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Fr. 403

September 30, 2013

The opening chapters of Duncan Pritchard’s What Is This Thing Called Knowledge? attempt, on one hand, to tease out the differences between true belief and knowledge (justified true belief) and, on the other, to see in what the value of knowledge might consist, as opposed to that of true belief.

On the first count, Pritchard underscores that true belief and knowledge can stand apart from one another. Indeed, if both holding a certain belief and this certain belief being true are necessary for being said to “know” a thing, it should be noted that these conditions are not, however, sufficient to hold this belief up as “knowledge”. On the contrary, it is quite easy to show the ways in which a belief, held at random by an individual, might in the end prove to be true without the individual’s having taken into consideration or offered anything justification of this belief beyond having selected it entirely at random (e.g. as in the case of a multiple choice question at which the individual simply guesses). In short, while the individual’s belief would still be true in this case, it could not be said to be knowledge in any meaningful sense, for the individual is not to credit epistemically for the achievement of maintaining a true belief.

Knowledge necessarily aims at truth whereas true belief can, in principle, be blind, a mere shot in the dark. Pritchard further brings this point out in comparing the case of a knower to that of an archer: the experienced archer who can regularly hit the eye of the target due to concerted effort and training is to be credited for her efforts more than the lucky beginner who makes the same shot, despite the result being the same. For the experienced archer, this result is a matter of course and produces reliably with a certain regularity. If one were to carry this parallel of archery to its logical conclusion, then one might be justified in speaking of a telos common to both activities. Insofar as archery requires years of practice and study from the individual seeking to become a skilled archer, an end that is intrinsically valuable or worthwhile in itself, one might be tempted to posit a parallel formation in the domain of knowing or knowledge in that an individual might set out to become, in making use of all availables means and practice, a skilled knower. (From this, it is not hard to see how certain ways of considering the question of knowledge’s value feed into an account of knowledge as virtue.)

Indeed, it is precisely this question of the value of knowledge that looms large in the second part of Pritchard’s opening presentation where it remains to be seen just why one typically values knowledge more than mere true belief.  To this end, the author considers two possible measures for distinguishing the worth of knowledge and true belief respectively: instrumental value and intrinsic value.

Of the first, instrumental value, one might say that knowledge possesses an instrumental value insofar as it can help the knowing individual to further her ends or achieve certain goals that she will understandably have set herself. An individual who seeks a certain restaurant might avail herself of a map in order to find said restaurant, a scenario of which Pritchard considers two variants. While making use of a map remains constant from one to the other, in the first, the map corresponds in the smallest detail to the entire area depicted whereas, in the second, the map is in reality a false map and depicts the various locations contained therein in an entirely random fashion with little regard for their real-life positions. Although the individual making use of the map in both scenarios might believe herself to possess knowledge of the restaurant’s location, this knowledge is only true knowledge in the first case, being entirely random in the second.

The individual of the first, when asked to find another location in the area, could be expected to do so reliably, for which a certain credit would be granted to her in virtue of her knowledge of the area (through the middle term of the map). By contrast, the individual of the second, when presented the same task, would be expected to fail in such a task, her initial success owing to mere accident. No credit need be granted, despite similar initial, outward circumstances. This amended situation shows that, as Pritchard affirms, knowledge is generally more reliable and stable and, thus, of more instrumental value than mere true belief. (That said, in very limited cases or scenarios in which true belief meets with success, the two can be said to be of equal instrumental value within the scope so defined, as in the first map scenario.)

Pritchard notes, however, that knowledge’s value cannot be uniquely and in all cases instrumental, for there are indeed cases where a particular sort of knowledge is of little help to the individual knower. On one hand, it is easy enough to conceive of an instance where some knowledge might impede the individual from reaching such and such a goal. The author briefly sketches a scene in which an individual finds herself before a ravine that she must cross in order to survive. Yet the knowledge that confronts her in this scenario is of the likelihood of death should she attempt to leap the ravine, however high or low that chance is. Here, the individual’s attainment of a goal is impeded by the knowledge that she risks death in pursuing that goal, and, accordingly, it is not hard to see that she might be better off without that knowledge.

On the other, one can also imagine certain kinds of knowledge that, while not an impediment to a goal, are neither of obvious utility in themselves nor for some potential or future goal. Consider the case of an individual setting up shop before a tree with the aim of determining the position of each leaf relative to every other leaf. For his part, Pritchard gives the example of an individual having set out to memorize every entry in a foreign phonebook. In the end, one is left to wonder how either individual is helped by the trivial knowledge such activities would afford her, and one cannot be wrong to wonder with the author if they would not be helped more by having less knowledge of this kind. If one can nevertheless imagine scenarios in which knowledge of this kind would be helpful (e.g. the sequence of entries in the phonebook serve as an encryption key for a foreign intelligence service), this caveat can only be secured with the introduction of further details that do not follow analytically from the scenario as first presented. In short, it is difficult to see how one might maintain that all knowledge is of an instrumental value without encountering absurdities of the sort above.

It is precisely this consideration that leads Pritchard to present the second of two candidate measures for the value of knowledge, that of intrinsic value.


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