The traditional philosophical definition of knowledge for centuries was stated in the following form or some form similar to it:
Subject S knows a proposition P IFF (i) P is true
(ii) S believes that P, and
(iii) S is justified in believing that P.
The truth of P is undisputed as being a necessary condition for knowledge. The idea of belief has been interpreted as S accepting P (Chisholm) or S is sure that P is true (Ayer), adding further dimension to the idea of belief yet maintaining it as a necessary condition for knowledge. However, there is a definite gap between a true belief and knowledge. Justification has traditionally been used to fill the gap between true belief and knowledge, but the idea of justification is problematic because it is unclear and complex. The ability of justification to fill that gap became suspect following the publication of Edmund Gettier’s essay Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? in 1963. In my essay I will state Gettier’s claim and what his claim shows about the relationship between knowledge and the components of its traditional definition. I will then use Richard Feldman’s argument as an additional example of the position that a “fourth component” is necessary in a definition of knowledge. Next I will explain John Pollack’s claim that “Objective Justification” will eliminate the need for a “fourth component” by tightening the relationship between truth and belief formation. Then I will address the claim of William Alston that justification is not a necessary condition for knowledge. The last claim I will introduce is that of Alvin Plantinga, who claims that “warrant” is what turns a true belief into knowledge, and the key to understanding what knowledge is lies in understanding the procedure that produces warrant. Finally, I will conclude with my thoughts concerning the process of justification.
In 1963, Edmond Gettier brought it to our attention that there was a problem with the definition of knowledge. Gettier claimed that the traditional definition of knowledge is false because its conditions do not constitute a sufficient condition for the truth of the proposition that S knows that P. The conditions of justified true belief are true for some propositions, but at the same time it is false that the subject knows the proposition. Gettier cases demonstrate that it is possible to have a justified true belief and still lack knowledge. These cases show that when the justification for the belief is not connected to the facts that make the belief true, then it is possible to satisfy the tripartite account of knowledge and still fail to have knowledge. The subject’s justified true belief could be gained by luck, and luck cannot be knowledge. Gettier himself had nothing to offer as a possible fix, but now that epistemologists understood that something else was missing, and the search was on for a “fourth condition” that would address Gettier’s claim and provide a sufficient definition of knowledge.
Gettier relies on the use of false evidence or beliefs to justify a proposition, leading to his conclusion that false beliefs or evidence cannot justify other propositions. Richard Feldman, in his essay An Alleged Defect in Gettier Counterexamples, claims that even if a proposition can be justified for a person only if his evidence is true (as was argued by Meyers and Stern), or only if he knows it to be true (as argued by D.M. Armstrong), there are still counterexamples to the justified true belief analysis of knowledge of the Gettier sort. (Feldman, p.242) If we alter the Gettier formula slightly so that what justifies the proposition is true (truth connectivity) and the subject knows that it is true (cognitive processing), there remain possible cases in which the beliefs are true, the evidence is true, and the proposition is true, yet the subject lacks knowledge. In Feldman’s example, Smith reasoned from a proposition that he knew to be true, to another proposition that he knew to be true, to the truth, but he still did not know the truth. I understand Feldman to say that the truth connection is necessary, but it alone will not make the traditional definition sufficient. Feldman, as well as Gettier, demonstrate that more is needed to have knowledge, although they give no indication of a possible fourth component.
Some think that justification is necessary for knowledge, but it cannot fill the gap unless strengthened. Pollack, in his essay “The Gettier Problem” argues that Objective Justification will provide the tightened connection between truth and belief formation and fill the gap between true belief and knowledge. Pollock’s solution to the Gettier problem is to tie the propositions that are true more closely to the beliefs that justify the belief (truth connectivity). He states that truth-values of propositions need to play a direct role in our reasoning when forming our beliefs. If there are facts not included in our reasoning that would change our minds if known to us, our original beliefs are not justified. There is also a need to eliminate defeater propositions and their defeaters in order to avoid Gettier problems. Pollock claims that what is lacking to achieve knowledge is not the problem; epistemic justification is the problem. If the problem is fixed, there is no need for an additional constraint on the justified true belief formula. His solution is to tighten up the connection between the belief and the propositions that justify that belief and he calls this idea Objective Justification. He is careful to make a distinction between justification as a belief status and justification as the reasons given for holding a belief. Our arguments (reasons, beliefs, memories or perceptual states that are not yet propositional beliefs) give us reasons for believing some propositions – he calls this a doxastic state. He tries to tighten up the connection between true beliefs and their justifying propositions further by adding a social aspect of justification. He claims that rational people are expected to take into account socially sensitive information when they form beliefs and judgments. His final definition of knowledge is as follows:
S knows that p iff S instantiates some argument A supporting p which is (1) ultimately undefeated relative to the set of all truths, and (2) ultimately undefeated relative to the set of all truths socially sensitive for S. (Pollack, p.258)
For Pollock, the facts that cause and sustain the belief are the ones that make it true.
