A Defense of Knowing Nothing

by Robert Gressis

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Introduction

In this essay, I argue against the idea that in order to count as knowing some proposition P, P should be true, you have to believe P, and you should have some justification for believing P.

I have several arguments for this view, but honestly, I don’t need any because I know things and I have no justification for many of these things I know. So, that should end the discussion right there. Also, since my thesis is right, I don’t have to give arguments anyway, because it’s part of my thesis that people don’t need to have any justification to count as knowing things.

Now, let’s say, somehow, you make a compelling case that my view is wrong. You may want me to recant and get frustrated when I don’t. But remember, it’s not part of my view that you need to believe something to know it – and luckily for me, I don’t believe my own view, so there’s nothing for me to recant.

In addition, even if my view is false, so what? I can know things even if they’re false. So, in disproving my view, you proved it.

That was the introduction. You got a sense of what I’m going to say from that first paragraph. Note how clear the introduction was. And note how insane my view is! Don’t you just want to attack it?

Also, look at the first sentence: no narrative hook at all. I just, like, started. This is how you should teach your students to write!

Situating My View in the Literature

Lots of philosophers think that to count as knowing some proposition P at least the following have to be true: you have to believe P, you have to have justification for P, and P has to be true.[1] Now, many philosophers think that, in addition, you need something else to know P: “warrant”[2] or “non-luckiness”[3] or something like that. And some philosophers go the other way: they’ll say you can know P without believing it [4], or they’ll say that you can know P without its being true,[5] or they’ll say you can know P without having any justification.[6] But I’m the only philosopher who thinks that you can know P without any of these.

Call my view the “Knowledge Needs Nothing” View (KNNV). My acronymizing this view — and also my using the letter P to stand for “proposition” — makes my view seem scientific, and therefore, daunting. Also, the fact that I’m the only one who accepts[7] KNNV makes my view a significant contribution to the literature. [8]

Arguing for KNNV

I have a battery of arguments for why KNNV is right.

The Linguistic Practice Argument

First, look at how people talk. Imagine something unexpected happens. Not only did this unexpected thing happen, but you wanted it to happen. You may say, “I knew it!” This is a perfectly acceptable thing to say even though you didn’t have any justification for knowing it. If you say it, you probably won’t get push-back, though people may roll their eyes. And if someone does push back, people will probably roll their eyes at him. So, our linguistic practices show that we accept the idea that you can know something without justification.

Second, imagine that something unexpected happens, and you say you knew it, but then later something else happens nullifying the unexpected thing. For example, imagine that many epidemiologists say that the coronavirus will kill between 200,000 and 1.7 million people. You don’t want this to be true, so you disagree. And then, after a few months, it looks like the coronavirus will kill only about 60,000 people. You say, “I knew it!” At this point, only Aspergery jerks will try to correct you. But then, states open up and 300,000 people die by the end of the year. So, the epidemiologists were right, and you were wrong. But it was still OK to say “I knew it!” back when you said it, even though, technically, you didn’t have good reason for saying it, and even though, technically, what you said turned out to be false.

Third, after 300,000 people die, someone dredges up your Twitter feed where you said “I knew it!” They point it out to you. What a jerk! But it’s OK. You can just say, “obviously, when I said ‘I knew it!’ I didn’t believe that. I was just venting. And if you’re familiar with conversational implicature, you’d know that’s what I meant.” That would be a good response, and it fits into a single tweet.

In summary, our linguistic practices say you can know something even if you have no justification, what you say is false, and you don’t believe it. The thing is, philosophers figure out their intuitions about concepts like knowledge simply by looking at linguistic practices. So philosophers themselves have to accept that our linguistic practices are what show how we may use our concepts.

So, here’s my argument:

[1] Our linguistic practices show that we can count as knowing things that we don’t have good justification for, that are false, and that we don’t even believe.

[2] The way we’re permitted to use concepts comes from our linguistic practices.

[3] Don’t even get me started on warrant.

