I’m surprised to find myself here. I started out in philosophy as a very old-fashioned epistemologist, concerned with the question of how necessary truths are known, and I think there was a whole chapter in my thesis arguing against naturalist approaches. For what it’s worth, I’m still a sworn enemy of naturalist epistemology, when that is understood as the project of taking all questions about knowledge to be answerable through empirical methods (not least because there are deep and open epistemological questions about “empirical methods” that aren’t answerable this way). But I’ve come around to thinking that some research in epistemology can benefit immensely from engagement with the empirical, and especially with work on mental state attribution, the contrast between intuitive and reflective thought, and many other topics well covered here at Brains Blog. I lurk on this blog all the time. So first, thanks to John and Kristina for the work you’ve done here, and for the warm welcome.
Epistemology has changed very rapidly in the last half-century. Although Edmund Gettier wasn’t the first to discover cases of this kind (I think the Indo-Tibetan tradition beat him to it by about 1200 years) , his cases of apparently justified true belief without knowledge posed a stimulating challenge to then-dominant and rather dull theories about the relationship between knowledge and belief. Not only did his particular cases cut against the simple justified-true-belief approach, his method of crafting counterexamples seemed to work against an alarming range of other theories of knowledge. Even for baroque theories with many complex conditions to mop up problem cases, with practice, it wasn’t hard to devise a case that would be problematic. Those of us who have read the right recipe book start feeling like five minutes with a ballpoint pen and a cocktail napkin should be enough to generate an intuitive counterexample to any attempt at an analysis of knowledge (assuming it’s not already doomed as a circular analysis, illicitly helping itself to some epistemically-drenched notion). Come at me, bro.
What fascinates me in the Gettier literature is this: it’s amazing that we actually have instinctive responses to these artificial cases, at all. I’m not surprised that verdicts aren’t unanimous on Gettier cases; the stories are complex and typically open to various interpretations, and the task of knowledge attribution is subtle. What intrigues me, even in my own case, is that I’ll feel a sharp verdict at all, when facing some ridiculously novel scenario. Where is that feeling coming from?
It’s a hard question in part because we have such limited introspective insight into whatever is producing these feelings in us, as witnessed by the difficulties we’ve had coming up with an explicit theory we might be following in the way we draw the line between knowledge and belief.
One of the founding papers of experimental philosophy gave the question a pretty gloomy answer, suggesting that philosophers’ instinctive responses to Gettier cases were products of their contingent cultural training, and declaring that “most of the world’s population apparently does not share these intuitions” (Weinberg, Nichols and Stich 2001, 452). WNS’s 2001 suggestion that Gettier cases are not registered as such by cultural South Asians, in particular, struck me as wrong — I wondered about Narayan Champawat and John Turk Saunders’ clever 1964 paper against Michael Clark’s doomed effort to solve the Gettier problem, and I wondered about my own South Asian students, who seemed to respond to the Gettier problem the same way everyone else did. Working with Raymond Mar and Valerie San Juan, I did some work on this problem, and we found that our multicultural student population (similar in relevant ways to the population at Rutgers sampled by WNS) responded to Gettier cases (and other cases of epistemological interest) in the standard way, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Deeper and broader work has been done on this problem since, first by John Turri and Hamid Seyedsayamdost, and very strikingly by an international team led by Edouard Machery and including Stephen Stich himself, now finding that Gettier responses are universal. Thank goodness, back to the Gettier fun factory.
Looking at Gettier cases, especially with the recognition that others also tend to see them as cases where knowledge is absent, can give you the feeling that positive knowledge attribution should be rare: to know, it isn’t enough that you are right about something, or even that you are both right and in possession of what seems to you like great evidence — you have to meet an even stronger standard, where the nature of this standard is something that is very hard to articulate.
Nevertheless, we attribute knowledge all the time. Verbs meaning “know” get heavily and steadily used across languages. Take a look at graphs comparing use of the verbs “know” and “think” (and their translations) across a half-century, across a few languages. Here’s English (the verb meaning “knows” is always in red):
That red (“knows”) line is on top for many languages — and even in languages (like Mandarin Chinese) where a synonym of “think” is more popular, a verb meaning “know” remains very common — I have yet to find a language where “know” is out of the top 30 verbs. But why exactly are we speaking so much of knowing?
The steadiness of use over time makes verbs meaning “know” and “think” pop out like function words (for fun, compare use of “and” and “or” in all the languages you can think of). But if the function of mental state attribution is to anticipate behavior, why can’t we do more work with the less demanding notion of belief? We could add in the idea of getting it right, when we needed to — English and many other languages have perfectly good and economical ways of doing that (“Smith is right that P”).
My next post will look at some interesting differences between attributions of being right and knowing, looking at literature in linguistics and developmental psychology. With luck, we might even find some clues there about why Gettier cases don’t register as cases of knowledge.