A Gettier Problem in the Arabian Nights

308—327 ‘Ali Shar and Zumurrud

Edmund L. Gettier III

Embedded within the story of Zumurrud (the slave girl who is appointed king) The Arabian Nights presents an important epistemological conundrum. I thought I would set it out here, so that it might serve as a lesson to all who would listen…

One of the first pieces of philosophy I ever formally studied was the Platonic Analysis of Knowledge: how do we know that we know something!? Plato, in his Theaetetus dialogue, came up with a formulation that has been generally accepted for centuries.

μετὰ λόγου ὀρθὴ δόξα

Theaetetus, 208c

This could be translated as ‘knowledge is true judgement with account’ or ‘knowledge is right opinion combined with rational explanation.’

In his dialogues, Plato does not conclude unequivocally that ‘true judgment with account’ is knowledge—in fact, he critiques the idea later in Theaetetus. But the formulation Justified True Belief still became the epistemologists favourite working definition of what it is to ‘know’ something:

  1. The ‘something’ has to be actually true;
  2. You have to believe this it is true.
  3. You have to have a justification for the belief that it is true.

However, it is possible to think of examples that fit the above criteria that nevertheless do not look like genuine knowledge. The philosopher Edmund Gettier presented two of them in his short 1963 paper ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ (Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6). In doing so, such counter-examples to the Platonic analysis of knowledge became known as ‘Gettier Problems’, despite the fact that other philosophers had previously critiqued the idea.

I fancy that Edmund Gettier’s paper would have been more entertaining if, instead of conjuring up characters called Smith and Jones, he simply quoted from The Arabian Nights. Because the story of Zumurrud is a fine example of a Gettier Problem.

As I recapped in my previous post, Zumurrud is appointed king of a city state, and she hosts a compulsory feast for the citizens. During the meal, the evil Barsum, who had previously kidnapped Zumurrud, arrives and begins eating from a bowl of rice. She recognises him, and has him executed.

At this point the other townsfolk conjecture that Barsum was punished because he ate the rice.

At the next feast, another villain, Rashid al-Din, turns up. He too eats from the bowl of rice (while the other townsfolk, paranoid after the execution of Barsum, have left it alone). Again, Zumurrud spots Rashid at the table, and has him executed too.

The townsfolk again surmise that he has been killed because he ate the rice.

Finally, Jawan the Kurd arrives at the feast. By this time, the townsfolk ‘know’ what will happen. When Jawan eats the rice, Zummurud will have him killed. And that is exactly what happens.

Once Jawan eats the rise, the citizens say they ‘know’ that Jawan is going to be hanged. They have a Justified, True Belief, because:

  1. This is true—Jawan is indeed executed
  2. They believe it to be true (indeed, they warn him)
  3. They have a justification for their belief—every time someone eats from the bowl of sweet rice, that person is hanged and flayed.

But as Gettier points out, the ‘knowledge’ here is flawed. The townsfolk have confused correlation with causation. They are unaware of Zummurud’s prior history with Barsum, Rashid and Jawan. They pass through what philosophers call a ‘false lemma’ and attribute the executions to the rice bowl. They cannot be said to have true knowledge… not least because, when ‘Ali Shar shows up, eats the rice and is not killed, their entire line of reasoning falls apart.

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