A good old fun topic: luck in epistemology.
If you’re familiar with the study of knowledge, you may know that, traditionally, knowledge is defined as justified true belief.
However, not all philosophers agree with this assertion. Edumnd Gettier famously created what’s known as the “Gettier problem”, by presenting some examples (the Gettier counterexamples, as they are known) of instances of justified true belief that do not correspond with our intuitive notion of knowledge. Since that time, more examples have surfaced that closely resemble what we would normally call knowledge, but challenge the traditional definition. I’ll use one example that was not given by Gettier, which I think sums up the idea of luck in epistemology very well.
Carl Ginet of Cornell University provides this example of lucky knowledge. He imagines that a person, Henry, is driving down a country road and sees a barn. In his mind, he forms the belief that he sees a barn. His belief is justified, because the object he sees appears to be a barn — it matches his understanding of what a barn is, how a barn looks, etc. His belief is also true, because what he sees is, in fact, a barn.
However, things are more interesting than that. For, in the area that Henry finds himself, the locals have an odd hobby. They like to construct facades of buildings, which, from the road, appear identical to actual buildings. In fact, the majority of the things that look like barns from the road are not actually barns, but wooden facades that only look like barns.
Now, here’s the problem. Henry has a justified true belief that he sees a barn, which, in the traditional account, means that he knows that he sees a barn. But it’s only by sheer luck that Henry is actually correct in his belief. If Henry had happened to be looking at any of the other barn-like objects in the area, he would have been wrong. This begs the question: Does Henry really know that he is looking at a barn?
If you answer “yes” to that question, then consider the following. Suppose that someone next to him is familiar with the area, and tells Henry that, “actually, the people in this area construct facades of buildings, and most of the things that look like barns around here are, in fact, not barns.” If Henry is told this, but nobody confirms that he is actually looking at a real barn, does he still know that he is looking at a barn? It would seem that his true belief is no longer justified — given what he now knows about the area, he doesn’t have a good enough reason for believing what he previously knew to be true.
Did Henry go from knowing something to not knowing it? If so, than to what degree is knowledge dependent on our state of mind? If not, did he ever know it, and can we ever know something luckily, or are there other qualifications to knowledge other than it being justified and true?
Duncan Pritchard, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, performs what is probably the first thorough examination of this concept in his book, Epistemic Luck.
I’ll leave it at that, for now, to bring up the idea of epistemic luck. It’s something that I’ll be keeping in the back of my mind this year as the epistemology topics come up. I’ll be beginning my second year tomorrow, which, fortunately, has a greater focus on philosophy than my first year. I’ll probably come back to this idea in a later post, as epistemology is one of my favourite areas of philosophy.