Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[PHI 3000] Are sheep bad epistemic luck?

In a Gettier case, a subject has a justified belief that turns out to be true as a matter of luck. For example, S looks at a rock that looks like a sheep and comes to believe that there's a sheep in the meadow. Unbeknownst to S, there is actually a sheep behind that rock that looks like a sheep, so S's belief is true. S's belief is also justified in virtue of being based on what S sees. However, S's belief that there's a sheep in the meadow doesn't amount to knowledge because S's belief is merely accidentally true or true as a matter of bad epistemic luck, or so say most epistemologists.

Let's look at the proposition in question more closely, namely, 'there's a sheep in the meadow'. What makes it true? Well, the fact that there is actually a sheep in the meadow, even though S doesn't know that. S is looking at a rock that looks like a sheep. In other words, there is a mismatch between the external conditions that make 'there's a sheep in the meadow' true, which are that there is an actual sheep in the meadow, and what goes on in S's head, which is that the referent of 'sheep', as far as S is concerned, is a rock that looks like a sheep, not a sheep.

Taking into account what 'sheep' actually refers to, then, it turns out that 'there's a sheep in the meadow' is true but it is not S's actual belief, whereas 'there's a rock that looks like a sheep in the meadow' is true but it is not accidentally true. If this is correct, then this Gettier case does not pose a problem to the Justified True Belief (JTB) analysis of knowledge.

What do you think of this response to the problem posed by Gettier cases like the sheep in the meadow case?


  1. I agree that the above analysis is one proper approach to Gettier’s challenge. In fact, my close examination indicates that those accidentally true beliefs can be proved as non-knowledge according to Ayer’s criteria. As long as we clarify the guesser’s belief, we can discover a mismatch between the guesser’s real belief and reality. For instance, in the sheep example, when the guesser says, “There’s a sheep in the meadow”, he is actually saying, “I see something in the form of a sheep in the meadow.” When expressing his ideas, the guesser makes a leap from the sense-data to the fact about the external world. But in fact, the only thing he is sure about is the sense-data. Therefore, what the guesser can be sure about is the sensory experience of seeing something in the form of a sheep in the meadow, which is different from the proposition really under discussion, “There’s a sheep in the meadow.” In this sense, the guesser doesn’t know “There’s a sheep in the meadow”, because the proposition fails to satisfy Ayer’s second condition that s is sure that p is true. As a result, Gettier’s example doesn’t pose a challenge to Ayer’s conditions for knowledge.
    Besides, another response to the challenge could be the misuse of the concept “justification” in Gettier’s example. Whether we interpret “justification” as conclusive or probable support for the belief, by definition, justifying something means showing to be right by providing reasons. And reason is factual evidence that helps establish the truth of the conclusion. However, the so-called reasons given by the guesser are not objectively factual evidence; they hold true only from the guesser’s perspective. As long as the guesser puts his reasoning process under the public’s examination, it’s easy to find them incorrect or unsound. For example, when the guesser makes justification for his belief, “There’s a sheep in the meadow”, he would explain, “because I see something in the form of a sheep in the meadow”. And since the form of a sheep is not the same thing as sheep itself, the guesser mixes the two concepts, thus renders his reasoning incorrect. In this case, the guesser is not really making justification, and therefore doesn’t satisfy Ayer’s third condition of justified true belief.

  2. I kind of agree. Consider it this way. Call a belief "equivocal" if its object is unspecified in such a way that it could be many things. Eg, "I believe that there is matter in space" where "matter could be any sort of matter.

    Gettier cases rely on S believing P, where P is equivocal. So S believes that there are 2 pennies in his pocket, but pennies are equivocal. The pennies he believes are there, are not there. Different pennies are. Knowing that there is matter in space is not all that impressive, if you think the matter is green cheese and the moon is made of it.

    It does not impress me to say that S has equivocal knowledge. Equivocal knowledge is not knowledge.

  3. I agree with this response to the Gettier cases. It is highly important when someone states something that they are clear in what they mean. The word "sheep" could make the person's statement an accidental truth if they mean that they knew a sheep was there in the meadow when they were actually looking at a rock with a sheep behind it. This is false knowledge because it is strictly an accidental truth even though the person is right. This is shown through Ayer's definition of knowledge.

    However, I agree that the statement changes to become closer to knowledge if the person states that he sees a rock that looks like a sheep in the meadow. There is no accident that it is true as long as it is verified that there really is a rock that looks like a sheep in the meadow. It is still possible for the person to be incorrect in his sight as sight is not infallible. Therefore he still does not "know" that there is a rock that looks like a sheep in the meadow.


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