Oct 23, 2013 | By George Gantz
Does Knowing = Having Justified True Beliefs?
Justified True Belief is the Holy Grail (to borrow a religious allegory) of epistemology – “knowing” is to believe something, on the basis of rational evidence and thought, that is in fact true. While this concept has taken a beating over the past forty years, starting with some paradoxical thought experiments by Edmund Gettier, it generally describes the model for knowledge that philosophers have applied for more than 2,000 years. But is it helpful? Is there a better way to define “knowing”?
In determining whether an idea or statement meets the test of being a justified true belief (“JTB”), identifying a “belief” is the easy part of the problem. A belief is something that an individual holds to be true. “Justification” is more subtle – in the broadest sense justification could include sensory (empirical) evidence, logical analysis, subjective (personal) experience or potentially indirect sources such as testimony or revelation, although most philosophers put little or no value on subjective or indirect justification. But by far the most difficult task is to determine when something is, in fact, true. For many important questions, this task may be impossible.
Consider what happens if you examine a statement such as “the sky is blue.” It is likely that if my eyes are open and I look at the sky on a sunny day I will be able to say “I believe the sky is blue and I have a good justification for that belief.” But in order to know this is a true statement, I would have to add some additional information, perhaps by validating the fact that I am not color-blind, and confirming that I am not asleep and dreaming or merely looking at an overhead projection. Backing up our findings on these facts then requires an additional level of analysis – “I am not dreaming because…” and “I know it is not an overhead projection because…” Indeed, each fact statement generates the need for another “justification” – in order to back up the reasoning that led to my first conclusion that the sky is blue. Each layer of justification, from the standpoint of determining the absolute truth of the statement, yields an additional layer, ultimately resulting in an infinite regress of statements attempting to prove the truth of the first.
Philosophers have responded to this problem in a variety of ways and the theoretical convolutions are quite intricate. The simplest and perhaps best response is the practical one – to acknowledge that perfect knowledge is impossible and the best we can do is say that a true statement is one that is supported by a convergence of “justifications” that by necessity must be finite.
Consider, however, what happens when you examine a statement such as “miracles are real” or “human beings have free will.” These statements are topics of recent ISAS Forum articles (see Miracles and Free Will). The difficulty here is that these, and many other important questions, may not yield any convergence of justifications and, in fact, may be subject to a diverging chasm that will never yield to rational inquiry. As C.S. Lewis postulates in his book On Miracles, there is no proof for a belief in either “Nature” or “Supernature” – but to answer the question of whether miracles are real one has to adopt one or the other belief system.
The conclusion is that there is a class of problems (most of the important ones in philosophy and religion) that fall into this category of divergent justification. These problems are not accessible through the JTB model of epistemology and can never be “known” in that sense. In what sense, then, can they be “known”?
Four possible avenues (and there may be more) for “knowing” the truth of statements in these categories are possible:
(1) The preponderance of considerations suggests that the statement is more likely to be true than not. The statement cannot be proved “beyond doubt” to everyone, but considering the available evidence suggests to me strongly enough that it is true, so I will believe it.
(2) I have personal experience that may not be available to everyone that supports the truth of the statement. This “private evidence” is sufficient justification for me to believe in the truth of the statement but this justification may not be useful to others.
(3) There are consequences to me in concluding that a statement is true or false, and in weighing those consequences I conclude that I am better off believing the statement is true and I therefore choose to do so. This somewhat back-door justification was featured in the recent Free Will discussion.
(4) The rational evidence and analysis from (1), (2) and (3) may not be entirely compelling, but the statement is something that I believe is true based on intuition, inspiration, revelation, community norms, feelings or other inexpressible or intangible factors. These may or may not be relevant to others.
These approaches to knowing the truth may seem unsatisfactory, but they are critical in giving us tools to address problems with divergent justifications under the JTB model. The difficult challenge to us as human beings with the gift of free will is to explore and to balance all of these factors in order to achieve a coherent, consistent and non-contradictory set of beliefs as close to “what is, in fact, true” as possible. We will never know with certainty “what is, in fact, true” – at least not during our lives in this world – but we are obliged to make an effort to learn what we can of the truth in order to make the most of what we have and who we are.
Significantly, we need to recognize that all human beings are in the same situation. The answers that we so desperately yearn for are not directly accessible – we are all faced with having to “muddle through”. Some of us may have access to more information and education, or to teachings (including religious teachings) that better accommodate or address these questions, but many do not. That suggests that sympathy may be a more appropriate response than antipathy. After all, we do share in the amazing (indeed, to many, miraculous) journey of life.
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