Why isn't true belief sufficient for knowledge? Thomas Harris

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1 1 Why isn't true belief sufficient for knowledge? Thomas Harris A DIALOGUE Teacher: The first thing is to better understand the terms 'knowledge' and 'belief'. Every day we say that we know things: 'I know how to play piano', 'I know Roberto', 'I know that God exists'. Epistemology is principally concerned with propositional knowledge - whether something is true or false. Of the above examples, only 'I know that God exists' is a propositional, truth-related statement. It contains the proposition of the fact 'God exists'. When we talk about belief, it is about belief in propositions. It is our opinion on whether a proposition is true. To have an opinion is to claim to know. But opinions can clash, and be mutually exclusive. God cannot simultaneously exist and not exist. Student: What about Buddha? 1 Teacher: [choosing to ignore] So we can differentiate between belief and knowledge; belief is an opinion of how things are, and knowledge is awareness of how things are. Beliefs can be false, however you cannot say "he knows it but it's false". 2 What we want to discover is if you can say 'he believes and knows it'. Student: So is '1+1=2' an opinion, or knowledge? 1 [Non-existence] exists so there is non-existence of existence; non-existence exists so there is non-existence of non-existence. Xingjian, G., Soul Mountain, pg Feldman, R., Epistemology, pg. 12

2 2 Teacher:...It would be impossible to disbelieve the proposition. If I understand '1+1 2' properly, how can I believe it? I am compelled to believe otherwise. As there is only one belief available as a 'live option' I would say it is knowledge, through rational insight. Student: So if you understand a priori truths, you believe and know them - but what about empirical truths? Does understanding these give you knowledge? Teacher: Epistemically, at the very least we can have true beliefs (TBs) about empirical truths. But TB has its problems. Suppose that from looking at the clouds, I believe it will rain. And then it does. 3 Student: Your belief was true. Teacher: Yes, but it need not have been so. Alternatively suppose I believe in Heaven (H), and discover after dying that my belief was true. But it might not have been (~H). Neither H or ~H was necessarily true... at least from my understanding at the time that I formed the belief. It seems wrong to claim that these TBs give me knowledge independent of whether I know they are true. Something more is needed - something that can indicate whether the belief is true to the believer - there needs to be good justification for believing. TB is insufficient for knowledge because knowledge is the awareness of, not merely the potentially accidental belief in, the truth of a proposition. 3 Ibid., pg. 13

3 3 Student: But what is justification? Teacher: There are several approaches - evidentialism commonsensically claims that evidence from perception, memory, introspection and rational insight justifies our beliefs. 4 Whereas reliabilists think that justification depends on reliably operating faculties, which neatly deals with brain-in-a-vat -type problems. 5 Coherentialism sees beliefs as being cross-justified against each other in belief systems, so that beliefs that 'fit' in the system are justified. All these theories overlap because they all use rationality, in different ways, to measure justification. I tend to integrate them - you could say that evidence must be reliably collected, and analyzed within a system in order to be useful. Student: You said before that justification indicated truth. Using any of these definitions of justification - take your pick - is forming a justified true belief (JTB) sufficient for knowledge? Teacher: I don't think so, because justified beliefs can be false. Take optical illusions. They show that our perceptions are fallible, even though we continuously use perception to form beliefs. Gettier counterexamples take this further. 6 Try and google 'cow in field Gettier' or 'ten coins Gettier' sometime. Student: Actually I know these examples very well. Doesn't Gettier use them to show that we can have justified beliefs that are true, 4 Audi, R., Belief, Justification, and Knowledge, pg. 5 5 See Brueckner, T., Brains in a Vat, URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/brain-vat/> 6 Gettier, E., Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?

4 4 where the justification itself is plausible but actually irrelevant? Which can lead to someone having an accidentally true justified belief, if the belief just so happened to be true anyway. Just like TB. Teacher: Exactly. Someone can come to the truth - or the false - for the wrong reasons, because we use justifications to infer beliefs but justifications are themselves fallible - they offer no guarantee of truth. Gettier's examples fulfil the criteria of JTB, but we would be uncomfortable to call the resulting beliefs knowledge. Student: I doubt Gettier's understanding of justification. I think that in this context something (reason j) can only be considered justification if it directly indicates to the thinker that something (p) is or isn't true. Suppose j justifies both propositions p and q, but I am only aware of and concerned with p. Surely, j is justification for p, but should not be considered so for q in terms of my beliefs. How could it be justification if I do not have belief q, or am not expressly using j to justify q? Although a log could be used to sit upon I wouldn't consider it a seat unless that's what I was using it for - even if unknown to me someone was sitting on it. Although justifications may still apply to other beliefs, if I am not expressly applying them they can hardly be justifications for my beliefs. 7 Teacher: Your argument opens a can of socially constructed worms, by implying that rationality, through justification, can be relative. Let's not get into relativism now. More importantly, your objection doesn't address the fact that justifications are as fallible as beliefs. 7 Note that Audi disagrees with this premise (Audi, pg. 2)

