Sunday, November 20, 2016

Knowledge, meaning and credit


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 
(ii) S believes P for good reasons.
There are cases, though, that appear to be counterexamples to (K). The oldest case that I know of comes from Dharmottara:

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 
(i) S is passionate about J, and
(ii) J has objective value
But we seem to be able to give counterexamples to (M) of the same sort that we saw for (K):
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
But once again, this analysis seems to miss something important. Suppose that I cleaned the kitchen because I thought that the kitchen being clean would make my wife happy. In fact, though, she is indifferent to whether the kitchen is clean. However, she was very happy to be left alone for the hour that I spent in the kitchen so that she could get some work done. So, my actions resulted in the outcome that I intended (her happiness), satisfying (i) and (ii), but I do not seem to deserve credit for that outcome. It is, in some sense, only an accident that the action I intended to bring her happiness ended up doing so. So, even though my action resulted in the good outcome I intended, my intention is not “hooked up” with the result in the way required for me to deserve credit.

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.

Brandon Carey
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Brandon, very nice piece, thanks!

    It seems to me that of the three issues you discuss, the concept of credit is the least problematic. By this I mean, that your claim that you do not deserve credit for your wife’s happiness in such a case is obviously correct. You deserve credit for trying to make her happy, but not for her actual happiness, because that arose in a way that you did not intend or even suspect. I think the fact that this is so clear is why the concept of credit is itself sometimes used to address the problems of knowledge and meaning.

    Virtue epistemologists claim (roughly) that knowledge is true belief for which we deserve credit. And they would say of Dharmottara’s example that your belief that there is a fire is not knowledge because even though it was reasonable, and you were being epistemically virtuous, the truth of your belief is not due to your virtue.

    Similarly, in the case of meaning, it seems right to say that the fact that Sherlock’s puzzle-solving virtuosity does a great deal of good in the world does not make his puzzle-solving life an objectively meaningful one. He deserves credit for solving the puzzles, not the good that results thereby.

    That said, I think all we get when we apply the concepts of credit and virtue to these cases are definitions that conform to our intuitions about what states of being are most worthy of our admiration. For me it’s an open question how important such definitions are, and specifically whether what we admire is what we should also call genuine, objective or real.

    From a more naturalistic perspective, the concepts of both knowledge and meaning may have explanatory value. We typically explain the non-accidental success of our behavior by reference to our knowledge. We typically explain our non-accidental happiness by reference to our immersion in meaningful activities. And when we are thinking like this it is perfectly ok to say that you know there is a fire and that Sherlock’s life is meaningful.

    1. Thanks, Randy!

      I was thinking a bit about Greco’s virtue account of knowledge after I noticed this problem for credit. As you say, on that kind of view, the problem I give for knowledge is just a special case of the problem for credit. I’m skeptical, though, that virtues are the right sort of thing to solve either problem, at least if a virtue is understood as some kind of stable disposition to believe/act in certain ways under certain conditions. If I were a fundamentally cruel person, for example, but did some kind thing in a rare out-of-character moment, I think I would still deserve credit for it. Similarly, if I were an unreliable or irresponsible epistemic agent that on one occasion managed to go against my bad epistemic character and look at an orange in normal circumstances, forming the true justified belief that there’s an orange, I think I would know that there’s an orange.

      I’m interested in what you have to say about the explanatory value of knowledge and meaning in accounting for non-accidental success/happiness—can you elaborate? ‘Accidental’ is a tricky word, but a case in which I successfully find a fire because I have mistaken a cloud of flies for smoke seems to me like a case of accidental success. If that’s the case, then why shouldn’t our concept of knowledge distinguish between this and a non-accidental case in which I successfully find a fire because I see the smoke coming from it? Similarly, if we think that Sherlock “just happens” to find happiness by doing objectively valuable things, why shouldn’t our concept of meaning distinguish between this accidental happiness and the non-accidental happiness of e.g. a detective who is passionate about her work because it is objectively valuable?

  2. Brandon, I agree with your point about virtue epistemology and credit. I tend to think that virtue epistemology is just the wrong framework for characterizing what it is to know that P. It seems better suited to characterizing what it is for someone to be a knowledgeable person (which I think is at least as interesting a question.) Virtue theorists seem to prefer to talk more about cognitive abilities rather than the Aristotelian sense of virtue that entails a stable inclination to exercise those abilities. So I think they would tend to accept that yours is an example of knowledge because it is a true belief arising from the exercise of a real cognitive ability that just doesn't happen to be used habitually.

    I used the 'non-accidental' qualification mainly to indicate that in a naturalistic context, we aren't looking for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather a concept that has some explanatory value. So, e.g., we might say that Tom found the treasure because he knew where it was buried. That’s (part of) a good explanation as long as the truth of his belief was causally relevant to his finding the treasure. One can imagine a situation in which Tom knew where the treasure was but still found it by accident, and this would undermine that explanation, but not the explanatory value of knowledge generally speaking. All explanations have ceteris paribus conditions of one sort or another.

    Regarding your question, my answer would be, sure we can make that distinction if we want. The question for me is why should we? In a naturalistic context, it’s not an important distinction, because what explains the fact that Tom found the treasure is that he had a true belief about where it was, not, that he acquired that belief in some non accidental way. (If I were making a different claim, e.g., that Tom is an expert treasure finder, then this would become very relevant.)

