Spring 2016, NYU Abu Dhabi

Knowledge, Belief, and Reasons

Knowing and Believing

Most philosophers assume that in order to know that something is the case, you have to accept it, or believe that it's the case, plus satisfy some extra conditions.

But this has been disputed.

  1. One kind of objection is the following.

    A schoolboy is taking a quiz. One question reads "When was the Battle of Hastings?" He remembers studying about Hastings and some battle, but he has no idea when it happened. But "1066" looks good, so he chooses that. And so on for the rest of the quiz. As it turns out, he gets a score of 95% on the test. He knew more than he thought.

    Some philosophers would describe this case like this: "The boy knew what the right answers were, he just didn't believe them." If they're right, then this is a case of knowledge without belief.

    Other philosophers would say "He knew what the right answers were, all right. But he also believed that they were the right answers. That's why he chose them. What he didn't have was knowledge that he knew and believed them. (That's why it felt to him as though he were guessing.)"

    Still other philosophers would deny that the schoolboy knew the right answers at all. The answers might have "been there" in the back of his brain. But in order to know that they're the right answers, you need to have more confidence in them than the schoolboy had--and you need to be aware of some good reasons for thinking they are the right answers. The schoolboy lacked that altogether.

    I'm not going to say much about the first account of the schoolboy. I'm going to interpret "believing" in a very broad way, so that having 1066 look pretty good to you, even though you feel uncertain about why, counts as believing--very weakly--that the answer is 1066. If we understand "believing" in this broad way, then it's plausible that, as the second and third accounts say, knowing that P always involves believing or accepting that P.

    We'll be spending a lot more time discussing the debate between the second and third accounts as the course proceeds.

  2. Another reason that some people are reluctant to say that knowledge involves belief is that they think "I believe that P" sounds so weak, too weak to be combined with knowledge. Someone might want to say, "I don't believe my name is 'Gretchen,' I know it is."

    This brings up an interesting contrast that will play an important role in our discussion of the skeptic. This is the contrast between what a speaker gets across by saying something and what she literally said, what her words really mean.

    We can see this contrast at work in cases like the following: My wife asks me "Do you love me?" and I say something like, "You look pretty today." Or maybe I don't say anything in reply. I just keep reading my book. Now that will make her mad, because she'll conclude that I don't love her. And perhaps when I said she looks pretty, I did imply that I don't love her. But that's not what my words mean. My words just mean that she looks pretty. Perhaps I do love her, precisely because she look pretty. But she will naturally reason: "If he loved me, then he would say so. But he didn't. So he probably doesn't love me."

    Similarly, if I just keep reading my book, in that case too I will give my wife the impression that I don't love her. But I didn't say that I don't love her. I didn't say anything at all.

    Here's another case. My wife dumps me, so you're taking me out to a party to cheer me up. As we're driving to the party, we notice that you're almost out of gas. I say "There's a gas station around the corner." Now you'd very naturally take me to be implying that the gas station is open, or at least, that I believe that it's open. But I didn't say it was open. That's not part of what it means for there to be a gas station around the corner. The gas station around the corner might have been closed for 5 years. And I might know that, too.

    In most cases, if your words carry an implication that goes beyond what they really mean, it's possible for you to cancel that implication, e.g., by elaborating. So when we notice that you're running out of gas, I might say to you, "There's a gas station around the corner--but I'm not saying that it's open." By saying this I'm not being very helpful. But I'm not contradicting myself, either.

    What does all this have to do with knowledge? Well, when Gretchen is tempted to say, "I don't believe my name is 'Gretchen,' I know it is," I think she's responding to a phenomenon of the sort we've been discussing. If she said "I believe my name is 'Gretchen'" she would imply that she wasn't sure, or that there was some doubt about the matter. People would expect that if she knew what her name was (or even thought she knew), she'd say so. But she does know. She doesn't have any doubts about her name. So she doesn't want to imply that she's unsure; that's why she insists "I know it."

    Let's suppose that's right. When Gretchen says "I believe my name is 'Gretchen'" she implies that she doesn't know what her name is. But is that because what it means to believe something excludes your also knowing it? Or is this implication just something that people will naturally assume? It seems more like the second.

    Suppose my ex-wife now goes and gets married to Tom. I think that she might be cheating on him. In fact, though, I'm wrong. She's completely faithful to Tom, and we can even suppose that he knows that she's faithful. Now let's say I'm talking to you and I want to tell you about Tom. I say, "Tom believes his wife is faithful." I don't want to say he knows it, because I'm not sure whether he does know it. But we're imagining that Tom does know that his wife is faithful. So when I said he believed she's faithful, is what I said false? No, it doesn't seem to be false. It seems to be true. It's not the whole truth, but it's part of the truth.

    I think we should say the same thing about Gretchen's knowing what her name is. When she knows that her name is "Gretchen," she also believes that her name is "Gretchen." It's just that, she doesn't just believe it, she also knows it. If she were to say "I believe that my name is 'Gretchen'," we'd take her to be implying that she didn't know for sure. But there wouldn't be any contradiction if she went on to say, "...and what's more, I don't just believe it, I also know it."

    (Compare someone who says "I'm not tired, I'm exhausted.")

So when we think about it carefully, we don't find anything in what it means to believe something, that rules out your also having knowledge of the same thing.

