Epistemology 101

Eugene Ho
Editor & Contributor
B.A. (Philosophy) Candidate, National University of Singapore

Knowledge of Facts: What is it? Do we have it? When do we have it? 

We all believe we know some facts (I hope). I believe that I know that World War II ended in 1945, I believe that I know that 2+2=4, I believe that I know that there is milk in the fridge. 

However, what does it mean to say that one has knowledge of some fact or other? This article will survey some problems in providing an analysis of knowledge, which challenges our common-sense ideas of knowledge.

What is Propositional Knowledge?

Accounts of knowledge go way back. Plato provides us with one that was pretty popular since it does pretty much most of the work we typically need from it, namely:

Someone, S, knows a certain proposition P if and only if:

  1. P is true;
  2. S believes that P, and; 
  3. S’s belief that P is justified.

This is known as the JTB account of knowledge, which contends that knowledge just is a Justified, True, Belief. This account captures our intuitions about everyday knowledge fairly well:

  1. It seems that one can only ‘know’ something if it’s true since if it’s false then we say that it’s not knowledge, but a false belief.
  2. It also seems that one can only ‘know’ something if one believes it, otherwise, the knowledge does not belong to the person in question.
  3. And finally, it seems that we can only ‘know’ something if the belief is justified. By justification, I mean something like a ‘good reason for holding the belief’—if one  randomly guesses an answer which happens to be correct, we usually say that that person doesn’t really know, but got the answer right by fluke.

This account thus rules out false beliefs (such as the belief in unicorns), and unjustified beliefs (such as random guesses), from being counted as knowledge. At the same time, it does count everyday beliefs such as the ones I stated in the beginning of this article—I know that there’s milk in the fridge because I believe that there is, that belief is true, and that belief is justified (after all, I saw it. I was the one who put the milk in the fridge).

Do we really know what Propositional Knowledge is?

Now, one might ask: “That’s all well and good, but what’s the problem? Isn’t this all quite obvious?”

Well, yes these facts may seem mundane and trivial (and perhaps they are), but if there’s anything that philosophy has taught me, it’s that almost anything can be challenged. 

The Challenge from Necessity – The Radford Case

Colin Radford presents the case of the unconfident examinee, which contends to be a counterexample to the JTB account of knowledge. Specifically, the case of the unconfident examinee is purported to present a case whereby one has knowledge, but does not have belief, showing that JTB’s belief-clause may not be necessary.

Adapting Radford’s example, suppose that I attend a certain quiz show as a contestant and I am asked “When did World War II end?”. Having not studied history for a long time, I can’t really remember the answer. But I really want the prize money, and I know that the only way I have a chance of winning is by answering, and so I say “Um… 1945?”. The quiz show host asks: “Are you sure? Do you really believe that World War II ended in 1945?”, and I go “No. I don’t believe it, but 1945 is my final answer.”. 

Do I know that WWII ended in 1945? I think so. 

One might say that I don’t really know that WWII ended in 1945. After all, I don’t really believe it, and it seems like I guessed the answer by fluke. 

But then this leads us to the question: How could I have possibly come to answer “1945” unless I knew the answer? It doesn’t seem that this was a completely random guess. After all, I did learn it before in school, and therefore my giving the correct answer wasn’t completely unjustified either. If we take my testimony seriously, (and I think that it’s at least in principle possible) we have a case in which we purportedly have knowledge, but without meeting JTB’s belief-clause. 

If this description of the case is correct, then it seems that we have found a situation in which one has knowledge, but not belief, which makes this a salient counterexample to the JTB account of knowledge.

Does this mean that the JTB conditions are not necessary for knowledge after all? Maybe, but maybe not. I think that before we abandon the JTB account too quickly, we may want to consider a few moves we could take to defend the account. 

One response which comes to my mind involves asserting that the case describes a situation in which one had an unconfident belief in the answer which turned out to be true. We can provide more detailed accounts of this response by considering non-bivalent accounts of justification and beliefs in terms of degrees of confidence (as opposed to justified vs unjustified beliefs simpliciter). If so, then perhaps this case is one in which I have a true belief which is justified to a certain extent, but not to a high degree of confidence, which thus can resolve the puzzle.

Another response involves asserting that one did in some sense believe the answer, by invoking the possibility of implicit or dispositional beliefs that one may not fully be aware of. While I may not have a conscious or occurrent attitude of affirmation towards the proposition “WWII ended in 1945”, I may have a dispositional belief in that fact, which explains my being able to produce the answer.

