Lycan on the Gettier Problem

Bill Lycan has a new paper on the problem of the Gettier problem. It has become fashionable to denigrate the project of attempting to solve the Gettier problem, and Bill’s paper evaluates a number of attempted explanations of what is wrong with the project, showing why they are not good explanations. Along the way, he also proposes his own account, which is what interests me here.

Lycan’s proposal is the “no-false-assumptions” proposal (in the face of some examples, this proposal becomes the “no-essential-false-assumptions” proposal, but the difference isn’t relevant here so I’ll ignore it), a variant of the “no-false-lemmas” approach suggested by Clark. Lycan thinks that the NFA proposal was not entertained directly, but implicitly by the adoption of the defeasibility approach. In effect, Lycan claims, the NFA approach was bypassed by a theory that attempted to analyze what a false assumption is in terms of the notion of defeat. So what the counterexamples show is the the NFA approach is very hard to characterize in terms of the notion of defeat.

Then Lycan echos a point made here, when he says “Indeed, that difficulty was predictable, because (a) it was almost irresistible to start the further analysis with a subjunctive of some kind, and (b) any time any analysis of anything contains a subjunctive, irrelevant counterexamples will ensue. (b) is worth a paper of its own.” Brian Weatherson joins in the chorus here, saying “I always thought the best simple description of the “Conditional Fallacy” in Shope’s paper of the same name was the fallacy of thinking that the analysis you’re after contains (subjunctive) conditionals. Shope said something more subtle, but that was the easiest takeaway line. I’m glad to see someone else agrees!”

I’m going to post more on Lycan’s paper, but since the conditional fallacy is a pet peeve of mine, I enjoyed seeing some signs that awareness of the problem is becoming more common. If we’re lucky, it will become common enough that no paper with a subjunctive analysis of anything will be sent out for publication without an explicit defense that the analysis avoids the problems that plague nearly every such analysis.


Lycan on the Gettier Problem — 13 Comments

  1. Jon,
    One thing that occurred to me in reading Bill’s paper is that there is one possible explanation for the Problem that he does not discuss. The Gettier industry seems different from other like projects is that there is the appearance of a pragmatic conflict: Addressing the Gettier cases itself seems to express confidence that one knows what one argues for, and the argumentative structure–the practice–of any such philosophy paper itself seems to be quite content with JTB. An onlooker is likely to react: “Yes, they SAY there’s a problem to solve here, but they’ll keep on doing philosophy as if there isn’t, offering what they take as true and justified beliefs in favor of their solutions, treating this as what they know and sufficient to bring knowledge to their readers.” In personal identity debates, and so on, there doesn’t seem to be this self-undermining character.

  2. Robert, I think there’s a fairly simple response to this worry. If any theory of knowledge is presupposed by the gettier discussion it would be the theory that knowledge is just justified belief. After all, what we do when we argue for a knowledge claim is argue that it’s justified.

    This assumes, of course, that there is some conversational implication from what we write to the claim that we know, and Williamson would love your assessment here (since it fits with his account of the norm of assertion). I doubt there is any such implication; it’s just that we don’t need to deny explicitly that we are claiming to know our philosophical claims since it’s so obvious that we don’t.

  3. Jon, ok my caveman eyes are squinting from the sunlight you’ve just shed. Still, the Problem has to do with whether there’s something uniquely odd about the Gettier industry. His conclusion is that there isn’t. But there does seem to be something important about the subject-matte of Gettier. The very fact that the issue is what it takes to know something seems relevant. For one thing, there is a supposed ‘threat’ that skepticism will win. But, it turns out, the very fact that philosophy goes on without a solution suggests its no threat at all. Think of the impatience people have with arguments over moral facts: Yes, you can argue about whether there are any, but you’ll go on with your moral life as before whatever your findings. The difference is that in the case of knowledge, ‘going on with your philosophical life as before’ seems suddenly peculiar. If you were just going to go shoot pool and drink beer (as did Hume), no problem. It’s when you get on with the business of philosophy that your questions seem suddenly otiose. Why not ignore the issue in philosphy too, if you’re going to ignore them outside of philosophy?

  4. Robert, so the idea is that whether the gettier problem is real or not, it will make no difference to how we go about deciding what to believe? That’s right, I think, and also important, since it shows that what is involved in the cognitive agent’s context as to what is true and what isn’t, is immune to the question of the nature of knowledge. It’s not a very long argument to the conclusion that knowledge isn’t as important as some think…

  5. I am VERY interested in Bill’s soultion to the Gettier problem. Has anyone come up with a “Gettier case” that Bill’s solution won’t handle, if even a modest amount of philosophical “shoehorning” is allowed? I can’t, but I am a lowly community college adjunct, so that doesn’t prove much. I would like to know what the epistemological “big dogs” think.

  6. Dear Gettierologists,

    Here’s a go at gettiering Lycan’s analysis. Suppose, modestly, that

    (*) believing that not-p (whether or not p is true) can give one sufficient
    grounds for coming to know that one does not believe that p.

    Then one can show that Lycan’s account is too strong (that is, that we can know even though an essential belief is false). Consider the case:

    I believe that not-p (but I do so falsely, since in fact p). By (*), I may
    thereby come to know that I do not believe p. Moreover, my belief that p
    is essential, since in this case I have no other reason (tacit or
    otherwise) for thinking that I do not believe that p. However, I reasoned
    through a false belief, since not-p is false.


