Ernest Sosa had two big ideas about knowledge:
- In papers like “How to Defeat Opposition to Moore” (Philosophical Perspectives 1999), he argued that knowledge requires safety: for my belief in p to count as knowledge, it must be something that could not easily happen that I would have a belief on the kind of basis on which I in fact believe p in a proposition that is false.
- In his 2007 book A Virtue Epistemology (Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Vol. I), he argued that basic knowledge consists in a belief that is apt – a belief that is not merely competent and also correct, but a belief that is correct precisely because
it is competent.
When he adopted the second idea, he simultaneously abandoned the first idea, arguing that there are cases in which a belief is apt but not safe, and in such cases the belief in question could still be knowledge (A Virtue Epistemology, pp. 29, 41).
It is only this last move that seems mistaken to me. Both of Sosa’s big ideas are fundamentally true. The two ideas are not in tension with each other, since – as I shall argue – no apt belief can be unsafe.
What exactly does an “apt” belief amount to? To fix ideas, I shall assume that the only relevant sort of “competence” is rationality. So an apt belief is a belief that is correct precisely because it is rational. But what might it mean to say that a belief is correct “precisely because” it is rational?
“Because” is, of course, an explanatory term. The following features of explanations seem particularly relevant here:
- In every explanation, one fact – the explanandum – is explained on the basis of another fact – the explanans. For the explanation to be genuine, this connection between the explanans and the explanandum must be in some way an instance of a more general pattern.
- Typically, this general pattern has to have some degree of modal robustness. That is, this pattern must hold, not just in other cases in the actual world, but also in cases in other sufficiently nearby possible worlds as well.
- It seems that all normal explanations presuppose a background of normal conditions. So the relevant cases where this general pattern has to hold are cases where the background conditions are normal to the same degree, and in broadly the same way, as in the particular case in question.
So, for you to have an apt belief in p in a given case C1, it is not enough that in C1 your belief in p is both rational and correct. It is also necessary that in all the sufficiently nearby possible worlds, every case C2 that is similar to C1 with respect to what makes C1 a case of a rational belief (and also similar to C1 in the degree to which it is normal, and in the way in which it is normal to that degree) is also a case of a correct belief.
But this clearly implies is a kind of safety: it implies that it could not easily happen that a thinker would have a belief that was rational in a similar way to your belief in p, in conditions that are similar to your actual conditions in the degree to which they are normal (and in the way in which they are normal to that degree), while the belief in question was false. Just to give it a name, we could call this rationality-and-normality-relative safety, or RN-safety for short.
So, why does Sosa claim that apt beliefs can be unsafe? It is simply because he does not consider RN-safety; he only considers what he calls “outright safety” and “basis-relative safety” (A Virtue Epistemology, p. 26). Sosa is right to claim that outright safety and basis-relative safety are not necessary for knowledge; but RN-safety is much more plausibly necessary for knowledge.
Suppose that (i) you could easily have held a belief in a false proposition on the same kind of basis on which you actually believe p, but (ii) if that had happened, it would have been because either (a) your competence was impaired in a way in which it actually was not impaired, or else (b) your conditions were abnormal in a way in which they were actually not abnormal. Then, as Sosa correctly points out, your belief in p does not exhibit basis-relative safety (nor a fortiori outright safety); but since as things actually are, your conditions were quite normal, and your competence was not impaired, it surely could still be a case of knowledge.
However, even if cases of this sort could be cases of knowledge, they are not counterexamples to the claim that knowledge requires RN-safety, since in all these cases, the belief in question is RN-safe.
In short, Sosa was right both times. Both his first big idea – that knowledge requires safety – and his second big idea – that it requires apt belief – are fundamentally true. So far from being incompatible with each other, the first big idea actually follows
from the second!
In a few days’ time, I shall produce a few more posts on this blog to explain how this approach can handle all of the Gettier cases, and to comment on some other features of this approach. But I hope that this argument for the conclusion that aptness entails safety will be sufficient for now.