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Henk bij de Weg

What is true. Gettier cases and the problem of truth

 

Abstract:
One of the most discussed articles in the theory of knowledge is Edmund Gettier’s article “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, published in 1963.
In this article Gettier undermined the view that knowledge is justified true belief. I think that Gettier’s analysis has consequences not only for the
question what knowledge is but also for our idea of truth. In this paper I argue that an analysis in the sense of Gettier shows that a statement can be
both true and not true at the same time.

Introduction

One of the most discussed articles in the theory of knowledge is Edmund Gettier’s article “Is
Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, published in 1963. In this article Gettier undermined the
view that knowledge is justified true belief. It was the start of a lively discussion on what
knowledge is, which lasts till today. However, I think that Gettier’s analysis has consequences
not only for the question what knowledge is but also for our idea of truth. In section 1 I’ll give
a summary of Gettier’s analysis. In this section I’ll not use one of Gettier’s cases, but I’ll
describe a case of my own. In section 2 I’ll apply an analysis in the sense of Gentier’s
approach to a case in which the question for truth is at stake. In section 3 I argue that a
statement doesn’t need to be true even if its content is true.

1. The Gettier problem

According to a standard definition knowledge is justified true belief: If we belief that
something is the case; if we have good reasons for this belief; and if what is believed is
also true, then we say that we know what is the case. So far, so good, but take this example:

I am worried whether my best cow Betsy hasn’t been stolen from the field where she is
supposed to be at pasture. I walk from my farm to the field, where I see a cow in the middle
of the herd. The cow exactly looks like Betsy, although I don't find it necessary to walk so
near to her that I am 100% sure that she really is Betsy. I go home again and I tell my wife
that I know that Betsy is safe. My wife wants to check it, too, and goes also to the field.
There she sees Betsy somewhere in the back and Jane in the middle of the herd. Because
Betsy is often confused with Jane, if you look at her from a distance, she makes herself
100% sure that it is really Betsy there in the back of the field by checking here earmark.
Betsy hasn’t been stolen, just as I thought.

Now the question is: Did I know that Betsy hadn’t been stolen? For (1) I believed that
Betsy was safe; (2) my belief was justified for I had checked it (although I had un-
knowingly Jane confused with Betsy); (3) it was true that Betsy hadn’t been stolen.

In his article just mentioned Edmund Gettier discussed cases like this one where we
seemed to have justified true belief, but where most of us would not say that we “know”,
just as it is doubtful that I, the farmer, “know” that Betsy is in the field, since I had mistaken
Jane for Betsy. Cases like mine and other more refined “Gettier cases” cast doubt upon the
definition of knowledge as justified true belief, for they show that it is possible to have
justified true belief without having knowledge. Therefore the theory of knowledge that
holds that knowledge is justified true cannot be correct. We need more for being able
to say to have knowledge. But what? I leave the question for what is it and refer to the
extensive discussion that followed for possible answers. My question here is different,
namely what the consequences of Gettier’s approach are for the idea of truth.

2. What is true

I take up again the example that I used in section 1, although I have changed it a bit:
I am worried whether my best cow Betsy hasn’t been stolen from the field where she
is supposed to be at pasture. I walk from my farm to the field, where I see a cow in
the middle of the herd that exactly looks like Betsy and I am 100% convinced that
she is Betsy. Therefore I don't find it necessary to walk to her and check her earmark.
I walk home again and say to my wife: “Betsy is in the field”. Actually, I often confuse
Betsy with Jane, when I look from a distance at her, and also now I actually saw Jane.
However, Betsy is also in the field, and I have seen Betsy, too, for Betsy was grazing
left of Jane, and I have seen both cows. However, I thought that the cow left of the cow
I mistook for Betsy was Jane.

The problem analyzed by Gettier is whether I know whether Betsy is in the field. When
talking about truth we have a related problem: Is it true that Betsy is in the field? Or
rather, since truth is about statements: Is what I say to my wife – namely “Betsy is in the
field” – true?

I think that according to most theories of truth – whether it be the correspondence theory
of truth, the coherence theory of truth, the consensus theory of truth, or whichever – the
statement that Betsy is in the field is true, if taken as such. And when I said to my wife
“Betsy is in the field”, I wanted to say that the cow with earmark HW123 is in the field
– since HW123 is Betsy’s earmark – and so that Betsy, a cow with earmark HW123, is
in the field. That’s true, indeed. Nevertheless, at the moment that I am saying this statement
to my wife, in my mind “Betsy” refers to a cow at a certain place in the field right of the
cow I had mistakenly identified as Jane. Let’s suppose that Jane has earmark HW122,
and that when I utter the statement “Betsy is in the field” to my wife, I have an image of
two cows in my mind and I mean to say that the right cow is in the field. In this statement
“Betsy” refers to the cow with earmark HW122 and this statement is false, even though
Betsy is in the field, and Jane is also in the field, and even though also the cows HW122
and HW123 are in the field, and even though I have seen both cows in the field (but had
unknowingly mistaken the one for the other). The upshot is that the same statement can
be true and false at the same time. For what I meant to say when I uttered the sentence
“Betsy is in the field” to my wife is that – for short – Betsy HW123 is in the field, which
is true. And that’s what I said. However by uttering the sentence “Betsy is in the field”
I said at the same time that Betsy HW122 is in the field, and this is clearly not true for
there is no cow named Betsy HW122, and even in case she exists somewhere else in
the world, she is not in my field. The statement “Betsy is in the field” is both true and false.

3. Conclusion

In section 1 I wrote that according to a standard definition knowledge is justified true
belief: If we belief that something is the case; if we have good reasons for this belief;
and if what is believed is also true, then we say that we know what is the case. I applied
this to the idea of truth. Now we have this: 1) I state that something is the case (viz. that
Betsy is in the field); 2) I have good reasons for this statement; 3) What is state is true. The
problem is 3), for what is truly true is that Betsy is in the field and that is what I stated, but
it is not true in the sense in which I uttered the true sentence to my wife. I think that this
conclusion must be valid even if we argue that “Betsy” has different references (HW123
and HW122), for we cannot disconnect these references, because at the moment I
uttered the sentence “Betsy is in the field”, I both said in this one sentence that HW123
(= Betsy) was in the field and that HW122 (= the right cow of the two cows I saw) was,
which was simultaneously true and not true. A statement doesn’t need to be true even if
its contents refers to reality in some sense.

Reference

- Gettier, Edmund, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6.
(Jun., 1963), pp. 121-123.

February 3, 2017.