What Are Gettier Cases?

gettier problem and gettier cases

Readers of this blog will likely recall that in an earlier epistemology post one of the given definitions of knowledge defined it as “justified true belief.” Well, that definition is a lie… sort of. Unfortunately, the definition of knowledge as provided by the JTB account isn’t so straightforward and is still a point of contention among philosophers today. To understand why you’ll need to know about something called the Gettier problem.

A little problem causes a big issue

In 1963, essentially yesterday in philosophy, a professor named Edmund Gettier wrote a two-and-a-half page paper titled Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Gettier’s answer was a resounding no. In two hypothetical scenarios, he presented situations in which an individual was right about a proposition, but the process by which they were right didn’t seem to guarantee that they had knowledge. In other words, these scenarios involved someone “knowing” something by coincidence or by luck. Such scenarios have come to be known as Gettier cases, and beyond the two cases that Gettier provided in his infamous essay, many others have been constructed.

Getting Gettier’d (Gettier case examples)

In case one of Gettier’s essay, Gettier presents the following scenario:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the fol1owing conjunctive proposition:  (d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:  (e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not KNOW that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Gettier’s first example is pretty weird, but it does illustrate the problem he’s identified. In this example, Gettier tells us that a man named Smith is told from a reliable source that his associate Jones will get a job. For some reason, Smith also decided to count the number of coins in Jones’ pocket and found that Jones had ten coins in his pocket.

If it is indeed true that Smith will get the job and that Smith has ten coins in his pocket then the proposition “the man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job” is correct. It turns out though that the source who assured Smith that Jones would get the job was wrong and Smith ended up getting the job instead. It also turns out that Smith, who was so focused on counting the coins in Jones’ pocket, forgot he had ten coins in his pocket. Thus the proposition “the man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job” which Smith had reason to believe before, is still correct. However Smith’s reasons for belief were absolutely incorrect and it feels weird to say that Smith knew “the man with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job” just because Smith (who didn’t know he had 10 coins in his own pocket) ended up getting a job he had no reason to believe that he’d get.

If Gettier’s case one seems convoluted, a more reasonable and straightforward Gettier case involves the idea of a broken clock.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Suppose that the clock on campus (which keeps accurate time and is well maintained) stopped working at 11:56pm last night, and has yet to be repaired. On my way to my noon class, exactly twelve hours later, I glance at the clock and form the belief that the time is 11:56. My belief is true, of course, since the time is indeed 11:56. And my belief is justified, as I have no reason to doubt that the clock is working, and I cannot be blamed for basing beliefs about the time on what the clock says. Nonetheless, it seems evident that I do not know that the time is 11:56. After all, if I had walked past the clock a bit earlier or a bit later, I would have ended up with a false belief rather than a true one.

These two examples should provide an ample illustration of the Gettier problem, but if you need more examples or are simply curious about Gettier cases in general, have a look here.

Solutions to the Gettier problem

The issue that the Gettier problem highlights is that there are conditions, either aside from JTB or instead of JTB, which must account for knowledge. In Gettier cases, the subject who has a justified belief is right, but not because any of their justifications were necessarily accurate. While there is a relationship between the subject’s justifications and the truth, it’s a somewhat incomplete or tenuous relationship.

As far as I’m aware, while not every philosopher agrees with Gettier, most respond to the Gettier problem seriously. There is as of yet no favored consensus for resolving Gettier cases, but responses to the issue tend to have three flavors:

  • Rejecting the Gettier problem as an issue entirely
  • Modifying JTB with a “fourth” condition
  • Modifying the criterion for “justification” within JTB.

Why wouldn’t Gettier cases be a problem?

The response to reject the Gettier problem entirely might strike some as counter-intuitive or counterproductive, but rejection of Gettier cases might arise from several different kinds of reasoning.

First JTB isn’t an “official” definition of knowledge, it’s a rough description of a general conception of how certain types of (propositional) knowledge might arise. In this regard, some might reject Gettier cases because they see Gettier as having brought JTB into existence when he critiqued it. Additionally, it’s been pointed out that JTB might not exist outside of Western philosophy, though these claims aren’t without contention. Other types of rejections exist too. For example, someone who is a fallibilist or a skeptic might say that all knowledge is either weakly or inadequately justified so there is nothing special about Gettier cases. A less extreme rejection of Gettier cases, however, might just involve classifying them as conditions where insufficient justification (as opposed to no justification) was present. Looking at Gettier cases this way could allow us to understand them without discarding JTB entirely.

How could you modify Knowledge to satisfy the conditions presented by Gettier cases?

Many attempts to address Gettier cases have involved adding a so-called “fourth” condition aside from just what’s contained within JTB. Examples of these extra conditions can include a “fallibility” or a “luck” condition, where excessive amounts of fallibility or luck cannot be present in order for an individual to have knowledge. Of course, with proposals like these, there is contention as to what counts as too much luck or too much fallibility. Other proposals suggest that justifications can’t be false or can’t have too many “defeaters.” What exactly is a “defeater?” Going back to Gettier’s case one, the fact that either Smith or Jones could have gotten the job and the fact that Smith could have potentially had ten coins on his person should have given Smith pause about his initial proposition.

What do non-Western Philosophers (and non-philosophers) think of Gettier cases?

The question of what non-Western Philosophers think of Gettier cases is a bit of a misnomer as non-Western philosophers don’t know who Gettier is or have a conception of what the Gettier Problem is. That said, some great work has been done on applying non-Western conceptions of knowledge to the Gettier problem to see how non-Western approaches might make sense of the issue. In addition, the growing field of experimental philosophy has allowed philosophers to conduct studies testing both Western and non-Western cultural intuitions surrounding Gettier cases. A small, but growing body of knowledge seems to suggest that some aspects of the Gettier problem might make intuitive sense to most people, regardless of culture.