I Epistemology and the problem of objective knowledge

Masoud Mohammadi Alamuti

Section I: knowledge as justified true belief

What is the main task of epistemology? One short answer is that epistemology reveals the legitimacy of our concept of knowledge by explaining how achieving knowledge is possible. As Laurence BonJour (2010: 4) argues, the main epistemological question concerns the standards that must be satisfied for a claim of knowledge to be true. According to traditional epistemology, knowledge is justified true belief. In a different sense, knowledge is a special kind of belief that can be justified. As Alan Musgrave (1974: 561) points out, the idea of knowledge as justified true belief can be defined briefly in the following way: .. to say ‘I know X means something like ‘I believe X, and I can justify my belief in X, and X is true’”. The history of epistemology is, in fact, the history of a great debate about the truth or falsity of this central idea.

In short, one party in this debate, the dogmatists, assert that their belief in X is true because it can be justified. The opposing party, the sceptics, try to show that there can be no justification for the belief in X to be true. Hence, our theory of knowledge depends mainly on our answer to the question of whether our knowledge claims can be justified. In this chapter, I emphasize the central point that it is justificationism that has directed the focus in the main debate between dogmatists and the sceptics towards the wrong problem in their theories of knowledge: the question of whether or not argument or experience can justify a claim of knowledge.

It is worth noting that defining knowledge as justified true belief leads us to a theory of knowledge that formulates the knowing process through which objective knowledge in terms of justified true belief would be the result or conclusion. The next section will show that both the dogmatist and sceptic epistemologies offer justificationist solutions to the problem of objective knowledge that assume, from very beginning, that the knowing process must lead to justified true belief if it aims at creating objective knowledge. However, while the dogmatist claims that this process is capable of leading us to justified true belief at its conclusion, the sceptic argues that justified true belief would not be the result of such process and that objective knowledge is hence untenable.

Iii order to clarify the idea of knowledge as justified true belief, we need to refer to its three main conditions. As pointed out by Alan Musgrave (1993: 2),

. . . the first condition for the truth of a statement of the form ‘M knows that P” (where A is a person and P a proposition) is that A genuinely believes that P. But clearly belief is not enough: I may genuinely believe that someone is outside the door, but if in fact there is no one there I will not be said to know it. Belief is, as the philosophers say, a necessary condition for knowledge but not a sufficient condition. What else is required?

Musgrave (1993: 2) replies that a second condition is that ‘P is true’.

If I am to know that there is someone outside the door, then there really must be someone outside the door. Before the belief is entitled to be called “knowledge”, what is believed must be true. If I say "I know that P" and then find out that P is false, I will withdraw my claim to knowledge: I will say that I thought I knew that P but did not really know it.

Musgrave then asks if anything else is required and answers with:

A third condition for knowledge will be apparent in what has already been said. For me to know something it is not enough that I believe it and that it happens to be true; I must also be able to give reasons for my belief, or justify it. . . Only if I can justify my claim and show that it was not a lucky guess, will I be said to know it.

(Musgrave 1993: 3)

With these three conditions in mind, for a statement of the form A knows that P ’ to be correct, it must be the case that:

  • (1) A believes that P.
  • (2) P is tme.
  • (3) A can justify his belief in that P.

We have now arrived at the traditional philosophical distinction between genuine knowledge and mere belief or opinion: "genuine knowledge is justified true belief’ (Musgrave 1993: 3). The three conditions forknowledge incorporated into the traditional view (belief, truth and justification) are meant to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.

In 1963, Edmund L. Gettier wrote a short paper which generated a great deal of interest and has had enormous influence on subsequent developments in epistemology. Gettier (1963: 121-123) devises rather bizarre cases according to which a person has a justified true belief although we would not say that the person knew the proposition in question. Gettier's cases actually refute the idea of knowledge as justified tme belief. Gettier argues that, keeping in mind (a) as defined below, we can show that it does not state a sufficient condition for someone knowing a given proposition:

  • (a) S knows that P IFF (i) P is true.
  • (ii) S believes that P.
  • (iii) S is justified in believing that P.

Gettier (1963: 121) argues:

I shall begin by noting two points. First, in the sense of "justified” in which S’s being justified in believing P is a necessary condition of S’s knowing that P, it is possible for a person to be justified in believing a proposition that is in fact false. Secondly, for any proposition P, if S is justified in believing P, and P entails Q, and S deduces Q from P and accepts Q as a result of this deduction, then S is justified in believing Q.

Against this background, Musgrave (1993: 5) asks us to suppose that

Smith has a friend, Jones, who he knows has in the past always owned a Ford and who has just offered Smith a lift in a Ford. Smith justifiably believes (a) Jones owns a Ford. Smith has another friend. Brown, of whose whereabouts he is totally ignorant. However, Smith deduces from "Jones owns a Ford" the proposition (b) “Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona”, and so comes to believe this proposition too. Now suppose that Jones does not in fact own a Ford (the car he is driving is a rental car), but that by lucky chance Brown is in fact in Barcelona. Does Smith know (b)? Not intuitively not. Yet he believes (b), (b) is true, and he is justified in believing (b) since he deduced it from (a) which he justifiably believes.

This quotation presents an example indicating that the idea of objective knowledge as justified true belief is untenable (Gettier 1963: 122-123).

Defenders of the justified true belief account of knowledge must either bite the bullet and say that, contrary to intuition. Smith does know (b) or argue that he does not because one of the three conditions for knowledge is not satisfied, after all. The only plausible candidate for the unsatisfied condition is the third: Smith is not justified in believing (b). Gettier’s example has an importance consequence for justificationist epistemology: without conclusive reasons for justifying the truth of a claim of knowledge, objective knowledge would be untenable. In this sense, we should give the third condition for knowledge a strong interpretation, whereby justifying a belief means having conclusive reasons for it, reasons that do prove it. Therefore, it is not unfair to argue that a belief might not be entitled to be called ‘knowledge' if the reasons are less than conclusive. It is in this sense that traditional epistemology equalizes knowledge with justification. In regard to the

Gettier’s objection, it is the third condition, which has not been met, that makes Smith's belief in the proposition (b) true.

It is worthy of note that justification, by its very nature, has some kind of connection with truth. This can be seen by considering how the process of justifying a belief, conceived as showing that the belief has the property! of being justified, is always used to provide the grounds required for considering the belief true. Having said that, the standards we use for determining justification are responsive to our considered judgments about which internal sources tend to produce true beliefs. The way we comprehend justification therefore helps us to understand how our claim of knowledge is actually true.

Dogmatists and sceptics agree that knowledge, if it exists, is justified true belief. They disagree only about whether knowledge is attainable. They agree, in other words, that talk of absolute or objective truth makes sense only if that truth can be known - that a belief is ‘objective’ only if it is true and known to be true. They disagree only about whether anything can be known to be true and hence about whether any belief can be ‘objective’. Given the notion of knowledge as ■justified true belief’, I shall now review the dogmatic and sceptic epistemologies to see how they deal with the problem of objective knowledge.

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