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Problems With the Causal Theory of Knowledge

Updated on March 27, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, Social Justice, and Mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

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The Causal Theory of Knowledge by Alvin Goldman

The causal theory of knowledge, originally purported by Alvin Goldman, is an attempt to determine what knowledge is in lieu of epistemological scrutiny. While it may seem as though this theory is plausible in the face of what true knowledge is, we will find that there are many problems that come about when identifying with this theory.

Problems With the Causal Theory of Knowledge

In this essay, I will make it my responsibility to reveal the problems that arise when attaining knowledge through causal connections. First, I will discuss the causal theory of knowledge by providing a definition of said theory along with its addition to the traditional analysis of knowledge (TAK). After I have done so, I will discuss the problems for the causal theory of knowledge by means of presenting the theoretical implications of such knowledge in several short story examples. After all is said and done, it should be clear as to why the causal theory of knowledge is not the most correct form of knowledge to associate ourselves with at this current moment in time.

Avoiding the Gettier Problems in TAK

The causal theory of knowledge is an attempt to avoid the Gettier problems that occur in TAK, and is formulated as an addition to the TAK. The main idea of this theory is that the difference between true belief and knowledge is that when you know something, your belief is causally related to the thing you believe.

The premises are as followed: (I) p is true, (II) S believes that p, and (III) S’s belief that p was caused by the fact that p. Although this is the original version of the theory, Goldman proposes a revised version which states (III) as ‘S knows p if and only if the fact p is causally connected in an appropriate way with S’s believing p.’

The main alteration from the TAK is that it eliminates the third premise–that S is justified in believing p–and adds an entirely new premise which relies on a causal connection between S and p. In other words, a necessary condition of S’s knowing p is that S must have a causal connection to p. This condition relies on the fact that S must have perception of the world around her. The causal theory, then, focuses on objects of appropriate knowledge gained through perception, testimony, introspective memory, and obscure inference.

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Knowledge Gained Through Inference

An example of obscure, but appropriately caused, belief is that of knowledge gained through inference. If a fire happens to be lit in S’s fireplace, S can infer and know that there is smoke rising from the stack of the chimney. In accordance with the causal chain needed for this theory, how, you may ask, can S have such knowledge?

Here, it seems as though such an inference has no appropriate causal chain between the smoke and S. Therefore, S cannot possibly know of the smoke rising. All S has the ability to directly know through perception is that there is a fire lit. In the instance of inference, Goldman replies that since the fire is the appropriate causal chain for the smoke rising, there is a proper reconstruction of a causal chain between the smoke and S. Here, it seems as though Goldman has begun to reach for far-out connections between subjects and propositions. This may be the beginning of his downfall.

Knowledge Gained Through Generalizations

One of the main problems with the causal theory is that it lacks the ability to attain knowledge through generalizations. When analyzing the causal form of knowledge, we are immediately confronted by what the Standard View tells us we can have knowledge of. The Standard View suggests that we can have knowledge of generalizations.

A classic example of this is the knowledge that ‘all men are mortal.’ While I would like to think that this is a fact of knowledge, at least at the current moment in time when medicine has not yet reached the levels of capability to prove otherwise, the causal theory states otherwise. According to the causal theory, in order to have any sort of knowledge about a given fact, there must be a causal connection between the proposition known and the knower analyzing the proposition. Here we find neither sort of connection, and thus must accept that we have no sort of knowledge if we adhere to the strict premises of the causal theory.

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Knowledge Gained Through A Priori Justification

Another problem for the causal theory is that it cannot deal with true beliefs attained from a priori knowledge. To further elaborate on this problem, I will posit the example of Tricky Ricky:

“Tricky Ricky slipped me a mickey at the party. That caused me to have a wild hallucination involving elephants, the Taj Mahal, space travel, and being a rock star. While tripping I hallucinated seeing Tricky Ricky slipping me a mickey. So I believe that Tricky Ricky slipped me a mickey, and that belief is true, and that belief was caused by the fact that Tricky Ricky slipped me a mickey.”

Now, can we assert that Tricky Ricky slipped me a mickey at the party? It seems that even though our belief is true, and we believe that it is true, we are still lacking the final causal chain of evidence to determine whether or not we have knowledge of any such occurrence. This example seems like good enough evidence to reject the causal theory.

In order to repair the theory, we would have to have an appropriate causal chain between the evidence and myself. If we want to ascertain any sort of knowledge from such an instance, we would have to gather a series of evidences, thus going back to the idea of justification and further creating problems for causal theorists if they reject the TAK.

