Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Is knowledge of very important things very valuable?

It seems right to say that knowledge, as such, is very valuable when the matter at hand is of great personal importance to one. For instance, it seems intuitively right that it is very valuable to know whether the people one loves are alive.

Suppose Bob, Alice’s beloved husband, was in an area where a disaster happened. Carl read a list of survivors, and told Alice that her husband was one of the survivors. But five minutes later Carl realized that he confused Alice with someone else, and that it wasn’t Alice’s husband’s name that he saw on the list. Carl is terrified that he will have to tell Alice that her husband wasn’t on the list. He goes back to the list and, to his great relief, finds that Bob is on the list as well.

Alice correctly believes that her husband survived the disaster. She does not know that her husband survived, though she thinks she knows. She is Gettiered.

If knowing that one’s beloved husband has survived a disaster is very valuable, Carl would have a quite strong reason to go back to Alice and tell her: “I just checked the list again very carefully, and indeed your husband is on it.” (It would be ill-advised, perhaps, for Carl to say to Alice that he had made the mistake the first time, because if he told her that, she would start worrying that he has made a mistake this time, too.) For, Carl’s telling this to Alice would turn her Gettiered belief into knowledge.

But if Carl has any reason to talk to Alice about this again, the reason is not a very strong one. Hence, even in cases which are of extreme personal importance, knowledge as such is not very valuable.

I conclude that knowledge as such is of little if any intrinsic value. Truth and justification, of course, can have great intrinsic value.

Objection: Carl doesn't have to talk to Alice to turn her true belief into knowledge. For he would have informed Alice had he not found Alice's husband on the list. Thus, on certain externalist views where knowledge depends on the right counterfactuals, Carl's second check of the list is sufficient to turn Alice's true belief into knowledge, even without Carl talking to Alice.

Response: Maybe, but the case need not to be told that way. Perhaps if Alice's husband were not on the list, Carl wouldn't have had the guts to tell Alice. Or perhaps he would have waited twenty four hours to check that Alice's husband doesn't appear on an updated list.

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