Gettier cases in real life

It strikes me that I left something important out of a post I put up the other day, the one titled “Justified True Belief.”  In it, I summarized Edmund L. Gettier’s 1963 article “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” an article that was less than three pages long to begin with, so it was a bit silly to summarize it.)  Gettier cited a definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a definition that went back to Plato, and gave two examples of justified true beliefs that we should not call knowledge.  Gettier’s examples were rather highly contrived, but have been followed by many publications giving more plausible scenarios in which a person might hold a justified true belief, and yet not be said to have knowledge.  I said in the post that such “Gettier cases” occur in real life with some frequency, then gave a novel by Anthony Trollope as my closest approximation to real life.

Here’s something that happened to me.  I was teaching a class about social life in ancient Greece and Rome.  The topic for the day was marriage, including the custom of the dowry.  Most of my students have passed their whole lives up to this point in the interior of the USA.  To them the idea of a dowry is a bizarre one.  To make it somewhat intelligible to them, I explain that in ancient times it was common for a household to subsist on resources approaching the minimum necessary for survival.  So, it was quite a serious matter to share what little one had with one’s neighbors.  Say a creek ran through your farm, and your neighbor wanted to make a deal with you to divert a portion of its water to irrigate his fields.  If he were to trick you and take too much of the water, you and your entire family might very well starve to death as a result.  How was it possible to develop such trust in one’s neighbor that it would be possible to strike such a bargain?  If you and he were going to have grandchildren in common, then you could believe that he would have enough interest in your long-term well-being that he would be unlikely to treat with you in so harsh a manner.  Thus, a property owner who would not let his neighbor dig an irrigation ditch for any amount of money might freely dig it for his neighbor himself as a dowry for his daughter.

I tell this story every semester.  A couple of years ago, one of my students approached me after class.  A woman from India, she was troubled by my explanation of the dowry, and by the textbook’s equally pragmatic discussion of it.  Her parents had dowered her and her sisters, as her grandparents had dowered their mother, not with any such materialistic motives in mind, but as an expression of respect for the prospective bridegroom and welcome to his kinfolk into their family circle.  She did not disagree with anything I had said; so far as she could see, all of my remarks about the economic function of the dowry were quite true.  But she did not believe that any Indian, or anyone else from a society where the dowry was a living custom, would ever have made them.  From her point of view, the propositions I had enunciated concerning the dowry were true, and I was justified in believing them.  However, she clearly thought that I did not know what I was talking about.

I would make one other point.  The vast and ever-growing literature that lays out plausible sounding Gettier cases makes it clear that the contrived nature of Gettier’s two examples bothers people.  Yet, why do we have a category of “contrived” when it comes to counterexamples?  Surely it is because we think that it is possible to think up some scenario in which a given statement might be true, even when that statement is not something we really know to be true.  So that a far-fetched example may establish the logical possibility of a point, but only an argument grounded in real life or in exhaustive reasoning is likely to convince us that the statement is worth taking seriously and incorporating into that set of beliefs and mental habits that we consider to be our stock of knowledge.  In other words, our very discomfort with Gettier’s examples proves the point that those examples are intended to establish.

Requiescat in pace?

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite right-wing political bloggers.  His brother Christopher has also been mentioned here from time to time.  Today, Peter Hitchens had the sad duty to write a post about his brother’s death.  It’s an eloquent statement of a personal grief made public by the fame that each brother had attained in his life.  I recommend it highly.

Peter Hitchens is a defender of a very conservative brand of Anglicanism; his brother was a celebrated atheist spokesman.  I myself am not a believer, but I am deeply interested in the ways in which widely accepted religious doctrines can shape the thinking even of people who consciously reject them.

So, I often think about how we respond to death.  It is convenient to be able to say to a bereaved person, “My prayers are with you”; if you share a common belief in an afterlife, it may be comforting to invoke that belief also.  Yet it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to treat Christian language about death as if it were an attempt to comfort the grieving, since a great deal of the discomfort that a resident of a Christian land faces upon the death of a loved one stems from Christian doctrines and practices.  If we affirm a doctrine of immortality, then we can never quite let go of the idea that we should be on contact with those whom we love, for we can never quite accept the idea that they have ceased to exist.  If our loved ones are out there someplace, in some form, then it is an ever-renewed pain that we cannot see them or hear them or touch them.

