Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Real-World Deviant Gettier Case

Something cool happened in our methodology seminar last week. Some people like to remark on real-world Gettier cases they find themselves in. I found myself last week in the presence of a real-life deviant Gettier case.

A deviant Gettier case (what Ben Jarvis and I have also called a 'bad Gettier case') is a situation in which the literal text used to describe a Gettier situation is satisfied, but in such a way so as to fail to provide a counterexample to JTB=K. Deviant Gettier cases play a central role in a disagreement Ben and I have with Timothy Williamson. What's cool about this deviant Gettier case is that (a) although I played a central role in producing it, I did so entirely without design, and (b) it's deviant with respect to one of the standard paradigms of Gettier cases.

Here's what happened. Herman was giving a presentation about intuitions; about halfway in, I turned around to look at the clock; the clock read 5:40, a time so implausible as to warrant immediate rejection of the assumption that the clock reflected the correct time. I checked my phone, saw that it was 3:05, stood up, took the clock down, and moved its hands to make it reflect the correct time. Then I put the clock back up.

Tom, sitting across the table from me, facing the clock, at this point looked at the clock, saw that it read 3:05, and formed the true and justified belief that it was 3:05. I think we should all agree that this belief constituted knowledge, even after I tell you the punchline: the clock was broken. Half an hour later, the clock still read 3:05.

Suppose someone gives this text in an attempt to elicit the Gettier intuition: "Somebody looked at a clock reading 3:05 and came to believe on that basis that it was 3:05. The clock, unbeknownst to the observer, was broken. However, in fact, it was 3:05."

Tom's situation vis-a-vis the clock I'd corrected matches that text, but in a deviant way. We were in an actual deviant Gettier case. (So the counterfactual, if the text were satisfied, then it'd be a counterexample to JTB=K, is false.)


  1. Hey there Jonathan,
    A colleague of mine, J. Dmitri Gallow, often uses this case of the stopped clock when he explains Gettier cases. I believe that this case is originally due to Russell. He and I find that most people have the intuition that the agent does not have knowledge when they learn the time from a stopped clock. So, I wonder whether this a really a deviant Gettier case rather than just a nifty real Gettier case.
    The case, as Dmitri presents it, is just that the clock is broken but happens to be right when the agent reads it. Maybe something about you having just set the clock changes this case (i.e. alters the intuitions so that we take him to have knowledge), but I don't have that intuition.
    Interesting though. Philosophy in the real world (well, still in the classroom, in this case) is always fun.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    I confess, I'm a little puzzled by your reaction. I take this instance to be a clear case of knowledge, although I agree with the standard intuition that a normal reading of a stopped clock that displays the true time is too lucky to be knowledge. In the case described, Tom's belief is formed via a safe, reliable method: believe whatever time the clock says immediately after Jonathan sets it to his phone. He is at no risk of going wrong; that the clock doesn't work in no way impugns its use to discern the present time.

  3. Well, even if reliablism were right (which I doubt), whether Tom was using a reliable method is dependent on how we answer the generality problem. One could equally well say that the method was believe whatever the broken clock says (regardless of whether Jonathan just set it). But, that's not that point! I'll grant that he's justified. My claim above was merely that I don't have the intuition that Tom knows in this case (but I'm willing to admit that my views may be influenced by the closeness of this case to the Russell case).

  4. Priyedarshi Jetli6/27/2009 04:14:00 PM


    This is the way you define 'deviant Gettier cases': "A deviant Gettier case (what Ben Jarvis and I have also called a ‘bad Gettier case’) is a situation in which the literal text used to describe a Gettier situation is satisfied, but in such a way so as to fail to provide a counterexample to JTB=K." I essentially agree with this, but I would perhaps argue that a Gettier situation is not actually satisfied that is why the deviant Gettier case is not a Gettier case but a 'Gettier like' case. The reason why it is not satisfied is that in the two Gettier counterexamples and also in the ones to follow by Lehrer and others, there is a condition that a proposition p entails another proposition q and my justification for p is transferred by the principle of closure to my justification for q. In your clock case as in Russell's clock case this requirement is not satisfied unless you can demonstrate how it is satisfied. What is the belief p here and what is the q that is entailed by p. It seems that p is 'the time is 3:05', which is a true proposition unlike the false propositions in both Gettier counterexamples. Some have argued in the post Gettier scenario that Gettier-type counterexamples can be generated even when p is true; but this is in the post-Gettier scenario, your example like that of Russell or Meinong and the harpist and others are in the pre-Gettier scenario, hence I do not thing that they can carry the label of even 'deviant Gettier case'.

  5. That's fair, Priyedarshi. This sort of case does seem different from Gettier's own in that respect. I think there's a wider sense of "Gettier case" in which this is an example, although I do recognize some historical pressure towards reserving the name for the more limited class.

  6. Jonathan,

    Maybe I’m just not paying attention closely enough, but it seems to me that if your deviant Gettier case isn’t a Gettier case after all, then neither is the original Gettier case.

    Suppose the difference is that in the deviant case the method of belief-formation – believe whatever time the clock says immediately after Jonathan sets it to his phone – is both safe and reliable. But in the non-deviant Gettier case, the victim always looks at the clock at 3.05, so that the method can be specified as believe whatever time the clock says immediately after looking at it at 3.05. Isn’t that both reliable and safe, too?

  7. The difference is just this: in the normal version of the story, the character doesn't know that the clock is displaying the correct time. He's basing his belief on the false assumption that the clock is correct. Tom did know that the clock was displaying the correct time; he based his belief on the truth that I had accurately set the clock.