Modifying the Barn Case

So, here’s what I take to be the canonical presentation of Ginet’s famous barn example, from Goldman’s “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” (JP, 1976), pp. 772-3, with two slight modifications: 1) I’m not able to produce the various funny little marks on the words “papier-mache” and “facades” 2) I’m bolding one phrase that will be important to the discussion (Goldman italicizes two instances of the word “knows”; since this blog seems to italicize everything that’s in block quotes, I’ll indicate Goldman’s emphasis by also bolding those instances of “knows”):

Consider the following example. Henry is driving in the countryside with his son. For the boy’s edification Henry identifies various objects on the landscape as they come into view. “That’s a cow,” says Henry, “That’s a tractor,” “That’s a silo,” “That’s a barn,” etc. Henry has no doubt about the identity of these objects; in particular, he has no doubt that the last-mentioned object is a barn, which indeed it is. Each of the identified objects has features characteristic of its type. Moreover, each object is fully in view, Henry has excellent eyesight, and he has enough time to look at them reasonably carefully, since there is little traffic to distract him.

Given this information, would we say that Henry knows that the object is a barn? Most of us would have little hesitation in saying this, so long as we were not in a certain philosophical frame of mind. Contrast our inclination here with the inclination we would have if we were given some additional information. Suppose we are told that, unknown to Henry, the district he has just entered is full of papier-mache facsimiles of barns. These facsimiles look from the road exactly like barns, but are really just facades, without back walls or interiors, quite incapable of being used as barns. They are so cleverly constructed that travelers invariably mistake them for barns. Having just entered the district, Henry has not encountered any facsimiles; the object he sees is a genuine barn. But if the object on that site were a facsimile, Henry would mistake it for a barn. Given this new information, we would be strongly inclined to withdraw the claim that Henry knows the object is a barn.

It’s never been that clear to me that Henry doesn’t know that the object is a barn. Well, I don’t know about “never”: For a while, I at least thought it was clear to me that Henry didn’t know: Perhaps moved by the apparently authoritative judgments of others, like Goldman, after I encountered the example, I rather uncritically joined the consensus that Henry didn’t know, and was happy for a few years to, for instance, accept arguments based on the premise that Henry doesn’t know in the example. However, when Ruth Millikan first confronted me with skepticism about that judgment, I had to admit that it really was not all that clearly correct. (See pp. 329-30 of Millikan’s “Naturalist Reflections on Knowledge,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 1984. I didn’t encounter Millikan’s skepticism until she confronted me with it in person a few later, early in 1990, at which time she referred me to her paper.) Key to Millikan’s doubt here is the fact that Henry has not encountered any of the fake barns. Though I was — and still am –personally inclined to judge that Henry doesn’t know in that case, I became — and remain — skeptical enough that I no longer took the judgment to be clearly enough correct for it to be useable as the premise of a good argument.

I recently e-sent a draft of a book I’ve been working on out to several philosophers. In it, I relate the skepticism explained above. Interestingly, several epistemologists have taken note of that, and have written back, saying that they too didn’t share this intuition, and that they’re glad to see they have company. Perhaps there are others who might join our skeptical cohort? (Or is it an anti-skeptical cohort? We’re skeptical of the commonly assumed “intuition,” but since the intuition we are skeptical of is itself a skeptical intuition (to the effect that Henry doesn’t know), we’re in a sense non-skeptical.)

Fortunately, the purpose for which I was using the example in my discussion with Millikan was served just as well by an easy modification of the example, so I modified it, and have since often used the modified version. (I believe the first times I used such a modification in published papers were in 1996: I used this modification of the barn case in my “Relevant Alternatives and the Content of Knowledge Attributions” (PPR, ’96), and I used a similarly modified version of Dretske’s zebras example in my Encyclopedia of Philosophy (’96 Supplement) on “Relevant Alternatives.”* I just don’t know if others have used such cases (it’s a fairly obvious move to make), but would be happy to learn.)

(*Update 11/25/09: I’ve just discovered that I used such a modified version of the case in my 1995 “Solving the Skeptical Problem” (p. 30).)

