Can we really know if we know anything? Philosophy of knowledge is the discipline that studies everything related to the capacity of knowledge: the scope that can reach, the origin of what we know, its nature…
Already Plato, in one of his works dedicated to this subject, Theaetetus, tells a discussion between Socrates and Theaetetus. It explains that the only way to understand knowledge is to define it as a true and justified belief. For many years, this definition was taken as true (with some modification), until the arrival of the American philosopher Edmund Gettier.
What we know according to Gettier
In his work Is Justified True Belief Knowledge ?, Gettier tried to show that a true and justified belief may not be knowledge. How can this be? Yes, I think yesterday it rained because water fell from the sky and I got home soaked after jumping puddles, could it really be that knowledge?
Apparently, in the previous example, it is anti-intuitive to say that my knowledge of what happened is wrong. But Gettier, a bit more twisted than all this, introduced some variables to make us see that a belief, even if justified, can be wrong.
Let’s imagine that I have a friend, Marcos, who has bought a red sports car X. Yesterday he came to show me and gave me a ride on it. From this experience I can deduce that “a friend of mine has a red sports car X”.
However, Marcos, who is a very changeable person, sells that car to our friend Emilio. The previous proposition “a friend of mine has a red X sports car”, even if it is true, does not generate real knowledge in me because the friend I was referring to was Marcos. We are inferring a correct conclusion from a wrong premise.
But, then, what do we know?
In the previous case, our justification fails, but it exists; and supposedly that is what is required to shape knowledge: a justification. Then, to avoid all this difficulty, it would be necessary that the justification also be totally true and thus be able to speak of knowledge.
But, in this way, we would need a justification for justification, and a justification for the justification of justification, ad infinitum. Gettier has put us in an infinite loop.
Gettier knows nothing
The first reactions to Gettier’s objections were to attack these assumptions by arguing that they were not true counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as a true and justified belief.
Some argued that it is possible to believe something false in a justified way (as in the case of the friend and the car). If the belief that allows to infer that something is true is false, there would be no justification to believe it.
In this way, as the three conditions of the classical gnoseological model (belief, truthfulness, justification) were not met, there would be no knowledge.
Reflect on what we know (and do not know)
Imagine that someone is called to appear before a court considering that he has committed a fault; in this case judging is justified. But, sometimes, the justification may be wrong and that is why you are taken to trial.
We can not put this person in jail because, although judging him is justified, there is no certainty that he committed a crime. If not, why go through the bureaucratic and tired process of judging it? It would be much easier to condemn him directly. This is a clear example that there may be justification, but not certainty.
Imagine again. Often, we trust our senses (if we do not find any anomalies in them). If we have good reasons to believe something, to believe it is justified. But would we blame someone for making mistakes in an optical illusion or a trompe l’oeil? Would we say that this person has no justification to believe what he believes?
It seems clear, by way of conclusion, that the justification required will vary according to the importance of the issue itself. But then… do we know anything? the answer to the question is in you.