Knowing and Having Reasons

To know that P, is it enough to believe that P? No, it seems like you also need to have some good reason for your belief. If you were just guessing, we wouldn't count that as knowledge. (Even if you happened to guess right. Then you'd just be lucky. You wouldn't know.)

So to know P requires more than just believing P. (And more than just believing P and happening to be right.) It also requires you to have good reasons for believing P, or evidence in favor of P, or some justification for believing P. (We will treat all these notions as synonymous.)

At the start of class, I pointed out that there are close connections between knowledge and reasons or justification; so epistemologists pay a lot of attention to the questions "What is it reasonable for me to believe?" and "How exactly is knowledge related to reasonable or justified belief?"

In fact, many epistemologists--myself included--think that justification is a more fundamental and interesting notion for epistemologists to study than knowledge is. (Other epistemologists think that, in fact, knowledge is the more fundamental property.)

As we'll see this term, it is controversial just what "justification" or "reasonable belief" amount to. It is also controversial what the connections are between knowledge and justified belief.

Let's try to disentangle the notion of justification a bit.

  1. When we say that you have justification for believing P, we don't necessarily mean that you'll be able to stand up in court and present a good argument for P. You can imagine a case where you have very good evidence for believing P, and your roommate the lawyer has much poorer evidence for not-P, but your roommate is able to out-argue you. So there's a difference between what you have justification or evidence for believing, and what your abilities as a debater are. There's a difference between:

    (i) the epistemic status of being justified, or having justification for believing something


    (ii) the activity of defending or giving a convincing argument for a claim

    It's tricky to keep these apart, since when we use words like "justifying" and "justification," we're sometimes talking about (i) and other times talking about (ii). For instance, if someone asks you if you can justify your belief, they're talking about (ii). If they ask whether you have a justification for your belief, they might also be talking about (ii). That is, they may be asking whether you have some justifying argument that you could present to defend your belief against criticism. Or, they might be talking about (i). They may just be asking whether you have good reasons for your belief--regardless of whether you can say what those reasons are or convince your critics.

    The relation between (i) and (ii) is controversial among epistemologists. My view is that the epistemological status of having justification is more important, and it does not depend on your being able to engage in the activity of defending or justifying your belief. It can be reasonable for you to believe something even if you're not able to prove that it's reasonable, or explain what makes it reasonable. As the epistemologist Robert Audi says:

    It would seem that just as a little child can be of good character even if unable to defend its character against attack, one can have a justified belief even if, in response to someone who doubts this, one could not show that one does.

    When I'm doing epistemology, I mostly concentrate on the epistemological status. But the activity of justifying your belief will also come up from time to time in our discussion. We haven't yet gotten far enough into epistemology for you yet to have a clear perspective on how these two things are connected. So just file this distinction away in the back of your mind. We'll come back to it later.

  2. The next issue to sort out is the connection between having justification and having a belief. You can have justification for believing things that you don't in fact believe. For instance, suppose I go up to my ex-wife and I tell her I can't live without her, she should leave her husband and come back to me. She laughs in my face and tells me she doesn't care about me anymore, she's totally in love with her husband Tom. Now at this point I have very good reasons for believing that my ex is not in love with me. Even so, you can imagine that I might still refuse to believe it. I might think, "She still loves me, she just wants me to be jealous." If I thought that, I would be unreasonable. But I could still think it. So just because you have justification to believe something, it doesn't follow that you do believe it.

    Epistemologists call this kind of justification---justification to believe something, considered independently of whether you do believe it, propositional justification.

  3. Suppose you have justification to believe some proposition P, and in fact you do believe P. Does it then follow that your belief is epistemically respectable?

    Well, let's continue with the saga of me and my ex-wife. Suppose I go to my sister's house. She has a Magic 8 ball. I ask it "Does my ex still love me?" and I shake it, and the answer comes back "Definitely not." Now I didn't believe my ex, but I do trust the Magic 8 ball. So now I believe that my ex doesn't love me anymore.

    We wouldn't say that my belief in this case is epistemically respectable. There seems to be something defective about it. Yet we said that I do have good reasons for believing that my ex doesn't love me anymore. After all, she told me so, plus she's gone and gotten married to someone else. So I have good reasons for believing it, and I do believe it. So what more do you want?

    What seems bad in my example is that, although I have good reasons for believing P, those aren't the reasons why I believe P. I also have some bad reasons for believing P, and in the example I believe P for the bad reasons, instead of for the good ones.

    Philosophers describe this phenomenon by saying that I have justification to believe P, and I believe that P, but my belief is not a doxastically justified belief. I have good reasons to believe P, but I don't base my belief on those reasons. So we could also say that my belief in P is not properly based. (Feldman sometimes uses the terms "well-founded" versus "ill-founded.")

    Philosophers disagree about which is more basic: the notion of having justification to believe a proposition P, or the notion of having a properly-based, doxastically justified belief that P. My own view is that the first notion is more basic. But what's important for you to recognize is just that there are these two different notions. We can leave the question of which is more basic for another day.

    So, pulling this all together: When I went to my ex-wife and asked her to come back to me and she laughed, I had justification to believe that she didn't love me anymore, but I didn't yet believe it. After I shook the Magic 8 ball, then I did believe she didn't love me anymore, and I still had justification to believe this (because she laughed etc.). But my belief was ill-founded, or improperly based, or doxastically unjustified. It was based on bad reasons rather than on good reasons.