The Theory of Knowledge – Do you really know?

The theory of knowledge, epistemology, has had philosophers debating since the ancient Greek era of Socrates. The term epistemology is derived from the two Greek words episteme and logos, translating to knowledge and study of, respectively. In order to define knowledge, this discussion will be based on conceptual analysis, which means to give certain conditions, such that satisfying them will give us knowledge. These conditions branch off into two main categories: necessary and sufficient. The basic formula for necessary conditions is – Q is necessary for P; P cannot hold true without Q. The necessary condition in order for John to be a man, is that he be a mammal; a mandatory requirement. On the other hand, the basic formula for sufficient conditions is – Q is sufficient for P; P to be true is adequate ground for Q to be true. Now applying this condition into the same example, John being a man is sufficient to know that he is a mammal.

The three conditions imposed upon knowledge are – You know that P – if and only if, 

  1. P is true.
  2. You are sure that P.
  3. You are justified in believing that P.

In order for one to know P, it is essential that P hold true, otherwise one would not know P. For example, in order for Ahmad to know Bilal drank water, it is necessary that Bilal had drank water. The second condition given for knowing is the belief of knowing. One cannot not believe in knowing and know at the same time. Finally, one must be justified in their belief of knowing. A famous example to better the understanding of this condition is the example of an individual who is the target of paranoia in belief that everyone is out to kill them. Now suppose that in reality, a person is out to kill that individual. Bringing this scenario back to the conditions given, it is clear that the first two have been met, since both the thought that someone is out to kill is true and the individual is sure of it. However, the individual’s belief in that thought is not justified, and the thought that someone is out to kill them is a mere corollary of their paranoia; thus, they do not know.

The three conditions presented were widely accepted by the majority of philosophers, pre-20th century. However, the famous American philosopher, Edmund Gettier, provoked a new belief in his 1963 paper titled, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, proving through a counterexample that these three conditions were not sufficient to know. The counterexample is as follows: Smith and Jones are outside, conversing in the lobby of an interview room, waiting for their job interviews. During the conversation, Jones’ coins in his pocket are brought up, showing to both Smith and Jones that he has 10 coins in his pocket. Smith goes in for his interview, and completely bombs it, leading to the interviewer telling him Jones will get the job. Whilst leaving the interview hall, Smith thinks to himself, “The person with the 10 coins in his pocket will get the job”. In reality, Smith is to get the job since the interviewer was merely testing his ability to react to certain situations. Furthermore, Smith also has 10 coins in his pocket and simply did not count them. This counterexample fulfills all three of the conditions – the person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, he is sure of it, and his belief in being sure is justified, yet Smith still does not know he will be the one to get the job. Hence, a fourth condition is introduced, 4) The belief is not inferred from false belief. This condition satisfies the counterexample presented by Edmund Gettier, since Smith’s belief was inferred from a false belief.

The question which now arises is – are these conditions sufficient to know? No. In order to prove the incompleteness of these conditions, one must provide a counterexample proving so; hence, the famous example of the barns on the hills. Suppose you are driving down a country side, and you see multiple hills with barns on top of them. When you reach the 10th hill, you think to yourself “Oh look, there’s a barn on that hill”. Now in reality, there is a movie shooting going on, and a director has arranged for facades to be put up on the hills which do not have barns. Luckily for you, that 10th hill which you thought about did not need a facade as it already had a barn on it from before. Now if the four conditions are applied to this counterexample then firstly, it is shown that the barn is there, hence it is true. Secondly, you are sure that it is true. Next, your belief in being sure is justified as you saw it with your own eyes, and last, the belief is not inferred from a false belief. However, now let us suppose the director did put up a facade on the last hill, you would still think the same. Therefore, you simply lucked out by thinking about the last barn, and in reality you did not know. Thus, we are yet again in need of a condition, 5) Your belief is sensitive. Sensitivity is if it hadn’t been the case that P, one would not have believed that P.

Now if one has learned anything from this reading, it should be that there is more to these conditions. A simple variation to the story of the barn provides sufficient evidence to corroborate the deficiency of the conditions. Whilst preparing for the shooting, the director had in mind that there would be 9 hills and they would need 6 facades. When his team arrived on site, they started putting up the facades one by one, skipping the 3 hills with the legitimate barns the director had in mind. After placing the final facade on the 9th hill, the director realized his blunder, seeing a 10th hill to his luck with a barn on it. Now we must keep in mind that if there hadn’t been a barn on the last hill, there would be nothing on that hill (not even a facade)In this version of the scenario, the thought of the barn holds true, you are sure of the thought, your surety is justified, your belief is not inferred from a false belief, and your belief is sensitive because if there had not been a barn up on that hill, you would not have thought about the barn being on the hill since the director ran out of facades to place up. Yet again, despite the fulfillment of the previous conditions, knowledge is not present since the person in the scenario simply lucked out; for there was a barn present when the director ran out of facades. Hence, the sixth condition, 6) Your beliefs on the matter are mostly accurate. This condition satisfies the previous counterexample since the beliefs on the previous barns were mostly based on inaccurate fake barns.

Here is one final counterexample to complete this insufficient list of conditions. Suppose you are driving down fake barn country, a country with hundreds of fake facade like barns, with the exception of only 4-5 real barns. Now it just so happens that you get exceptionally lucky and only drive by these select few real barns in the countryside full of fake barns. Once again, you drive past the final hill with the barn on it, and think to yourself “there’s a barn on that hill”. This situation gratifies the sixth condition as well, since the beliefs on the matter are mostly accurate as the only barns you were exposed to were genuine barns. However, you simply had incredibly good fortune that you just so happened to take that one route which exposed you to this particular set of barns; therefore you still did not have knowledge about the last barn on the hill. This induces us to the final and quite possibly the most controversial and debated condition of knowing, 7) You believe P by a reliable method. In combination with all the previous prerequisites, one could only get a glimpse of what it actually is to know. Another thing to keep in mind is that this condition is subservient on what is meant by reliable, a question still haunting contemporary epistemologists. Thus in summary, one can know P – if and only if

  1. P is true.
  2. You are sure that P.
  3. You are justified in being sure that P.
  4. P was not inferred from false belief.
  5. If P was untrue, you would have not believed it.
  6. Your beliefs in these matters are mostly accurate.
  7. You believe P by a reliable method.

Got any counterexamples to disprove the seventh condition? Comment below!


Posted on February 3, 2014, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is great. I just wrote a post on the same topic a little while ago, and I was trying to get different views on it. Your analysis incorporates a lot of what I was thinking about. Now your condition number 5 is derived from Nozick’s analysis, or famous “tracking theory,” which was a response to Gettier. Do you think he was successful in settling these Gettier cases with his analysis?

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