[4] Therefore, we can count as knowing things that we don’t have good justification for, that are false, and that we don’t even believe.The Argument from Disagreement

There’s just so much controversy in philosophy. I mean, you can say that I’m wrong about some philosophical proposition P, but lots of philosophers would disagree with you. And if lots of philosophers disagree with you, then you should lose confidence in what you’re saying. Now, I admit that this argument applies to my position as well. But that’s OK. I’m not saying what you must say. I’m saying what you’re permitted to say. And it’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m not confident about P, but you may say P.” But it’s not OK to say, “I’m not confident about P, but you must say P.” So, my argument in this section goes like this:

[1′] There is lots of disagreement about what the necessary conditions for knowledge are.

[2′] If there is lots of disagreement about X, then you shouldn’t be confident about X.

[3′] Therefore, you shouldn’t be confident about the necessary conditions for knowledge.

[4′] If you shouldn’t be confident about something S, then you shouldn’t say, “here’s how you must talk about S.”

[5′] However, even if you shouldn’t be confident about S, it’s still OK to say, “here’s how you may talk about S.”

[6′] Therefore, you may say that you can know something even if you have no good reason to believe it, it’s false, and you don’t even believe it.

The Modal Argument

Philosophers love modal stuff. For example, here’s a good modal argument:

[1”] In some possible world W, there is a decisive argument for showing that it’s necessarily true that God exists.

[2”] If it’s possible that an argument decisively shows that necessarily that God exists, then necessarily God exists.

[3”] Therefore, it’s necessarily true that God exists.

The beautiful thing about this argument is that I don’t even have to come up with the argument that decisively shows that God exists! But premise 1 has got to be true. Think about it: there are infinitely many possible worlds. Does it really seem likely to you that in none of them there’s a decisive argument for God’s existence? Me neither. But this argument iterates. So, here’s another argument for my conclusion:

[1”’] In some possible world W, there is a decisive argument showing that necessarily, you can know KNNV even if it’s false that KNNV and you don’t have good reason to believe KNNV and you don’t even believe KNNV.

[2”’] If it’s possible that an argument decisively shows that necessarily KNNV, then necessarily KNNV.

[3”’] Therefore, it’s necessarily true that KNNV.

Of course, someone may point out that there’s also an argument in possible space that shows, necessarily, ~KNNV. Against this, I offer the following rejoinder.

Obviously enough, there is a decisive argument for ~KNNV. But remember, if KNNV is right, then I know it even if it’s false, I have no good reason for it, and I don’t believe. So, what do you expect this decisive argument for ~KNNV to show, really?

Conclusion

In this paper, I have shown, using three arguments, that you can know something even if you don’t believe it, even if it’s false, and even if you don’t have any good reason for it. This is a very significant result, because no one has ever said this before.

So far, what I’ve said is pretty similar to the introduction. But it’s a conclusion, so I need to add something, so here’s a promissory note: in future work, I will investigate whether KNNV is not only sometimes true, but always, and necessarily true. But doing that would take me beyond the scope of this paper.

Notes

[1] See Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Matthias Steup, “The Analysis of Knowledge”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

[2] See Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993).

[3] See Linda Zagzebski, “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 174 (1994: 65-73). Note that Linda Zagzebski is a woman, so my citing to her is inclusive.

[4] See Colin Radford, “Knowledge—By Examples”, Analysis, vol. 27, no. 1 (1966: 1-11) and Blake Myers-Schulz and Eric Schwitzgebel, “Knowing that P without Believing that P”, Noûs, vol. 47, no. 2 (2013: 371-384).

[5] See Allan Hazlett, “The Myth of Factive Verbs”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 80, no. 3 (2010: 497-522).

[6] See Hilary Kornblith, “Knowledge Needs No Justification”, in Quentin Smith (ed.), Epistemology: New Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 5-23. Eagle-eyed readers will realize that pretty much everything I’m citing comes from a super-cursory reading of the first couple of paragraphs of my first citation.

