Have you ever been right about something and had no idea that you were?
You didn’t know that you knew?
You might have said you made a lucky guess or blessed by divine intervention or divine insight or you had a “gut feeling”.
You might have even said you had an intuition.
Unless that philosopher is Immanuel Kant. He would tell you an intuition is something completely different.*
If you asked another philosopher (besides Kant), he might suggest that what you had experienced a Gettier example.
Sometimes they’re called Gettier problems.
that’s when you’re right about something but you’re only accidentally right about it — that’s a Gettier problem.
I once made a T-shirt. It said this:
I thought it was funny at the time.
If you’re wondering why I’ve bothered to ask if anyone has ever been accidentally right about something it’s because yes, philosophers think about this stuff.
And if you’re curious to know the name of the philosopher that started philsophers thinking about this stuff, his name is Edmund Gettier.
Remember: his name is Edmund Gettier
Gettier’s motivation was that he wanted to know if our truth claims are justified – oh wait, I just used some jargon.
And as my expository writing professor once said, never introduce jargon without explaining your terms.
Or did the MLA Handbook say that?
Ok, first. A “truth claim” is a statement we make about the world (or some state of affairs in the world). For instance, if I say that it is raining outside, or I claim that chewing gum does lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight, or that I know why the caged bird sings, or I know the way to San Jose, I am making a claim about something (or some state of affairs) in the world. Gettier’s point, or mission, if you will, was to determine how we are justified in saying we know something or that we know that our claim is true.
You see, Gettier knew, as we all do, that we live in a world where people make lucky guesses or are just accidentally right. Gettier wanted to figure out how we deal with (epistemologically speaking) lucky guesses, coincidences, or when our truth claims just happen to be true.
It’s possible that our truth claims (or as every other person who’s not a philosophcer calls them, “beliefs”) are both true and justified, but we can’t really say that we know that to be the case.
Ok, let me put it this way: Some of our beliefs are justified and true, but they do not count as “knowledge”. That is to say, we can’t say that we know (or absolutely certain that) this or that statement is true. In his essay, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” (1963), Gettier asks how can our beliefs be true and justified but not knowledge?
Philosophers say for a truth claim to qualify as knowledge it must meet three criteria:
1. X (the truth claim) must be true
2. I believe X is true
3. I am entitled (or justified) in believing that X is true
Is this making sense so far?
If it doesn’t I’m explaining it correctly.
Ok, let’s use an example:
You’re driving in your car. You turn on the radio.
Ten bonus points if you know what song I just quoted.
You glance out of your window and you see a field full of white, billowy creatures you assume are sheep. You think you see sheep because they’re white, they’re fluffy, and they appear to be grazing in a field – which is exactly what you’d expect sheep to be doing in a field.
But, if you were in the field, you’d see that you weren’t looking at sheep at all. You were actually looking at a pack of unusually large and very hairy bichon frise dogs.
So you’re wrong. You didn’t see sheep. You can’t say you know there are sheep in the field.
But, behind a barn in the field there was an actual flock of sheep. You didn’t see the real sheep, but your were accidentally correct in saying there are sheep in the field.
Just by dumb luck or coincidence you made a true statement.
Do you kinda get it, now?
So if I say that I believe that it is raining outside and I want to say I am justified in believing that it is, using the three criteria, this is how I determine justification:
I look outside my window.
I see that the ground outdoors is wet.
I see that there is precipitation falling from the sky.
I smell rain and I hear rain falling against the window and on my roof and I notice that the water stain on my is ceiling bigger than it was before it started raining.
And I recall that the local Accuweather forecast predicted rain.
Based on science (the weather forecast) and my own observation, I conclude that:
1. It is true that it is raining
2. I believe that it is raining
3. I am justified in believing that it is raining
Simple enough, right?
Well, no. because sometimes, as anyone who has ever panicked because
I thought that I they saw a hooded man lurking in the closet when it was just a pile of clothes and a hat can tell you, sometimes we aren’t accidentally right. We should want to rely on more than lucky guesses or accidental truths for knowledge. If we rely on dumb luck we can’t say that we actually know — we lack real knowledge.
It might not seem all that important but justification matters.
If I think that my (otherwise indoor) cat has escaped and is outside roaming about the neighborhood, I want to know, before I start to look for him, if I am justified in believing that my cat has escaped from my house. So, I ask myself how do I know my cat is outdoors?
I decide to make checklist:
I don’t see my cat in the house.
I saw something (I’m assuming an animal) approximately the size and color of my cat outside darting through the bushes next to my neighbor’s parked car
May cat is not responding when I call his name
(actually, my cat never responds to his name. if anyone has any tips for teaching a cat to respond to his name, please let me know).
My cat has escaped from the house several times and each time he’s escaped I found him in the bushes.
So far, so good. I have enough evidence to believe that my cat is outside in my neighbor’s bushes.
But there’s a problem.
Saw this coming, right?
My cat is outdoors but he’s not in the bushes like I believed. I didn’t see my cat at all. What I saw dart into the bushes wasn’t my cat but a small, cat-sized chupacabra. My cat is actually hiding from the goat sucker underneath my neighbor’s car which is parked next to the bushes. According to Edmund Gettier I didn’t really know that my cat was outside– it was a lucky guess that I was right.
If this is the case, I’m free to say I know my cat is outdoors.
But, often times my cat isn’t outdoors at all. He’s napping under my bed.
If this is the case I was not entitled to believe my cat was outdoors; I did not possess knowledge.
This might not seem all that important but it really is. When we think about our beliefs about major issues like climate change, or claims about enemy combatants or that a “rogue” state possesses weapons of mass destruction, or even our beliefs about the extent of our own knowledge, we want to make sure that we are justified in believing that global temperatures are rising or that a nation possesses a potentially threatening nuclear or chemical arsenal or even that we know that we exist. We want to truly know. We want to make sure that our beliefs aren’t mere lucky guesses, but firmly based on – OH MY GOD, THERE’S A FREAKING CHUPACABRA IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD!!!!
* If you’re curious about Kant’s definition of an intuition, check out sec.1 (A21/B36) of the Transcendental Aesthetic in Kant’s Critique of Pure reason. I can’t tell you which translation of Kant’s Critique is best or that you’ll enjoy reading it (you probably won‘t), but if you can explain to me (in 2 paragraphs or less) what they hell Kant is writing about let me know. Seriously, let me know. Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember: 2 paragraphs or less.
Richard Feldman. Epistemology. 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Edmund Gettier “Is Justfied True Belief Knowledge?” 1963.