A Solution to Gettier Problems

By R.N. Carmona

If I’m right to assume that all Gettier Problems involve a change either in the true aspect of our beliefs or the justified aspect of our beliefs, then there’s a way to salvage this intuitive definition of knowledge. Knowledge is ceteris paribus justified true belief. That is to say that knowledge, assuming that all things remain equal, is justified true belief. Gettier problems are set up using luck and fallibility. Clearly, most of what we think counts as knowledge doesn’t involve luck. When I say that I know there’s milk in my fridge, there’s no luck to be had. If all things remain equal, there’s definitely milk in my fridge and I know it. This discounts milk drinking ghosts or dairy loving burglars. In that case, the only reason I don’t actually know what I thought I knew is because I don’t know an added and pertinent fact: a) there are milk drinking ghosts or b) there are dairy loving burglars.

Consider a Gettier Problem to see what I mean:

The case’s protagonist is Smith. He and Jones have applied for a particular job. But Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will win the job. Smith combines that testimony with his observational evidence of there being ten coins in Jones’s pocket. (He had counted them himself — an odd but imaginable circumstance.) And he proceeds to infer that whoever will get the job has ten coins in their pocket. (As the present article proceeds, we will refer to this belief several times more. For convenience, therefore, let us call it belief b.) Notice that Smith is not thereby guessing. On the contrary; his belief b enjoys a reasonable amount of justificatory support. There is the company president’s testimony; there is Smith’s observation of the coins in Jones’s pocket; and there is Smith’s proceeding to infer belief b carefully and sensibly from that other evidence. Belief b is thereby at least fairly well justified — supported by evidence which is good in a reasonably normal way. As it happens, too, belief b is true — although not in the way in which Smith was expecting it to be true. For it is Smith who will get the job, and Smith himself has ten coins in his pocket. These two facts combine to make his belief b true. Nevertheless, neither of those facts is something that, on its own, was known by Smith. Is his belief b therefore not knowledge? In other words, does Smith fail to know that the person who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket? Surely so (thought Gettier).

Setting aside my lack of appreciation for outlandish thought experiments like this one, a few things are clear. For one, everyday knowledge and even esoteric knowledge don’t work like this. What’s also clear is precisely what I’ve argued hitherto: what one doesn’t know interferes with what one knew. Assuming the ten coins had any bearing on who got hired, the fact that Smith didn’t know that he himself had ten coins explains why he didn’t know what he thought he knew. Knowledge, in this case, isn’t ceteris paribus. In this specific case, a gap was present in Smith’s knowledge. This is to say that what he called knowledge fell victim to fallibility. The fact that he didn’t know a given pertinent fact led him to draw a false conclusion.

On my estimation, every Gettier-like problem proceeds in this manner. The problems are definitely structured around fallibility. Devisers of such problems ignore the fact that actual knowledge doesn’t contain gaps. Think of the many locations you know, the many people you know, the many facts, both mundane and esoteric, that you know; none of these fall victim to fallibility. You can’t fail to know who your mother and/or father are — unless you develop Capgras syndrome or prosopagnosia, which again, would be a relevant change. You can’t fail to be wrong about the nearest grocery store — unless you develop paramnesia or begin to suffer from a neurodegenerative disorder like Alzheimer’s, which again are important changes to consider.

In the case presented in this article, the woman assumed that the man on the couch was her husband only because her husband is usually the only man in the house. She didn’t know that her husband’s brother was in town. So again (!), there was a change that she was ignorant of. Thus, when we fail to know something, it’s because a gap already exists or because something of importance changed. If I fail to know that there’s milk in my fridge, it’s because there are milk drinking ghosts or dairy loving burglars. It wouldn’t be because I never had actual knowledge of there being milk in my fridge.

Knowledge is ceteris paribus justified true belief. Assuming all facts remain the same and that there aren’t any gaps in someone’s knowledge, a person can claim to know that x. If there’s any fallibility or any change, that belief is false and/or unjustified, and therefore, does not count as knowledge. This is my solution to the Gettier problems — one that hinges on Correspondence Theory.

As always, questions, comments, and rebuttals are welcome. Do you think my solution succeeds? Why or why not? Do you think there’s a solution? If so, what works better?