Thursday, November 17, 2011

The value of knowledge

A couple of days ago, an interesting thing happened. Our Department secretary emailed me, in my capacity as Graduate Director, to find out if student A was eligible for an MA degree. When I got to checking, I confused student A with student B, and checked that student B is eligible. Then I emailed our secretary and said that it was all fine. Consequently, I assume, she formed a justified belief that student A was eligible for an MA degree. But this justified true belief wasn't knowledge, since it relied on my testimony, and I did not know whether A was eligible for an MA.

Shortly thereafter, I realized my mistake. I then checked whether A was eligible, and found that indeed A was eligible. Next, I wondered what to do. Our secretary did not know that A was eligible. But she did, as a result of my mistake, have a justified and, as it happened, true belief. I could easily turn her justified true belief into knowledge by emailing her about what happened.

If knowledge has a value over and beyond the value of justification and truth, then I had a reason to email her. But it seems like it would be pointless to send a correction email under the circumstance (or at least, giving her knowledge would not be a point). And, if it would be pointless, then it seems that there is no value over and beyond the value of justification and truth.

However, a colleague suggests that perhaps the right interpretation of the situation isn't that there is no value in knowledge over and beyond justification and truth, but that there is so little value that it is outweighed by the disvalue of bothering a very busy person with yet another email.


Kevin Wong said...

Couldn't one make a distinction between the value of knowledge and the value of a functional outcome? So then not only does your case count as a Gettier example, but could also count for deviant causal sequences. So if I was a spy trying to alert to you and the rest of our troops of whether the enemy is going to attack, I set up a table with a tea set in a field to meet with the enemy general. You and the troops are looking at us with binoculars, looking for my secret signal. If I spill my tea, then that means the enemy general intends to attack. So the enemy general and I have a pleasant cup of tea, and he alerts me that he plans to attack. Nervous about wanting to get the signal right, I wind up spilling the tea by accident anyway. This elicits the proper outcome from you and our troops. It is functionally equivalent to if I had intended to spill my tea. So I would consider it a funny story we could tell in front of a campfire after our troops kicked the enemy's butt, but I'm not sure I am exactly obligated to inform you of my mistake since it still functionally worked to accomplish my goals.

Heath White said...

It seems important that your secretary does not care about the whys and wherefores of student degree qualifications. (Nor should she.) So I would judge that what value there is attaches to *understanding* (rather than knowledge) of *important* matters (rather than just any matters).

It's a useful example.