[7] Or do I? See section I.

[8] You ever heard the adage, “work expands to fill time”? Well, here’s another one: “philosophy expands to fill logical space.” I’m doing my part here.

21 Comments »

  1. Bravo.

    I have always thought that “knowledge = justified true belief” is absurd. JTB might be important for arguing and debating. But that isn’t what we ordinarily mean when we use “know”.

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  2. So does this matter in any meaningful way? I mean, whatever the result, is anyone going to care? Will computer scientists build better knowledge engines, or mathematicians re-evaluate proof methods, or scientists improve their methodologies? Will it even have any impact in the rest of philosophy? Are there any philosophical viewpoints in say ethics or aesthetics that hinge on this point? Whatever the answer, what will it change?

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  3. My essay is a parody of contemporary philosophy essays. I could add a section explaining what I was going for, but I find that I end up doing more if I follow my muse rather than make comedy that’s too didactic. So, there are probably things in the essay that I expressed but didn’t intend to.

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    • “LADY BRACKNELL. I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to be married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

      JACK. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

      LADY BRACKNELL. I am please to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”

      And, of course, if one wisely knows nothing, but strategically says everything, then they give you tenure. Or, at least, that’s what I heard happens in philosophy departments. But I haven’t even gotten married.

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    • This was gold, the ending sentence put a smile on my face. I used that line in a non-philosophy class because I had read it so many times, I thought it was just acceptable academic practise to say something was outside the scope of the paper/essay. Luckily that essay was submitted twice to allow for feedback and then to make changes from that feedback, so I removed that line 2nd time round.

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    • So it’s a satire!

      I read or rather tried to read the first two paragraphs and gave up. It’s either over my head or too pedantic to understand or both of the above.

      It didn’t seem to fit with my image of Robert Gressis, an idealistic young fellow who seems to really care whether philosophy is worth it and who is willing to spend days conversing about big questions with a philosophical ignoramos like myself without receiving a cent or without it advancing his professional career, but after all I thought, he’s a highly intelligent and complex person who must have various sides.

      In fact, I found the essay so off-putting that if I wasn’t stuck at home without much to do, I wouldn’t have even bothered to click to read the comments to it.

      Only to discover it’s a parody. I myself know the feeling of saying something completely ironic and everyone else taking it seriously. It’s not a good feeling.

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  4. Very nicely done.

    Satire scales from light to more serious, from gentle to sharp, biting, scathing, etc.. This is light and amusing and closer to gentle than scathing. Nobody could be offended. But I am wondering where the author sees or intends his piece to sit on the sort of scale to which I refer. Just curious.

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    • It’s a good question. I mean, this paper, satirical though it is, also satirizes how I write. I suppose one of the things I was doing (warning: as Nabakov said, “we murder when we dissect”) was making the implicit signals explicit. E.g., the reason the paper was significant is merely that no one had ever said what I had said before; my using acronyms alone makes the work more serious; the mere fact that I cite a woman is to my credit; I found my references, not by doing lots of independent reading in an area, but merely by reading a literature survey; the way I wrote my introduction is rote, and boring; the way I wrote my conclusion: same.

      My methodology for coming up with my idea was simple: given that person 1 said this, and person 2 said that, and person 3 said so-and-so, why not just combine them all into one big, stupid view? It shows that the view is, in some sense, not organic but fabricated. It’s not as thought this was a problem I was noticing in my daily experience–a lack of fit between JTB and knowledge–but rather I was finding a problem and coming up with examples to support it: the philosophical equivalent of p-hacking.

      The modal intuition-mongering is something I’ve seen before. I recall reading a paper by David Christensen–whose work I really love–and he had as an aside a defense of the idea that it’s ok if epistemic principles are self-undermining. It went like this: “imagine the principle, ‘if you believe something after thinking about it for 10 seconds, but a bunch of experts who’ve thought about it for 10 years deny it, then you should believe the experts.’ This principle is self-undermining, because we can imagine a possible world in which there are experts who reject that principle. But the principle is good for our world. Therefore, it’s ok if an epistemic principle is self-undermining.” I was gobsmacked by this. You can’t just SAY there’s a possible world in which experts justifiably reject the principle! But he did, and it got published in a great place.

