Tuesday, March 13, 2007

These Things I Know, or Knew, Maybe

It is a popular topic for philosophers, the question “what is knowledge?” Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, three words succinctly answered this question: justified true belief. Like E=mc2 before it, K=jtb had a seductive simplicity which seemed to satisfy the sophist’s epistemic lust. Here’s why it seems to work:

Belief: In order to know that you have two children, for example, you must believe you have two children. You can’t know much without believing in it first. True: Your belief must be true in order to count as knowledge. I cannot know that the capital of California is Los Angeles because the object of my belief is false. Our beliefs must match up with the way the world really is for us to know our belief. Justified: Your true belief that this week’s lottery numbers are 8, 32, 16, 7, 29, & 2 must be justified in order for you to know the lottery numbers. For example, suppose on Monday I bought a lotto ticket with the numbers listed above and claimed to know these would be the winning numbers. Who would believe me? Very few… very, very, few (only a dozen people are even aware of this blog’s existence). But suppose Friday rolled around and the very same numbers I predicted five days earlier are drawn. Would anyone agree that I knew the winning numbers? Not normally… most you would assume it was simply luck, even if I truly believed those numbers would win. Without justification, my beliefs remain only beliefs, ungrounded. After I’ve won the lottery, and someone asks me, “What were this week’s numbers?” then I do KNOW the winning numbers—my belief is true, it matches the numbered ping pong balls that popped up during the drawing, and it is now justified by the newspaper that published the results, the live news broadcast, the lottery board writing me a check for $237,000,000, and the like. Now I know.

I knew until 1963, when a small-time assistant professor, Dr. Gettier, at Wayne State University somewhere in BFE destroyed knowledge in a two-page paper that was his first and only published work. Gettier destroyed our sexy definition of knowledge with a mere counterexample.

Suppose Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones work at Whole Foods (not Gettier’s choice but I’ve updated the story for my audience). Mr. Smith knows, i.e. has a justified true belief, that Mr. Jones will get the promotion to produce manager (suppose his boss Ms. White told him and Jones’s name is frosted across a congratulatory cake in the bakery, etc.). Mr. Smith also knows Mr. Jones has ten coins in his pocket—he’s counted them himself (they’re quite close). With this information, Mr. Smith deduces that the new producer manger will have ten coins in his pocket. However, when the big announcement comes from Whole Foods management, it is Mr. Smith who gets the job, not Mr. Jones. Oh, and guess what… Mr. Smith also has ten coins in his pocket. Breakdown:

Mr. Smith has a justified true belief about the new producer manager. His belief: The new manager will have ten coins in his pocket. His justification: Ms. White told him Mr. Jones would be the new manager and Mr. Smith knows Mr. Jones has ten coins in his pocket. The truth: The new manager has ten coins in his pocket. Ergo, Mr. Smith has a justified true belief, but does not appear to have knowledge because it is SMITH not JONES who is the new manager. FUCK.

1 comment:

Carrie Wiita said...

From a feminist historiography, I appreciate that you made the boss a woman.

Also from a feminist historiography...what kind of cake was it??