Foundationalism, Gettier Cases and Wittgenstein — A Conversation with Joshua Rasmussen

A dialogue with Joshua Rasmussen of Azusa Pacific University, in which we discuss a number of topics in Epistemology, including: Foundationalism and criticisms; Gettier Cases; Internalism and Externalism; Transcendental Arguments; and Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty.”

This dialogue will also appear as part of the Sophia program at MeaningofLife.TV.

9 comments

  1. Ah, Gettier. You shouldn’t have done that. Now I feel compelled to write a reaction.

    I first heard about Gettier when I was in my twenties and I found it marvelous. I spent a few days thinking about it and developing an algorithm to generate new cases. And then something struck me. It’s a purely logical game, and logically speaking, it isn’t even an exciting game. It’s a moderately sophisticated version of something that’s not exactly earth-shattering: given “if P then Q”, Q can be true even if P is false. It’s possible to arrive at the correct conclusion even if the premises you start from are false.

    Let me quote Wikipedia on Gettier:
    “Smith has a justified belief that “Jones owns a Ford”. Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes that “Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona”, even though Smith has no information whatsoever about the location of Brown. In fact, Jones does not own a Ford, but by sheer coincidence, Brown really is in Barcelona. Again, Smith had a belief that was true and justified, but not knowledge.”

    Gettier asks us to accept that John doesn’t own a Ford car, but also that Brown “really” is in Barcelona. The reader can interpret the location of Brown as a premise in a purely logical argument, but then the argument becomes independent of the place where Brown actually is – we’re playing a purely logical game. Unfortunately, this undermines the argument, because it’s only convincing if Brown “really” is in Barcelona.

    Therefore, the reader has to wonder how we’re supposed to know that Brown is in Barcelona. Gettier doesn’t tell us. He claims there is knowledge – Brown is in Barcelona – but doesn’t explain what this knowledge is, on what it is based or how he found out. However, given this slightly mystical Gettier-knowledge about reality, knowledge can’t be a justified true belief.

    Yes, I suppose so.

    I personally think few things can be reduced to logic. Russell – who contemplated Gettier-like problems himself – tried it with mathematics and ran into huge problems. If it doesn’t work satisfactorily for something relatively unambiguous like mathematics, how could a reduction to logic work for “knowledge” derived from something messy and dangerous like “observations”?

    I apologize for the interruption.

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      1. I listened to your Wimbledon example, but it has the same problems. To accept that the definition of knowledge as a justified true belief is problematic, you have to “know” that you accidentally watched the finals of the previous year. How do you know that, and what is this knowledge you’re talking about?
        Gettier-style arguments always seem to start from the idea that some forms of knowledge are problematic, but others – quite mysteriously – aren’t.

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        1. I don’t see that. The cases clearly show difficulties with the concept of warrant. This is why causal theories of knowledge are one of the more popular moves in response to Gettier.

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          1. I haven’t read all Gettier-like arguments – life is too short – and I’m not going to deny it stimulated interesting philosophical discussions.
            However, I think bad arguments can stimulate interesting discussions too, and I haven’t seen a Gettier-like argument that I would call a good argument.
            Let’s go back to the example I quoted. It’s crucially dependent on the premise “Brown really is in Barcelona”. This premise has to be true, a description of reality as it is. Just like you “really” were watching last year’s finals in the Wimbledon example.
            In other words: we have knowledge about the location of Brown. Let’s call this particular piece of knowledge “Knowledge”, with a capital K.
            Gettier never tells why “Brown really is in Barcelona” counts as Knowledge or what this Knowledge is. It’s not a justified true belief, I suppose, but what is it then?
            Gettier doesn’t explain. He assumes there is something undefined but unproblematic – the Knowledge that Brown is in Barcelona – and argues that from this undefined Knowledge we can deduce that knowledge (without capital k) is not a justified true belief.
            I don’t find this a good argument. How can you deduce from something undefined that a definition is wrong? It doesn’t work that way.

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  2. I am really confused by Kaufman’s assertion that not everything is a target of understanding. I am confused for the simple reason that we can never get any from understanding or explanation. He can certainly try to erect boundaries separating trivial or unimportant questions from deep and important ones but he has no warrant for drawing that boundary. This makes his skepticism unsustainable. That is, all experience has some content that we should certainly want to discuss; it is not mere practice or experience. Even further i would argue that his own Judaism cannot be separated from theology and big questions. Judaism is not merely practice and affiliation. Indeed it would be incoherent without explanations he associates with theology. That division itself is unsustainable.
    I think any belief system is certainly subject to rigorous criticism. That Judaism is less dogmatic than other religious traditions might very well be in its favor is another way of saying this. But what I would say about that is the problem is dogmatism itself, not explanation or comprehension. Explanation and comprehension is throughly intertwined with or very being would by my hyperbolic way of putting it. All that said, what a great discussion this was; loved and respected what both had to say.

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      1. I made an assertion that was itself a critique: understanding and explanation are integral to life as it is lived. As such, to draw a boundary separating matters that are considered abstract and uninteresting versus (what I believe) you consider the local and the contingent and interesting is an illusory boundary.. We are “in” explanations, even if it is only implicit; we can protest that we don’t like it, or that it is unknowable but I see that as unconvincing. Questions that any person ( not specifically you) can claim are impossibly impractical are going to come for us sooner or later, in the fullness of time, which is precisely the whole meaning of this dialogue with Rasmussen, and others like it, as I see it. There is the outside chance that I misunderstood these claims but I have tried to restate them here.

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  3. “…Wittgenstein and his followers, mainly at Oxford, found a residual philosophical vocation in therapy: curing philosophers of the delusion that there were epistemological problems. Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science…”

    I think I disagree with Quine, but if a problem is too hard, I do look for empirical guidance. So if we skip the various radical skeptical viewpoints as unanswerable in internalist terms, most people would point to science as a good model for what we use the term “knowledge”. So, does it have foundations? Most of it does rely on mathematics, and mathematics has no sure foundations. The foundations of quantum mechanics and general relativity are inconsistent. Cosmological models still run out at t0, and at the edges of other mathematical singularities (despite Penrose). But all the mesoscale stuff holds together. So are scientists some kind of holists – possibly without being aware of the fact? Most would be like me, I think, having an expectation that there is no incommensurability, that is, effective theories are always approximations or subsets of a bigger (“more true”) theory.

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