Definitions of Knowledge

It’s easier than you think to define knowledge. Here’s the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct Definition.

(f) “Knowingly,” “known,” or “knows” denotes actual knowledge of the fact in question. A person’s knowledge may be inferred from circumstances.

All us epistemologists can sleep easy now. (As noted in previous post, I’m all of a sudden very interested in how “knows” is actually defined at law, but I don’t think this is going to help.)

12 Replies to “Definitions of Knowledge”

  1. Brian The Model Penal Code and many state codes go out of their way to say that “knowledge” need not denote actual knowledge. I don’t have the code here in front of me, but the MPC takes the view that no one can strictly speaking know the future. So when a statute prohibits (e.g.) knowingly causing someone’s death, interpretation is required. The MPC says explicitly that when an element concerns consequences, one may know that the element obtains if one is “practically certain” that the consequence obtains. Note that in most legal contexts, knowledge means “true belief” or perhaps “true confident belief”. It never means knowledge in our sense. (The Gettier defense will get you laughed out of court: “But your honor… I admit that I was perfectly certain that the arsenic would kill her. But I have since discovered that my source for this information — “How to Poison Your Wife” was riddled with the most egregious falsehoods — dozens per page. So I when I put the arsenic in her tea, I didn’t really know that it would kill her.)

  2. Here’s some of the actual Model Penal Code that’s relavent:
    2.02(2)(b)_Knowingly_. A person acts knowingly with respect to a material element of an offence when:
    (i) if the element involves the nature of his conduct or the attendant cicumstances, he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist; and
    (ii) if the element involves a result of his conduct, he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result.

    2.02(7) says that:
    Requirement of Knowledge Satisfied by Knowledge of High Probability. When knowledge of the existence of a particular fact is an element of an offense, such knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probabiliy of its existence, unless he actually believe that it does not exist.

    Gideon is righ in his discussion above. I’d like to know what “Is aware of” means here, I guess, but certainly it’s given a pretty common-sense reading.

  3. Gideon — Surely grotesquely irrational beliefs that happen to be true wouldn’t count as knowledge even for legal purposes, would they? or beliefs based on preposterously false lemmas?

    E.g., I believe that sticking pins into this voodoo doll will kill my hated enemy Jill; as it happens, my sticking the pin into the doll activates the time bomb that unbeknownst to me was inside the doll, and hours later Jill happens to be sitting next to the doll when the bomb goes off. Or, I am a crazy person who believes that chocolate is a deadly poison, and I slip some chocolate into your coffee; unbeknownst to me, you have a fatal allergy to chocolate which causes your death. Would these defences really be laughed out of court?

  4. Ralph

    The second case is clearly a case of murder, I think — provided the defendant is not crazy enough to have an insanity defense. The first case is more problematic, but not for epistemological reasons. To prove murder the state must prove that the defendant caused the death. For this purpose the state must show first, that the defendant’s conduct was a but-for cause of the death — easy in this case — and second, that it was a ‘proximate cause’. This condition is designed to rule out extremely wild and unforeseeable causal chains when those chains are not in fact part of the actor’s plan. The doctrine here defies summary: proximate cause is never defined in statutes; the courts decide the question case by case, though in fact they are pretty generous in allowing wild causal chains as a basis for liability. In one leading case, a guy led the police on an extremely dangerous highspeed chase, during which two police helicopters colided and crashed. (People v. Acosta) He was convicted of second degree murder. Your case is probably far out enough to present a genuine issue of proximate causation. It would go to the jury.

  5. Brian,
    The definition you quote seems intended mainly to exclude either (a) constructive knowledge based on a shirked duty to investigate or (b) imputed knowledge based on what an agent knows. For a discussion of what “actual knowledge” means, see, e.g., People v. Nichols, 686 N.W.2d 502 (Mich. 2004).

    Here’s the address for Nichols:

    (I tried to put a link in, but Findlaw is said to be “questionable content.”)