Alexander Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated to the USA during the Soviet era.  Father Schmemann became one of the founders of the Orthodox Church in America.  In his book For the Life of the World, Schmemann considered the fact that Christianity does not make it easier for the bereaved to accept the death of a loved one, but harder.  This, he argued, was not a failing of Christianity, but one of its virtues.  Here is a quote from that argument:

“Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as ‘adjustment to life,’ ‘counseling,’ ‘enrichment,’ it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to ‘your friendly bank’ and all other ‘friendly dealers’: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to ‘give up’ the very category of ‘transcendence,’ or in much simpler words, the very idea of ‘God.’ This is the price we must pay if we want to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a ‘status,’ a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, ‘he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.’ In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere ‘help,’ not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an ‘other word’ which looks like a cemetery (‘eternal rest’) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to ‘dispose’ every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a ‘just society’ and to be happy!—this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his ‘positive ideal’—religious or secular—and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes ‘awful,’ the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not some ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by ‘transforming’ them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”

— Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy  (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)pages 94ff

The New York Review of Books, 22 December 2011

I subscribed to The New York Review of Books for years and years.  I kept renewing because interesting pieces would appear in it just as my subscription was about to expire.  Then it would go back to its usual unrelieved tedium for another 11 1/2  months.  Anyway, I saw a copy of the 22 December 2011 issue in a magazine exchange rack the other day.  I picked it up.  I’m glad I don’t subscribe anymore, or it would have been the issue to lead me to renew.

Michael Tomasky reviews sometime presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign autobiography.  This sentence intrigued me:  “While some of us may scoff at a man whose claims to fame include peddling Whoppers (Cain turned around the Philadelphia regional division of Burger King) and pizzas (he was for ten years CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, which he also made profitable) to an increasingly obese nation with less and less need of them, conservatives find virtually any form of private-sector achievement admirable.”  In the USA, academics, journalists, and others in the nonprofit world are routinely challenged to justify their existence in terms of the value of their services to society at large.  Success in business, by contrast, is generally accepted as self-justifying.  I’ve lived in the USA long enough to find it a bit jarring, in fact, to hear Tomasky step outside this paradigm and treat business as an activity like any other.

Ingrid Rowland reviews Robert Hughes’ Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.  Rowland meditates on the coexistence of Rome’s historical patrimony and the dominance of mafia groups in the city’s business life.  I wonder if the two things can be separated.  The only cities I can think of that have decisively broken mafia control are Las Vegas and New York, and in each case the slayer of the mafia was the unfettered multinational corporation.  That’s hardly an entity that would be likely to preserve the signs of eternity in the Eternal City.

Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman’s theme, Dyson tells us, is the power of “cognitive illusions,” which he defines as “false belief[s] that we intuitively accept as true.”  Kahneman began his career by identifying what he calls the “illusion of validity,” the idea that the conclusions which people intuitively draw when faced with questions relating to topics about which they are well-informed are likely to be true.  As a very young researcher in the Israeli army in 1955, Kahneman was called upon to evaluate and, eventually, to replace the system the army was then using to place recruits in jobs.  That system was based on the opinions that experienced officers formed after brief, informal interviews with recruits.  Kahneman found that those opinions had no correlation with the recruits’ eventual performance.  He then designed a brief factual questionnaire for recruits to fill out and a mechanical method  of analyzing the results of that questionnaire, a method which turned out to be quite accurate at predicting recruits’ performance, and which has been the basis of assignments in the Israeli Defense Forces ever since.  Dyson follows this story with a story from his own experience in the Royal Air Force during World War Two, when changes that would have made bombers likelier to complete their missions were made impossible by the unwillingness of their crews to admit a fact which statistical analysis made achingly plain, that bombers carrying experienced crews were just as likely to be shot down as were bombers carrying inexperienced crews.  The illusion of validity was at work here as well; the idea that they were acquiring expertise that they would be able to use to save themselves gave the crews self-confidence that they would not exchange for safer planes.

Dyson explains the title of Kahneman’s book in terms of his thesis that cognition should be analyzed in terms of two systems, which Kahneman calls System One and System Two.  System One, our inheritance from our early primate ancestors, is fast and inaccurate; System Two, the product of our neocortex, is much more accurate but very slow.  In the fast-changing conditions of life in the arboreal canopies where our distant ancestors lived, it was far more important to be fast than it was to be right.  If a predator was coming, immediate movement in any direction was likelier to lead to safety than was long-delayed movement in the ideal direction.  Indeed, the RAF crews who resisted the changes Dyson and his fellow analysts could use statistics to recommend found themselves in a very similar environment to that in which our lemur-like forebears darted about, and so could hardly be blamed for favoring System One reasoning over System Two.