5 5 Student: What if to account for that fallibility we added to JTB the apparent condition that "nothing can be known which is inferred from a false belief" or justification? 8 Thus if I falsely believe you are John, I can't know that your brother is John's brother, even if you did both have a third brother called John. Teacher: But how would you ever know that the first belief is false? Or that any belief is false? Sceptics would say that we can never be absolutely sure of any beliefs - we might be dreaming, say. So we don't ever know whether we are inferring from false beliefs- Student: -Hang on! If you take scepticism as a starting point, you might as well forget empirical knowledge! Our discussion becomes hopeless. As to justification's fallibility, are all types of justification fallible? What about justification derived from rational insight, or introspection? Teacher: Rational insight is infallible, but I don't see how how a priori knowledge can justify empirical knowledge. Rational insight only gives us a very small slice of all the knowledge we claim to have. Introspection shows even less - it just tells me what I am thinking or feeling, not whether that content is true. Student: Admittedly, it seems JTB can't guarantee knowledge, but neither sceptics nor Gettier have surpassed it for pragmatism. Teacher: It's a valid point - is our definition of knowledge too stringent for practical use? Let's break it down. I would say that 8 Dancy, J., An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, pg. 27

6 6 empirically, belief is our only answer to the question What is true? Whereas knowledge is the answer to the question What is truth? 9 Truth is a faithful correspondence between 2 things - a painting and a model, my thought and your thought, a conception of something and the reality; all truth is relational. So what two things are being compared? On one side are my ideas or experiences. On the other side is the external world - things, other people's ideas/experiences, and so on. Anything external. The fundamental flaw in any theory of knowledge is the problem of the Lockean veil of perception; of not knowing if what we experience is true to reality. With regards to the world, we can merely believe. Student: But surely we shouldn't undervalue belief. Think of the wonders of science, derived principally from a JTB ideology of "approximate knowledge", 10 whether or not it is correct. With 'proper probabilification' 11 - believing what is probable according to a mixture of rationality and sense experience, as in the scientific method - our beliefs become fuels for success. As to 'merely' believing, how useful is knowledge? Actually, knowledge isn't very important if you divorce it from practical value. Sometimes false belief can be more useful than knowledge or true belief; like in evolutionary psychology, where the persistent male's belief that 'women adore me' will bolster his confidence and increase the likelihood of progeny. At the end of the day, "beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival". 12 Teacher: As a teacher, I think that true beliefs are generally more 9 Adler, M.J., How to Think about the Great Ideas, pg Audi, pg Steup, M., Epistemology, under Deontological Justification. 12 Wilson, E., On Human Nature, pg. 3

7 7 useful than false ones, with respect to survival and success and gradepoint-averages. But I get your point, and I think William James' controversial proclamation that 'a leap of faith is better than rational scepticism' is more sensible than Blackburn and many other philosophers have given credit. 13 Please let me summarize our discussion: first we compared knowledge and belief as an awareness versus an opinion of reality. We decided that rational insight counts as knowledge because it leaves no room for opinion. We then saw that true belief is insufficient for knowledge because one can truly believe without an awareness of the truth. Justification failed to solve the problem, because it cannot guarantee truth. This was built upon by Gettier who showed that JTB's can be accidentally true. It appears that the only kind of justification that is infallible is rational insight, and that cannot explain the whole world to us. At this point you declared that sometimes belief is even more useful than knowledge. It also seems JTB is the most useful theory of knowledge - or belief - that we have. Well! I don't think I know anything more than when we started - except for the phrase 'proper problification'. But I hope you are now at least aware of the weaknesses of the JTB system that we are obliged daily to use. Bibliography Books Adler, M. J., How to Think about The Great Ideas, ed. Max Weismann, Chicago: Open Court, Audi, R., Belief, Justification, and Knowledge, Belmont: Wadsworth, Blackburn, S., Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, pg. 4

8 8 Blackburn, S., Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, London: Allen Lane, Chomsky, N., Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, New York: Vintage Books, Dancy, J., An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Oxford; New York: B. Blackwell, Feldman, R., Epistemology, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, Gettier, E., Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?, Analysis 23 (1963) pp Online Articles Brueckner, T., Brains in a Vat, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2008 Edition, URL = Steup, M., Epistemology, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2010 Edition, URL = Incidental Books Wilson, E., On Human Nature, Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, Xingjian, G., Soul Mountain, Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 2000.

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