A very old view about knowledge says that knowing something requires believing the right kind of thing for the right kind of reasons. Most agree that the right kind of thing is a true proposition—a fact. There is less agreement on what constitutes the right kind of reason, but we want to at least rule out lucky guesses. Even if I correctly guess that the number of people on Earth currently thinking about waffles is exactly 863,471, I won’t thereby know that fact. To count as knowledge, then, a belief must satisfy both an objective constraint (it must be true) and a subjective constraint (the subject must have good reasons for the belief), leaving us with something like the following analysis:
(K) S’s belief that P is knowledge just in case
(i) P is true; and
There are cases, though, that appear to be counterexamples to (K). The oldest case that I know of comes from Dharmottara:(ii) S believes P for good reasons.
In the distance, there is a piece of meat that has just begun to cook over a fire, but is not yet smoking. However, a cloud of flies has gathered over the meat. From your vantage point, the cloud of flies looks just like a cloud of smoke, and so you believe that there is a fire.
You believe for good reasons in this case (you see what appears to be smoke, and you know that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire), and your belief is true (because there is a fire). Nevertheless, many think you do not know that there is a fire (not everyone agrees). It’s hard to say exactly why you don’t know, but one possibility is that your reasons for believing that there is a fire are not related in the right way to fact that there is a fire. Your reasons come from the flies, rather than coming from the fire. Your belief satisfies both constraints, then, but your reasons are not “hooked up” to the truth in the way that they would be if what you saw was smoke coming from the fire.
Interestingly, other concepts with both subjective and objective constraints seem to face the same kind of problem.
On some accounts of meaning—in the sense used in the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’—meaning has a similar structure to knowledge, with both subjective and objective constraints. Let’s call all of the things that you’re working on in your life (your education, career, hobbies, relationships, etc.) ‘projects’. Susan Wolf’s view is roughly that for a project to be meaningful, you must be passionate about it, and it must also have objective value. Passionately putting together jigsaw puzzles, for example, is not a meaningful project, and neither is toiling in desperate boredom to end poverty. This gives us the following analysis of meaningful projects:
(M) S’s project J is meaningful just in case
But we seem to be able to give counterexamples to (M) of the same sort that we saw for (K):(i) S is passionate about J, and(ii) J has objective value
Sherlock is the world’s greatest detective, solving hundreds of cases that restore lost property, reunite families, and ensure that justice is served. However, though Sherlock is passionate about his work, he is indifferent to the people whose lives he improves. He is passionate only because of the intellectual challenge of solving cases.Sherlock is passionate about his cases, and solving them has objective value, but are they meaningful projects in the relevant sense? It seems to me that they are not, for just the same reason that you do not know there is a fire. Sherlock is not passionate about these projects because they have objective value, but instead because they are intellectually challenging—he would be just as passionate if they had no objective value. So, the way in which his projects satisfy the subjective constraint (i), is not “hooked up” to their satisfaction of the objective constraint, (ii).
Another concept that seems to have both subjective and objective constraints is that of deserving credit. Suppose that my wife is happy. What would it take for me to deserve credit for her happiness? For one thing, her happiness would have to be a result of something that I did—cleaning the kitchen, for instance. For another, her happiness would also have to be an intended outcome of my actions. If I cleaned the kitchen only so that I would have a clean place to cook, I wouldn’t deserve credit for any unintended happiness that she experienced as a result. So, we might think:
(C) S deserves credit for good outcome O just in case
(i) O is a result of S’s actions;
(ii) S intended to bring about O
Does this tell us anything interesting? Maybe. It’s possible that the problem for (K), which epistemologists have spent an awful lot of time thinking about, is just an instance of a more general problem. If so, looking at instances in other areas of philosophy might help us solve it.
Department of Philosophy