Dyson puts in a good word for two thinkers whom Kahneman does not mention, William James (whom Rowland also mentions, for his telling in The Varieties of Religious Experience of the story of how Alphonse Ratisbonne converted to Christianity) and Sigmund Freud.  Dyson argues that Freud anticipated many of Kahneman’s key concepts, notably availability bias (that is, “a biased judgment based on a memory that happens to be quickly available. It does not wait to examine a bigger sample of less cogent memories.”)  Here’s what Dyson says about James:

James was a contemporary of Freud and published his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, in 1902. Religion is another large area of human behavior that Kahneman chooses to ignore. Like the Oedipus complex, religion does not lend itself to experimental study. Instead of doing experiments, James listens to people describing their experiences. He studies the minds of his witnesses from the inside rather than from the outside. He finds the religious temperament divided into two types that he calls once-born and twice-born, anticipating Kahneman’s division of our minds into System One and System Two. Since James turns to literature rather than to science for his evidence, the two chief witnesses that he examines are Walt Whitman for the once-born and Leo Tolstoy for the twice-born.

Freud and James were artists and not scientists. It is normal for artists who achieve great acclaim during their lifetimes to go into eclipse and become unfashionable after their deaths. Fifty or a hundred years later, they may enjoy a revival of their reputations, and they may then be admitted to the ranks of permanent greatness. Admirers of Freud and James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come.

Lorrie Moore reviews Werner Herzog’s film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life.  This bit, describing the death house ordinary, stuck in my mind:

The reverend is against the death penalty but in thinking of it before the camera he veers off onto an anecdote about a golf trip and almost hitting a squirrel that “had stopped in the middle of the cart path,” and we can see how when pressed to illuminate its own contradictions the human mind can go on the fritz.  This may really be Herzog’s theme.  There is much strain and helplessness felt by the functionaries asked to dole out this ritualized punishment.

I can’t help but wonder what Kahneman would make of these flailings of a mind “on the fritz.”  Moore describes another of Herzog’s interview subjects, a former executioner named Fred Allan, who had to quit his job and foreswear his pension because he couldn’t stop visualizing the faces of all the hundreds of condemned men whose lives he had ended in the death chamber at Huntsville prison.  That sounds like a cognitive illusion worth cultivating in everyone inclined to set up shop in the killing business.

Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews two new books about W. E. B. DuBois, Lawrie Balfour’s Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. DuBois and Robert Gooding-Williams’ In the Shadow of DuBois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America.  Appiah notes two facts that impede a proper study of DuBois.  Again, I wonder what label Kahneman would put on these cognitive illusions.  The first is that DuBois’ great longevity tempts us to see him as a more nearly contemporary figure than he in fact was.  His death date, 27 August 1963, is in many ways less illuminating of his thought than is his birth date, 23 February 1868.  The second is that he still ranks as a sort of patron saint of intellectual achievement among African Americans, and so any attention to his limitations may be taken as an attack on all such achievement.  Appiah acclaims Goodling-Williams and Balfour for having the courage to venture into these sacred precincts and do scholarly work there.

According to Appiah, Goodling-Williams finds three ideas at the heart of DuBois’ political ideas: first, the idea that politics is in essence the exercise of command over a community.  Second, the idea that this command is rooted in and to some extent tempered by “political expressivism,” a process by which those who are to be led recognize as their leaders those individuals who best express what they regard as the essence of their common life, what DuBois meant by “soul” in the title of The Souls of Black Folk.  Third, the idea that the main political issue facing African Americans was social exclusion, which in turn resulted from the twin evils of racial prejudice among whites and “the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.”

These three points set DuBois at odds with Frederick Douglass, who saw healthy politics as essentially a matter of collaboration among equals rather than a matter of command and control; who rejected nationalistic conceptions of leadership as collective self-expression; and who saw white supremacy, that negation of collaborative politics, as an evil quite apart from social exclusion of African Americans.  Goodling-Williams, Appiah argues, uses Douglass as a mouthpiece for his own democratic vision of politics, one in which leaders must listen to the actual voices of their followers, rather than to their collective soul.

Appiah ends with an interesting question about DuBois archnemesis, Booker T. Washington:

Could it be right to act like Booker T. Washington, deferring a demand for justice for yourself if that would bring justice more swiftly for your descendants?  Or is there something so discreditable, so slavish, in acceding to these injustices that it is better to resist them, whether or not your resistance brings forward the date when they will cease?

My inclination is to ask how we could know that any given act of deferring a demand for justice would in fact bring justice more swiftly for our descendants.  From a God’s eye perspective in which we could know with certainty that this was so, then the question would be one we could analyze coolly, rationally, in what Kahneman might call a System Two manner.  But given the limitations on what we can in fact know about the future, surely the best course of action would be to set an example of resistance, however futile it might be in the short term, in the hope, however ill-founded, that our descendants might hear of it and be inspired to emulate it.  Both our own action and the action we would hope to inspire in our descendants under that scenario would be the results of System One reasoning, bold and drastic and very likely to be misguided, but I don’t see how under real world conditions a policy generated solely by System Two reasoning could lead us to anything other than a situation in which full equality between whites and African Americans will remain forever in the future.

