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(This was originally written as a Facebook note in Summer 2010. Last night at our SASHA meeting we discussed Gettier problems, so I decided to repost it.)
Traditionally, knowledge is defined as a justified true belief. This means that a person, Seth, knows something if and only if he believes something that is true and he believes it for a justified reason. A counter-example of this definition of knowledge presents a story that hits all of those conditions, and yet many think that the person in the story does not have knowledge. These types of stories are called Gettier Problems. Here’s an example from the world cup.
Suppose Monday I was listening to the radio, and I heard the broadcaster discussing the championship game. He is a reliable sports talk show host who has been a respected source of information for many years. On his show, he says that the Netherlands won the world cup, and from previous shows I know that the Netherlands had never before won the world cup. Hence, I form the belief that “the team who won the world cup this year had never won it before.” This belief, call it “p”, is justified because it is based on a reliable source of information, and it is true, but not because the Netherlands won. Spain had also never won the world cup before, and in fact Spain won the world cup this year.
So here I have a justified belief that is true, but many would hesitate to call it knowledge. It seems like I only have a justified true belief on accident; it is just dumb luck that Spain had also never won the world cup before, and that is the fact that makes my belief true. There are two possibilities: 1) I knew prior to forming my belief “p” that Spain had never won the world cup before. 2) I did not know prior to forming my belief “p” that Spain had never won the world cup before. Would it make a difference which of these possibilities were actual?
If I knew that neither Spain nor the Netherlands had ever won the world cup before, and that they were the only possible teams to win this world cup, and that only one team would win, then it seems like I would have knowledge that “p”. In this case, however, it is not the radio host’s bad information that does the justifying, but rather my knowledge of the circumstances and simple deduction. In the second case, however, it does not seem right to say that I know “p”, because I did not know that Spain had never won the world cup before, I did not know that Spain won the world cup this year, and in fact deduced my belief from the false but justified belief that the Netherlands had won. So I think it is at least clear that in this second case, I have a justified true belief, but not knowledge.
If this counter-example is convincing, then you should ask yourself, what is wrong with that traditional definition? Does the belief have to be formed by some other reliable process? Should the belief be caused by something? Is it wrong to think of knowledge as a form of belief? What else would it be?
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers. Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!
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