      As for the linguistic stuff, I think there are real questions there. Philosophers constantly point to ordinary practice to justify their conclusions. But how well do we have a grip on ordinary practice? And what does it tell us? Don’t get me wrong, these are questions that philosophers have delved into with great ingenuity and subtlety. But my sense is that, perhaps due to Rawls, that people in a fair number of papers still go about this ham-handedly.

      And finally, the disagreement stuff. We use this as a sword (“how can you be so confident that you’re right, when so many philosophers disagree with you?!”) and as a shield (“how can you be so confident that I’m wrong, when, in order to prove that I’m wrong, you have to get into so many areas of controversial philosophy?”).

      So, with all that now on the table, how scathing do you think it is? The title, I suppose, is the most scathing thing about the essay.

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  5. This is by far one of the funniest things I have read in a long times. Certainly funnier than a lot of current stand up and least of was expecting it here on Electric Agora. Of course if were to appear it would be here, of course.

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  6. This is spot-on, Professor Gressis. In recognizing the patterns your parody makes recognizable, I’m simultaneously delighted and discomfited. I love when that happens.

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  7. I didn’t find it funny because it seemed too much like the contemporary work I’ve already read on theory of knowledge. Reading it is literally painful, it gives me a headache. Perhaps it is good practice, because afterwards, reading something by a good philosopher, becomes a greater pleasure. Philosophers should be concerned, over all, to further our knowledge. The amount of ink spilled on whether knowledge is or isn’t justified true belief is a crime. Knowledge is a complex concept that we can only understand indirectly. We always understand this kind of concept through using metaphor. knowledge is seeing; knowledge is holding or possessing something; knowledge is light – “It dawned on me.” “OK, I get it.” “Yes, I see what you’re saying”. Metaphors help us to understand things that we do not experience directly, like the concept of knowledge. What we experience directly is the production and consumption of knowledge. We read textbooks, learn by doing, teach our children, share information and consult with our peers, we write books and articles. The idea that knowledge is justified true belief has been over-analyzed to the nth degree. What made sense to Greek and Medieval philosophers is an impossibly narrow view, now that we understand biology and the complexity of human society better. Knowledge is an irreducible root concept that cannot be divided up into separate interacting parts: Justifying is what we do to show others that we know, or why we did what we did. Truth is an ideal not a possession or a destination. Belief is a motivating attitude.
    Part of what differentiates humans from other animals is that we spend far more time learning and passing that learning on to new generations – our knowledge accumulates. We don’t keep things to ourselves. We share knowledge with others and it amplifies our cooperative abilities. Knowledge increases our ability to do things, and to have access to things. Take the Covid 19 virus. What is important about our knowledge is that we are sharing it amongst ourselves. Scientists and epidemiologists share their discoveries about it. This helps us to anticipate what it will do, and how it will affect us, so that we can plan for it and so that we can cooperate in slowing its onset by collectively practising physical distancing. That knowledge about Covid 19 is jtb is almost beside the point. Jtb is what we need when we are answering a skeptic or persuading someone who doesn’t know. But it doesnt touch the importance of knowledge as a uniquely human system of sharing information over distance and time. Animals may share some information, but the human scale of sharing is absolutely unique. In these days an a priori definition of a complex concept like knowledge just doesn’t cut it. Instead, understanding how humans are different from other animals goes a long way to furthering our understanding.

