Goldberg’s Conjecture

Sandy was here last weekend, and one of the issues that came up in discussion had to do with the internalism/externalism controversy and its connection with the Gettier problem. Sandy conjectured that externalists take, or are entitled to take, their condition to be what distinguishes knowledge from true belief, whereas internalists need not only their condition but also a condition to assuage Gettier.

My reaction was to cite the history of Plantinga’s similar approach, in which his early theory of warrant attempted to bypass the Gettier problem, identifying warrant first with whatever closes the gap between true belief and knowledge and later with that quantity enough of which turns true belief into knowledge. In response to criticisms from, among others, Swain, Feldman and Klein, in the collection of essays I edited on Plantinga’s theory, Plantinga came to see that some condition to assuage Gettier was needed in addition to his theory of warrant. I proffered that this history is instructive and shows that Goldberg’s conjecture should be rejected.

I’m beginning to have doubts, however.

There’s a trivial way in which to maintain Sandy’s point, simply by identifying the externalist condition with the conjunction of some standard justification condition plus a Gettier condition. But that’s not what’s at issue here, though it’s hard to say exactly what the difference is. We might try to enumerate externalist approaches, such as sensitivity, safety, proper function, reliability, and the like, and then check whether any of these can sustain Goldberg’s conjecture, the conjecture that in some non-trivial sense, externalists can give a 3-condition account of knowledge whereas internalists need a 4-condition account.

There are two questions here. The obvious one is whether Sandy’s conjecture is correct. The other one is whether there is beginning to be a conception of accounts of knowledge on which it is correct. On the latter issue, I think I was assuming that not many would agree with Sandy, but I’m not sure I’m right anymore. Sosa, for example, seems to want to identify knowledge with safe and virtuous belief, and other recent virtue accounts (Greco and Zagzebski, for example) don’t offer Gettier conditions either. Even reliabilists often talk only of reliability.

My view is that it’s not that difficult to adapt well-known Gettier cases to be counterexamples to such externalist theories, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether externalists are coming to view their views as immune to Gettier issues. My initial inclination was to interpret the lack of discussion as something like despair over being able to offer such an account, but perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps externalists are leaning toward endorsing Goldberg’s conjecture…


Goldberg’s Conjecture — 11 Comments

  1. Jon, Greco’s most recent account of knowledge attempts to deal with the Gettier problem via his theory of credit attribution and a (partial) theory of the pragmatics of causal explanation.

    Of course, this isn’t all that distinguishes knowledge from true belief on Greco’s account, but it’s an important part (there’s also the subjective justification condition). So at least not all prominent externalists accept Goldberg’s Conjecture.

    BTW, I don’t accept it either, but then again I’m just a lowly graduate student … 😉

  2. Ah, but grad students from departments with such a pedigree in epistemology needn’t think of themselves this way! I hadn’t thought of Greco, but that’s a good point. It makes me wonder where the idea of avoiding Gettier by going externalist might have arisen. I don’t think Sandy was claiming to be the first with the idea, and it is one that has been floated since Plantinga at least. Maybe he’s the cause? I can’t remember whether Goldman’s 1986 has a treatment of the Gettier problem; I’ll check when I get to my office.

  3. I certainly am not the first person with the idea. The earliest I remember seeing it was in Plantinga’s 1992 books on warrant. In light of Jon’s comments to me, I have to go back and revisit the volume he edited, containing papers which convinced Plantinga that no independently plausible notion of warrant (and in particular no notion of warrant based on proper functionality) is Gettier-proof. I don’t claim to have a well-worked out view of a Gettier-proof notion of warrant; but the virtues of such a notion would be so great, that I think it might be worth devoting more effort to formulating such a notion.

    A tangential issue, but one that occupies me quite a bit these days, is the role of testimony in our attempts to formulate such a notion of warrant. My initial thought, regarding which Jon expressed some skepticism (which lowered my confidence in the thought), was that testimonial transactions are a great sort of case to think about in connection with the attempt to formulate an epistemicizing notion of warrant. This is because testimony cases are increasingly seen by all parties to be clear cases in which the reasons that the subject offers for accepting a piece of testimony do not exhaust the features relevant to an epistemic evaluation of her resulting (testimonial) belief. Arguably, a parallel point holds with respect to other sources of knowledge — perception for example (our reasons for accepting the deliverances of our perceptual module do not exhaust the features relevant to an epistemic assessment of our resulting (perceptual) belief — but I have found that, as a matter of fact, audiences are most likely to agree to the point when the knowledge acquired is testimonial. So then we can ask: what, beyond the reasons one offers for accepting a piece of testimony, are relevant to an assessment of whether the testimonial belief constitutes knowledge? Clearly the reliability (safety; sensitivity; what-have-you) of the testimony is relevant too. But is there anything else? Anyway, my thought was that this sort of question might be a fruitful one to ask, if our interest is in formulating an epistemicizing notion of warrant.