Malise Ruthven reviews Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.  Ruthven talks a bit about the paradox that results when Westerners compare the Sunni/ Shia split to the Protestant/ Catholic split.  Shias, with their hierarchy, shrines, and veneration of saints, are often compared to Roman Catholics, while Sunnis, with their many sects, internationalist themes, and iconoclastic tendency, are often compared to Protestants.  Yet Shiism is at its heart a protest against Sunni ascendancy.  So at moments it is appealing to compare Shiism with Protestantism.

This discussion obviously doesn’t get one very far, since the very definition of an analogy is a comparison between things that are in other respects dissimilar.  In some ways the Shias are a bit like the Catholics, in other ways they are a bit like the Protestants, in a great many ways they aren’t much like either.

Interesting to me were a description of Dabashi’s rejection of Max Weber’s description of Muhammad (Appiah also mentions Weber, commenting on Weber’s admiration for DuBois and his skepticism about democracy.)  For Dabashi, Weber’s view of Muhammad as an “ethical prophet,” rather than an “exemplary prophet,” is too schematic and conceals the ideological difference at the heart of the Sunni/ Shia split.  Dabashi argues that the two branches have different ways of dealing with what Weber would call the exemplary character of the prophet.  Sunnis, says Dabashi, tend to believe that shari’ah law can absorb the prophet’s example and teach the community to cultivate virtue, while Shias favor the view that a living imam must embody his example in the presence of the community if its members are to know what is virtuous.

Dyson says that “religion does not lend itself to experimental study,” and so remains outside of Kahneman’s focus.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Kahneman might analyze this difference.  It sounds to me like the Sunni ideal is a System Two prophet, Muhammad converted from living man into the rational processes of the law.  The Shia ideal, by contrast, sounds like a System One prophet, Muhammad who gave us a line of successors who are not themselves prophets, but who share the prophet’s intuitive understandings of right conduct and arouse the same understandings in us by the influence of their example.

Ruthven mentions the political sociologist Sami Zubaida, who has written a number of things about the contradictions in the Iranian political system that stem from the fact that that country’s constitution defines sovereignty as stemming from God and also as stemming from the people.   He also mentions Dabashi’s admiration for Philip Rieff.

Tim Parks and Per Wästberg exchange views on the question, “Do We Need the Nobel?”  Considering the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mr Parks takes on a job that strikes me as absurdly easy, which is to prove that no group of eighteen people can be taken seriously as the judges of all the world’s contemporary literatures.  Mr  Wästberg can respond only by describing the lengths to which he and his fellow members of the Swedish Academy go in attempting the impossible task of giving fair consideration to all the living writers in all the languages of the world.  Mr Parks receives this description in good grace, but sees in it no rebuttal to his main point.

Justified True Belief

There are a couple of passages where Plato seems to define knowledge as “justified true belief.”  So, if you have enough evidence that you have a right to accept a given proposition as true, if you do in fact exercise this right and accept that proposition as true, and if  it so happens that the proposition is true, then Plato might have said that your belief in that proposition is an example of knowledge.

This definition was occasionally challenged in an oblique sort of way in the first 24 centuries after Plato put it forward, but it was still uncontroversial enough that philosophers could use it matter-of-factly as late as the 1950s.  In 1963, Professor Edmund L. Gettier of Wayne State University wrote a very short, indeed tiny, article in which he gave two counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.  Here is example one:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

  1. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:

  1. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Here Smith is justified in believing that “The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket,” and it is in fact true that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.  However, the same evidence which justifies that true belief also justifies Smith’s false belief that Jones will get the job.  In Smith’s mind, these two beliefs are so intertwined that the true proposition is unlikely to figure in any line of reasoning uncoupled from the false one.  Moreover, since Smith does not realize that he himself has ten coins in his pocket, nor presumably that there is any applicant for the job other than Jones who has ten coins in his pocket, there is no reason to suppose that he would regard such a proposition as anything other than a statement that Jones will get the job.  So, true though the proposition may be, and justified as Smith may be in accepting it as true, his belief in it can lead him to nothing but error.

This counterexample is of course highly contrived, as is Professor Gettier’s second counterexample.  That doesn’t matter.  His only goal was to show that there can be justified true beliefs which we would not call knowledge, not that such beliefs are particularly commonplace.  Having given even one counterexample, Professor Gettier showed that justified true belief is not an adequate definition of knowledge.  Needless to say, Plato himself would probably have been thrilled with these counterexamples.  One can easily imagine him starting from them and proceeding to spin out a whole theory of justification, perhaps based on the idea that what we have a right to believe varies depending on the plane of existence to which our belief pertains, or that justification isn’t really justification unless the subject is approaching the topic in the true character of a philosopher, or some such Platonistic thing.

