The Problem With Gettier “Problems”

Please share!

Imagine that you look at the clock and it says 3:52, so you believe the time is 3:52. Do you know the time is 3:52? Suppose your clock stopped working, but it just so happened to stop working at 3:52. So you believe the time is 3:52, and it is true that the time is 3:52, but you based that belief on a clock you did not know was broken. So do you really know the time is 3:52?

The prevailing intuition seems to be that you would not know that it is 3:52 in such a scenario. This is an example of a Gettier problem which are thought experiments designed to undercut the idea that knowledge is justified, true belief (JTB). There are hundreds if not thousands of various Gettier problems circulating in philosophical literature, but they are all based on the same basic premise. Somebody forms a belief for some reason or another, they believe something that is true, but their reason for believing it is flawed.

To use a classic example, you might believe that your coworker, Mr. Nogot, owns a Ford because you saw him pull a set of keys to a Ford car out of his pocket. Little do you know that those keys are for a rental car, so it looks like you were wrong all along about Mr. Nogot owning a Ford. But wait! Mr. Nogot has a vintage Ford Mustang sitting in his garage at home, and he does own this one. So you believe Mr. Nogot owns a Ford because you see him holding Ford keys. You’re justified in your belief (you have a reason to believe he owns a Ford). And the belief is true. He does indeed own a Ford. Therefore, based on your flawed assumption that the keys Mr. Nogot is holding belong to a car that he owns, you know that he owns a Ford because he has a Mustang you know nothing about.

The point of the Gettier problem is that you don’t actually know Mr. Nogot has a Ford, therefore justified true belief is not sufficient. There must be an additional qualifier of some sort to define knowledge that escapes Gettier problems.

It is necessary to step back for a second. In every Gettier case with which I am familiar, there is some sort of monkey wrench. There is some sort of tacit assumption on the part of the believer which is made false by some circumstance of which the believer is unaware, and the falsity of that tacit assumption undermines their justification for believing whatever it was their tacit assumption played a role in justifying.

Returning to the clock example, suppose I told you that the clock was broken, then you looked at the clock, and saw that the clock said that it was 3:52. Would you still believe that it was 3:52? I would hope not. That is because in order to believe a clock, you would assume that it is working (or that for some reason or another you had really good odds that it was one of two points in the day in which the clock would be right). If I told you that Mr. Nogot’s keys were for a rental car, you would no-longer believe that he owned a Ford unless you found some other justification for believing that he owned a Ford.

So what changed? Tacit assumptions in your justification changed. In the Gettier examples we laid out, the believer tacitly assumed false premises which led him to a false conclusion. But when you found out that some of your tacitly assumed false premises were indeed false, you recognized that you were no-longer justified in concluding what you had previously concluded.

This raises the question of whether you were ever justified in your misled but true beliefs in the first place. In one sense of the word “justified” you had seemingly good reasons to believe that the time was 3:52 or that Mr. Nogot had a Ford, so in a loose sense you were justified. In a more strict sense of justification, you were never actually justified because things you had tacitly assumed in your justification were false. Your justification was flawed, therefore, strictly speaking, you were not justified.

This could raise the concern that somebody is only strictly justified and has knowledge when they know that their justification is infallible. However this does not seem necessary. I could tacitly assume that a clock is working, it is indeed the case that the clock is working, and therefore conclude that it is telling me the correct time. In such a scenario I am actually justified because my justification rests on true premises, therefore I know that whatever the clock says is the correct time. If the clock were not working, and I still tacitly assumed that the clock was working and therefore telling me the correct time then I would not be justified because my justification rested on false premises. Perhaps there is a little bit of luck involved, and perhaps I should be more cautious about what I tacitly assume, but it seems perfectly reasonable to say that I only have knowledge when I am strictly justified (in the sense that my justification does not rest on false premises) in my belief which is also true.

The point of Gettier problems is to undermine justified true belief. But if it only undermines people in scenarios in which they were not strictly justified because their justification rested on false premises (assumed or not), then Gettier problems aren’t actually a problem for justified true belief. They are just examples of people thinking they are justified when they really are not.

Gettier problems seem good at making people rethink what tacit assumptions they rely upon, and that seems like the extent of what the Gettier problem has to offer. In order to actually undermine justified true belief, a Gettier problem must demonstrate an example of somebody being strictly justified in their true belief, but still not having knowledge. I am not saying that such a counterexample does not exist, but I have not yet encountered one and I encourage the reader to present me with one.

 

Credit to Timothy and Lydia McGrew’s Internalism and Epistemology for introducing me to the idea of using two senses of justification to resolve the Gettier problem.

Kyle Huitt
Follow me

Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
Follow me
(Visited 19 times, 1 visits today)
Please share!