (1) x is in fact true, (2) I believe x, and (3) I have some good reasons for believing x. This seems to fit a great many cases of knowledge. It’s hard to come up with counterexamples. But then along came Edmund Gettier in the 1960s who provided cases like this one:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

    1. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith’s evidence for (1) 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 (1) entails:

    2. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (1) to (2), and accepts (2) on the grounds of (1), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (2) 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 (2) is then true, though proposition (1), from which Smith inferred (2), is false.

OK, sort of lame. But it is a counterexample.

My own temptation is to say that Smith was not justified in believing Jones was going to get the job, and so wasn’t justified in believing that the person who would get the job has ten coins in his pocket. Yes, he had some evidence for thinking Jones would get the job, and so maybe he was justified in believing that his belief was justified, but in fact it wasn’t justified. Does that make sense?

4 thoughts on “The Gettier problem

  1. Richard Greene

    What about the following case:
    Suppose that I’m watching the network news to find out the lottery results. The news reports that the winning numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. These are my numbers. Unfortunately (for me) the news report is in error. Am I not justified in believing that I’m a millionaire? If not, since news agencies make mistakes from time to time, it would seems that I’m never justified in believing what I see on the news. This result seems too strong.
    If you think that I am justified in believing that I’m a millionaire onthe basis of the news report, then a Gettier case can be easily constructed. Suppose further that unbeknownst to me a distance relative has just died and left me a sufficiently large inheritance. In that case I would have a justified true belief, but fail to have knowledge.



  2. Huenemann Post author

    Thanks for posting, Richard. I guess I want to explore the consequences of saying, no, you’re not justified in believing the news report. I think I’m trying to be an externalist with regard to justification. So the idea is that I can certainly understand your believing the news report: on internalist grounds, it sure seems like you are justified in believing it. You have acted responsibly as an epistemic agent. In other words, your belief that your trust in the news report is justified is itself justified (since news reports on such things are usually highly reliable). But the “object-level” belief — that the report is right and you have won the lottery — is itself unjustified. You were wrong to believe it, though through no fault of your own. The TV station screwed up.

    Think of kids believing in Santa. Straightforwardly, we can see their belief is unjustified: the evidence is lousy at best, the idea is practically impossible, etc. But it is not their fault. They’ve been encouraged to believe this nonsense by authority figures who are generally reliable. So their belief that they are justified in believing in Santa is itself justified. But their belief in Santa is not.


  3. Huenemann Post author

    Come to think of it, I can get everything I want just by distinguishing a fallibilistic, internalist sense of “justification” from an externalist one, and insist that one be externalistically justified in order to have knowledge. I don’t need to go into “beliefs about beliefs,” I think.

    But I also now think that’s not what’s ultimately wrong in the Gettier examples. What’s wrong has to do with the proposition in question. To take Richard’s example, he infers from the TV news that he is now a millionaire. But somehow smuggled into that proposition is the cause of his wealth. The claim he comes to believe is really “Because I won that particular lottery, I am now a millionaire.” We could say that he also believes, simply, “I am a millionaire,” but it seems crazy to insist he believes that without it having anything to do with how he got the money. So when it turns out that the TV was wrong, and coincidentally his distant relative left him a million dollars, it isn’t the proposition he originally believed that turns out to be true.


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