Knowledge Gained Through Perception and Evidence

The final problem we will discuss is that of perception and evidence. Seemingly, the causal theory is able to tackle any such questions of belief and knowledge when it comes to perception and evidence. However, in the Trudy/Judy case Feldman describes in his book, we find that even though S can have an appropriate causal chain linking the subject to the proposition, it is still possible to lack knowledge. Here I will describe the Trudy/Judy case and explain why having an appropriate causal chain does not necessarily mean also having knowledge:

“Trudy and Judy are identical twins. Smith sees one and, for no good reason, forms the belief that he sees Judy. It is true, and it is a case of perception. He reconstructs the causal chain between Judy’s presence and the belief properly. He knows about Trudy, but rashly discounts the possibility that she is the one he sees.”

This may be the most serious problem in the causal theory. Here, Smith is basing his belief off of a lazy or lucky guess. Even though his assumption that the woman he is seeing is correct, hence he has a true belief and believes it to be so, the causal theory states that he does not have knowledge that the woman he sees is the one he thinks it is.

Of course, if Smith were to realize that he was being analyzed in an epistemological way, he could develop some justification which he claims is how he knew the woman to be Judy. However, if Smith were to justify his belief in this way, he would be in for a whole other set of problems.

As Feldman describes, imagine Smith is now looking at a table and has a true belief that what he is looking at is a table. “If we say that he needs warranted beliefs about the causal history in the Trudy/Judy case, then the same should be required in a case in which he forms a true belief that there is a table there." It seems as though Smith has been thrown for a loop when all he wanted to do was be part of an example.

You see, if you are a causal theorist, you need an appropriate causal chain in order to attain knowledge about such a proposition. In the Trudy/Judy case, Smith did just that. He was able to ascertain which twin it was that he saw, yet he did so unjustifiably. If Smith then went on to create a justification for his belief, then he would be doing so outside the boundaries of the causal theory, and this, above all, is not acceptable for my essay and analysis.

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Reject the Causal Theory of Knowledge

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to reject the causal theory of knowledge as the best theory to form knowledge off of. While it does a fine job approaching obscure inferences and knowledge through perception, it fails to give a fully developed account as to how knowledge should be attained in other matters, such as generalizations, a priori situations, and cases involving evidence.

Works Cited

Feldman, Richard. "Chapter Five: Nonevidentialist Theories of Knowledge and Justification." Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. 81-86.

Epistemology and Theories of Knowledge

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 4 months ago

      Hi, Paula! Thank you for taking the time to struggle through this essay. I am no genius, as I was taught this information from my philosophy professor. For me, too, it is a struggle to understand and comprehend. It took a long time to formulate my thoughts and arguments in a way that might be read as coherent from my audience.

      On another note, I'm glad you learned a new word. Philosophy is full of unique jargon. In general terms, a proposition is knowable "a priori" if it is knowable independently of experience, while a proposition knowable a "posteriori" is knowable on the basis of experience. For example, the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried is "a priori", and the proposition that it is raining outside now is a "posteriori".

      Again, thank you for reading my work. People like you inspire me to continue writing and working hard. I suppose, though, that even writing for the sake of writing is improving my skills. Take care, Paula. Have a wonderful day!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 4 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Luke....I hesitated just a bit, wondering whether I could handle a heavy topic so early this morning, but I chose to be brave. LOL I admit I became a bit "dizzy" by the time Tricky Ricky came along. (I'm pretty sure he did slip me a mickey!) I may have been tripped up by the causal chain of evidence!

      Before this slips my mind....thank you for making me work for knowledge today. I actually needed to look up a word ( a highly rare occurrence!) I'm curious as to how I had never encountered the word, "priori"...but truth is, you took me off guard. So, would I be correct that it basically means, "pre-conceived notion?" Yeah, I would be a big offender here...but this isn't my confession platform, so I'll carry on.

      I really love getting into these sorts of discussions...Thanks for sharing your take on the problems with the causal theory of knowledge. With only one cup of coffee surging through my veins, the best I can do is smile and agree with your conclusion 100% :)

      Bless your heart, Luke....you are a true Academic. I found this hub quite fascinating. To respond to one of your questions~~Yes, IMHO, there is still magic in the world~~I refuse to abandon my fantasies altogether. It could be sad. Peace, Paula

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 4 months ago

      Jay C, to say that we know anything for certain will almost always beg a question of skepticism from one group or another. Experience is definitely a hard level of intrinsic reality to argue with and against. Is there still magic in the world, the unknown, or mysteries yet to be discovered? I believe there are. Will science catch up to such anomalies? I sure hope so, but even if it doesn't, that's ok with me. Thanks for reading. I truly appreciate the feedback and food for thought :)

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 4 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Epistemology or "How do we know" is the question. Police investigation has shown that even eye witnesses get it wrong. Opinions are formed based on this experience and are hard to change. Between one and two percent of the populace suffers from delusions due to schizophrenia. Perhaps four percent of the population suffer from excessive Fear. See NIMH.

      If Joshua saw "The Lord" fly out of a cloud and tell him to kill all the Canaanites, should he do so? See The Book of Joshua.