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Contra Smith: Knowledge as Justified Belief

by Francois Tremblay



In Chapter 4 of “Why Atheism ?”, George Smith discusses Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge. More specifically, he tries to defend Correspondence Theory against Randist criticism. I do not count myself as a Randist, but since I agree with said criticisms, I must take issue with Mr. Smith and discuss where he has gone wrong in his analysis.

While I do not agree with the Randists (for example, I completely disagree that there is such a thing as contextual certainty, a key point of Randist epistemology), I do agree with the basic principle that :

(1) Knowledge is justified belief.

As opposed to Correspondence Theory (and George Smith) which says :

(2) Knowledge is justified and true belief.

I have already described my own theory of knowledge in “A Process-Based Theory of Knowledge”. I also described why the criteria of “true belief” is invalid in “Being Pragmatic About Pragmatism”. Nevertheless, I would like to address the issue as regards to George Smith’s discussion, because I know many people have forged a positive impression of Correspondence Theory based on that discussion.

Of the two criteria, justified belief and true belief, only the first is valid. We cannot measure whether a proposition is a “true belief” because there is no standard of truth apart from our own justifications. Our sole way of finding reality is through our senses, and interpretation of those senses : therefore, through our context of knowledge. Justification cannot be escaped.

Or to express it another way, we cannot compare a percept with a proposition. Percepts are sensory inputs, not propositions. To say that we can measure propositions on how well they correspond to reality, is a category error.

Smith himself subsumes the problem well :

”[Rand’s] reason for treating truth and justification as virtually synonymous is a compelling one, namely, that we cannot know what is true except in the context of knowledge that is available to you at any given time” (page 72)

Nevertheless, he contends that this view leads to an important problem :

“This statement, though reasonable on its face, leads to the rather peculiar conclusion – peculiar at least for those who stress the objectivity of knowledge – that there exists different truths for people who work from different contexts of knowledge.” (page 73)

He uses the Peikoffian example of blood transfusions to make his point. At one point in time, blood types were thought to be compatible – that is to say, A type could be transfused into other A types, B types to B types, etc. Then we learned about Rh factor. Now we know that both the blood type and Rh factor are of prime importance in determining compatibility.

Smith rightly points out that Peikoff’s principle that “blood types are completely compatible” is false, and that therefore certainty is disproven. The first conception is now known to be false. Smith is also correct in pointing out that Peikoff’s principle does not address changes in paradigm, such as the passage from geocentricism to heliocentricity. But his error is to misunderstand the consequences of his rebuttal. He says :

“Do we seriously wish to say that the medieval cosmology – an eclectic brew of Aristotelian physics, Neo-Platonic metaphysics, and Ptolemaic astronomy – was (and is) “true,” given the medieval context of knowledge and the best evidence that was then available ? Do we seriously wish to say that the doctrine of circular planetary orbits was (and is) “true,” given the fact it was supported by a long – established and coherent theory of metaphysics, was defended for centuries by the best scientific minds, and was quite adequate for explaining the best available astronomical data prior to the more precise observations of Tycho Brahe ?” (page 76)

And herein lies the problem : since truth is relative, it cannot be universal. Yet in his rebuttal of the position that truth is relative, Smith assumes that truth is universal when he says that medieval cosmology is still true. This begs the question ! These three claims are completely different :

(1) Medieval cosmology was (and is) true [by virtue of not being superceded but merely a more general truth].
(2) Medieval cosmology was true, and is now disproven.
(3) Medieval cosmology was (and is) false [by virtue of not conforming to the “absolute truth” of modern cosmology].

Peikoff’s principles would claim (1). Smith claims (3). But the only possible valid claim is (2). In medieval times, people did not have the luxury of modern science and thus could not possibly declare their own cosmology false. Their sole means to knowledge was their context of knowledge coupled with rational analysis. Likewise for scientists today. In both cases, the cosmology of the time is a result of the context of knowledge and rational analysis, and therefore both are true at the time. The difference is that now, in retrospect, we can now declare that medieval cosmology is false.

Smith treats modern cosmology as “absolute truth” and declares everything else as disproven. But it is likely (from string theory or otherwise) that our own cosmology will soon be found disproven in some way. The strength of science and reason is precisely that they adapt to new evidence ! To refuse to take this into consideration is intellectual suicide.

We must be careful to distinguish the object of knowledge and knowledge itself. To say that “medieval cosmology was true” is not to declare that in medieval times, the Sun orbited the Earth. As I said before, to confuse a proposition and a percept is a category error. The fact that our knowledge improves with time, does not mean that reality changes with time. Rather it is a consequence of our context of knowledge improving with time.

The difference between “justified and true belief” and “justified belief” may seem as trivial. But the standard of “true belief” in epistemology is a back door for certainty to creep in. One can still claim to have some “truth” that lies outside of justification and assert that this is what “reality really is”. And this opens the possibility of dogma and faith. Ironically, Smith’s attack against certainty (with which I sympathize) opens a door to that very certainty. This, we must reject without reserve.

Last updated: March 9, 2005