John Candy and Philosophy: Harry Crumb Meets Edmund Gettier

2826_2_screenshotJohn Candy and Philosophy

Harry Crumb Meets Edmund Gettier

David Kyle Johnson

A friend of mine on Facebook (Chris Heimsoth) posted a request for his friends’ “favorite John Candy movie.” I immediately suggested Who’s Harry Crumb?, one of Candy’s lesser known comedies that I grew up on (because it happened to be on the same VHS tape as some other lesser known classics of late comedians, like John Ritter’s Real Men). So, I re-watched it. And it occurred to me that I had stumbled upon a fun philosophical lesson—or, at least, a fun example of a philosophical problem: The Gettier Problem.

The Gettier problem, first identified in 1963  by Edmund Gettier, is one of the most important developments in epistemology—perhaps in all of philosophy. It showed that the traditional definition of knowledge, which had been assumed by everyone since Plato, was false. Think about that: what all of philosophy is about is the acquisition of knowledge, and so a fundamental underpinning of all of philosophy is what philosophers believe knowledge to be. And philosophy is the mother of all disciplines; most of what we know, in some way, traces back to philosophy. Yet Gettier showed that what we thought knowledge was, for 2500 years, was wrong. That’s big…even bigger than John Candy!

The traditional definition of knowledge is simply “justified true belief.” This means that if one knows X then (a) one believes X, (b) X is true and (c) one has good reason to believe X is true. And this seems right. Most certainly, you can’t know something unless you believe it. And, although you can be confident that something is true (and you might even be so confident that you say that you “know” that it is true), unless it actually is true, you don’t actually know it’s true. Simply having a true belief isn’t enough either; you can’t just be guessing. To count as knowledge, a true belief has to be justified—you have to think it is true for good reasons. Indeed, all three criteria are necessary for knowledge.

But if this definition is right, all three criteria are also sufficient for knowledge. If you justifiably believe X then you know X. Gettier pointed out, however, that this is not the case. Again, while certainly having a justified true belief is necessary for knowledge, it may not be sufficient. In other words, it seems possible for one to possess everything that traditionally was thought to be sufficient for knowledge, and yet still not have it. Why? Because of something that has come to be known as “epistemic luck.” What is epistemic luck? Enter, Harry Crumb.

Harry is the most epistemically lucky guy on the planet. That is, in fact, the “gag” that makes the whole movie work. Harry is a private detective who succeeds despite his idiocy—he just keeps stumbling onto the right answer by accident, often in virtue of the fact that he is an idiot. (“He’s better than good. He’s a Crumb!”) Take the scene where Harry has snuck into the air-conditioning vent to spy on Vince Barnes and Helen Downing, who he thinks are the kidnappers. He hears what he assumes is Vince and Helen planning to take a trip to Buenos Aires after they get the ransom money, and so he forms the belief that he will find them on a plane to Buenos Aires after the money is delivered. Of course, Vince and Helen aren’t the kidnappers; in fact, neither of them is even in the room. Elliot Draisen (head of Harry’s detective agency, Crumb and Crumb), in an attempt to sexually blackmail Helen, has snuck into the apartment; while she is off in another room getting ready for an unenthusiastic sexual performance, he turns on the TV. In the movie that happens to be on, the main characters are plotting to get away to Buenos Aires—and that is what Harry is hearing.

Now, for less lucky private eyes, this would be bad—it would lead them astray. But Harry is an epistemic luck magnet. Watching this scene gives Elliot (who actually is the kidnapper) the idea to convince Helen to run away with him to Buenos Aires after he secures the ransom money. So, once he has the money, he calls Helen, tells her he has the money, and that he wants to whisk her away to Buenos Aries. Unbeknownst to her, however, Vince follows her to the airport, spoils Elliot’s plans, and boards the plane with Helen to Buenos Aires. (This was way before 9/11, back when plane tickets were as interchangeable as bus passes). Of course, this puts them exactly where Harry justifiably believed they would be, on a plane to Buenos Aires after the ransom money was delivered. (And he arrests them using his aikido black belt skills—with “the shoes to match.”)

But he didn’t know they would be there. He overheard a conversation that gave him a justified belief that they would be there—but that belief just happened to turn out to be true. He got lucky that the TV show that turned him on to Buenos Aries also turned Elliot on to Buenos Aries, and that Vince in turn spoiled Vince’s plans and took Helen away with him. In short, Harry had a justified true belief but he didn’t have knowledge. Even though the example is fictional, it shows us that the classic definition of knowledge is deficient.

So what is the full definition of knowledge? I don’t know. Gettier discovered that something else, besides justified true belief, is necessary for knowledge—but he didn’t discover what that was. This left a gap in our understanding of knowledge, and Gettier’s paper spawned a plethora of suggestions for filling that gap: non-defeatability, proper causation, reliabilism, and even virtue epistemology. I’ll leave you to do your own research—and to figure out whether Gettier directly inspired the movie. But in the meantime, I challenge you to go watch the movie (especially if you have never seen it) and see how many more Gettier cases you can spot.

Oh, and if you are looking for another fun Harry Crumb logic game: see if you can identify the most pathetic fallacy in the movie.

David Kyle Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA and is also a professor for The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses.” He has published extensively on pop culture and philosophy, including editing the book Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream.

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