If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:10:43

Theory of Knowledge: Analyzing Knowledge #4 (Tracking Theories)

Video transcript

my name is Jeff Penn I teach philosophy at Northern Illinois University and today I'm going to talk about the tracking theory of knowledge let's start by reviewing the causal theory of knowledge which Jennifer Nagel discussed in the previous video in this series the causal theory invented by Alvin Goldman says the tannot effect is to have a belief that was caused by that very fact suppose that I'm visiting the zoo and see zebra I know that there's a zebra in front of me the causal theory says that this is because given how my visual system works and my knowledge of what zebras look like the fact that there's a zebra in front of me caused me to believe that there's a zebra in front of me but Goldman himself discovered a big problem with the causal theory whether you know something can depend in part upon environmental factors that might never have any causal impact on your belief at all suppose for example that one of the zoo officials secretly sold all that one of the zebras to an eccentric billionaire to put in his private backyard zoo to cover up his crime the official figured out how to dye the hair on a bunch of cheap mules so that they look exactly like zebras the fake zebras are now regularly on display fooling the public into thinking that the zoo still has a lot of zebras running around so in fact while I'm looking at the only actual zebra in the pen all the other animals around that are mules cleverly disguised to look just like zebras if I were looking at one of those mules instead I'd still think to myself with just as much confidence as I actually have that's a zebra in this environment I could very easily be wrong about what kind of animal I'm looking at I can't tell zebras from fake mules just by looking at them under such circumstances it seems that I don't really know that there's a zebra in front of me but according to the causal theory I do know after all my belief that there's a zebra in front of me was in fact caused by the presence of the one real zebra in front of me since that's the animal I happen to be looking at when I asked the question what am I looking at the tracking theory is designed to avoid this kind of problem the main idea was first proposed by Fred wretzky in 1971 but it got its name from Robert Nozick who wrote extensively about it in a book published a decade later what's the difference between a normal case where you know that you're looking at a zebra and the funny case where they're all these fake zebras running around well here's one important difference in the honest Zoo the following conditional seems true if there weren't a zebra in front of you you wouldn't believe that there was think about it for a minute there are no fake zebras in an honest Zoo so in an honest Zoo if you weren't looking at a zebra you wouldn't mistakenly think that you were looking at a zebra there wouldn't be any fake zebra zoning around to mislead you about what animal you were seeing but in a dodgy Zoo full of fake zebras things are quite different in that zoo you would still think you were looking at a zebra even if you really weren't so that conditional called a counterfactual because it describes how things would be if they were different than they actually are is true in the normal zoo but false in the dodgy Zoo the tracking theory says that this is why you don't know in the dodgy Zoo even though the causal connection between your belief and the fact is the same as it was in the normal Zoo the philosophical idea behind this example is that to know something it's not enough that you're actually right about how things are knowers also would have been right if things had been different in various ways as Nozik put it NORs are able to track the truth in a variety of different situations notice that captured this idea with - counterfactual conditionals together he thought they specified the difference between knowing and merely having a true belief in his view you know that pee just in case you have a true belief that pee and the following two conditionals are also true first if pee weren't true you wouldn't believe that pee and second if P were true you would believe that pee the first counterfactual is just what's lacking in the dodgy Zoo this conditional has come to be known as the sensitivity requirement and it's been the aspect of the tracking theory that has attracted the most attention among epistemologists the second conditional is a little trickier to understand at first it's called the adherence requirement here's an example of how it's supposed to work suppose you're just really bad at recognizing different animals you've got no idea what anything looks like somewhat embarassingly you have no idea what zebras look like when you happen upon the zebra in the zoo you think to yourself well I'm just going to guess what kind of animal that is and lucky you you happen to guess correctly that you're seeing a zebra but really honestly you have no idea you could easily have guessed that it was an orangutan or a hippo or whatever you don't actually know that it's a zebra however your belief arguably meets the sensitivity requirement if there weren't a zebra there you wouldn't have been prompted to make any guess at all and so wouldn't have believed that there was one yet your belief doesn't meet the adherence requirement since your guess was basically random if things had been slightly different you could easily have guessed a different animal and been wrong so it's not the case that if the animal were a zebra you would still believe that it was a zebra the tracking theory is related to reliabilism which Jennifer discussed along with the causal theory but one kind of case that she mentioned makes trouble for reliabilism your friend Pierre is holding a lottery ticket you know how high the odds are that his ticket is a loser and so on this basis you conclude that his ticket has lost most people would agree that you don't really know that his ticket has lost despite the fact that this is a very reliable way of forming a belief the chances of your being wrong after all are one in a hundred million or whatever but the tracking theory in particular the sensitivity requirement correctly implies that you don't know in this case when your belief is based purely on the odds if Pierre's ticket were not a loser ie if Pierre had won the lottery you would still believe that it was a loser your belief isn't sensitive and so you don't know there are a number of challenges to the tracking theory one has to do with cases where the theory seems too demanding cases where it seems like you really do know what your belief doesn't track the truth Nozik himself came up with the most famous example like this imagine an alien grandmother who gets a visit from her beloved grandson he's very healthy and she can tell by looking and talking with him that he's perfectly well she knows that he's well but suppose that her children are so concerned about her fragile health that if her grandson had been sick they would have kept him home called her up and told her that he was perfectly healthy but just couldn't make it to see her she would have believed them it looks like her belief then doesn't meet the sensitivity requirement if her grandson had not been well she would still have believed that he was well so according to the tracking theory she doesn't know that he's well and that just seems wrong Nosek responded to this problem by revising the tracking theory someone he said that what matters is not just that our beliefs do track the truth but that our beliefs track the truth given the methods by which we form them in this case given the method by which the grandmother formed her belief about her grandson namely by looking and talking with him in person she wouldn't have believed that he was well if he wasn't this modification makes the theory somewhat more complicated and raises a number of further questions that we won't go into here another kind of problem has to do with what's called the closure principle for knowledge the closure principle says that when you know P and you know that P implies Q you're also in a position to know Q it's a very plausible idea it seems that when you figure out that one thing you know implies something else that's just a way of learning that further thing - but the tracking theory at least as drets Qian knows it formulated it is incompatible with the closure principle that's because your belief that P can track the truth while your belief that Q fails to track the truth even if you know that P implies Q here's an example suppose you're in that honest Zoo again you know that you're looking at a zebra since your belief tracks the truth but here's a belief that doesn't track the truth the belief that you're not looking at a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra think about what would be the case if that were true if you were looking at such a mule you'd still believe that you weren't so that belief doesn't meet the sensitivity requirement but of course it's obvious that if something's a zebra it's not a cleverly disguised mule zebras after all are not mules so according to Nozick you can know that the animal is a zebra know that this implies that it's not a cleverly disguised mule and yet fail to know that it's not a cleverly disguised mule jet-skiing Nosek actually thought that the fact that their theories implied that the closure principle is false was a plus and not a minus they used this aspect of their theories to come up with a novel solution to the problem of skepticism if the closure principle is false then I might be able to know for example that I have hands even though it's impossible for it to me to know whether or not I'm a handless brain and in that being deceived into thinking that I have hands most epistemologists haven't been swayed by the idea that denying the closure principle can solve the problem of skepticism and they think that the correct theory of knowledge has to respect the closure principle or at least something close to it this has prompted some people to come up with new versions of the tracking theory that do respect the closure principle sherilyn rauch for example has recently developed a detailed quote tracking with closure and quote theory proponents of the tracking theory think that it's worth pursuing despite challenges because it seems to capture so well the idea that knowing involves the ability to figure out how things are in a variety of different circumstances you