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  8. This belongs up there with the proofs that p.

    http://consc.net/misc/proofs.html

    For example, Saul Kripke’s Outline of a Proof that P

    Some philosophers have argued that not-p. But none of them seems to me to have made a convincing argument against the intuitive view that this is not the case. Therefore, p.
    _________________

    (1) This outline was prepared hastily — at the editor’s insistence — from a taped manuscript of a lecture. Since I was not even given the opportunity to revise the first draft before publication, I cannot be held responsible for any lacunae in the (published version of the) argument, or for any fallacious or garbled inferences resulting from faulty preparation of the typescript. Also, the argument now seems to me to have problems which I did not know when I wrote it, but which I can’t discuss here, and which are completely unrelated to any criticisms that have appeared in the literature (or that I have seen in manuscript); all such criticisms misconstrue my argument. It will be noted that the present version of the argument seems to presuppose the (intuitionistically unacceptable) law of double negation. But the argument can easily be reformulated in a way that avoids employing such an inference rule. I hope to expand on these matters further in a separate monograph.

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  9. Occasionally amusing, but largely a straw-man argument; Charles Justice touches on some of why that is. Also, I don’t know any theory of knowledge, useful or pedantic, in which some form of warrant is not an issue.

    Also, dragging in Trump is kind of a ‘if we keep on this path, the world is doomed!’ warning which is an unconvincing argument. Also, one problem here is that Trump is not making any knowledge claim, he is simply re-assuring his fanatic followers that he is the stable genius who can re-write history so that everything comes out okay (which is what they really want from him). This falls into the domain of rhetoric, not strict logic.

    Agree with Charles Justice or not, his comment is an important reminder that deflationary approaches to theories of knowledge appeal to many of us who think the kinds of “proofs that p” alandtapper1950 linked to have grown rather tiresome.

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    • This is an interesting comment. It’s made me wonder about parodies as arguments.

      A parody exaggerates the features of its target to bring out the ridiculousness of those features or that target. Does that make it an argument? Maybe. It depends, perhaps, on whether the author of the parody is attempting to get the audience to accept, on the basis of their accepting other claims, a further claim. This brings up questions about what claims, if any, a parody is asking us to accept as premises and what claim, if any, it is asking us to draw as a conclusion.

      If a parody is regarded as an argument, perhaps the conclusion meant to be drawn is something of the form These Features Are Ridiculous or something of the form This Target is Ridiculous. And if the parody attempts to support that conclusion by making claims deliberately misconstruing the features or the target, then, yes, I suppose the parody would a straw man.

      I’m not sure whether parodies make claims. But supposing they do, and supposing they can be regarded as arguments, and further supposing they can be regarded as straw man arguments . . . so what?

      One thing to note is that if an argument is a straw man, that doesn’t automatically make it bad. Straw man arguments are fallacies of relevance, and whether one claim’s truth is relevant for assessing another claim’s truth is sensitive to the dialectical situation.

      I’m not sure about any of this. I’m just following a train of thought . . . .

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  10. The inspiration for the essay was this published article about birds: https://theweek.com/speedreads/908969/whats-deal-birds-magnificent-scientific-paper-examines.

    I figured that the author was making fun of some of the conventions of his discipline, so I thought, “hey, I should try a philosophy version of that.”

    I don’t recall dragging in Trump. You may be reading more into my example of the person who says “I knew it” than I intended. FWIW, I never consciously thought of Trump while writing this parody.

    You have a fair point w/r/t proofs that p. I’ve never read “proofs that p” before, so I can see how my essay would not only fall into that genre, but be a uselessly expanded version of one (and therefore, significantly less amusing). Had I read proofs that p before, I may not have written this at all, or, I may have at least written it rather differently. Thanks for pointing them out!

    I’d apologize for wasting your time, but at this point, the blame is on you for reading my stuff! You really should have figured out by now that my particular outlook on the world is of rather limited value for you (and yes, that remark was motivated in part by wounded pride, but also by perplexity: why do you continue to read my stuff? How many episodes of The Walking Dead do you really have to watch to realize that it’s not for you?).

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    • Sorry for the last part (“why do you continue to read my stuff?). I should be flattered that you read my stuff at all. That you have problems with it is, of course, fine. There are big problems with what I write, always. My worldview, like many people’s, is full of holes.

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