    I think there is an answer to my question, and that is that to know that P is to be in the most estimable epistemic state with respect to P. When certain kinds of luck account for the true belief that P, it lowers our esteem for that state and we no longer think of it as knowledge.

    I just don’t find this to be a very interesting concept of knowledge. Even if we managed to produce a definition that pins down what most philosophers agree is the most estimable epistemic state, the next question is why we (should) hold that state in such high esteem- what’s now known as the Value Problem. The answer could easily be that there is no good reason. The definition might just capture a motley assortment of limbic outputs and wrongly attach normative significance to them.

    But for me the most important point is that, whatever the value of that project, naturalization is a valid analytical project, too. And when we do that, our normative intuitions have to take a back seat. In the history of science we have seen over and over again that to carve nature at its joints we have to learn to purge familiar concepts of their customary normative implications.

    1. Thanks, Randy. We think about knowledge so differently that I find talking to you very helpful.

      Part of why I would want a concept to distinguish between e.g. Tom’s belief about the treasure and a parallel case of an expert treasure hunter who has the same belief is that that allows us to explain things like why the expert is knowledgeable. We can appeal to the fact that the expert routinely has true beliefs based on reasons that are connected in the right way to the truth as an explanation of her being knowledgeable. If Tom habitually has true beliefs without that kind of connection, on the other hand, that explains why he is not knowledgeable, despite also having true beliefs. We don’t have to call the concept that distinguishes them ‘knowledge’, though. We could just say that they both know the same things, but being knowledgeable is a matter of having knowledge due to the exercise of some ability or skill. Is that closer to how your view would describe things?

      I’m actually not inclined to think that knowledge is the most estimable epistemic state for a couple of reasons. First, I think that we should (and I, at least, do) hold things like certainty in higher esteem. Even something much less than certainty like ‘having exceptionally good reasons’ seems epistemically better to me than many cases of knowledge—knowledge is pretty cheap and easy to come by. Second, I think that there are lots of epistemic properties that a belief can have that we think are valuable, and many of them are not necessary for knowledge. A causal connection with the truth, for example, is something that I don’t think is necessary for knowledge, but I think it’s a good feature of a belief. Also, modal conditions like safety and sensitivity don’t make for knowledge, but there does seem to be something good about beliefs that “track” reality in those ways. So, safe knowledge or knowledge-causally-related-to-the-truth might both be states worthy of more esteem than plain old knowledge.

      I think you’re right to characterize the main disagreement here as stemming from a difference in what things we’re interested in explaining. I start with the idea that there’s a concept of knowledge, expressed in many contexts by the word ‘knows’, and I want to know what it is. Even if it turned out to be a concept that picked out nothing, or nothing of any actual significance, I would still want to know what it is. My concern with a naturalistic approach that’s not constrained by intuitions about that concept is that we could easily end up with an understanding of knowledge that corresponds to something that our brains do, like reliable belief-forming, but not the concept that I’m trying to understand. We would still have figured out something worthwhile, but we wouldn’t have answered the question that I started with. If what you’re primarily interested in is figuring out the natural world and adjusting our concept of knowledge to match something in it, then obviously you won’t share this concern. Or, if on your theory of reference ‘knows’ already refers to the closest natural property, then whatever we find will be the correct understanding of knowledge—I’ll just have had some mistaken intuitions about it. Is one of these approaches the kind of naturalization you have in mind?

    2. Brandon, thanks this is very clarifying.

      Regarding your first paragraph, the way you’ve characterized my preferred way of talking is exactly right. I like this way of talking specifically because it vaporizes the Gettier problem and the value problem, and puts considerations of reliability and justification where they seem to me to belong, which is within the project of identifying the mechanisms by which knowledge and knowers are produced.

      I think philosophers have this marked tendency throughout history to distinguish real or genuine X from garden variety x, and to define the former in some way that tends to insure its unachievability. One way to do this is to make the means by which something is reliably or admirably generated a necessary condition of its existence.

      So, e.g., if we wanted to we could say that people are genuinely rich, not if they simply have a lot of money, but if they have a lot of money as a result of acquiring it justly. And this would imply that people who acquired their wealth by stealing it aren’t truly rich at all. And now this produces all sorts off opportunities for Gettierization as philosophers are gainfully employed to find examples of justly acquired fortunes that seem now to fall short of our sense of what it is to be genuinely rich because of something weird about the causal background.

      I agree with you about knowledge not being the most estimable epistemic state. I just used that example because a lot of people do think of it that way. For example, that’s how Bonjour describes it in “The Myth of Knowledge,” and since that’s just an assumption in his argument, he clearly sees it as being an unproblematic stipulation for most of us.

      Also, I think you’ve probably put your finger on where we tend to disagree. I feel pretty sure that there is nothing answering to that description; i.e., to a determinate concept of knowledge that underlies its use in all sorts of contexts. I see a claim like that as a theory, and I don’t see any facts for that theory to explain. There are no facts about human communication, for example, that require us to attribute this kind of univocality because successful linguistic cooperation does not depend on it. It’s also not clear that concepts of any sort will ever make it beyond the manifest image. So this may be at best an exercise in rationalizing our system of folk concepts. (Not that this is a waste of time, so long as we do not pretend we are doing more than that.)

      Still, I don’t feel very strongly invested in pressing these claims. I’m happy with your perspective on naturalization; that it may be an interesting thing to do, but not the only thing to do. I’m very much a pluralist about philosophical method and believe that everything we do just needs to be ultimately judged on its results.