My Problem with the Gettier Problem

I don’t get the Gettier Problem. To me it seems a clever little trick rather than a fundamental flaw in the definition of knowledge.

Consider the first example given by Gettier:

Smith and Jones have each applied for the same job. Smith is told by the company president that Jones will be given the job. Rather than being disappointed by this Smith reflects that Jones has ten coins in his pocket. He has counted them himself. (Why he is counting the coins in his rival’s pocket is not explained. There is absolutely no development of this little subplot). Smith further reflects, based on the president’s “testimony” and the unexplained coin count, that the man who is given the job will have ten coins in his pocket. One begins to understand why Jones will be offered the job rather than Smith. Regardless, we are told that this reflection is a defensible bit of knowledge.

While Smith ruminates, let’s review the concept of Justified, True Belief. The current accepted definition for what constitutes knowledge states that the three conditions necessary and sufficient for knowledge are Justification, Truth and Belief. Truth because you can’t count something as knowledge if it’s wrong. Belief because you can’t claim to know something if you don’t actually believe it yourself . And Justification to rule out lucky guesses; you have to have a reason for your belief.

Now if Jones is actually given the job and hasn’t frittered away some of his coins in the vending machine while waiting for the outcome we can say that, yes, Smith’s statement counts as knowledge. But Jones ISN’T given the job. Smith is. AND, get this: Smith has ten coins in his pocket! And he didn’t even know that they were there. And maybe this is why this puzzle has lasted 53 years. At the point where the philosopher in all of us should be reflecting on the nature of true knowledge we can’t help but be distracted by this imagined vignette:

Company president: “Mr. Smith, we’ve decided that you’re the man for the job after all. Welcome aboard!”
Smith: “That’s great! Really great! Excuse me, though, for just a moment. I need to count the coins in my pocket…”

Because – and maybe this astuteness is why he is ultimately offered the job – he immediately realizes that his original proposition is true and all the conditions for knowledge have been met but FOR THE WRONG REASONS. So it can’t be knowledge and therefore Justified, True Belief isn’t sufficient for knowledge.

Well it seems pretty obvious to me that if the testimony of a company president who can’t make up his mind is seen as a sufficient component of knowledge then the whole structure of Western Thought can come crashing down with hardly a shove.

It’s not enough that his testimony is “reasonable” evidence. Knowledge implies certainty, not merely likelihood. There is no certainty in the president’s testimony. And no certainty even, in the number of coins in anyone’s pocket after the initial count.

Cerco uno Termofero

A common topic of conversation on airplanes is teleportation. As in, when are they going to invent it, please? But for now, resignation and distraction are really the only tools a traveler has. So we strap ourselves into chairs, bolted inside a metal tube, watch movies and try to endure. And after ten hours we are rewarded, as the plane descends through the clouds, and a tidy green countryside emerges, with rolling hills, patchwork fields and ten majestic wind generators slowly spinning. Welcome to Germany! Getting over the Alps to Italy is an easy flight. A twenty minute cab ride from the airport and we are through the center of Firenze and into the Oltrarno (across the Arno) district, our home for the next several days.

Our casetta is in a little cul de sac and has a small deck overlooking tile roofs and other small decks. We can see the top half of the bell tower of Palazzo Vecchio. And we can hear the bells quite clearly. Every hour. Day and night. Charming at first, then worrisome at three a.m. But we learn to prefer them to the nocturnal Vespa riders who seem to use the cul de sac as a partier’s park ‘n ride. It’s surprising how loud a Vespa sounds when being started in a brick and plaster echo chamber in the middle of the night. But that’s really just the jet lag talking. We’re city folk at heart and we’re in the heart of the city, where we want to be.

As we settle in to our new digs, J plugs her 120 volt heating pad into a voltage converter we brought. One which we had lengthy discussions about. The heating pad control box instantly emits a sharp little death sigh and a small, final puff of smoke. I bend over my bag and rummage a bit so J can’t see my “told ya so” look. But she knew I was right all along, and she knows I’ve got her back: I know how to say “heating pad” in Italian.

For me, one of the joys of traveling is the way it turns an errand into an adventure. In this case the frisson comes from walking up to a total stranger and reciting a string of unfamiliar syllables that many books, apps and websites have assured me are real Italian words, and hoping for a glint of recognition. And indeed, after I’ve said “cerco uno termoforo”, the white-smocked farmacia employee goes into the back room and rummages around on the top shelf for a bit, returning with – a heating pad! I feel like a fucking rock star! More importantly, J thinks I AM a fucking rock star.

The Future is Modal

This journey begins, as all our big journeys will from now on, with a car ride, boat ride, train ride and finally a plane ride. Fortunately, we got a nice break this time between the boat and the train, staying with Melody and Rick and having dinner at Sula’s in East Van.

After a good nights sleep and a delicious breakfast, followed by a more delicious lunch, we continue our pre-journey journey.

Now, sitting in an airport bar, watching Greece and Costa Rica in extra time, I’ve decided I can’t order any of the wine on the menu. Jackson Triggs? That is NOT how I’m starting a trip to the land that invented and perfected wine.