Lycan’s “No-Essential-False-Assumptions” Theory

As noted in the last post, Lycan not only thinks the anti-gettier problem chorus is off-key, but that there is relatively simple solution to the gettier problem: the NEFA theory. What’s interesting in this proposal is it’s rejection of some standard gettier cases: the fake barn case of Ginet and Goldman, and the Jill/assassination case of Harman.

In this respect, Lycan’s theory is a middle ground between those who take these counterexamples seriously, and Weatherson, who takes none of the purported counterexamples as actual counterexamples. Bill chastens Brian for not explaining away the counterexamples, and on his blog Brian responds by claiming that those who take the counterexamples seriously are just closet skeptics succumbing to focal stress on the use of the word ‘knows’ in the examples, a stress akin to those we find in skeptical arguments.

I think here I side with Bill about some of the cases. I’ve always been completely hard-headed in response to skeptical arguments, embodying the attitude toward skepticism common in post-ordinary language epistemology that we all know that skepticism is false, even if we may not know exactly why. But even this hard-headedness didn’t translate into a rejection of Gettier’s original cases, especially the first one: it was just obvious to me that knowledge was absent. So, for me at least, my response to Gettier cases is different from my response to skeptical arguments, even if there is some truth to the idea that focal stress plays a role in both.

I suspect I’m not the only anti-skeptical epistemologist with the same reactions. Of course, Brian could respond that we really are closet skeptics for whom our skeptical tendencies only show up in the presence of Gettier cases, but that would be an amazing coincidence.

If we side with Bill, however, two questions arise. The first is whether there is sufficient independent motivation to reject the cases Bill must reject, and the second is whether the NEFA theory is sufficiently clear to be suitable. The first question I’ll pass on here; Bill as a defense of this claim that in his book “Judgment and Justification.” About the second, consider one that most will agree isn’t a suitable response to the problem. Suppose we had said that knowledge is non-accidentally justified true belief, and then point out for each Gettier case brought up, why it essentially involves accidentality. Maybe later I’ll try to say why the nonaccidentality theory is not suitable, but the point at issue here is that if we assume that nonaccidentality is not sufficiently illuminating to be a suitable response to the Gettier problem, shouldn’t we say the same about the NEFA theory? In the former case, it all depends on what counts as accidentality, and in the latter, what counts as an assumption. If a truck just missed hitting me on the road, I’m lucky to have any beliefs at all, so all of my justified true beliefs will be accidental in some sense, though in a sense unrelated to what I know to be true. Just so, the assumptions Lycan wants are all ones involved in drawing inferences of various sorts. So suppose McGee is right that modus ponens is not truth-preserving. When I infer by MP, am I assuming that it is truth-preserving? I think not, but I’m not sure. When I infer that someone in the room has ten coins in his pocket, do I assume that the monetary system is still functioning correctly so that the metal items in question still count as money? I don’t know, but I expect this had better not be an assumption of my reasoning.

My question, though, is not about these specific examples, but rather about the more general question of what it takes, at this point in our inquiry, to offer a suitable response to the Gettier problem. I expect that the complexity and sophistication of prior discussion rules out some possible answers simply because they don’t live up to the care and depth previous efforts display. If that’s right, then the NEFA theory may be a good starting point, but it isn’t a suitable response to the problem, given the history that has actually occurred.

On this point, though, Bill may actually agree: he points out that he expects no one to be convinced by his account!


Lycan’s “No-Essential-False-Assumptions” Theory — 4 Comments

  1. I guess I’ll have to look at Bill’s paper but, uhm, what is the NEFA theory really supposed to be a theory of? the essence of Gettier cases? a sufficient condition for a lack of knowledge? something else? what?

    Don’t we already know, from rather clear examples, that

    1. not every Gettier case involves an essential false assumption.
    2. not every case involving an essential false assumption is a Gettier case.
    3. not every case involving an essential false assumption is a case without knowledge.

    If we know all of this (but perhaps Bill thinks that received wisdom is mistaken?) then I don’t see what the account would be an even superfically plausible account of…

  2. Bill thinks, I believe, that justified true belief plus no essential false assumptions is sufficient for knowledge. He may also think these conditions are necessary, but I’m going from memory here. So he rejects some standard Gettier cases, such as the fake barn case and the jill/assassination case. He says of such cases that the people in question nearly lacked knowledge, but in fact they know.

    He defends this view, by the way, in Judgement and Justification, independently of the NEFA theory.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. Of course if one rejects all of the counterexamples one can defend the sufficiency of the account. How successful this is will depend on the explanation for rejecting the counterexamples (“I just don’t see it” won’t be especially convincing in light of widespread no-knowledge intuitions but a deeper explanation might do it and surely Bill would try to provide a deeper explanation).

    This account has *no* chance at providing necessary conditions on knowledge. There are too many cases involving knowledge despire essential falsehoods unless “essential” is being understood in some non-standard way. ok ok, I guess I have to read Bill’s paper now…

  4. I agree completely here, Fritz; and it’s hard to say what an adequate “explaining away” of gettier intuitions would amount to. It’s at this point that I go egocentric about theory construction: I’m not answerable to what you find obvious, nor you to me. At some point, it would be nice to work through the disagreements, but there’s not guarantees there either, nor any implication of irrationality if we fail to resolve the disagreements. But about the Gettier cases, I’m more impressed with the fake barn case than with the Jill/assassination case, though either will do to undermine the NEFA theory.

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