Is Knowledge Merely True Opinion?

It is entirely understandable that people would want to know how Gordon Clark defines “knowledge”.   Based on some quotes that have been going around, some people have drawn the conclusion that he thought knowledge is nothing more than true opinion.  This post is not meant to argue that Clark took knowledge to be more than true opinion, although the author believes that Gordon Clark obviously held that there is a difference between knowledge and true opinion.[1]  This post is meant to provide some thoughts on what accepting the thesis implies.

Here is the thesis, T, whose implications we are discussing:

T: The definition of knowledge is true opinion.

Note that T is a definition.  Accordingly, you can’t be wrong about a definition.  Don’t ever tell someone their definition of something is wrong.  People can use terms however they like, and we are grateful if they take time to define them so we can understand them.  Now, here are some implications for you if you hold T.

Cornelius Van Til2First, if Gordon Clark sees Cornelius Van Til do a front flip off the high dive, he develops an opinion, lets call it O.

O: Van Til did a front flip off the high dive. 

Many people would say S:

S: Clark developed opinion O from experience.

Now, if Van Til really did a flip off the high dive, then Clark has knowledge of O.  Moreover, if Clark developed O from experience, then Clark has experiential knowledge.  This conclusion should be hard to accept for someone familiar with Clark’s destruction of empirical knowledge.[2]

Next, Van Til and Clark are playing poker and drinking vino.[3] Van Til says “Gordon, I know that you will get the ace of spades in the next hand.” Clark, the professor of logic, chuckles and says “Corny, you can’t know that.  The chances are 5/52 that it will happen.”  Van Til sees his point but says:  “Your logic is good ol boy, but your epistemology is about to change.”  Sure enough, ol Clark gets the ace of spades.  If he accepts T (defined at the top), he must admit that Corny “knew” that he would get an ace before the cards were dealt.

gordon_clarkMoreover, if we define knowledge as right opinion, we likely need another word to refer to knowledge that is “for sure”.  On accepting T, Van Til knew a piece of knowledge called K1:

K1:  Clark will get an ace

even though the chances were slim and he had no apparent reason for believing K1.  Van Til also knows K2:

K2:  John arrived at Jesus’ empty tomb before Peter (as stated in John 20). 

K1 was Til’s guess, while he accepts K2 on the authority of the living infallible God who is the Truth.  If you define knowledge as right opinion, you will probably want to adopt another word for propositions that you know based on good reasons like the authority of God.  Maybe you could talk about infallible knowledge like K2 and fallible knowledge which can include wild guesses.  I wouldn’t do it, but you could.

Those who are willing to recognize the magnitude of the epistemological problem are not merely interested in quickly nailing down some superficial definitions in order that they may complete their theory of knowledge before dinner.  In fact, they are most interested in testing T by understanding its implications before accepting or denying it.  Therefore, the discussion at the end of Plato’s Meno may be of use.

Socrates (Soc). But when we said that a man cannot be a good guide unless he have knowledge (phrhonesis), this we were wrong.

Meno (Men). What do you mean by the word “right”?

Soc. I will explain. If a man knew the way to Larisa, or anywhere else, and went to the place and led others thither, would he not be a right and good guide?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. And a person who had a right opinion about the way, but had never been and did not know, might be a good guide also, might he not?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. And while he has true opinion about that which the other knows, he will be just as good a guide if he thinks the truth, as he who knows the truth?

Men. Exactly.

Soc. Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as knowledge; and that was the point which we omitted in our speculation about the nature of virtue, when we said that knowledge only is the guide of right action; whereas there is also right opinion.

Men. True.

Soc. Then right opinion is not less useful than knowledge?

Men. The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and sometimes not.

Soc. What do you mean? Can he be wrong who has right opinion, so long as he has right opinion?

Men. I admit the cogency of your argument, and therefore, Socrates, I wonder that knowledge should be preferred to right opinion-or why they should ever differ.

Soc. And shall I explain this wonder to you?

Men. Do tell me.

Soc. You would not wonder if you had ever observed the images of Daedalus; but perhaps you have not got them in your country?

Men. What have they to do with the question?

Soc. Because they require to be fastened in order to keep them, and if they are not fastened they will play truant and run away.

Men. Well, what of that?

Soc. I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when fastened, they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honourable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.

Men. What you are saying, Socrates, seems to be very like the truth.

Soc. I too speak rather in ignorance; I only conjecture. And yet that knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of conjecture with me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them.

Men. Yes, Socrates; and you are quite right in saying so.

Soc. And am I not also right in saying that true opinion leading the way perfects action quite as well as knowledge?

Men. There again, Socrates, I think you are right.

Soc. Then right opinion is not a whit inferior to knowledge, or less useful in action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to him who has knowledge?

Men. True.
[1] The author uses the miserably unpopular word “justified” to denote the difference between knowledge and true opinion.  Some deep-thinking individual might ask, then, how are the starting points the Christian worldview justified?  They are justified, not by deduction from axioms, but by virtue of the fact that the unerring third person of the Trinity caused us to believe them; a very good justification in my opinion.  Likely, a less-deep-thinking individual might ask how we can justify that justification.  It seems to me that this has an easy answer but will not be addressed here.

[2] The denial of S, while plausible and important, will not be discussed here.

[3] Actually, Van Til is drinking vino and Clark is drinking grape juice.  This will make more sense when the Clark Biography is published.

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