True Beliefs, Good Reasons (1)

Alper Gürkan recently drew my attention to Crispin Sartwell‘s idea that knowledge is merely true belief, not justified true belief as is more commonly proposed, and as I usually propose, at least provisionally. I’m still trying to locate the crux of my disagreement with him, and when I do I will certainly report back, but I wanted to take a moment to note down an insight that occurred to me while reading him. Such insights are good examples of why it pays to engage with people you disagree with even if you’re pretty sure they’re not going to change your mind. You might find a new reason to believe what you already believe. And that, as I hope to show, is just another point at which to open your mind.

I normally present “justified true belief” as a three-part definition of knowledge that suggests a three-step heuristic for deciding whether or not you know something. First, ask yourself whether or not you believe it, then, whether or not it is true, and, finally, whether you have a good reason to believe it, a justification. Sartwell’s papers (1991, 1992) on this have challenged me to consider whether these are really three different issues. After all, if you already believe something you surely think it is true, right? So how does “Is it true?” move your thinking forward after you’ve decided that you believe it? Likewise, if you think something is true then, surely, you think you are justified in thinking so. As a heuristic to help you, the individual writer, decide whether or not you know something, this doesn’t seem very helpful.

But here’s the thing I realized in trying to defend my position: maybe this is a actually a two-by-two heuristic. To know something we must believe something for reasons, but what we believe must be true and our reasons must be good. Inspired by Sartwell, we can say that our epistemology has both a descriptive and a prescriptive aspect (or, if you prefer, an empirical and a normative one). If you’re knowledgeable, you must possess (as a matter of empirical fact) both beliefs and reasons. But these beliefs and reasons must be the right ones, and this “rightness” is captured by the words “true” and “good”. In holding beliefs were are striving to possess truths, to participate in “the truth”, if you will. And we want to be guided by correct thinking.

Now reasons are probably themselves just beliefs. But when we consider whether or not they are “good” we are not interested in whether they are factually true. We are more concerned about whether they relevant to the belief in question. Sometimes this means that our reasons should imply our beliefs, and sometimes they just need need to increase their likelihood of being true. But they cannot be arbitrarily related to our beliefs. That wouldn’t be good.

So far, these are just intuitions that I’m kicking around in my head. The bigger intuition that I’m trying to capture is that if someone insists that they “just believe” something and, when pressed, say simply, “Because … reasons!” they are admitting that they don’t know. They need to assert true beliefs and adduce good reasons, whatever those normative terms mean to their peers in their disciplines. In fact, understanding what counts as a “true belief” and a “good reason” in a particular research community goes a long way towards explicating what “knowledge” means in that community, delineating its epistemology.

(Part 2.)

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