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I'm reading the paper, "A Causal theory of knowing", written by Goldman. In the paper, he presents the following as conditions of knowledge (S knows P):

1) It is the case that P.

2) S believes that P.

3) There is an appropriate causal connection between the person's belief at t that P and the fact that P. (Or his belief that P is caused by the fact that P.)

And I know that Goldman gave up this perspective since he designed the "fake barn" counter-example.

But I can't understand the meaning of the 3rd condition, that is, a fact causes one's belief since it seems to me that, in the fake barn story, what really causes belief is not the fact that it is a real barn, but the properties that it takes such as "it is made up of straw" or "it has no door", etc.


Goldman, A. I. (1967). A causal theory of knowing. The journal of Philosophy, 64(12), 357-372.

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Goldman is trying to achieve an account of knowledge that does not fall prey to simple Gettier cases. In such cases, the subject has a justified belief in some proposition, and it is true, but only by luck - there is a disconnect between the facts that ground the truth of the proposition and the reason for believing it. Goldman tries to capture this disconnect by saying that in such cases there is no appropriate causal connection between the facts and the belief.

In the barn example that you mention, the farmer can see what he takes to be a barn, and is normally perfectly capable of identifying a barn when he sees one, so he has a justified belief that there is a barn in the field. As it happens, what he can see is just a facade, but there is a real barn hidden from his sight in a hollow. The farmer's belief that there is a barn in the field is true, but it is not knowledge. Goldman says this is because his belief is caused by the facade, not by the real barn, i.e. light coming from the facade into his eyes is the cause of his belief, while the barn, which grounds the truth of the proposition, is having no causal influence on the farmer.

As you note, Goldman abandoned this account, because it fails to work for more complex cases, such as where there are lots of barns visible to the farmer; he points at one and says, I know that is a barn; but unbeknown to him, nearly all the items he can see are merely facades, though by luck, the one he points to is a genuine one. Here, the causal account would say the farmer knows this is a barn, because his belief is caused by the light coming from the real barn. But it fails to be knowledge because we don't count belief as knowledge if there is a large element of luck involved. Capturing the meaning of 'luck' here is tricky, which is why there are plenty of different attempts to explain knowledge in terms of reliability, or counterfactual tracking, or the absence of defeating conditions, etc.

  • I understand why Goldman gave up his theory. My question is that the counter-example to Causal theory of knowledge given by Goldman himself doesn't seem to satisfy the 3rd condition since it fails to satisfy that "the fact P causes S's belief". In his fake barn example, he seems to think of causal connection between the fact P and S's belief P as that between properties of the object looking like real barn and S's belief. – Darae-Uri Nov 23 '15 at 10:24
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What the third condition means is, simply (i.e. in its simplest form), that the reason I believe that X is because I saw X happen. The fact that I believe that a ball was thrown is because I saw the ball in question being thrown. My belief is caused by some (direct) event. In addition to what I believe it must also be true, metaphysically, that is the first condition.

If P is true, and you believe P - then there is a P that is true and someone believes P. But why should you believe P and what causes you to believe that P? Well, the third condition can be understood in terms of empiricism, namely that knowledge can only come from sensory experience. I believe there is a glass of water on my table because I can see that there is a glass of water on my table et cetera. There is a causal relation between a sensory experience and believing such a sensory experiences happen.

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'Facts' are mysterious, contestable entities, best avoided. Goldman in his causal theory of knowledge means (if I may rephrase) :

1) There is a state of affairs, P, at t.

2) S believes at t that there is a state of affairs, P.

3) There is an appropriate causal connection between the state of affairs, P, at t and S's belief at t that P. In other words, the state of affairs, P, at t causes (or is a major causal factor in) S's belief at t that P.

Take this example :

There is a state of affairs : the cat is sitting on the mat.

I believe that the cat is sitting on the mat.

It is the cat's sitting on the mat (that state of affairs) that causes me to believe that the cat is sitting on the mat.

'Appropriate causal connection' is a necessary qualification, since (for instance) the cat's sitting on the mat might cause the appearance of a deceptive hologram of the cat's sitting on the mat, and it is the appearance of the hologram that causes me to believe that the cat is sitting on the mat. The cat's sitting on the mat does cause me to believe that the cat is sitting on the mat but the causal connection is deviant since it operates through a false belief induced by the deceptive hologram.

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