Some think that Justification is unnecessary for knowledge. William P. Alston, in his essay “Justification and Knowledge”, advances the idea that knowledge is a state, not a claim; he argues that justification is not necessary in order for a state of knowledge to be present in a subject. He walks us through his analysis of justification by pointing out the problems inherit in four different classes of justification: normative justification, voluntaristic justification, involuntaristic justification, and grounds justification. By Alston’s definition, one is normatively justified in believing P iff one is not violating any intellectual obligations in believing P. These intellectual obligations are to obtain truth and avoid falsity. The problem with this class of justification is that obligations attach only to beings that are sufficiently self-conscious and sufficiently sophisticated to be capable of governing their behavior in the light of norms, principles, rules, etc. (Alston, p.173) Another problem with this normative class of justification is that it excludes knowledge from the capability of lower animals, small children and idiots because they acquire and utilize perceptual knowledge, yet they are not capable of acting in the light of rules. Normal mature adult humans acquire and utilize perceptual knowledge as well, but Alston asks why we should feel an obligation to accept or reject beliefs if we aren’t aware of acquiring them? (Alston, p.173) This leads Alston to the class of voluntaristic justification, where in addition to the above definition of normative justification, it is presupposed that believing and refraining from belief are under direct voluntary control. This definition is an attempt to restore the obligatory lack in normative justification. Even with this obligation of acceptance or rejection restored, the idea of belief being under direct control is suspect. Whenever a proposition seems obvious to a subject, regardless of the process through which the subject acquires it, she literally has no choice whether to believe it. (Alston, p.174) Involuntaristic justification, for Alston, is a state in which a subject is able to maintain her intellectual obligations to accept truth and reject falsity without needing belief to be under direct voluntary control. This is accomplished by transferring the acceptance or rejection from the beliefs themselves to the things she can voluntarily do to influence believing or refraining. Examples of the things she can do would be to look for additional evidence or train herself to be less gullible. This appears to be a step in the right direction, except for two problems: it still excludes knowledge from beings that are not subject to intellectual obligations and it does not eliminate the possibility that a mature human being might know that P without being involuntaristically justified in believing that P. (Alston, p.175)
It seems like all is lost for justification at this point with Alston, then he asks us to think of epistemic justification as a matter of being in a strong position (to get the truth) in believing that P. This puts an obligation on the subject to form or hold a belief in such a way or in circumstances where at least the belief is highly likely to be true. (Alston, p.175) This is the truth connection idea – tying the belief to the grounds which are the basis of the belief. Grounds justification is to believe P based on adequate grounds that provide sufficiently strong indication of the belief’s truth. Some epistemologists limit grounds to include only reasons, but Alston believes that doing so eliminates the possibility of immediate justification. Alston includes experiences with reasons in his definition of grounds. This emphasizes the perspective of the subject and restricts grounds to things that register cognitively with the subject. Alston also breaks with other epistemologists concerning the relationship between grounds and beliefs. Others propose that having the grounds is enough, and beliefs need not be related to those grounds. Grounds justification for Alston demands that beliefs be based on adequate grounds, which brings us to the condition described by Feldman. Alston adds the additional condition that the subject must lack overriding reasons contrary to P. He then gives examples of Percy, the Katmandu weather freak (who illustrates the possibility of knowledge without grounds), and Subject S and his sadistic friends that convince S to hold his sensory experience suspect by telling S he has been a neurophysiologic lab rat for 5 years (illustrating the possibility of knowledge with adequate grounds and an inadequate defeater). Alston then points out the vagueness in the adequacy requirement by asking whether the adequacy required for grounds justification is an “objective” adequacy or is it the Subject’s “perspectival” adequacy. Perspectival adequacy would vary from subject to subject and would only provide knowledge to the particular subject. How does this kind of knowledge benefit anyone but the subject? Justification seems necessary in the transfer of knowledge, so knowledge gained using perspectival adequacy as justification would not be very useful in mankind’s pursuit of truth. Objective adequacy has the weakness that knowledge is possible even if
the belief in the adequacy of the grounds is not adequately supported by the totality of [one’s] perspective. So long as I consistently make judgments...on bases that are in fact highly reliable indications of what I am believing, then I do acquire knowledge, whether or not I am in a position to defend the claim that those bases are reliable.” (Alston, p.181)
Alston concludes his dissection of justification with his claim that knowledge is a true belief that is formed and/or sustained under the effective control of the fact believed, and a believer has knowledge provided the true belief is under that constraint.
