Intro to Philosophy – Week 2 – Epistemology


  • studying and theorising about our knowledge of the world.
  • we have lots of information, but how do we tell good information from bad information?
  • “propositional knowledge” = knowledge that a certain proposition is the case
  • “proposition” = what is expressed by a declarative sentence, i.e., a sentence that declares that something is the case.
    • e.g., “the cat is on the mat” is a sentence about how the world is
    • it can be true or false
  • not all statements are declarative (e.g., “Shut that door” is not a sentence that declares how the world is. It cannot be true or false).
  • “ability knowledge” = know-how (e.g., knowing how to ride a bike)
  • two conditions for propositional knowledge
    • truth condition – if you know something is the case (e.g., you know that the cat is on the mat), then it has to be true (e.g., the cat really is on the mat)
      • you cannot know a falsehood
      • you can think you know a falsehood, but you cannot actually know it
        • we are interested in when you actually know something, not just when you think you know
    • belief – knowledge requires that you believe it to be true (e.g., if you don’t believe Paris is the capital of France, you cannot have the knowledge that Paris is the capital of France
      • when someone says “I don’t just believe that Paris is the capital of France, I know that Paris is the capital of France.” But this doesn’t mean that belief in a proposition is different in kind from knowledge of that proposition, just that we don’t merely believe it, but that we also take ourselves to know that proposition, and this is indicative of the fact that a knowledge claim is stronger than a belief claim. (i.e., knowledge at the very least requires belief).
  • this doesn’t mean you have to be infallible or certain, but if you are wrong about the fact, then you didn’t really know it (you just thought you did)
  • also, when we talk about propositional knowledge, we aren’t talking about knowledge that something is likely or probably true – we are talking about something that either is or is not true
    • we do sometimes “qualify” or “hedge” our knowledge claims (perhaps because we are unsure), but we are really concerned with actual true
  • knowledge isn’t just about getting it right – it also requires getting to the truth in the right kind of way
    • e.g., imagine a trial where the accused is, in fact, guilty. One juror decides that the accused is guilty based on considering the evidence/judge’s instructions/the law, while another juror decides the accused is guilty based on prejudice without listening to any of the evidence. Although they both “got it right” (i.e., what they believe is true), the first juror knows the accused is guilty, but the second juror does not know it
  • there are two intuitions about the nature of knowledge:
    • anti-luck intuition – it’s not a matter of luck that you ended up at the right answer; you actually formed your belief in the right kind of way (e.g., considering the evidence, making reasoned arguments), not that you got to the truth randomly/by chance
    • ability intuition – you get to the truth through your ability (e.g., the juror who used prejudice and happened to get the right answer did not get to the right answer by their abilities)

The Classical Account of Knowledge and the Gettier Problem

  • knowledge requires more than just truth and belief – but what is it that is required?
  • the classical account of knowledge (a.k.a., the tripartite account of knowledge):
    1. the proposition is true
    2. one believes it
    3. one’s belief is justified (i.e, you can offer good reasons in support of why you believe what you do)
  • until the mid-1960s, this classical account of knowledge was accepted by most people
  • but in 1963, Edmund Gettier published a 2.5 page paper that demolished this account – he showed some counter-examples of situations that fit the three above named criteria, but where people don’t know – they actually come to their belief by luck
  • his examples were very complicated, but here are some simple counter examples (we can call them Gettier-style cases)
  • e.g., the stopped clock example:
    • you come downstairs and see the clock says 8 am and you believe, based on the justification that this clock has always been reliable, that it is 8 am. And it happens to be 8 am. So you have a justified true belief (i.e., it satisfies the classical account of knowledge). But imagine the clock stopped 12 hours ago, but you just happened to look at the clock when it was 8 am – so you got it right by luck. So you cannot actually know the time based on looking at a stopped clock!
  • e.g., the sheep case
    • a farmer looks out his window, sees what looks like a sheep, and believes there is a sheep in the field. There is a sheep in the field, but it is hidden behind a sheep-shaped rock, which is what the farmer actually saw. So his belief is true (i.e., there is a sheep in the field) and he has a justification (he sees what looks like a sheep in the field), but he got it right only by sheer luck that there was a sheep hidden behind that rock. If there had not been a sheep hidden behind that rock, he would be believe there was a sheep in the field and he would be wrong. So he does not actually know there is a sheep in the field (he just thinks he knows and happens to be right just by luck)
  • people try to attack Gettier-style cases – e.g., asking “does the farmer really believe that there is a sheep in the field or do they believe that the rock is a sheep?” because if it is the latter, then they have a false belief (i.e., the rock is not a sheep) and thus it does not violate the classical account of knowledge – but this is just attacking a single case – to knock down Gettier-style cases in general, you’d need to think about Gettier-style cases as a whole and find a way to blow up the whole thing
  • there is a general formula for constructing Gettier-style cases
    • take a belief that is formed in such a way that it would usefully result in a false belief, but which is still justified (e.g., looking at something that looks like a sheep, or looking at a stopped clock)
    • make the belief true, for reasons hat have nothing to do with the justification (e.g., hidden sheep, happening to look at the stopped clock at the right time)
  • at first, people thought there would be some simple fix (e.g., adding a fourth condition onto the classical account), but after much trying, no one has found a way to do this
  • one example of how someone tried
    • Keith Lehrere proposed adding a fourth conditions that says the subject isn’t basing their belief on any false assumptions (a.k.a., “lemmas”)
    • this sounds like a reasonable approach
    • but what do we mean by “assumptions”?
    • a narrow definition of “assumptions” = something that the subject is actively thinking about (but you don’t look at the clock and actively think “I assume the clock is working” – you just believe it is without actively thinking about that assumption)
    • a broad definition of “assumptions” = a belief you have this is in some sense germane to the target belief in the Gettier-style case (e.g., you do believe the clock is working even though you aren’t actively thinking that) – but this is so broad that it will exclude genuine cases of knowledge because of all the things we believe, some of them may false, so then we’d exclude genuine cases of knowledge
  • two questions raised by Gettier-style cases
    1. is justification even necessary for knowledge?
    2. how does one go about eliminating knowledge-undermining luck?
  • so, it really is not that obvious what knowledge is

Do We Have Any Knowledge?

  • radical skepticism contends that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know – and in its most extreme form suggests that we can’t know anything
  • skeptical hypotheses are scenarios that are indistinguishable from normal life, so you can’t possibly know they aren’t occurring
    • e.g. brain-in-a-vat – if you were a brain in a vat being feed the necessary nutrients to stay alive and being fed fake experiences
    • there is no way to know this isn’t true because any “evidence” you can provide against it (e.g., I can feel objects around me, I can have a conversation with you) could be explained by the situation of being a brain in a vat (e.g., your brain is being fed signals that make it appear that you can feel objects or have a conversation)
    • note that radical skepticism isn’t saying you are a brain-in-a-vat or even that it’s likely that you are a brain-in-a-vat. It’s just asking “How would you know that you aren’t a brain-in-a-vat?” And really, you can’t know.
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