  4. I’m confused–wheren’t Armstrong and Dretske the first to take the stance that in order to solve the Gettier problem we should just forget about the justification condition and think of an externalist condition? And isn’t this a widely known fact about the very recent history of epistemology? Or did I just make this up? (I very well could have. I love to make up stories about the very recent history of epistemology.) Now, whether they were right or not…

  5. Juan, you may be right about this, but I like to distinguish between externalism about KNOWLEDGE and externalism about JUSTIFICATION. E.g., the lesson of Gettier might be that justification is irrelevant to knowledge; or else that, though justification IS relevant, it should be conceived externalistically (the Gettier problem then showing that no INTERNALIST conception of justification will epistemicize true belief). As you no doubt know, Goldman’s externalism (reliabilism) is presented, at least in much of his development of it, as a contribution to the theory of justification. (Although I see that he now acknowledges that there is a kind of knowledge that does not involve justification.) Anyway, externalism regarding justification is not an unproblematic view — but it’s a view I for one want to try to make out. And insofar as I do, I want externalist justification to be what epistemicizes true belief, rendering it knowledge.

    Does this answer your question, or did I miss it?

  6. Thanks, Sandy. Yes, I thought that might be what was going on, but I was distracted by Jon’s talk of the externalist “condition.” I like externalism about justification myself, but I don’t think that you can solve the Gettier problem that way. If I remember correctly, Goldman thought that you could in Epistemology and Cognition, but he later changed his mind.

  7. Sandy, it’s probably a mistake to lower your confidence level because I disagree… 🙂

    Juan, you’re right about Armstrong and Dretske, though it is interesting to note that if Zagzebski’s characterization of the Gettier problem is correct, Dretske and Armstrong are wrong. Armstrong gets us a nomological guarantee of correctness, and that’s weaker than a logical guarantee (which is what Zagzebski holds would be needed to avoid the problem). And Dretske’s conclusive reasons get us truth in the close spheres of counterfactual worlds, but not in all worlds. In addition, if we go with the “Knowledge and the Flow of Information” view, we’d have to rule out possibilities that have zero chance of occurring. That’s more plausible that the first two approaches, but still fails if Zagzebski is right (since things can happen that have no chance of happening).

    As Rich Feldman likes to point out, everybody is an externalist about knowledge. So if internalism has a place, it has to be in the theory of justification. Sandy’s hope is that by going externalist about justification, we can sidestep the Gettier problem, but I’m skeptical. What would be interesting would be to see a metatheoretical argument that externalism has this feature, and for that, I think one needs a good account of what the Gettier problem is and what it would take to solve it. Zagzebski has such a view, though it has a problem with mathematical knowledge, but I don’t know of any such account that will allow the metatheoretical argument to succeed.

  8. It seems that almost everyone who ever held the view (that an externalist notion of justification can be formulated which would avoid Getterization) no longer endorses it. It’s kind of like I am showing up to a party after everyone else has gone home. A sad place to be. Then again, if I can somehow turn the lights back on and make the music blaring (and serve good, cold beer), maybe I can get everyone to come back.

    Seriously, though, Jon is correct to describe it as a mere “conjecture”, and even that might be over-stating my level of commitment to it. I am just really impressed by the potential virtues of such a view — and this justifies at least returning to the arguments that convinced others to give it up, to see whether or not there are avenues of response that they overlooked. Maybe not. But I want to convince myself of this first. Kind of a philosophical delinquency in which I’m not (yet!) accepting everyone’s advice, including some philosophers who are far more senior than me…

  9. Sandy, just so you know, I didn’t miss the age reference! In the giving proper credit department, I should note that before Zagzebski’s characterization of the Gettier problem, there is Scott Sturgeon’s similar characterization in Analysis. Scott’s claim is that whatever conditions you add to true belief, they’ll have to entail truth in order to solve the Gettier problem.

  10. I have not read the Zagzebski’s or the Sturgeon’s work on the subject but its seems that they are at least on the right track. The fundamental distinguishing feature of Gettier cases is that a belief is true and justified, but the justification is unrelated to its truth. It is only accidentally true. Its seems to me that any account of justification — internalist or externalist — must allow for this — unless, that is, it is infallibilist. But infallibilst accounts of justification seem highly doubtful. In any case, no fallibilist externalist account of justification can clos the gap between true belief and knowledge.

    On another note, I just began a PhD here in Toronto, and I’ve been taking a second look at my Masters thesis which I’ve basically ingored since I defended in 08/03. Anyway, while I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time, I think I have a good argument which shows that evil demon victims are not justified in their beliefs, something which if true would have profound effects for Epistemology. So I want to know how do I get signed up here and if you all would mind taking a look at my argument.

  11. Dale, welcome to the blog. I think your account of the gettier account is the standard one, though saying that accidentality is the key doesn’t obviously entail that only infallibilist conditions can solve the problem. I’m inclined to agree with Sturgeon and Zagzebski, though, that conditions entailing truth are what is needed.

    As to your last question, contributors are faculty with special expertise and standing in epistemology, but if you’d like to send me a short description of the argument, I sometimes post such emails when they will be of interest to readers of the blog.

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