Is “Near Certainty” Certain Enough?

Robert Greenleaf Brice in his blog:

ScreenHunter_1624 Jan. 16 19.33One topic that President Obama did not discuss during his final State of the Union address was his use of drone strikes in the so-called “War on Terror.” Perhaps this is not surprising, as the President and the CIA have permitted drone strikes to occur under an unknown set of rules, supported with an unknown set of reasons. But as someone who works in epistemology, I find the level of uncertainty here reckless, and as a citizen, I find it terrifying.

One year ago, on January 14, 2015, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed two hostages, a 73-year-old American, Warren Weinstein, and a 37-year-old Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto. While President Obama said that he grieves “when any innocent life is taken,” he also said that preliminary assessments indicate that this particular strike “was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct our counterterrorism efforts.” Included among these guidelines is a strict policy—mentioned briefly in a speech at the National Defense University and more fully articulated in the President’s Counterterrorism Policy and Procedure Directive—which requires “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” But what does it mean to be “nearly certain”? Is such a level of assessment even attainable?

Philosophers have been evaluating the requirements that must be met for a person to claim that they “know something” at least since Plato first raised the issue in his dialogue the Theaetetus. Here, knowledge was defined as “true belief combined with a logos,” or “justification. That is, knowledge is justified true belief. A person’s belief may or may not be true, but their claim of belief doesn’t require any additional proof. It is enough that they say they believe it.

More here.