Monday 20 September 2021

The Cow in the Field and the Riddle of What Do We REALLY Know?

i looks at a wide range of things that go well beyond the scope of academic philosophy, but that shouldn't mean that we can't occasionally return to the narrow path. Talking with existentialists at a new website (that I would recommend to everyone) called Moti-Tribe,  brought me back to thinking about one of my favorite philosophical problems,

This is the story of ‘The Cow in the Field’ that I came up with many years ago at a time when the academic (boring) philosophers were obsessed with someone who had some coins in his pocket but weren’t sure exactly what they were, and calling it grandly, the ‘Gettier Problem’.

You’d have been forgiven for being put right off the issue by how the academics approached it, but indeed, the riddle is very old, can be tracked back certainly to Plato and is indeed rooted even further back in Eastern philosophy where the assumption that we don’t know things is a part of mysticism and monkishness that we don't really understand anything about.

It’s a kind of koan, which as I understand them, the point of which is to startle you out of your everyday assumptions and oblige you to think more intuitively. The conventional account is that they are a tool of Zen Buddhism used to demonstrate *the inadequacy of logical reasoning* - and open the way to enlightenment.

Well, once you explore the origins of Western philosophy, and the ideas of people like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, you soon find out that there is a lot of riddling actually going on. And the reason why is exactly the same: in order to demonstrate this inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.

Slightly bizarrely, conventional books and courses on philosophy seek to reinvent ancient philosophy to make it all about ‘the discovery’ of logic! But Western philosophy and Eastern mysticism are two sides of the same coin, we can learn from both.

So on to the puzzle!


Imagine a farmer who has rather fine cow called Daisy. He is so proud of his cow that he often checks up on her. In fact, he is so concerned that one day, when he asks his dairyman how Daisy is doing, and the Dairyman tells him that Daisy is in the field happily grazing, the farmer decides that he needs to know for certain.

He doesn’t want to just have a 99% idea that Daisy is safe, he wants to be able to say 100% that he knows Daisy is okay.

The farmer goes out to the field and, standing by the gate, sees in the distance, behind some trees, a white-and-black shape that he recognises as his favourite cow. He goes back to the dairy and tells his friend the dairyman that he knows Daisy is in the field. 

Okay, so what’s the ‘problem’? Simply whether, at this point, does our farmer really ‘know’ it - or does he merely think that he knows?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself what your intuition is. Because we have to allow that the farmer not only thinks that he knows, he has evidence - the evidence of his eyes we might say - for his belief too.

Anyway, you maybe still think that there’s some doubt about him really knowing, but then we add a new twist. Responding to  the farmer’s worries, the dairyman decides that he will go and check on Daisy, and goes out to the field. And there he does indeed find Daisy, having a nap in a hollow, behind a bush, well out of sight of the gate. He also spots a large piece of black-and-white paper that has got caught in a tree. Point is, yes, Daisy WAS in the field, but the farmer could not have seen her, only the piece of paper.

So the philosophical debate is, when the farmer returned from the field after (as he thought) checking up on his cow, did he really KNOW she was in it?

Because now you see, it seems that Farmer Field has satisfied the three conventional requirements for ‘knowledge’.

• He believes something,

• he has a relevant reason for his belief,

• and in fact his belief is correct...

Philosophers say that he had a ‘justified true belief’. And yet we would not want to say that he really did know what he thought he knew. In this case, that his cow was in the field...

It's a simple story, okay, silly if you like, but entirely possible. And what the possibility shows is that the three conventional requirements for knowledge are simply not enough to give certainty. What THAT implies, is that we know nothing!

Which is back to the Eastern philosophies, which put so much more emphasis on what we don't know - and seek exotic ways to compensate.


Keith said...

An interesting thought experiment, Martin. It was fun to think through. Let me venture a couple of (supplementary) ideas; you can decide if they are a fit and make sense, or not . . .

As for ‘He [the farmer] has a relevant reason for his belief’, I suggest perhaps ‘relevance’ is an insufficient criterion here. That is, the farmer may have a flawed reason for his belief, despite relevance. It might be that the farmer’s belief was founded on circumstances that bring his to only different degrees of certainty (probabilities of knowledge). To my mind, the probability of knowledge ranges from something above 0 to something less than 1 (1 being absolute, unchallengeable certainty). The farmer may never know, to a probability of 1, that the cow is in the field.

As for ‘[A]nd in fact his belief is correct’, I suggest this statement — that the farmer’s belief is correct — rather begs the question. That is, isn’t the statement somewhat circular? Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the farmer’s ‘belief’ is ‘correct’ is the point of the riddle, right? To my mind, saying his belief is correct doesn’t necessarily make it so. I would argue that proof will invariably fall short of a probability of 1, so saying ‘his belief is correct’, without saying how and substantiating the statement, may be a stretch.

As for ‘What THAT implies is that we know nothing’, I suggest we may know something. However, what we know is known only to different degrees of certainty — ranging, as I cautiously propose above, in probability from ‘something above 0 to something less than 1’. To my mind, a level of certainty less than 1 is not the same as ‘knowing nothing’; it’s still knowing something, but less than absolute, unchallengeable knowledge. What we know, and to what degree of certainty we know it, appears fluid, shifting back and forth somewhere between the ‘something above 0 and something less than 1’ notion mentioned above.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The trouble is obviously the connection with reality! And that is a very big problem in general. Alfred Korzybski wrote, 'A map is not the territory.' What our minds are made up of is presumably something very different to what the world is made up of.

In the case of Daisy, she has been abstracted to the point where she has the farmer in a quandary. But isn't all of life full of Daisies? I suppose, for instance, that I have pulled my organisation out of bankruptcy. Well, yes, I have, but not for the reason I think I have. Or is that not a Gettier problem?

docmartincohen said...

Let me return to Keith's comment. Yes, the "relevant" reason is a bit of shorthand, but don't we understand the point really? Take global warming: scientists say so and so is evidence for it, and we have different views depending on the quality fo the evidence. Thus, melting snows on the Himalaya's seems to be "relevant" but slow sales in iPhones would not nudge the probability needle. But then what is probability? We can talk of such things comfortably in abstract - say with the toss of a coin, where everything is apparently uniform and the event can be repeated… but as the operators of nuclear plans know, a very complex and hence unlikely sequence of events can happen ONCE. You can deal a perfect hand in Bridge ONCE without offending the laws of probability…

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