Sufficient Contrary Evidence

It is difficult to gather sufficient evidence for knowledge under most circumstances; uncertainty is a fact of the human experience. While most philosophers do not bother with such sophistic arguments as the invalidity of empirical data, some do attempt to show that the standard understandings of knowledge – based on the definition that it is “justified true belief” – are sometimes insufficient, even with sufficient evidence. Gettier may be the most famous of these philosophers, an eponymous “problem” emerging in epistemology with the 1963 publication of his “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” The main flaw in Gettier’s argument in particular is that the provided “sufficient evidence” could not be considered sufficient under any circumstances, which is to say that his applications of standard models of knowledge to his examples show nothing of the models whatever. Actually, it might be said that, sometimes, what seems to be sufficient evidence for knowledge is evidence for the absence of knowledge. A powerful example of this is present in Gettier’s “Case 2”.

Case 2 turns on the proposition that “Jones owns a Ford”. There are two instances of evidence for this proposition provided by our protagonist, Smith: (i) Smith recalls on former occasions seeing Jones driving a Ford, and (ii) Jones only recently offered Smith a ride in a Ford. This, Gettier claims, in enough information to “justify” the original proposition. Of course, he claims that Jones does not own a Ford; maybe he had been borrowing a friend’s car, or renting, whenever Smith saw Jones in such a car. But one must be critical of Gettier’s provided evidence; could we ever call these two instances sufficient justification?

One can address both of these instances with the same premise, that seeing Jones in a Ford is not the same as Jones owning a Ford. One might ask, “What would be sufficient evidence for the knowledge that Jones owns a Ford?”, and this would not be easy to answer; the question of sufficient evidence is always a tricky matter, and is usually answered as practically as possible. Obviously, Jones claiming to own a Ford would not be enough. Maybe testimony from a salesman at the local Ford dealership, or some other third-party authority on car ownership – a body shop owner, or an insurance adjuster? Whatever one settles on, it is not present in this case.

The evidence present seems to reasonably direct Smith to the assumption that Jones owns a Ford, though an inspection of his evidence might actually make him suspicious of the veracity of this belief. According to (i), the recollection that Smith has is that Jones has driven (a) Ford(s); the car make is the singular memory that he has. And Smith just saw the car in which Jones is driving, which can be understood as long as it is agreeable that one deduces Smith’s sight of the car from (ii). Upon this sight, might Smith have noted that the car looked the same as he recalled, or looked different? And if so, would this similarity or difference be considered evidence for Jones’s ownership of a Ford? For, should the car look the same, it would reinforce the notion that Jones has had the same car for some tract of time (this would not provide sufficient justification for the belief that Jones owns a Ford, but it might provide some justification). And, should the car look different, it would be evidence contrary to the notion that Jones owns a Ford. Moreover, the notion that Smith’s only recollection of the car(s) Jones has driven appears to be evidence that the make is the most notable similarity amongst all of the cars that Jones has driven; and this hints, by my estimation, at the possibility that Jones has driven different cars of the Ford make. Of course, this could mean that Jones owns multiple Fords, and therefore that Jones does, indeed, own a Ford. However, should I be in Smith’s position, I might assume that he has rented the Fords from the same company; I suppose it would depend on my familiarity and history with Jones.

If Gettier demonstrates anything in “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, it is that sometimes sufficient evidence for knowledge is extremely difficult to collect, and that in attempting to certify knowledge one must scrutinize evidence to the limit of practicality. While Gettier fails to debunk the standard formulae for knowledge in his paper, he still shows that they (these formulae) are only a very small part of the determination of whether something is known. How far would Smith have to go to justify his belief that Jones owns a Ford? Even this is impossible to say without real circumstances. Maybe Jones leases.

This is a response essay to Edmund Gettier's "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" It has been reviewed by my Theory of Knowledge professor, and his comment was that while I raise some reasonable points, my paper does not address the same sort of knowledge that Gettier's does. My argument attributes certainty to knowledge, and analytic epistemology does not. Having read Alvin Goldman's "A causal theory of knowing" and Lehrer's and Paxson's "Knowledge: undefeated justified true belief", it has become perfectly clear that this is the case. Let this essay serve as a commentary on the sometimes counter-intuitive nature of evidence; I hope that you do not take my strong language so seriously!