    If you’re really interested in what the law says about knowledge, I’m giving a paper at the Pacific APA this Thursday evening that deals with what epistemologists can learn from the law, including the law of constructive knowledge and the law of principals and agents. Not a lot of people are in the law-to-epistemology importation business, but I’m trying to start a trend.

  6. Well, according to the Michigan court decision that Chris cites, when ‘know’ occurs in the laws of Michigan, it has its “plain and ordinary meaning”; and dictionary definitions are treated as good evidence for what this plain and ordinary meaning is (the court goes on to cite Webster’s definition of ‘know’). This surely supports my view rather than Gideon’s — that a true belief must meet at least minimal conditions of rationality and reliability to count as ‘knowledge’ for legal purposes (I am relying on the assumption that my account of the plain and ordinary meaning of ‘know’ is correct, of course!). Unfortunately, I won’t be at the APA to hear what Chris has to say about this.

  7. My APA paper doesn’t deal with mens rea for crimes, but I’m inclined to think Gettier cases—where the basis for thinking that the result would happen doesn’t fit with the way it actually does—wouldn’t count.

  8. Chris We don’t have to focus on Gettier cases. Let’s talk about unjustified true belief. Suppose a statute prohibits knowingly administering a poison or noxious substance. Suppose I confidently believe that your are profoundly allergic to chocolate — though I have no evidence at all for this belief; it’s just a hunch. I feed you some chocolate and you have a severe allergic reaction. Do you think that I’d be allowed to argue that since an unjustified belief does not amount to knowledge, I’m not guilty of poisoning under the statute? I doubt it, but I’m no expert. I’d love to know if there are cases on this question. It’s interesting that the dictionary definitions cited in the Michigan case might count this sort of unjustified certainty as ‘knowledge’. Did I ‘understand as fact or truth’ that you were allergic? Did I ‘apprehend’ it ‘clearly and with certainty’? Beats me.

  9. If Chris is here, I want to split Gideon’s question into two. Would the absence of a causal connection matter here? That is, do these two cases differ?

    A’s (true, confident) belief that p is caused by the fact that p, but by a deviant causal chain that doesn’t normally preserve truth.

    B’s (true, confident) belief that p is based on something completely different, e.g. on a misreading of a book that said q.

    If they do, it would suggest the tacit theory of knowledge in the law is a version of the causal theory of knowledge. That would also explain Gideon’s point in the first comment that the law does not presume knowledge of the future.

  10. Sorry to be slow; just got back from the Pacific. Somewhere sometime soon I’ll post a more careful reaction to Brian’s question from my session.

    I’m not sure what to say, since I haven’t thought much about mens rea requirements in criminal law. In general, we want to punish only those who have a guilty mental state—roughly, a mental state that tends to cause harm—but we also want to punish more severely those guilty mental states that actually cause harm. So I’m not really sure we should punish people whose lucky hunches cause harm. The literature on attempts considers a lot of crazy hypotheticals, but not a huge number of them actually appear in cases. I would think that we wouldn’t want to punish any successful crimes under the “knowingly” prong that would not involve a mental state at least as guilty as one sufficient for criminal liability under the rules on attempts. But maybe that’s not right.

    On Brian’s question, both of the cases seem similar to me, if we take B’s misreading to be a procedure that doesn’t normally preserve truth. The fact that a truthmaker for p starts off the chain doesn’t make a difference, I think. But I still think that some sort of reliabilism will fit with what the law uses.

    I’ll take a look at these questions at some point next week, perhaps, but here are a few links on the attempt literature for people with the relevant subscriptions:

    Enker, Mens Rea and Criminal Attempt

    Hall, Criminal Attempt—A Study of Foundations of Criminal Liabilty

    And of course

    Lewis, The Punishment That Leaves Something to Chance

  11. knowledge is to “know the ledge”
    hystorical fact is entirely conseptual.
    difine concept and you will see it is the adult imagination attempting to support a phanominon
    phinominons are the experience of the experience
    the only truth to learning is to make mistakes
    in one plane then the next.
    as far as i am concerned laws are here to erradicate knowledge.

Comments are closed.