Lucky to Know? the nature and extent of human knowledge and rational belief. We ordinarily take ourselves to

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1 Lucky to Know? The Problem Epistemology is the field of philosophy interested in principled answers to questions regarding the nature and extent of human knowledge and rational belief. We ordinarily take ourselves to know a lot. One prominent way of thinking about knowledge is as the combination of a belief that is true and rationally held ( justified ). This is known as the justified true belief, or JTB, analysis of knowledge. Many decades ago, Edmund Gettier (1963) proposed a pair of simple examples to show that our concept of knowledge is inadequate. Here is one of them, with a few details changed: Smith is a candidate for a job. He is sitting in the waiting room when he overhears a HR representative say to another candidate, Congratulations, you got the job! Smith then forms the belief, (1) Jones got the job. Smith then observes Jones walk over to the vending machine and count out four quarters for a Coke. He decides not to buy it, and sits down. Smith then forms a new belief, partly on the basis of (1), and partly on the basis of what he just observed: (2) The man who got the job has four quarters in his pocket. Gettier pointed out that (2) is both true and rationally held by Smith. But it seems clear to almost everyone that (2) is not a case of knowledge. With this example, and another just like it, Gettier showed that the justified true belief analysis was insufficient to capture what we think knowledge is. A Proposed Solution Many people think that what goes wrong in this case is that Smith s belief is true as a matter of luck. Smith is merely lucky that (2) turned out to be true. Some philosophers, notably Duncan Pritchard (2006) and Neil Levy (2011) have argued that luck is to be understood as 1

2 significant possibilities of error. To illustrate this idea, suppose you enter a game show which offers contestants multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty on different subjects. The contestant who gets the most answers right wins a dream vacation. When you arrive for the filming, you learn that the show s topic of the day is ornithology. You can barely tell the difference between a seagull and a sparrow. Yet you guess your way through each question and win the prize. You were lucky: your guesses being correct was improbable by anyone s lights, including yours, and your win is great news for you. Lucky events are both improbable and significant to someone. If your win on the game show made no difference to your life, then although the win was improbable, it wouldn t have been lucky. Pritchard and Levy argue that lucky events are those which could have easily been different. In that sense, lucky events are improbable. Jennifer Lackey (2008) has challenged this account of luck with her famous buried treasure example: BURIED TREASURE. Sophie, soon to die, buries a chest of valuables on the northwest corner of an island, a place of deep importance to her, and a place where she hoped roses would sprout in the future. Some time later, Vincent comes to the island to plant a rosebush in his mother s memory, and finds the only suitable location: the place directly above Sophie s buried treasure. He begins digging and finds it. Here is a case where Vincent is intuitively lucky to find the treasure. He found, unaided, a treasure chest. But, as Lackey has pointed out, the case has been crafted so that Vincent would find the treasure most of the time given the initial conditions to the event. Vincent and Sophie, being the way they are that is, having the past histories and dispositions they have would do just what they did in similar circumstances. If Vincent is lucky in the buried treasure example, then it appears that luck is compatible with lucky events being likely to occur. Along similar lines, consider the game of Russian Roulette. The game consists of putting a 6-round revolver with only one bullet in a chamber to 2

3 your head and pulling the trigger. It seems that anyone who plays and wins Russian Roulette is lucky. But the odds of winning are in the player s favor: there is only a 1/6 chance that the outcome is death and a 5/6 chance that the player finishes the game unscathed. There is a problem here. The account of luck Pritchard and Levy defend holds that an event is lucky only when the event was not likely to happen given the initial conditions under which the event took place. But we now have two plausible examples of events which were likely to occur, but which are lucky. The only option for the Pritchard-Levy account of luck seems to be to deny that these examples are actually examples of luck. What Pritchard and Levy must do, then, is find a way to explain our tendency to call events like these lucky. Levy attempts to do just that. He argues that we often confuse luck with fortune. Fortune, he says, is had when one is the positive or negative beneficiary of some event, even if the event was highly probable. Fortunate events are non-lucky events which are caused by lucky events. Levy argues that Vincent is not lucky to find the treasure, he is merely fortunate to do so. There is probably not a non-technical distinction to be drawn between fortune and luck. To see this, we should try to isolate the meanings of those terms. One way we can try to do this is to consider pairs of structurally identical sentences and try to hear the differences in meaning between them. This pair reveals no difference: I was lucky to win that award. vs. I was fortunate to win that award. It is easy to come up with more examples: just take any sentence where you are inclined to use luck or fortune and consider the pair of sentences which results from substituting the words. I doubt there are many, if any, ordinary sentences in English where luck could not be substituted with fortune without effecting a change in meaning. That is a very compelling 3

4 reason to resist the suggestion that speakers are confusing two similar concepts: what it suggests, on the contrary, is that we have two words for one concept. Sometimes words mislead. But we now have strong prima facie evidence that luck and fortune are one and the same. Defeating that evidence will require some plausible explanation of why we often confusedly attribute luck where we ought to attribute fortune instead. Levy claims that when we mistakenly attribute luck instead of fortune, it is because luck is very near in the vicinity: a fortunate event is a non-lucky event with luck in its proximate cause (2009; 2011). The buried treasure example is an instance only of fortune, Levy claims, because it is by luck that Vincent and Sophie have the dispositions they have, and that is a cause of Vincent finding the treasure chest. The kind of luck responsible here is constitutive luck: luck in one s constitutive traits and dispositions (Levy 2009; 2011; following Nagel, 1979). To make good on this idea, Levy s account needs to identify some genus of which chancy and non-chancy (e.g. constitutive) luck are species. The account will also have to ensure that the two species-concepts are similar enough to each other that it is plausible that competent ordinary speakers could confuse them, misattributing luck to an event which isn t lucky when another species of luck is responsible for that event. A problem arises immediately: constitutively lucky traits are often probable, and so not obviously subsumable under the analysis of luck Levy defends. The very test that can reveal that an event is improbable that of (mentally) holding fixed some agents and events and varying other characteristics and events reveals that the traits which constitute an agent vary only a little in alternative imaginable scenarios. The analysis of luck Levy is offering calls upon an improbability condition, and that condition is spelled out using two distinct concepts of probability. Introducing these into the analysis vitiates the attempt to provide an analysis of a single concept. The new analysis of luck 4

