FRIDAY, AUGUST 27, 2021
But why would anyone care?: Today, we don't have naming of parts, though the poem is still sadly relevant.
Today, we have "the Gettier problem." We're going to give it a Wittgenstein hook, with a connection to our failing society's lack of daily logic.
Some may ask what "the Gettier problem" is. For the record, that question can mean different things.
Below, you see the capsule account given by the leading authority on the problem. Below, we'll simplify this account. The gods on Olympus have started to chuckle even as we type this:
The Gettier problem, in the field of epistemology, is a landmark philosophical problem concerning the understanding of descriptive knowledge. Attributed to American philosopher Edmund Gettier, Gettier-type counterexamples (called "Gettier-cases") challenge the long-held justified true belief (JTB) account of knowledge.
The JTB account holds that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief; if all three conditions (justification, truth, and belief) are met of a given claim, then we have knowledge of that claim. In his 1963 three-page paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Gettier attempts to illustrate by means of two counterexamples that there are cases where individuals can have a justified, true belief regarding a claim but still fail to know it because the reasons for the belief, while justified, turn out to be false.
Thus, Gettier claims to have shown that the JTB account is inadequate because it does not account for all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.
At this point, some will ask what "epistemology" is. According to that same authority, epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Epistemology is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other major subfields such as ethics, logic, and metaphysics.
As categorized there, epistemology is a subfield distinct from the subfield called logic. But it comes pretty close to that more familiar-sounding field.
Back to the Gettier problem. In somewhat simpler language, this is what's been said:
You can believe that some statement is true, and your belief can be accurate. You can even have a sensible reason which "justifies" your belief. (For example, you didn't just flip a coin.)
You can believe it, and it can be true. You can even have a sensible reason for your belief. But that doesn't mean that you knew that the statement in question was true! That's what Gettier tried to show, thus creating "the Gettier problem."
A sensible person might ask at this point why anyone would care about this. In fact, there's an event in the news this very week which involves these basic elements, though we won't get there today.
Friend, are you intrigued at this point by the Gettier problem? If so, a bonus awaits.
As the leading authority offers additional background, two of those familiar names enter the picture again. One of them even devised the so-called "stopped clock case!"
The question of what constitutes "knowledge" is as old as philosophy itself. Early instances are found in Plato's dialogues, notably Meno and Theaetetus. Gettier himself was not actually the first to raise the problem named after him; its existence was acknowledged by both Alexius Meinong and Bertrand Russell, the latter of which discussed the problem in his book Human knowledge: Its scope and limits...
Russell's case, called the stopped clock case, goes as follows:
Alice sees a clock that reads two o'clock and believes that the time is two o'clock. It is, in fact, two o'clock. There's a problem, however: unknown to Alice, the clock she's looking at stopped twelve hours ago. Alice thus has an accidentally true, justified belief...Gettier's formulation of the problem was important as it coincided with the rise of the sort of philosophical naturalism promoted by W. V. O. Quine and others, and was used as a justification for a shift towards externalist theories of justification.
Did Alice "know" it was two o'clock? Out here in the actual world, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which the question would arise—in which anyone would waste their time debating so utterly pointless a point.
As such, this can feel like "Planet of the Toffs"—like academic rule by a gang of disconnected Brahmins who sit around the club conducting pseudo-discussions about topics which don't matter.
Inevitably, it was Russell—the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years—who devised "the stopped clock case." Meanwhile, according to the leading authority, Gettier's formulation was important because of its connection to "the philosophical naturalism promoted by" Quine.
Quine was the fifth most important—and not only that! Gettier's formulation was also used as a justification for a shift towards externalist theories of justification! The kind of externalist theories which have never been mentioned, not even once, anywhere outside the club!
All roads seem to lead back to these fellows as they lounge about at the club! For a bit of comic relief, consider this account of Principia Mathematica (Russell and Whitehead), the fifth most important philosophy book of the 20th century:
Gödel placed himself at the very center of the storm over mathematical foundations, which had broken with a deeply unnerving discovery Bertrand Russell had made at the turn of the century while working on Principia Mathematica. Russell's idea had been to establish the soundness of mathematics by showing how it could all be reduced to principles of logic so self-evident as to be beyond doubt. Defining even the simplest operations of arithmetic in terms of what Russell called such "primitive" notions, however, was far from an obvious task. Even the notion of what a number is raised immediate problems. The laboriousness of the methodology and notation was all too evident in the (often remarked) fact that that it took more than seven hundred pages to reach the conclusion, "1 + 1 = 2," a result which Russell and Whitehead described as "occasionally useful."
Principia Mathematica was the fifth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. That said, did Russell and Whitehead really spend 700 pages "reaching the conclusion" that 1 + 1 = 2?
We don't know how to score that claim, though it's certainly bruited a lot. That account comes from Stephen Budianksy's recent book, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel, the latest attempt to make Gödel easy for general readers.
To his credit, Russell was deeply involved in the actual affairs of the world. Also, he was willing to see the humor in his philosophical work, as described in several passages in Budiansky's book—humorous passages concerning the mammoth size of the manuscript and its later lack of readers.
Did Russell's "philosophical" work ever make any sense at all? We can't answer that question. But there he was, in his typical way, devising the crucial "stopped clock case."
Did we mention the fact that he was recently rated the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years?
Why do we cite the Gettier problem today? With apologies, it's because we read an overview of the life of the late Robert Nozick in the past few days.
In our (limited) experience, Nozick was always a thoroughly good, decent person. He was also a star of the academic philosophy world. Especially given what follows, we can't stress those points strongly enough.
In the fall of our freshman year, we took the introductory philosophy course, Problems in Philosophy, as taught by Professor Nozick. We were 17 at the time. He himself was 26, and he may have looked younger.
This was the course which showed us freshmen (and, we're sure, some sophomores and juniors) what academic philosophy was all about. It was also the course which sent at least some of us streaming toward the exits, deciding to major in just about anything else.
(We went to History & Lit for a year, then staged a triumphant return.)
It may be that the course, Phil 3, was taught extremely well. We recall the way our teaching assistant, NAME WITHHELD, tore at his hair and agonized as he stared out the window in Emerson Hall, wondering how he could possibly know that 7 + 5 = 12.
(For the record, Miss Cummings had told us in second grade—and we still believed her!)
How well was Phil 3 taught? We can't evaluate that question now. But as enrollees' disillusionment with the young professor became more and more clear, we thought we sere seeing a very nice young person whose career was coming undone.
In fact, he was soon the hottest thing in American academic philosophy. In this account of his life, we read about his approach to the Gettier problem.
As we did, we decided, once again, that we freshmen had maybe been right.
The world we've been describing this week is the world the early Wittgenstein entered in 1911. At age 22, he presented himself, unannounced, at Russell's rooms in Cambridge. Russell soon accepted him as an unmitigated genius.
Eventually, things went sideways between the two, then they went downhill. Along the way, the later Wittgenstein surfaced, and one of two things happened:
According to that survey in 1999, he produced the most important philosophy book of the 20th century—a work which helped establish him as the most important philosopher of the past two hundred years.
Either that happened, or this did:
According to Professor Horwich, his later work was largely thrown under the bus by the philosophy establishment. For ourselves, we suspect that Horwich may be right. In the weeks ahead, we'll return to what he has said.
Along the way this week, we've taken a look at the world Wittgenstein entered, at age 22. back in 1911. It hints of Planet of the Toffs. For today, we leave you with two questions:
Did "Alice" know what time it was? And why would anyone care?
Still coming: Examples of lapses in daily logic. Also, Wittgenstein made easy