As it happens, Professor Gettier’s article was followed by a great many publications giving “Gettier-style” counterexamples, including many that are far more natural and straightforward than his original two.  Evidently all that needed to be done was to give some counterexamples, and the floodgates of creativity came open.  Professor Gettier himself did not write any of these articles, or indeed any articles at all after his 1963 paper.

Once you’ve read the 1963 paper, you may begin to notice naturally-occurring Gettier-style counterexamples.  The first novel I read after I was introduced to this topic about 20 years ago was Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.  Trollope is not often called a philosophical novelist.  However, a Gettier-style counterexample lies at the heart of this novel.  Lizzie Eustace is the childless widow of Sir Florian Eustace.  Among Sir Florian’s possessions had been a diamond necklace valued at £ 10,000.  Lady Eustace claimed that Sir Florian wanted her to have the necklace, and so insisted on treating it as her own; however, the Eustace family lawyer claimed that it was a family heirloom, entailed to Sir Florian’s blood relations, and so that it should revert to the family in event of his death without issue.   While this dispute was moving towards the courts, a person or persons unknown broke into a safe where Lady Eustace was known to keep the necklace.  The burglary was discovered; the necklace was not there.  Lady Eustace did not tell the police what was in fact true, that she had taken the necklace from the safe before the burglary and still had it in her possession.  The leader of the police investigation is Inspector Gage, a wily and experienced detective who quickly arrives at the conclusion that Lady Eustace has stolen the necklace herself, likely in conjunction with her lover, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers.

In fact, Inspector Gage is mistaken not only about Lady Lizzie’s complicity in the burglary, but also about the nature of her relationship with Lord George and about Lord George’s character.  For all that they seem like lovers, and for all that Lady Eustace would like to become Lord George’s lover, they never quite come together.  And for all that Lord George’s sources of income are shrouded in mystery, he proves in the end to be thoroughly law-abiding.  However, the collection of evidence on which the inspector bases his theory is so impressive that if it did not justify him believing it, one can hardly imagine how anyone could be justified in believing anything.  So those three propositions could be classified as justified false beliefs.  At the nub of them all, however, is a justified true belief: that the necklace is in the possession of Lady Eustace.  Surrounded as it is by these false beliefs, false beliefs which would prevent the inspector from forming a true theory of the case, he cannot be said to know even this.

Cartoonist Zach Weiner devoted a recent installment of his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal to laying out some thoughts about Gettier-style counterexamples:


I want to make a few remarks about this strip.  First, it doesn’t seem right to say that Professor Gettier proposed a “philosophical problem.”  To the extent that there is a “Gettier problem,” it is a problem with Plato’s proposed definition of knowledge.  By finding a weakness in that definition, Professor Gettier may have reopened philosophical problems that some had hoped to use the definition to mark as solved, but his article does not in itself suggest any new problems.  To jump directly from Professor Gettier’s challenge to Plato’s definition to a statement that “humans find the order of events to be cute” is to introduce quite an unnecessarily grandiose generalization.

Second, it’s clever that the irate child denounces “the Gettier ‘problem'” with a claim that “Maybe all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify.”   Professor Gettier’s 1963 paper includes just three footnotes.  One refers to the two passages where Plato floats the definition of knowledge as justified true belief (“Plato seems to be considering some such definition at Theaetetus 201, and perhaps accepting one at Meno 98.”)  The other two cite uses of the definition by Roderick Chisholm and Alfred Ayer, two very eminent philosophers working in the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy (“Roderick M. Chisholm, Perceiving: A Philosophical Study (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), p. 16,” and “A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 34.”)  Much of the analytic tradition stems from the suspicion that “all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify,” and Ayer and Chisholm both had interesting things to say about this suspicion.

Third, by what criterion can brain cells be regarded as “small stuff” and consciousness as “big stuff”? I’d say the only person to whom that idea makes sense is one who has heard straightforward explanations of the basics of brain anatomy and woolly explanations of the metaphysics of consciousness.  Everyone who is likely to read this strip either is, or has at some time been, awake.  Consciousness is thus familiar to all of them, an everyday thing, the very smallest of the “small stuff.” Conversely, brain cells are knowable only to people who have access to a microscope or to findings arrived at by use of a microscope.  They are, therefore, a relatively recherche topic, and most definitely “big stuff” to any truly naive subject.  To connect the phenomena of consciousness with brain cells, or with brain anatomy, is not only an even more sophisticated topic, but is at present wildly speculative.

Fourth, it’s clever to have the irate child find that “the small stuff” is no easier to understand than “the big stuff.”  I think Plato would have liked the strip, not for its defense of his definition, but for its illustration of the difficulty of separating “the small stuff” from “the big stuff.”  After all, probability wobbles and the rest of quantum theory are, so far as we are concerned, highly abstract.  We may use various images to make physics intelligible, but the deeper we enter into the subject the more thoroughly mathematical it becomes.  As the final nose-flicking indicates, our experience of “facts” and “brain cells” and “stuff that happens” are also theory-laden, so that it is an empty boast to claim that one regards them as real and the ideas behind them as unreal.

