This Simple Philosophical Puzzle Shows How Difficult It Is to Know Something

In the 1960s, the American philosopher Edmund Gettier devised a thought experiment that has become known as a “Gettier case.” It shows that something’s “off” about the way we understand knowledge. This ordeal is called the “Gettier problem,” and 50 years later, philosophers are still arguing about it. Jennifer Nagel, a philosopher of mind at the University of Toronto, sums up its appeal. “The resilience of the Gettier problem,” she says, “suggests that it is difficult (if not impossible) to develop any explicit reductive theory of knowledge.”  

What is knowledge? Well, thinkers for thousands of years had more or less taken one definition for granted: Knowledge is “justified true belief.” The reasoning seemed solid: Just believing something that happens to be true doesn’t necessarily make it knowledge. If your friend says to you that she knows what you ate last night (say it’s veggie pizza), and happens to be right after guessing, that doesn’t mean she knew. That was just a lucky guess—a mere true belief. Your friend would know, though, if she said veggie pizza because she saw you eat it—that’s the “justification” part. Your friend, in that case, would

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