In either case, to fully flesh out the details of these accounts would take their own articles, so I shall leave our readers to explore these possible solutions on their own.

The Challenge from Sufficiency – The Gettier Case

However, even if we are able to provide an adequate defense on the necessity of each of the JTB clauses, challenges to our accounts of knowledge may still arise if we find a case whereby we do have a justified, true, belief, but not knowledge. Edmund Gettier is credited with popularizing this challenge, using a few counterexamples, but to keep things simple I’ll just present one of my own in the same spirit.

Let’s go back to the milk in the fridge example. I initially said that I know that there’s milk in the fridge because I saw it—I was the one who put the milk in the fridge. 

Suppose that unbeknownst to me, the company that packaged the milk was developing an almond milk alternative for lactose intolerant people, and accidentally mislabelled the milk that I had bought. This means that I had put mock milk in the fridge thinking it was real milk, when it was in reality, almond milk. Suppose further that my brother takes out the carton of milk from the fridge and accidentally drops it. He then quickly mops up the mess, disposes of the evidence, and rushes off to the supermarket, buys another carton of milk (which is real this time) and replaces the previous carton, all while I write this article. 

Do I still know that there’s milk in the fridge? Intuitively, I think not.

However, this is problematic since a have a belief that there is milk in the fridge, that belief is true, and that belief is justified by my evidence, fulfilling the JTB clause. If this is indeed a case in which I have a justified, true belief that there is milk in the fridge, but I lack knowledge, then this poses another problem for the JTB account of knowledge.

Once again, just like in the Radford case, I think that this purported counterexample may not be a knockdown argument showing that the JTB analysis of knowledge is wrong, so here are some possible solutions we could consider.

I suppose one might dig one’s feet into the ground and assert that I really did know that there was milk in the fridge, but it seems to me that this line of thinking is unintuitive to say the least. The milk carton which served as grounds for justification for me to assert that I know that there is milk in the fridge was not only misleading evidence, it was not even the same carton which rendered the utterance “there is milk in the fridge” true. 

Perhaps then, this calls for a revision in the way we understand what it means for a belief to be justified. In which case, perhaps another response one could take is to deny that the Gettier case presents a salient counterexample in which we have a justified, true belief, but not knowledge. Instead, one could assert that the case describes a situation in which one does not have knowledge, but given that this lack of knowledge is explained by a lack of ‘proper’ justification, the Gettier case is no longer a counterexample. But this raises the question once again, what do we ‘mean’ by justified beliefs? If my evidence in this situation is not enough to provide justification for my beliefs, then what is enough?

One last response would be to concede that the Gettier case presents a genuine counterexample against the JTB analysis of knowledge, and to present a revision to the JTB along the lines of a 4th condition. Popular revisions include the ‘no false grounds’ stipulation, the ‘no defeaters’ stipulation, and the ‘sensitivity’ stipulation, but as above, I shall leave it to the reader to explore these further on his or her own.


I think that there lies a tension in the process of doing epistemology, insofar as epistemology itself is motivated by two distinct, but equally desirable goals—the former, being the aim to get as many true beliefs as possible—and the latter being the aim to hold as little false beliefs as possible.

When I was a freshman taking my first epistemology class, I firmly prioritized the latter over the former. It seemed to me then that, in this world inundated by fake news, what we needed was the rigour to examine the grounds for our beliefs, and even if we found out that humans in general had only a very small body of knowledge, so be it—it would be a small price to pay to eliminate any illusions we had of knowledge, when in reality we lacked proper grounds for those beliefs. 

But now, I think scepticism isn’t the answer. 

I think it’s easy to say that the moral of the story is that nobody knows anything, and everything we thought we knew was a delusion, and for all we know, we could be brains in vats, but it seems to me that genuinely trying to live like that, while interacting with a world that seems so real to us, is pretty difficult. 

The reality is that I believe I know things. Even worse, I think that I’m committed to believing quite a lot of things—that I exist, that I live in Singapore, that I am typing this right now on my laptop. I don’t think I could live otherwise. Perhaps then the best thing we can do, is to keep examining the grounds of our beliefs with just a small, but healthy dose of scepticism, and remember to keep an open mind. 

About the author:

Eugene Ho is an undergraduate philosophy major studying at NUS. His interest in philosophy was inspired by the theodicy, but he has recently also developed an interest in metaphysical questions regarding time, change, and modality. He hopes to pursue academia in the future.

References can be requested at cogitocollective@gmail.com

Featured image: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
Source: How Stuff Works

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