Some think that Justification is unnecessary for knowledge and that something else will do the job better. Alvin Plantinga thinks that warrant is what transforms true belief into knowledge, and justification does not produce warrant – proper function does. He begins his book Warrant and Proper Function with the assertion that beliefs fail to have warrant because of a cognitive malfunction. He then goes into a definition of the necessary conditions for warrant:
A belief B has warrant for S if and only if the relevant segments (the segments involved in the production of B) are functioning properly in a cognitive environment sufficiently similar to that for which S’s faculties are designed; and the modules of the design plan governing the production of B are (1) aimed at truth, and (2) such that there is a high objective probability that a belief formed in accordance with those modules (in that sort of cognitive environment) is true; and the more firmly S believes B the more warrant B has for S. (Plantinga, p. 19)
Plantinga admits that the above is at best a first approximation and that is problematic, vague and imprecise. He adds precision and clarity with a more detailed description of the design plan governing the production of beliefs. He says to think of a design plan as a set of triples – circumstance, response and function. These triples working together provide a clear understanding of how something works at a given point in time, or a snapshot design plan. A”max design plan” gives a broader picture of something works in its present structure and organization and how it will behave when broken or malfunctioning. He uses these design plan clarifications to show that beliefs can arise by way of a simple malfunction, an unintended by-product of a damage control mode of function and a proper function of a module not aimed at truth, but neither of these conditions will produce warrant for the belief. Warrant is produced if a belief arises by way of proper function of a design plan module aimed at truth. This is his argument for the necessity of truth connectivity, but the truth is connected to the properly functioning cognitive apparatus, not reasons or experiences (grounds). Plantinga argues that Gettier examples show that internalist accounts of warrant are fundamentally wanting, and as long as additional internalist epicycles are added to compensate for this lack, they are doomed to failure. Warrant is lacking in Gettier cases because the beliefs were not formed as a result of proper function of the cognitive modules governed by the relevant parts of the design plan, they were formed by accident. Additionally, in typical Gettier cases there is a glitch in the cognitive environment that is misleading, but Plantinga does not think this misleading glitch is essential to Gettier situations. He finds Gettier cases useful in that they shine light on the design plan and demonstrate the inadequacies in the internalist accounts of justification.
A criticism of the Gettier problem by Michael Williams is whether “anything important turns on coming up with a solution to Gettier’s problem remains to be shown. Williams makes the claim that traditional theories of knowledge are best construed as responses to radical skepticism” (Empirical Knowledge, 261). Radical skeptics are targeted because they do not believe that justified beliefs are possible. Since Gettier seems to illustrate that the tripartite definition of knowledge is unsustainable, it strengthens the skeptic’s argument against the possibility of justified beliefs. Gettier does not offer any possibilities for what is lacking in the traditional justified true belief formula. It seems wrong that knowledge is possible if justification is based upon false propositions and evidence; yet as Alston points out, we are faced with the reality that we assume the truth of our beliefs until we have sufficient instances of doubt. If we cannot have knowledge without certainty, then empirical knowledge seems unobtainable and only a priori knowledge will meet the test - more ammunition for the skeptics. Feldman does not give any insight into what is lacking in the traditional justified true belief formula. The thing that appears to be lacking in Feldman’s example is the possibility that still exists that Mr. Nogot could be lying to Smith. If this is what is lacking, then there is little hope of anyone having much knowledge because it is not possible for human beings to have empirical evidence of all lies. This also sets us up for the inadequacies of testimony as a means of justification – still more support for the skeptics. Pollock seems headed in the right direction with his argument, but the addition of the socially sensitive aspect creates a problem. The problem is that sometimes people get things wrong and being the first or only person to believe something does not necessarily disqualify the belief as knowledge. To accept this socially sensitive aspect would seem to put knowledge under the control of the majority. His qualification that our arguments be ultimately undefeated by the set of all truths and all socially sensitive truths might solve Gettier’s lack of necessity problem, but it does little to expand the possibilities of knowledge or simplify or increase the utility of the method for determining what knowledge is.
I think Williams is right that traditional theories of knowledge are out to prove radical skepticism wrong and it doesn’t appear to me that the offered solutions to the Gettier problem do very much to strengthen the traditional position. The Gettier problem, Feldman’s adjustment, Pollock’s re-definition of knowledge and justification expose the shaky ground that traditionalist stand upon. Something seems to be missing in the equation, but each attempt at defining the variable exposes additional variables and fallibilities in human reasoning, which in turn fortifies the radical skeptic position. The elimination of justification as a necessary condition for knowledge as proposed by Alston is a tempting solution. I often felt that trying to define justification was like trying to nail jello to a tree, and that I was not being a productive epistemologist. Alston was quite thorough in his analysis of the weaknesses of justification, but I find myself skeptically wondering if his neat and simple solution is too good to be true. Plantinga’s definition of warrant and its replacement for justification in the empirical definition of knowledge has appeal for me. I like the idea of resisting the temptation to add conditions to the definition of knowledge and instead placing our focus on warrant and finding an account for how it works in the main areas of our cognitive life. I only researched the first few chapters for this paper, but the ideas he proposes have inspired me to complete reading the book. Plantinga’s solution of warrant doesn’t even approach the neat and simple approach of Alston, but in pursuing the idea of warrant I have gained a clearer understanding as to what elements are necessary to fill the gap between true belief and knowledge. I do not agree with Williams that the attempts at solving the Gettier problem have been fruitless. I think there is virtue in attempting to increase our understanding of what knowledge necessitates, if the ultimate goal is to discover truth. (Works Cited Available on Request)