5 is now disjunctive: (given the other conditions) an event is lucky if EITHER it is the result of a trait which is statistically unlikely OR the event is unlikely to occur. That the definition of the concept of luck includes as a single condition the satisfaction of one or the other of two distinct concepts of probability entails that the concepts are not really species of the same genus. It appears that at most one of these concepts of luck can really be luck. 1 The disjunctive analysis serves Levy s purposes poorly. One of the motivations behind offering the confusion with fortune error theory was to explain why we might confuse fortune with a closely related concept: luck. But once the analysis is spelled out, the concepts do not appear to be closely related at all. The two concepts rely on notions of probability very distinct. It seems unlikely that ordinary speakers are confusing two different kinds of probability. And ordinary speakers do have the resources to distinguish between the two concepts: we talk about things that could have easily been different ( modal probability) and characteristics that aren t common ( statistical probability), and we understand the difference between these notions. A Moral, and Back to the Original Problem The moral to be drawn is this. The Pritchard-Levy account of luck struggles to respect both the idea that there are probable lucky events like surviving Russian Roulette or finding buried treasure under certain circumstances and that luck should be understood as what was unlikely to happen in the circumstances. To give up on the idea that winners of Russian Roulette are lucky is to call into question whether one is a competent user of the word luck. But that means 1 Suppose Levy were to drop the idea that we misattribute luck to probable events because there is luck in the nonlucky event s proximal cause, and keep part of the error theory otherwise intact, claiming that we misattribute luck when a statistically improbable event or trait is a proximate cause of some event. This trimmed-down error theory would avoid the complications related to the analysis of luck discussed above, but it would also lose all plausibility as an error theory: the mistake speakers make when luck is misattributed would then be locating luck where there isn t any to be found at all. 5

6 events can be lucky while they are very likely to occur, and therefore the Pritchard-Levy account fails to capture the relevant notion of likelihood at work in our practice of luck attribution. Let us return to the problem with which we began: the Gettier problem. The problem there was that it was possible to have a belief that is justified and true, but which doesn t count as knowledge. The reason it didn t count as knowledge is that it was just a matter of luck that the justified belief was true. The justified belief didn t have the right connection with truth to count as knowledge. If the problem here really is luck, then we have to make sense of what we mean by luck in order to figure out how to solve the Gettier problem. The Pritchard-Levy account of luck failed to even tell us what luck is. Their account can t solve the Gettier problem, either. Suppose that their account were right. Then your justified belief counts as knowledge just so long as the world is a certain way. But isn t it clear that if you have knowledge, you can tell that just by reflecting on your reasons for your belief? Suppose that Smith, who was just lucky to have a true belief that the man with 4 quarters in his pocket got the job, would have been right about that belief, no matter what. It obviously still wouldn t have counted as knowledge, because Smith couldn t tell the difference between when his justified belief was true and when it was false. The Solution We now have two indications which way to look for a plausible account of luck. First, we must respect the idea that there can be lucky events which were likely to happen. Second, luck is eliminated when we have knowledge, because we can tell when our beliefs are true just by reflecting on our reasons for our beliefs. 6

7 Even when we would not be too naturally inclined to attribute luck to a likely event, making various possibilities salient causes us to recognize that the event was not as sure to happen as we might previously have claimed, and thereby to attribute some degree of luck. E.g. when I successfully cross an intersection in my Jeep, I do not ordinarily consider this a lucky event. However, if my passenger points out that it s a good thing a speeding vehicle didn t try to cross from the other direction, I will admit that I was at least a little lucky to have made it across. When we raise these sorts of possibilities, even about events that we continue to believe were overwhelming likely to occur, we recognize that some amount of luck was present. That suggests that when we say some event is lucky, we are saying that we did not know the event would happen: our reasons did not guarantee that the event would happen. Similarly, it sounds as bizarre to say, I know that such-and-such, but I m not sure whether such-and-such, as It s not at all lucky, to any degree, that such-and-such happened, but I didn t have conclusive reasons to expect such-and-such. The account of luck I suggest, then, is this: an event is lucky for some person when that person finds that event significant, and when the person did not have conclusive reasons to believe that the event would happen. This account of luck can account for events which are lucky but probable. An event that is perfectly non-lucky is one we had conclusive reason to expect. Others are lucky to some degree perhaps some extremely minimal degree, even so small as to not warrant mentioning. With this account of luck, we also solve the Gettier problem. Smith s belief that the man who got the job has four quarters in his pocket is only luckily true because Smith s reasons did not guarantee that it was true. In particular, Smith had some reason to doubt that Jones was going to get the job, because Smith couldn t be sure that the HR representative who announced that Jones would be hired had the correct information. That is why Smith did not have knowledge. 7

8 References Gettier, Edmund. Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Analysis, 23 (1963) Lackey, Jennifer. What Luck Is Not, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 86:2 (2008) Levy, Neil. Hard Luck. Oxford University Press, What, and Where, Luck Is: A Response to Jennifer Lackey, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 87:3 (2009) Pritchard, Duncan. Epistemic Luck. Oxford University Press,

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