I say no.
Consider the idea of common knowledge. It was once common knowledge that a variety of diseases were curable by bloodletting. Today it is common knowledge that no diseases are curable by bloodletting. Epistemologists are widely agreed that to seriously know that P, it must actually be the case that P. So it follows that common knowledge is not a serious sort of knowledge.
But serious to whom? Scientists are seriously interested in the nature of common knowledge, because it figures centrally in their attempt to understand human cooperation. There are several other serious uses of the term to be found within distinct scientific enterprises. For example, in information science an entity is typically said to have knowledge to the extent that it has information it can put to use. But the usability of the information that P is insensitive to whether P is in fact the case.
The concept of knowledge that interests epistemologists, then, is not the only one that interests people involved in careful, serious and systematic inquiry. Rather, it is simply the one that is meant to handle problems that are of particular interest to epistemologists. We shouldn't pretend differently.
The mother of all epistemological problems is universal skepticism. When the skeptic claims that we know almost nothing about the world, what she is usually saying is that we lack any rational basis for ruling out- or even regarding as improbable -any number of skeptical hypotheses according to which reality is radically different than we believe it to be. In this context, when we object to the skeptic that we do have knowledge about the world, we are asserting that the world is not radically different than we believe it to be, and that we have excellent reasons for saying so.
This is the legitimate origin of the traditional, though now widely disputed analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. It says that I know that P iff:
- I believe that P;
- I am justified in believing that P;
Now, it takes some work, but most philosophy students can be made to agree that this is a counterexample to the above definition. That is, that it clearly satisfies the traditional definition of knowledge, but is clearly not a case of knowing there is a pig in the sty. Why? Well, the crude answer is that you just got lucky. Epistemologists count on us to have a strong feeling that this sort of luck is incompatible with the serious sort of knowledge that we all have in mind.
The Gettier Problem was a seismic event in philosophy, triggering a massive rethink of the concept of knowledge. Almost all of the proposed solutions- and none have emerged victorious- involve creating some condition that would obviate the luck that Gettier counterexamples require.
I think this has been a mistake.
To see why, let’s go back and look more closely at the skeptic’s challenge. She informs us that we have no rational basis for ruling out skeptical hypotheses. Fair enough, that deserves an answer. But there is nothing in this challenge that requires us to build this justification condition into the definition of knowledge itself. It is perfectly open to us to stipulate that whether we have knowledge is one thing; whether we are rationally justified in believing we have it is another. The skeptic's question goes to the latter.
What if we simply removed the justification condition altogether? Then we would end up with a very simple definition of knowledge. I know that P iff:
- I believe that P;
It's important to see that we would lose no descriptive power by adopting this definition. We would simply accept the implication that some instances of knowledge are seriously lucky, which means the claim that someone knows that P does not entail an endorsement of the means by which she came to know that P. This becomes a distinct issue.
You'll be unsurprised to find few epistemologists on my bandwagon. For most of my tribe it is just axiomatic that you can not come to know something as a result of, say, blind faith or random guessing. (Students who suggest otherwise are scoffed into submission.)
Note well that I do not suggest that this analysis is completely intuitive. Even to the unindoctrinated, it may sound odd to say that I know there is a pig in the sty under the Gettiered conditions described above. But here is my point: the analysis does not have to be completely intuitive. It just has to satisfy the aims of epistemology. Every serious form of inquiry employs a vocabulary in which familiar sounding terms are given technical meanings for the purpose of clarity and theoretical fecundity.
This is why it is so important to recognize that there is no one serious concept of knowledge. It frees epistemologists to adopt the one that will allow them to get serious about solving the problems that really concern them.
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University