  7. Joe:
    I respond with some trepidation, fearing that I am about to plunge into water that is way over my head. But, what the heck, I won’t be the first person to be galactically wrong on in a blog discussion. So, let’s grant the following:
    *Believing that the animal I am looking at is not a cleverly painted mule gives me a sufficient reason to KNOW that I do not believe that the animal is a cleverly painted mule, and:
    1) I in fact believe that the animal I see (hereinafter “Yon critter in the field,” or YCF) is not a cleverly painted mule (hereinafter CPM). let’s denote the fact that I hold this belief as “Bob Believes that YCF is not a CPM,” or BB1
    2) The YCF is, as it happens, a CPM
    3) Among the many things I claim to know, I claim to know that, in fact, BB1. Let’s call this Bob’s Knowlege Claim 1, or BKC1.
    4) 1) is essential to 3) because it constitutes my only grounds for 3)

    Couldn’t Bill Lycan’s position here be:

    In this example, 2) is irrelevant to any justification I might offer for BKC1. In BKC1, we aren’t assessing a knowledge claim about the genome of YCF, we are assessing a knowledge claim about what I believe. BB1 is TRUE, and BKC1 is JUSTIFIED only by truths – in this case, BB1. In other words, a rational reconstruction of my justification for BKC1 does not involve any explicit or tacit appeal to any falsehood. My only ground for BKC1, as a matter of fact, is BB1, and BB1 is true, so the “Lycan Condition” is not violated.

    Of course, I am FAR from sure that this WOULD be what Bill would say about this case. I imagine he could come up with something a LOT sharper.

  8. Thanks, Robert. I think that talk of cleverly painted mules unnecessarily
    complicates things in this case, since the issue is not one about
    skepticism. Importantly, the content of the proposition p is not relevant
    to the case at all. The only thing important about the case is that the
    knowledge in question is second order—-i.e., it is about some belief. I
    happen falsely to believe that, say, I don’t have ten bucks in my pocket
    (formally, ~p). This grounds my knowledge that I don’t believe that I DO
    have the ten (i.e., ~Bp). The knowledge, however, is then ultimately grounded
    by the false belief that I don’t have the money.

    Your reply is a good one. Argue that my belief “I Believe that ~p”, rather
    than my (false) belief “~p”, grounds the knowledge in question. This would
    be analogous to Existential NOGOT, which Lycan discusses. Recall, you come
    to believe someone owns a Ford more directly, and not through the false
    belief that so-and-so owns one. Lycan replies: why on Earth would anyone
    believe the existential if they did not at least tacitly believe that
    so-and-so owns a Ford. Analogously, I might reply to your objection: why
    on Earth would the subject in my example believe that she believes ~p, if
    she didn’t already (at least tacitly) believe ~p.

    More to the point: the example stipulates that I do in fact believ
    that ~p, and that this belief is essential to the knowledge in
    question (if I understand Lycan’s use of ‘essential’ correctly). So
    the case you describe is different from the case I tried to
    articulate. You would have to argue that, in the case I describe the
    belief that ~p is not *essential* to ground the relevant bit of
    knowledge, but in *Lycan’s* sense of ‘essential’. So you would have
    to argue that my belief that ~p is one of a plurality of independent
    grounds for forming my belief that I do not believe that p. But it is
    not in the case at hand.

  9. The Gettier problem has always seemed to be a case of being vague about what’s attempting to be explained (knowledge), rather than any insufficiency in the conventional explanations provided (JTB).

    Knowing-that involves knowledge of particular propositions. If we were just talking about knowledge (K), then it would seem like a puzzle that K=JTB in a Gettier case (say, in the sheep case). However, in the treatment of cases, we’re not just trying to explain knowledge in the abstract; we’re trying to explain knowledge of particular propositions, or K(p)=JTB. If we had standards about what it means to be a well-defined proposition, then the Gettier case would not arise.

    This can’t possibly be a novel explanation, but a quick glance at the quoted paper doesn’t seem to have anything like it summarized. What’s the scoop, Doubtizans?

  10. Joe:
    Sorry about the “painted mules,” but they came to mind because I have been obsessing over them while working on a presentation for a conference in September.

    I think you are correct about the Nogot cases Bill considers as being relevant here. The one I had in mind, though, wasn’t Existential NOGOT, but non-inferential NOGOT, since that is one Bill responds to with the “—else why on earth…” argument. I THINK I carry the same message away from it that you do: Bill is arguing that S does NOT know that someone in his office owns a Ford because the ONLY conceivable way he could form that belief, under the circumstances as set forth in the thought experiment, would be through “tacitly” believing that Nogot owns one, which is false, and this violates the “Lycan Rule.” He says:

    “in Noninferential Nogot, we can concede to Lehrer that S does not engage in a reasoning process that passes through ‘Nogot owns a Ford,’ but clearly S does tacitly assume that Nogot owns a Ford — else why on earth would S form the belief that someone in the office owns one?”

    I am starting to wonder if Lehrer would want to concede that point. Now that I think about it, if we are going to open the field to include “why on earth?” possibilities, perhaps it would be open to Lehrer to say that there could be LOTS of reasons, aside from the tacit belief that Nogot owns one, that S believes someone in the office owns a Ford. Maybe S is a Bayesean, and has been unconsciously mulling over the statistics of what percentage of cars are Fords, how many people are in his office, etc., and just figures somebody who works there MUST own one. Who knows?

    The distinction between first and second order beliefs may be an important one. I am sure there must be a VAST philosophical literature, accumulated over the last 30 years (while I was off practicing, variously, law and then nursing), which discusses whether or not they differ in terms of criteria for justification. More on this tomorrow, after I finish eight hours of caring for the sick.

    And, I might add, this perhaps ties in to Benjamin’s point. K(p), where p is a second order proposition, may be a different kettle of fish from K(p) where p is a first order proposition.

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