The Gettier paper is rubbish

In 1963 Edmund Gettier wrote a philosophy paper called Is justified true belief knowledge? In this paper, Gettier comes up with an example that supposedly criticises the justified true belief theory. Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will get a job. Smith also thinks that Jones has ten coins in his pocket because he counted the coins. So Smith thinks the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket. Gettier claims that Smith’s claims are justified. But actually Smith is going to get the job. Smith has ten coins in his pocket, so it happens to be true that a man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job. So Smith has a justified true belief. But Gettier claims this justified true belief isn’t knowledge.

Philosophers love the Gettier paper, but the paper is stupid. No ideas are ever justified, in the sense of being shown to be true or more probable or better. Argument doesn’t work like that. The premises of any given argument may be wrong. Its rules of inference may be wrong. So the argument may be wrong. You can’t eliminate the possibility of error. There is no magical way of conferring truth or partial truth or higher status on some conclusion. It’s either right or wrong and you can’t prove whether it is right or wrong or assign probability to it being right or wrong in any sensible way. The Gettier argument requires that justification is possible, but it’s not so the whole argument is sunk before it gets started.

Popper had refuted the JTB theory in 1961 in his paper On The Sources Of Knowledge And Of Ignorance and he clarified further in “Realism and the Aim of Science”. So there is no reason to fawn over the Gettier paper. The paper is just wrong.

There is another problem with the Gettier paper. You can’t really learn anything useful from it. Popper’s knowledge and ignorance paper explains that there are no privileged sources of knowledge and so that you should be critical about all your ideas:

The question of the sources of our knowledge like so many authori­tarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.

Gettier claims Smith counted the coins in someone else’s pocket, and that this justifies claiming there are ten coins in somebody’s pocket. The authoritative source of the count is Smith. But this is incredibly dumb. Did Smith see Jones take coins out of his pocket and ask if those were all the coins? If so, perhaps Jones thought “this guy’s a bit fucking weird asking how many coins I have in my pocket, I better lie in case he’s going to mug me.” Or did Smith stick his hands in Jones’ pockets and root around in them? There is a lot of potential for error in this example.

The president of the company says Jones will be hired. So what? Maybe he will discuss Jones with other people and change his mind. The hiring may not be his decision at all. the president of a corporation has powers described by the bylaws of the company in question and may not give him control over hiring decisions. Again, there is a lot of potential for error here.

There really isn’t anything good about the Gettier paper. The fact that philosophers like it reflects poorly on philosophers and should not be regarded as a reason to read the paper.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

13 Responses to The Gettier paper is rubbish

  1. > The premises of any given argument, may be wrong.

    no comma

    > Or did Smith stick his hands in Jones’ pockets and root around in them?

    maybe he had 10 coins in his pocket yesterday, but none today. maybe he had 10 coins earlier, but spent some of them on lunch – or got more change at lunch. that part is silly. but the point isn’t really about that. the point is “jones will X. jones is Y. so Y will X.” people are impressed by small amounts of pointless logical indirection.

    • I fixed the comma.

      He wants an argument that has the right result for what turns out to be the wrong reason. There are simpler examples. Like Smith could have counted the coins wrong and thought there were 10 during the interview when he actually had 11, but a coin fell out of his pocket between the interview and the time he got the job. The indirection is pointless, but I also wanted to point out the silliness of the example.

  2. X says:

    > But actually Jones is going to get the job. Jones has ten coins in his pocket, so it happens to be true that a man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job. So Jones has a justified true belief. But Gettier claims this justified true belief isn’t knowledge.

    This should read:
    But actually Smith is going to get the job. Smith has ten coins in his pocket, so it happens to be true that a man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job. So Smith has a justified true belief. But Gettier claims this justified true belief isn’t knowledge.

  3. Louise Orrock says:

    It would be helpful if Popper’s refutation had been summarised although I will look it up. Is it valid to say the criticism of justified true belief is not a fundamental one in the sense that it refers to new, or experimental, knowledge, whereas most of what we take to be knowledge is second hand? I may have missed the point here and will think about it. I myself believe that diseases are fictitious. Do I not know it if my own justification is flawed? Experimental knowledge is more of a hunch than other types of knowledge, although whether if so Gettiers’ examples fall more into that type than the other I’m not sure.

    • Popper’s criticism was summarised: see the second paragraph.

      > Is it valid to say the criticism of justified true belief is not a fundamental one in the sense that it refers to new, or experimental, knowledge, whereas most of what we take to be knowledge is second hand?

      The criticism applies to all knowledge since it points out a feature shared by all arguments.

      > Do I not know it if my own justification is flawed?

      All justification is flawed. So lots of people have come up with flawed justifications without knowing about it.

      > Experimental knowledge is more of a hunch than other types of knowledge

      No. All knowledge consists of guesses controlled by criticism.

  4. Louise Orrock says:

    On the other hand, one can have valid, if not sound, reasons for believing a lot of things to be true that may not be true, valid because the justification is widely accepted. This would be an example perhaps of something constituting knowledge when it is not true, since otherwise we might have to think that a lot of what we have learnt in history as well as science is not knowledge, which may be a rather puerile point, although a philosopher is perhaps happier with things that are not true than things that are not, as yet, adequately demonstrated.

  5. Louise Orrock says:

    In terms of Popper, a valid argument is not possible to prove false and at least some of what passes for knowledge may consist of valid arguments (eg, psychoanalysis if not Marxism, although there must be better examples of knowledge rather than theories), although it may be that something should only be considered right if it can be falsified, in the way that mathematics, or at least some of it, is grounded, as I think Descartes says, in measurement.

  6. Louise Orrock says:

    ‘Falsified’ might have something to do with the construction of the microscope (rather than, say, false consciousness) but Popper’s distinction might be a way of distinguishing scientific from non scientific subjects, although I assume that’s one of the points of it. I did once work with someone who had been his secretary and I did read part, at least, of one his books not that long ago but don’t remember much about it.

  7. Louise Orrock says:

    Or Iranians.

  8. Louise Orrock says:

    How, for instance, can we falsify the idea of the cell? If there is a constant beneath all things, then how do we know if we can only see it with the microscope that it is nothing to do with the microscope? Otherwise, we might think that different things would reduce down to different structures, which I believe, as I was discussing with someone the other day in a shop, is more along the lines of what Aristotle thinks. However, I need to do more observations myself and won’t post any more comments for the time being unless I am more sure they are useful.

  9. Louise Orrock says:

    Although ‘sub stratum’?

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