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Can a belief be justified but false?


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can a belief be justified but false?
Date: 7 December 2007 12:31

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 30 November, with your University of London Epistemology essay in response to the question, 'Can a false belief be a justified belief? What significance does your answer have for our understanding of knowledge?'

This is another excellent essay, demonstrating a good understanding and knowledge of the issues. However, I couldn't help feeling that this time you have been too clever and have gone beyond what the examiners were looking for, with the result that your argument looks somewhat contrived.

I therefore did something I don't normally do, which was to check the two examiners reports for Question 1. Both made the point about adapting Gettier counterexamples. But your line about the causal theory, etc was conspicuously missing.

I think it is incorrect to see the causal, truth-tracking and reliabilist accounts of knowledge as analyses of the concept of 'justification'. They are analyses of the concept of knowledge, which reject the standard 'justified' part of the JTB definition in favour of an alternative notion which works better.

At the very least, you have no right to conclude, or assume, that these theorists are putting forward theories of justification as well as of knowledge.

If you challenged one of these theorists to say what they think of 'justification', then two responses are possible: (a) I don't care about justification, I only care about whatever-it-is that suffices to make true belief knowledge (b) (more belligerently) we ought to get rid of the confusing notion of justification and replace it with a notion which has been demonstrated to work better.

It is a separate question whether one should be 'internalist' or 'externalist' about justification, and what that means. I have no difficulty in forming an externalist notion of justification according to which your examples still pass as JFBs. Even if I don't have full internal access to what serves as my real 'justification' for the belief that P, it doesn't follow that I can't have such a justification while P remains false. Indeed, it could be argued that a notion of justification which didn't allow false belief would be pretty useless.

I just don't get your argument that someone holding a coherence theory of truth can't allow JFBs. Justification, on this account would be something like a well-founded judgement concerning the coherence of one's beliefs. But such a judgement can still fall short of the mark. There is still a difference between the 'appearance of coherence' and the reality which the appearance attempts to track.

One thing that should be said is that we need a notion of justification as well as a notion of knowledge. This is because our interests range wider than merely tracking truth, or evaluating knowledge claims. We are also interested in explaining why people do things, and whether they are being reasonable or unreasonable in what they say and do.

If I was answering the question, I would concentrate on analysing the temptation to make justification sufficient for truth. The starting point is Descartes Meditations. However, even when we relax the Cartesian demand for certainty, there remain pressures which lead us to want to say that if a 'justification' justifies a belief which is in fact false, then something must have gone wrong somewhere.

I remember in a conversation with my thesis supervisor John McDowell, his making the odd remark that 'true belief wears the trousers'. Typical Oxbridge. But anyway, the idea is that we are 'naturally constructed' to form true beliefs about the world. When a belief fails to be true, something has gone wrong, the equipment isn't working properly.

Despite my reliabilist sympathies, I think this seriously misleading at best. It overlooks the very important role of hypothesis formation, and inference to the best explanation. Sure, there is an evolutionary account (as in Quine's seminal paper 'Epistemology Naturalised') of why our sense of 'best explanation' is generally a reliable guide. But the world is a funny place. Sometimes the less obvious explanation turns out to be the true one. No fault of ours, no fault of evolution (which wasn't intended to produce science and technology, just smart naked apes). That's just the way things are.

Interestingly, this parallels the account Descartes gives later in the Meditations when he tries to explain why, if God is not a deceiver, human beings still form false beliefs. In some cases, it is our fault, in granting assent to a judgement when we should have withheld assent. But not always.

I have a small quibble about the Grandfather clock example. Unless Mrs Incorrect is stone deaf, she could tell just by listening that her grandfather clock is not working ;-)

All the best,