Scripturalism and the Gettier Problem

By Doug Douma and Luke Miner


So the story goes, epistemologists had long held knowledge to be justified true belief (JTB). (A story to be doubted according to Alvin Plantinga.) (That Clark held to JTB rather than just “true belief” (TB) Doug has argued in Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge and Luke has argued in Gordon Clark and Knowledge:  On Justification)


But the times were “a-changin” in the 1960s. Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” challenged the (supposed) long-held view of JTB and would prove to have significant impact on the field of epistemology. (Bob Dylan must have been an epistemologist. But it wasn’t until 1978 that he sang “One of Us Must Know.” By that point astute readers of Gordon H. Clark might have realized that Gettier’s problem was none of the kind.)


Edmund Gettier challenged the definition of knowledge as justified true belief by presenting cases where beliefs are true and justified but don’t count as knowledge. Basically his counter-examples to JTB occur when a person has a true belief that is based on good grounds but the belief is true by coincidence.


One of Gettier’s cases is essentially as follows: Smith has been told by the hiring manager that Jones will get the job, so he has good grounds for thinking Jones will get the job. Smith also knows that Jones has 10 coins in his pocket because he counted them himself. So Smith has the justified belief: “The man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket.” But, as it happens, Jones doesn’t get the job, but Smith gets it. Smith reaches into his own pocket and realizes that he, too, has had 10 coins in his pocket. This means that Smith’s justified belief: “the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket” is actually true. It is a true, justified belief yet it is only true by coincidence so it doesn’t amount to knowledge.


Alvin Plantinga gives a less-confusing example which Bertrand Russell gave years before Gettier’s birth. You glance at a clock and form the belief that it is 3:43pm and, as luck would have it, the clock stopped precisely 24 hours ago. Since clocks can usually be relied on and since the belief that it is 3:43pm is true, you presumably have a justified true belief but, since it’s only true by luck, you don’t have knowledge.


One shouldn’t think that Edmund Gettier completely did away with the idea that knowledge can be defined as JTB. In actuality, Gettier’s paper contributed to starting the revolution in epistemology that continues today. Epistemologists have presented a host of new models for how true beliefs are justified which have solved the Gettier problem (among the most notable new models are Reliabilism, Proper Functionalism and Alston’s Epistemic Desiderata approach). Without getting into the details, the point is that Gettier exposed flaws in certain common conceptions of justification, but his counterexamples don’t apply to other conceptions of justification. This is why Gettier began his paper by listing two different conceptions justification to which his counterexamples apply and then providing two additional restrictions on the term. People who think that Gettier buried JTB six feet deep are usually surprised to find out that the best known contemporary epistemologists are still writing about justification (see Epistemic Justification).


How is all this relevant to Scripturalism and Gordon Clark’s theory of knowledge? As you’ve probably guessed, it isn’t all that relevant. Clark used the term knowledge to refer to true belief that possessed infallible justification.[1] Consequently, Gettier problems cannot arise in Clark’s theory. For Clark, a proposition is only justified if it is either acquired from the infallible Word of God by illumination of the Spirit, or by proper logical deduction from known (Biblical) propositions.




[1] One might rightly point out that nothing in Scripturalism precludes us from using the term, “knowledge” to mean true belief with some degree of justification. Clark just didn’t use the term that way in technical discourse, though he did, in fact, sometimes use the word “knowledge” (and its cognates – know, knowing) in a colloquial or non-technical manner. If one wants to talk about fallible kinds of justification, he has multiple models of epistemic justification from which to choose in today’s literature.

Clark’s court-witness refutation of empiricism illustrates Clark’s commitment to infallible justification. He writes, “If a witness in a criminal case is shown to have perjured himself, how much credence do you give to the other statements he made. If you’re eyes deceive you once you can’t believe any of it.” (“What is Apologetics,” The Gordon-Conwell Lectures on Apologetics, 1981. Minute 36) So if a certain method (say sense-perception) produces some false beliefs, it can’t count as a source for knowledge.

Written by