In this essay, I will be discussing a debate that begins in “The First Conversation” from Jay Rosenberg's Three Conversations About Knowing, on the issue of whether knowledge requires certainty. This debate develops out of Skip and Gemma's dialogue on methodic doubt or Cartesian skepticism, which basically is the systematic doubting of all beliefs and knowledge claims in order to find those we can be certain of, and this will likely come into play when examine into further details. Skip and Gemma move from this into the discussion of whether certainty is required for knowledge. This begins with Skip stating, “You can't know something unless you're certain that it's true,” to which Gemma agrees that knowledge requires certainty (Rosenberg 11). The discussion moves to Skip asking whether Gemma is certain, and hence actually knows, what she had for breakfast, to which he qualifies that “something is certain only if there’s no possibly way to be mistaken about it” (Rosenberg 12). Gemma holds that she can be certain that she had a bagel for breakfast, as she notes that “something is certain just in case there is no actual reason to doubt it” and she holds she has no reason to doubt this (Rosenberg 12). This is where we now begin to get to the root of what is being debated between the two, how much can we actually know about the world or things that exist around us. Gemma thinks she can know all sorts of things, such as them both wearing blue shirts and that the azaleas are in bloom, as she points out “To know for certain that something is true, all one needs to do is eliminate any realistic grounds for doubting it” (Rosenberg 13). She qualifies this “Since there's no reason to suppose that either my eyesight or my memory is defective, I conclude that I not only know how things appear to me, I also typically know how things are, for instance, that the azaleas are blooming” (Rosenberg 13). Skip on the other hand holds “that you can't know anything unless you can rule out absolutely every possible way you could be mistaken about it, including dreams and far-fetched science-fiction scenarios. Consequently, the only thing you can know is how things appear to you” (Rosenberg 13). Thus far, we see that the debate has been on what qualifies as knowledge. For Skip it is complete certainty that is required to say we know something, complete meaning that any and all possibilities must be ruled out in order to say something is known, including somewhat sound scenarios like Descartes ‘dreaming’ argument or seemingly implausible notions like the ‘brain in a vat” scenario. While Gemma holds that certainty is required to say you know something, but for her, the possibilities of doubting a claim, must be realistically doubtable. This is where Justin comes into the discussion, and where the lottery example is brought into the debate by Skip. He sets up the example of a woman who buys a ticket in the state lottery with a big jackpot, and although she hopes she will win, she is well aware that the odds are “vastly against her, about 15 million to 1” (Rosenberg 15). And although it is reasonable for her to believe she will not win, she doesn’t know that she will not win. Even if the odds were greater making winning even more improbable that she will win, “it would still be true that she could win, and as long as she can’t rule out that possibility—as long as there’s any chance at all that she will win—then strictly speaking she doesn’t know that she won’t” (Rosenberg 15).
This lottery example is the core of what Skip’s point is in the first conversation, that no matter what