So, Suppose Henry has encountered many of the convincing fakes — say, 19 of them — and has been convinced by these convincing fakes: he has confidently, but mistakenly, taken all of the fake barns he’s encountered to be barns. Now he’s encountering the only real barn in the district. He again confidently takes the object to be a barn, but from Henry’s point of view, there’s nothing special about this case: He’s no more confident about this identification than he was about all the others. But this time, he’s right –he’s 1-for-20 in his recent barn judgments. Does he know that the object is a barn? Here, I’m fairly confident that Henry doesn’t know. If you’re still not sure, we can try other modifications. For instance, we can suppose that Henry goes on to encounter 20 more fakes, and gets completely fooled 20 more times. Now he’s 1-for-40, and his one “hit” among many “misses” is right in the middle of a sea of errors. If you’re still not solidly intuiting that 1-for-40 Henry doesn’t know, there are still further changes we could try, but you’re probably beyond the reach of my help.

(You can similarly modify Dretske’s zebra case so that the subject actually has encountered, and has been fooled by, several cleverly painted mules that the zoo is using in the midst of a zebra shortage in a successful attempt to fool the zoo-going public, but is now encountering the only real zebra in the zoo.)

Why is the case typically presented with the feature that Henry hasn’t encountered any of the fakes? It seems that Goldman’s main use of the example — to motivate the relevant alternatives account of knowledge — would be well-served by the modified example, where intuitions against knowledge are stronger. For when we compare the modified example with a normal case, in which all the barn-looking objects in the area (including the ones Henry has encountered) have actually been barns, we find that Henry cannot rule out the convincing-fake alternative in either scenario, but that his inability to rule that alternative out seems to block his knowledge only in the case in which there are fakes. So the actual presence of the fakes, together perhaps with Henry’s having encountered & been fooled by them, seems to make the alternative that what he is now seeing is a fake relevant.

But one of the points that Goldman goes on to make is that Henry’s evidence is the same whether or not the other object that look like barns in the area really are barns, and I speculate that he didn’t want to jeopardize that claim. (Much depends here on how exactly one construes the notion of evidence, but even if the fakes look exactly like real barns from the road, there are ways of construing evidence such that one is getting different evidence, depending on the nature of what one is actually seeing.) So, since he thought the intuition that Henry doesn’t know was solid enough even if the case is presented with Henry not having encountered any of the fakes, Goldman decided to tell the story that way. (Again, that’s just speculation.)

But if it really isn’t that intuitively solid that Henry doesn’t know in the unmodified story, we have good reason to modify the case. And the modified case has served my purposes well. (Because the fake barns have looked exactly like real barns, Henry still seems as justified in his judgment that he’s seeing a barn as he would have been if there had been no fakes, so, even with the modification, this example still seems, for instance, to be a case of justified, true belief that fails to be knowledge.)

Is it absolutely certain that Henry doesn’t know, even in the modified 1-for-20 (or 1-for-40) case? Of course not. But about the modified case, the judgment that Henry doesn’t know seems fairly solid to me, so far as premises of philosophical arguments go. But I wonder what others think


Modifying the Barn Case — 4 Comments

  1. I agree that the modified case is much more compelling than the original case, but isn’t there some pressure to give the same verdict in both cases? After all, it’s not obvious why the relevant facts about Henry’s past history should affect whether or not he knows. Perhaps the modified case works by making it more vivid why it is that a certain kind of reliability, which is missing in both cases, should be thought necessary for knowledge. If so, then it could be used as a tool for persuading those who remain unconvinced by the original case. Does that seem like a plausible strategy?

  2. I thought that the main point behind Ginet’s example of the papier-mâché barn façades was to show that there can be Gettier cases that don’t involve any “false lemmas”. (All of Gettier’s original examples involved such “false lemmas”, and this led several philosophers — most notably, Gilbert Harman — to argue that what Gettier had showed was that knowledge is subject to a “no false lemmas” requirement.)

    I speculate that the reason why Goldman included the detail that Henry has never encountered any of these papier-mâché barn façades before was to make it absolutely clear that Henry’s belief didn’t depend on any false lemmas (such as a belief in the false proposition “This here is a barn, just like those other barns I’ve just seen”).

    By the way, I’m on Declan’s side, in thinking that since knowledge requires reliability (of a sort that involves something like what has come to known as “safety”) it is enough to prevent Henry from knowing that he *could easily* have been deceived — even if he hasn’t *actually* been deceived in the past.

