Thursday 26 September 2013

The Truth-Tracking Account of Knowledge: Two New Counterexamples

In recent years Nozick's notion of knowledge as tracking truth has witnessed a revival. - Horacio Arló-Costa, 2006.

[This is a draft of a paper.] [Added 3/9/15: The paper is forthcoming in Logos & Episteme.]

Here I present two counterexamples to the truth-tracking account of knowledge. As far as I have been able to tell, they are new.

The simple version of Nozick's famous (1981) truth-tracking account runs as follows:
S knows that p iff
1. p is true
2. S believes that p
3. If p weren’t true, S wouldn’t believe that p

4. If p were true, S would believe that p
Counterexample 1: I have a deep-seated, counterfactually robust delusional belief that my neighbour is a divine oracle. He is actually a very reliable and truthful tax-lawyer. There is a point about tax law he has always wanted to tell me, p. One day, he tells me that p, and I believe him, because I believe he is a divine oracle. I would never believe him if I knew he was a lawyer, being very distrustful of lawyers.

In this case, it seems to me, I do not know that p: my belief rests on a delusion, albeit a counterfactually robust one. But it is true, I believe it, and my belief tracks the truth: if it were true, I would have believed it, and if it were false, I would not have believed it. (The lawyer, being reliable and truthful about tax law, would not have told me that p if p were not the case.)

Counterexample 2: My neighbour is a tax lawyer. Here, unlike in the previous counterexample, I have no delusional belief. It is my neighbour who is the strange one: for years, he has intently nurtured an eccentric plan to get me to believe the truth about whether p, where p is a true proposition of tax law, along with five false propositions about tax law. His intention to do this is very counterfactually robust. He moves in next door and slowly wins my trust. One day, he begins to regale me with points of tax law. He asserts six propositions: p and five false ones. I believe them all.

It seems to me that I do not know that p in this case either. But I believe it, it is true, and my belief tracks the truth: if p were the case, I would have believed it, and if p were not the case, I would not have believed it (remember, the tax lawyer has long been anxious that I believe the truth about whether p).

These counterexamples carry over to Nozick's more complicated method-relativized version of the account (since there is only one method in question in each case). That version runs as follows:

S knows, via method (or way of knowing) M, that p iff
1. p is true
2. S believes, via method M, that p
3. If p weren’t true, and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether (or not) p, then S wouldn’t believe, via M, that p
4. If p were true, and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether (or not) p, S
would believe, via M, that p.

The final account of knowing is then: 
S knows that p iff there is a method M such that (a) she knows that p via M, her belief via M that p satisfies conditions 1 – 4, and (b) all other methods via which she believes that p which do not satisfy 1 – 4 are outweighed by M.
(Formulation taken from Matthew Nudds, 'Truth Tracking' (handout).)
They also carry over to the recent account of Briggs and Nolan (2012), which replaces counterfactuals with dispositions. (Their account was designed to deal with cases where the truth-tracking account undergenerates. Here, it overgenerates.)

Furthermore, they are unaffected by a recent defence of the truth-tracking account, due to Adams and Clarke (2005), against already-known putative counterexamples; these ones seem importantly different, and nothing Adams and Clarke say carries over to them, at least in any way I have been able to discern.

Thanks to John Turri, Fred Adams and Murray Clarke for helpful correspondence.


Adams, F. & Clarke, M. (2005). Resurrecting the tracking theories. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 83 (2):207 – 221.

Briggs, R. & Nolan, D. (2012). Mad, bad and dangerous to know. Analysis. 72 (2):314-316.
Nozick, R. (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.


  1. So what if we just modify the definition by stipulating that M is somehow *reliable*, that it doesn't at any rate generate belief in falsehood as often as it generates belief in truth?

    1. Hi Saturos,

      Firstly, the fact that you're talking about modifying the account is gratifying, since that suggests you think the counterexamples are successful against their target!

      That's an interesting suggestion....

      A few worries come to mind, but the most fundamental seems to me to be something like: isn't the matter of how particular methods actually fare over the history of their use rather too accidental?

      Perhaps the proportion of truth to falsehood that a method actually generates during its life is not the way to go, but perhaps there are more promising ways to spell out what it is for a method itself to be reliable. (One possibility would be to modalize - to talk about how the method fares across possible worlds. There may be lots of weird possible worlds where the method gets used a lot despite a terrible track record, but perhaps the relevant set of worlds/scenarios can be narrowed down in some plausible way.)

      This move towards requiring the method itself to be reliable has been explored. If you're interested, I suggest you look at the SEP entry on Reliabilism: Here's a relevant passage:

      'Reliability theories of knowledge of varying stripes continue to appeal to many epistemologists, and permutations abound. The reliability theories discussed above [among these was Nozick's truth-tracking account - TH] focus on modal reliability, on getting truth or avoiding error in possible worlds with specified relations to the actual one. They also focus on local reliability, that is, truth-acquisition or error avoidance in scenarios linked to the actual scenario in question. Other reliabilisms about knowledge, by contrast, draw attention to global reliability, for example, the global reliability of the process or method that produces the target belief. The global reliability of a belief-forming process is its truth-conduciveness across all the beliefs it generates. Goldman's Epistemology and Cognition (1986) combines both local and global reliability in its account of knowledge.'

      My target in this post, then, is a form of local reliabilism - probably the best-known form. I'm content to have refuted that, for now. The modification you suggest takes us into global reliabilism. I have nothing to say about global reliabilism at the moment, but it's an interesting approach. I'd be keen to know if you have any more ideas about how to spell out reliability of method.

    2. Another source of difficulty is: how do we decide how to describe or individuate the method used in a given case? For example, in my second counterexample, is the method something like 'listening to the testimony of well-informed lawyers'? That's a pretty reliable method, with respect to knowing about the law. But if we describe it as 'Listening to your neighbour', it looks less reliable. If we describe it as 'Listening to eccentric, deceptive lawyers' it gets worse still. The latter sort of description would be fundamentally un-Nozickian (for what it's worth) since he emphasized that his conception of methods individuates them based on what they're like from inside, what they're like subjectively:

      '...any method experientially the same, the same "from the inside", will count as the same method.' - Nozick's Philosophical Explanations, p.185.

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