Knowledge. Good God. What is it Good for?

Posted on September 12, 2013 by

The value problem of knowledge can be dated back to at least Plato’s dialogue Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutor asks why knowledge is more valuable than simply having a true belief. After all, a true belief that p seems just as practically valuable as knowledge that p. Consider the case of Sam who wishes to get to his friend, Susan. It might be argued that a true belief about the correct way to get to Susan is just as useful as knowledge of the correct way to get to Susan. After all, in both cases a true belief and knowledge gets Sam to Susan. On the other hand, many believe that knowledge is more valuable than true belief, but it remains difficult to explain why. The central issue in the value problem is the following: why is knowledge more valuable than true belief? Moreover, how exactly do we account for this value?

Plato attempts to solve the value problem by asserting that knowledge gives an agent confidence in one’s belief. True belief, on the other hand, apparently does not. So the value of knowledge, according to Plato, is closely connected to confidence. Additionally, Plato goes on to argue that knowledge requires justification that ties down a true belief so it does not “fly away”. The additional justification gives one confidence in one’s belief, which in turn makes the belief more difficult to give up. True beliefs, on the other hand, do not give one the type of confidence that knowledge does. The difficulty with Plato’s solution is it’s not entirely clear why true belief cannot be believed in confidence. After all, there seem to be many people who truly believe a proposition with high degrees of confidence. Cult leaders, for example, often believe very confidently that they are some sort of beacon of truth. They believe that what they say is true with unwavering confidence, and they expect their followers to share this belief with similar degrees of confidence. Even though many cult leaders believe falsely, the unwavering confidence still exists. But if one can have confidence in a false belief, there is no reason why that same person cannot also have confidence in a true belief without justification. Therefore, Plato’s initial response to the value problem is not satisfactory.

Perhaps credibility has something to do with the value of knowledge. In other words, credibility can add to Plato’s view the notion that some beliefs are worthy to have confidence in. Call this view “the credibility theory.” Expanding on Plato’s reply, the credibility theorist argues that knowledge that p, makes the proposition worthy to have confidence in. Although the cult leader or the true believer may be confidant in their belief, their confidence is misplaced without the added justification. Imagine a case where Sam wants to get to his friend Larissa. Sam is walking down a path and meets a fork in the road: one road goes left and the other road goes right. Standing at the fork is a mysterious cloaked guide that is supposed to point passing travellers to the right or left. Now, suppose the guide merely truly believes that Larissa is on the left and does not know that Larissa is on the left. While the guide might lead Sam down the right path, he lacks credibility as a guide, since he does not know. The guide is not epistemically trustworthy and Sam should not have as much confidence in the guide than if the guide actually knew. In other words, the guide lacks the credibility that he might otherwise have if he knew.

Now, one might object that a guide who only truly believes that Larissa is on the left path has some credibility. After all, the guide points to the right direction. In response, the credibility theorist can argue that while the guide can lead Sam correctly, it is also important to remember that the guide has less credibility than if she knew that Larissa is on the left path. For example, consider a similar case where there are two mysterious guides. One guide knows, but the other guide lacks knowledge and only truly believes. Which guide should Sam have confidence in? Which guide should Sam epistemically trust? Which guide is more credible, as a guide, to Sam? I think the answer is clear, the guide who has knowledge is the one Sam should have confidence in. In other words, the guide who has knowledge is the guide Sam should trust, and, according to the credibility theory, the guide with knowledge is a more credible guide to Sam.

Plato’s initial account ran into some difficulties associated with tying the value of knowledge too close to confidence. Particularly, one can have high degrees of confidence in a mere true belief. I think Plato gets something right, and his account can be improved on by the credibility theorist. According to this view, knowledge makes one’s belief worthy to have confidence is. Moreover, one can additionally argue that the closer an epistemic agent is to knowledge, by satisfying at least some conditions for knowledge, the more credible he or she may be. This implies that true belief  (or other conditions relevant to knowledge) might give one some credibility, it does not give one as much credibility as knowledge. Although I have not argued the credibility account is true, I think it takes some steps towards addressing the value problem. And, in many cases, taking some steps in answering troubling philosophical worries can add to a philosophical theory. Perhaps it can even add some more credibility to that theory. Does the credibility theory give a promising account towards solving the value problem in epistemology? Are there additional worries I have not presented here that the credibility theorist might encounter? What’s your take?