Some interesting titles from Lexington Books

Lexington Books is an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.  They send me some of their catalogues, including their catalog of books in religious studies.  The latest one showed up in my mailbox yesterday.  I’m not planning to order anything from it, but several titles in it caught my attention for a moment or two.  Among them:

Medieval America: Cultural Influences of Christianity in Law and Public Policy, by Andrew M. Koch and Paul H. Gates. The authors argue that “promoting and maintaining a free, open, and tolerant society requires the necessary limitation of religious influence in the domains of law and policy.”  That seems to go beyond the usual US doctrine of separation of church and state, and to head in the direction of the French tradition of laïcité.

Theology and the Soul of the Liberal State, edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Charles L. Cohen.  In opposition to the apparent gravamen of Medieval America’s argument, this book’s essays hold “that the liberal state cannot keep theology out of public discourse and may even benefit from its intervention.”

The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar.  I’ve long been intrigued by Carl Schmitt, who lived under the Weimar Republic and developed the theory of “political theology” (putting it crudely, political theology is the proposition that all political ideas are simply theological ideas in disguise.)  Judging by its title, it would appear that this book is likely to discuss Schmitt.  I can’t be sure, since the description currently posted on the publisher’s website linked above is gibberish, and there don’t seem to be any reviews yet.  The book hasn’t been printed yet, so that situation isn’t surprising.

Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations, edited by Kenneth L. Grasso and Cecilia Rodriguez Castillo.  They’ve attracted some very distinguished contributors; the catalogue lists “Charles Taylor; Fred Dallmayr; William Schweiker; Nicholas Wolterstorff; J. Budziszewski; Jeanne Heffernan Schindler; Joshua Mitchell; Robin Lovin; Charles Mathewes; Jonathan Chaplin; Michael L. Budde; Jean Porter; Eloise A. Buker; Christopher Beem; Peter Berkowitz and Jean Bethke Elshtain.”  To keep a conversation going, the editors avoid the explosive topics that usually bring theological commitments to the surface in political debate, and give the book a structure that is designed to ensure a variety of viewpoints: “Each of the book’s four sections consists of an original essay by an eminent scholar focusing on a specific aspect of the problem that is the volume’s focus followed by three responses that directly engage its argument or explore the broader problematic it addresses. The volume thus takes the form of a dialogue in which the analyses of four eminent scholars are each engaged by three interlocutors.”

What Democrats Talk About When They Talk About God: Religious Communication in Democratic Party Politics, edited by David Weiss.  It wasn’t all that long ago that American politicians generally avoided religious references in their public statements.  Nowadays they all seem to be auditioning for a pulpit.  So it might be interesting to analyze the use of religious language, public and private, by members of the USA’s two major parties.

Radical Religion: Contemporary Perspectives on Religion and the Left, edited by Benjamin J. Pauli.  The online catalogue summarizes it thus: “The political Left has had a turbulent relationship with religion, from outright hostility to attempts to meld religious faith with progressivism. Confronted with contemporary social ills, the progressive Left continues to disagree about the role that religion should play, whether in understanding social challenges and solutions, or stimulating social critique and reform. Radical Religion presents valuable insights, from both religious and secular perspectives, for progressives today as they struggle to formulate a coherent agenda and effective strategies for social change. This book presents arguments from a diverse group of scholars, and offers a snapshot of contemporary, progressive thinking about religion.”

The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Roman Catholic Magazine, 1966-1976, by Mark D. Popowski.  I’m interested in movements that are conservative in some senses and radical in others.  Readers of this site will have noticed that I pay a great deal of attention to the antiwar right and the anticapitalist right, for example.  And I love magazines.  So this book sounds like it would be right up my alley: “Triumph’s editors formed the magazine to defend the faith against what they perceived as the imprudent and secular excesses of Vatican II reformers, but especially against what they viewed as an increasing barbarous and anti-Christian American society. Yet Triumph was not a defensive magazine; rather, it was audaciously triumphalist—proclaiming the Roman Catholic faith as the solution to America’s ills. The magazine sought to convert Americans to Roman Catholicism and to construct a confessional state, which subjected its power to the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church.”   So, the magazine tried to sustain a premodern perspective, which at least left its contributors free to oppose militarism, hyper-capitalism, nationalism, and other delusions specific to our age of bigness.

Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature, by Gail Labovitz.  Dr Labovitz is a married woman and an ordained rabbi who does not shy away from elements of the rabbinic tradition that make it awkward for a person such as herself to exist.  “Labovitz shows how rabbis use the concepts of property and ownership to discuss the roles of a husband and wife, thereby modeling marriage after a business transaction-one in which the wife is seen as an acquisition owned by and subject to the husband. This ownership metaphor is clearly present in all strata of rabbinic literature and the book explores how it continues to guide rabbinic thinking, serve as a tool for legal reasoning, and produce new linguistic applications. With a close and careful reading of rabbinic texts, Labovitz applies metaphor theory and feminist linguistics to demonstrate the ways in which rabbis regularly use information from the realm of property and commercial transactions to structure their understanding of marriage and gender relations.”  I’m always suspicious of religious types who find that their ancient traditions and sacred texts, if interpreted correctly, agree with their own favorite ideas.  Conversely, when a lady rabbi says that the rabbinical tradition is full of strictures against lady rabbis, I’m put at ease.

Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature, by Leon Niemoczynski.  The catalog says that “Niemoczynski points to Peirce’s phenomenological and metaphysical understanding of possibility-the concept of ‘Firstness’-as especially critical to understanding how the divine might be meaningfully encountered in religious experience.”  I’d never thought of Peirce as either a metaphysician or as a thinker who would be in any way attractive to religious believers, but apparently I was wrong.

Nietzsche and Zen: Self-Overcoming Without a Self, by Andre van der Braak.  One of my principal intellectual influences is Irving Babbitt, who was among other things a student of Buddhism.  When Babbitt looked at Buddhism, he saw a corrective to the excesses of late Romanticism.  When he looked at Nietzsche, Babbitt saw an exemplar of those excesses.  So I’d be interested to see a study of the overlap between Nietzsche’s thought and Buddhism.

Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan, and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics, by Jin Y. Park.  “Buddhism and Postmodernity is a response to some of the questions that have emerged in the process of Buddhism’s encounters with modernity and the West. Jin Y. Park broadly outlines these questions as follows: first, why are the interpretations and evaluations of Buddhism so different in Europe (in the nineteenth century), in the United States (in the twentieth century), and in traditional Asia; second, why does Zen Buddhism, which offers a radically egalitarian vision, maintain a strongly authoritarian leadership; and third, what ethical paradigm can be drawn from the Buddhist-postmodern form of philosophy?”  While these questions may not seem to have much in common, Professor Park evidently proposes a model which enables her to address all three at the same time.

The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It, by Thaddeus J. Kozinski.  Apparently the author holds that for the philosopher, the only good pluralism is a self-extinguishing pluralism.  “Drawing on a diverse number of sources, Kozinski addresses the flaws in each philosopher’s views and shows that the only philosophically defensible end of any overlapping consensus political order must be the eradication of the ideological pluralism that makes it necessary. In other words, a pluralistic society should have as its primary political aim to create the political conditions for the communal discovery and political establishment of that unifying tradition within which political justice can most effectively be obtained.”  I suppose every ideology and political system extinguishes itself sooner or later, so to evaluate pluralism in terms of its ability to give rise to unity isn’t particularly unfair.

God and Money: A Theology of Money in a Globalizing World, by Nimi Wariboko.  The print catalogue quotes a blurb in which Peter J. Paris of the Princeton Theological Seminary tells us that in this book, “the author helps his readers see money not as a material thing alone but as a social relation.  This is an altogether new perspective, not only describing the moral dimension of money itself but inspiring readers to discern the ethical issues implicit in the global monetary system.”  That sounds like a tremendous contribution to the understanding of economic life.  On the other hand, Rowman and Littlefield’s online catalogue summarizes the book this way: “Making a case for a denationalized global currency as an alternative to the dollar, euro, and yen as the world vehicular and reserve currencies, God and Money explores the significance and theological-ethical implications of money as a social relation in the light of the dynamic relations of the triune God. Wariboko deftly analyzes the dynamics at work in the global monetary system and argues that the monarchical-currency structure of the dollar, euro, and yen may be moving toward a trinitarian structure of a democratic world currency.”  Which sounds idiotic.  According to the book’s acknowledgements, Professor Paris worked closely with Professor Wariboko while he was writing it, so it is likely that he has a firmer grasp of its contents than does the editorial assistant who had to crank out the description in the catalogue, but still, it gives pause.

Biblical Bethsaida: A Study of the First Century CE in the Galilee, by Carl E. Savage.  “Using archaeological data from Bethsaida itself, Savage investigates the material practices of Bethsaida’s ancient inhabitants, describing these practices as significant indicators of their sense of place both ideologically and geographically. He evaluates the historical plausibility of various social reconstructions for the region, and finds that the image that emerges of first-century Bethsaida is one similar to those of other Jewish communities in the Galilee.” I’m slightly curious about the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the communities where Christianity first arose, so I look at archaeological accounts of the first century Galilee from time to time.