  3. Declan: Sometimes there is strong intuitive pressure to judge two philosophical examples the same way (I’ve found this to be the case often in ethics, at least with examples I’ve played around with): When you consider each case individually, you’re inclined to give different verdicts, but when you compare the cases, the differences between them seem completely irrelevant to the judgments involved: “How could that possibly matter?!”, you spontaneously exclaim. I’m not getting that here. [I realize you’re not suggesting that that’s the situation; all you said was that you feel *some* pressure to rule the same.] When I compare the cases (the modified example in which Henry has encountered fakes vs. the case as it appears in Goldman, with fakes about that Henry has not encountered), while the differences don’t *clearly* make the difference between knowing & not knowing (I guess I *have* to say that: after all, as I’ve indicated, I myself lean toward the judgment that Henry doesn’t know even in Goldman’s telling of the example), they are also not clearly irrelevant to whether Henry knows. I mean, we’re comparing a case in which Henry is actually 1-for-20 with a case in which he’s 1-for-1. Feeling *some* pressure to rule these cases the same way (which is all you claim to feel) seems rational, but, on the other side, I think many who are inclined to judge that Henry does know in Goldman’s telling of the example feel comparative pressure to rule that case the same way as they rule a case in which there are no fakes around: “In both cases, he’s looking at an actual barn, he’s seeing it normally & well, etc. [here I begin to mimic your phrasing as I put words into their mouths] It’s not obvious why the relevant facts about what Henry might have encountered should affect whether or not he knows.” (I’ve been e-mailing with an excellent epistemologist who’s been arguing that Henry knows in Goldman’s case, and he cited this comparative consideration.) I’m inclined to reply to these folks as I’m inclined to react to your suggestion (on the other side): No, it’s not obvious that the differences make the difference between Henry’s knowing and his not knowing, and it seems reasonable to feel *some* pressure to rule the same way, but it doesn’t strike me as very strong pressure, since the differences don’t seem (to me, anyway) irrelevant to questions of knowledge.

    Ralph: You could be right about Goldman’s motivations, but the no-false-lemmas view isn’t among the accounts of knowledge that Goldman explicitly lists right after the cases as those that can’t explain the difference the fakes make. After giving the cases, and asking why Henry would not know if there are fakes about but would know in a normal setting, Goldman quickly discusses several approaches to knowledge, explaining why they can’t account for the difference. The accounts he explicitly discusses (on pp. 772-3) are:
    -JTB: can’t explain the difference because Henry is equally justified in the two cases (with fakes about v. normal): It’s here that Goldman makes the claim that Henry’s evidence is the same.
    -Goldman’s own old causal analysis: Can’t explain the difference because Henry’s belief is causally connected to the presence of a real barn in the same way, in all ways relevant to the analysis
    -Unger’s non-accidentality thesis: Looks like it “might” be able to handle the difference, but the notion of non-accidentality being used is itself in need of explanation
    -Indefeasibility approach: There is a good defeater in the case in which there are fakes about, but the indefeasibility approach is too restrictive, “at least in its unrestricted form.” (He doesn’t explicitly add, but probably should have, that in its unrestricted form, there are defeaters even in versions of the normal [no fakes anywhere about] case in which it’s intuitively clear that Henry does know.)
    Having gone through these competitors, he then produces his new relevant alternatives approach as the way to explain the differences. I was just speculating as to Goldman’s motivation, so I certainly could be wrong about it, but I was trying to base my speculation on what was explicitly in Goldman’s discussion of the cases.
    The way I’m inclined to understand the no-false-lemmas condition, it is met even where fakes are about, anyway — though I’m very uncertain about the application of that condition to cases like this. [Here, you may be inclined to side with me, given how you phrase the matter: “to make it absolutely clear that” there are no false lemmas – which one is likely to say if it appears that there are no false lemmas even w/o the modification, but one is putting the modification in just to be “absolutely clear.”]

  4. Keith,

    I’m actually more inclined to say Henry knows in the modified case than in the original. I have some intuition that because of where he is, Henry doesn’t know he’s looking at a real barn, even though nothing has gone wrong between him and the barn he’s looking at; and so even though on balance I do think he knows that he’s looking at a real barn, it feels like there’s a bullet to bite in thinking Henry knows. But one way of softening the blow is to notice that Henry’s going to be wrong about a lot of other barns in the neighbourhood. Hence, saying that Henry knows he’s looking at a barn doesn’t have to mean saying that Henry’s performing really well epistemically–even though it sounds like it it does mean that.

    (To be a bit more precise, I shouldn’t say I’m more inclined to say Henry knows in the modified case: rather, the modified case highlights a reason I’m don’t mind disagreeing with Goldman about the original case. I gather you’re partly interested in how people react to the two versions of the case, so you can put my vote in the “no noticeable difference” box.)

    I wonder, also: what do you think about the Newspaper case? That’s another one where I’ve never bought the standard conclusion, and I think for the same reasons I take poor Henry to know he sees a barn.

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