Friday, August 24, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility 006: Accidental Knowledge

The following case may seem to cast doubt on the thesis that whether a belief is justified or unjustified is determined by whether the agent is to be credited or blamed for having that belief.

Suppose that the clock on campus (which keeps accurate time and is well maintained) stopped working at 11:56pm last night, and has yet to be repaired. On my way to my noon class, exactly twelve hours later, I glance at the clock and form the belief that the time is 11:56. My belief is true, of course, since the time is indeed 11:56. And my belief is justified, as I have no reason to doubt that the clock is working, and I cannot be blamed for basing beliefs about the time on what the clock says. Nonetheless, it seems evident that I do not know that the time is 11:56. After all, if I had walked past the clock a bit earlier or a bit later, I would have ended up with a false belief rather than a true one.

This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Epistemology

In standard epistemology, this type of case is used to question the idea that justified, true belief counts as knowledge. The agent, looking at the stopped clock, is said to have a justified, true belief at it is 11:56. However, he does not know that it is 11:56. Thus, justified, true belief cannot count as knowledge.

But, is the belief "justified"?

The individual's belief may be justified for practical, everybody purposes (to make sure that he makes a noon appointment, for example). However, if we take the moral sense of justification seriously, his belief is not justified. That is to say, one of the criteria of knowledge has not been met, and this is why the agent does not know that the time is 11:56.

To see this, let us imagine that our agent (call him Marty) needed drive a DeLoreon car equipped with a "flux capacitor" past the clock tower when lightning struck at precisely 12:04 in order to travel in time back to the future. In setting up for this crucial engagement, Marty should recognize that he had an obligation to have a reliable timepiece available that would tell him exactly when to press the gas to get him to the right location next to the courthouse at 12:04 (travelling at 88 mph). Looking at the clock once at 11:56 and judging it reliable would not have been good enough. That is to say, the belief that the clock was a reliable indicator of the time (and, thus, the belief that it was 11:56) had not been justified in the "praise and condemnation" sense of justification. Marty does not "know" that it is 11:56 precisely because the justification condition had not been met.

If we assume that Marty could not check whether the clock was accurate, one could say (in virtue of the principle of "ought" implies "can") that, in looking at the clock and judging that the time was 11:56, he had met his obligation and, that, his belief was justified in the moral culpability sense.

obligation to do so on the basis of "ought implies can," the fact that he should have done so if a means was available is still sufficient to show that he does not know that the clock is reliable.

11:56 and judging that the clock will serve as a reliable instrument for telling him when it was 12:00 (plus or minus 10 seconds) would not absolve the agent of culpability does not justify his belief that the clock will serve as a reliable indicator of when 12:00 gets here. He would still have been held morally culpable for failure to press the button on time. Furthermore, the reason for his moral culpability is his unjustified belief that the clock was reliable.

The implication here is that the agent, in glancing up at the clock and forming the belief that it was 11:56 did not have a justified belief that it was 11:56. However, he did not need a justified belief. We are permitted to be a bit reckless when there is relatively little at stake. The standards go up as the risks go up. The low risk in this case permitted standards that fell below those of justification. The standards applicable to preventing a nuclear warhead from going off are much higher. "To know" is a pretty high standard - a standard that requires a level of justification that would be required in a state of high risk.

But am I not now saying that we do not know as much as I think I do? It seems very few of my beliefs come up to that level of justification.

Though, actually, if "justified" and "unjustified" track praise and condemnation, it is useful to note that the latter is variable. The conditions for believing that my flipping a switch is safe if it is a switch in my own bedroom when compared to a switch on a console in a nuclear power facility that I know nothing about. There is a sense in which, in my day-to-day life - I "know well enough" that it is 11:56 by looking at a clock on campus, but do not "know well enough" for higher stakes.

Here, now, we are not talking about anything of substance. Now, we are recognizing that our sense of the term "to know" is really not all that fixed. It is fluid - precise enough for everyday use but simply not built to standards of precision. There is a "to know" associated with mundane levels of risk and a "to know" associated with higher levels of risk. Plus there is a "to know" that is fluid, that evaluates whether the agent's epistemic behavior is appropriate for the current level of risk, whatever that may be, rising or falling as the situation demands.

So, does the agent in the campus clock case "know" that it is 11:56? It depends on which sense of "know" we are appealing to at the moment.

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