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.

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Posted September 27, 2017 by admin in category "Philosophy

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