Something about the prices struck me as rather odd.  Most of the books cost about $60 in hardback, while volumes that are of interest to more than one academic discipline cost about $100.  That’s a fairly typical range of prices from a publisher aiming at university libraries.  The odd thing is the price of the ebook editions.  For most of those, they charge the hardback price minus one cent.   So, Medieval America is $60 hardback, $59.99 as an ebook.  The Rise and Fall of Triumph is $75 hardback, $74.99 as an ebook.  The Weimar Moment is $100 hardback, $99.99 as an ebook.  That reminds me ofone of David Letterman‘s Top Ten Lists from many years ago, “Top Ten OtherFailed McDonald’s Promotions.”  On the list was “Get 500 Quarter Pounders for the price of 499!”

“If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

If you have enough money and you have access to an unrestricted market, you can find someone who will, for a price, do virtually any task you disdain to do yourself.  If the task you want to delegate to someone else is a task that a great many other people also want to avoid doing, then someone might well find a way of providing a service to many people all at once, collecting a small payment from each.

So far, so obvious.  If economics were a subject in the Kindergarten, so much might be a lesson there.  Why isn’t economics a subject in the Kindergarten?  Perhaps the text below, printed in The New York Sun on 21 September 1897 but extremely familiar to everyone who has ever spent the month of December in the USA, will elucidate:

“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street was a real person, and later in life she confirmed that she had in fact written the letter the Sun published.  Her great-granddaughter displayed the original letter, in Virginia O’Hanlon’s handwriting, in 1997.    Virginia O’Hanlon’s father, who told her that “If you see it in the Sun it’s so,” was a medical doctor named Philip O’Hanlon.

What service did Dr O’Hanlon expect to the New York Sun to perform in return for his subscription?  An article in the far-right Taki’s Magazine proclaims that the newspaper’s response is a remarkably shameless lie; that article prompts me to wonder if lying to his daughter was the very task Dr O’Hanlon hoped the newspaper would take off his hands.  Surely he knew full well that the newspaper would not dare publish a statement denying that the beloved figure of childhood fantasy really existed, and that any response they printed would have to affirm Santa Claus’ reality.  By thus delegating the lie to someone else, he could distance himself from it, not leaving his daughter with a visual memory of his face as he told her something he knew to be false, and indeed to be an insult to her intelligence.  Of course, if he knew that the newspaper would say something that he knew to be false, then statement  that “If you see it in the Sun it’s so” was also a lie on Dr O’Hanlon’s part, but one that he might more plausibly be able to defend than he could defend a claim that Santa Claus existed.  On the other hand, a moralist might say that “If you see it in the Sun it’s so” was a far worse lie than “There is a Santa Claus.”  After all, telling Virginia that there was a Santa Claus might have been telling her a single, discrete, self-contained lie, while to tell her that “If you see it in the Sun it’s so” is to instruct her to put down her guard and swallow everything that might appear in that paper, day after day.

Who was Dr O’Hanlon?  He was, among other things, a functionary of New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine.  During Tammany’s dominion over city politics, Dr O’Hanlon worked for the city as an assistant coroner and as police surgeon.  When the reform wing of the Democratic Party briefly took power, Dr O’Hanlon was arrested on charges relating to his habit of helping himself to the stock of dry goods stores without bothering to pay the merchants.  In court on these charges, he boasted of his Tammany Hall loyalties.  When Tammany returned to power, Dr O’Hanlon’s legal troubles came to an end. So it’s hardly surprising that the doctor was a fan of the pro-Tammany New York Sun.

Tammany’s restoration must have been a relief to the O’Hanlon family, since Dr O’Hanlon’s had name also appeared in connection with a much more serious criminal case.  A friend of his, Dr Andre L. Stapler, had in August 1910 performed an abortion for a woman named Louise Heinrich.  Abortion was at that time illegal in New York state, and therefore unregulated.  In the course of the procedure, Mrs Heinrich died.  Dr O’Hanlon signed a death certificate saying that her death was the result of natural causes.  The state prosecuted Dr Stapler, arguing that his carelessness killed her.  Prosecutors alleged that Dr O’Hanlon’s death certificate was a fraud meant to cover up his friend’s culpability in Mrs Heinrich’s death.   Convicted of manslaughter, Dr Stapler confessed that he was part of a group of doctors who performed illegal abortions under unsanitary conditions, and that as a coroner’s assistant Dr O’Hanlon routinely filed false reports covering up the deaths of the women in their care.  Dr O’Hanlon does not appear to have been prosecuted as a result of Dr Stapler’s statement.   The doctor appears to have continued his medical and political careers without having to answer any inconvenient questions about falsified papers and dead women.  If Dr Stapler’s confession was true, then woman-killing doctors delegated a job of lying to Dr O’Hanlon, even as Dr O’Hanlon had delegated a job of lying to the Sun.