Monday 24 December 2007

Happy Holidays!

I'm off to Scotland for the Holiday season, so the Space of Reasons will be going into brief hiatus. However, I'll be back early in the new year. Our first item of business will be to finish the series on McDowell's Kant. See you then!

Monday 17 December 2007

McDowell's Kant (Part II)

In my previous post, I concluded that the question that motivates McDowell’s Kant may be put as follows:
(Q1): How are we to reconcile the Kantian claim that experience involves making judgements with the Lockean conception of experience as the means by which objects are given to us?
One straightforward response to (Q1) is to distinguish between two meanings of the word “experience” as used by Kant in the Critique. The first, which I will refer to as narrow experience (or N-experience), refers to raw “sensory impressions”. N-experience corresponds with the Lockean conception of experience. The second, which I will refer to as wide experience (or W-experience), refers to “empirical knowledge”.

On the present proposal, when Kant talks about experience involving the understanding, it is W-experience that he has in mind. Thus, on this picture, the categories only apply to experience understood in terms of empirical knowledge or W-experience. However, N-experience, which corresponds to the Lockean conception, does not involve the activity of the categories or the understanding. The upshot of this distinction is that it is only for W-experience that the understanding is required, thus avoiding the problem articulated in (Q1). I will refer to the reply to (Q1) that trades on the two meanings of experience adumbrated above as the two-tier approach.

However, many would consider two-tier approach problematic since it seems to undermine the efficacy of Kant’s argument in the Critique as a reply to Hume. Recall, according to Kant, the purpose of the Transcendental Deduction is to show that the categories are a priori conditions of the possibility of experience (See: A 84/B 116—A 95/B 129).[2] Now, according to Hume, we do not perceive objective, publicly observable states of affairs, but only subjective “impressions”. The only way to gain access to the objective world is via an inference to physical objects as the cause of our impressions. However, Hume impugns any such inference as unwarranted. Thus, we are left only with the flux of unconnected subjective experience.

Kant’s strategy in the Deduction is to argue that Hume’s view of experience is mistaken since it omits certain structural features without which we could not have the sorts of experience we unquestionable do have. Kant begins with an assumption which Hume himself accepts:
(K4): Experience is possible
He then sets out to show in the Deduction that:
(K5): If experience is possible, the categories have objective validity
If successful, Kant’s argument is supposed to establish the conclusion:
(K6): The categories have objective validity.
Given (K6), Hume is no longer entitled to his denial of the reality of causation and his sceptical argument is thwarted.

But suppose we interpret the word “experience” as it appears in the Deduction to mean “empirical knowledge”. Then we must build into (K4) everything Kant means by empirical knowledge as set forth in the Critique. Now empirical knowledge, for Kant, is knowledge of an objective world governed by causal laws. However, if we take experience as it appears in (K4) to include all of this, then Kant’s argument would beg the question against Hume. Thus, if we interpret “experience” as empirical knowledge, we would no longer be entitled to see the Deduction as a reply to Hume. The upshot of this is that if we wish to maintain that the relevant arguments in the Critique are effective vis-à-vis Hume, we must also renounce the two-tier account.

In my next post, I will look at a more sophisticated reply to (Q1) that avoids the above criticism, and which is loosely based on the reading of Kant advanced by Béatrice Longuenesse.

Monday 10 December 2007

McDowell's Kant (Part I)

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on McDowell. So for the next few posts I will be returning to this blog’s original inspiration with a series on McDowell’s Kant. In the next few posts I will be attempting to re-express the dialectic McDowell sets up in the introduction to Mind and World in Kantian terms, thereby displaying the deeply Kantian nature of McDowell’s project. I begin with Kant’s claim that “experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding” (Bxvii). Thus, we arrive at the first Kantian principle I wish to exploit in my discussion of McDowell’s Kant:
(K1): experience requires understanding
How are we to interpret the word “understanding” as used by Kant? Perhaps the closest thing to a definition can be found in A69/B94, where Kant writes: “We can reduce all acts of the understanding to judgements, so that the understanding in general can be represented as a capacity for judging.” Thus, we arrive at our second central Kantian principle:
(K2): understanding =def a capacity for judging
We can combine (K1) and (K2) to arrive at our third Kantian principle:
(K3): experience requires a capacity for judging
I take (K3) to be one of the key insights of Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy. Broadly speaking, Kant’s Copernican revolution amounts to the claim that the formal features of the empirical world (i.e., space and time and the categories) are transcendental impositions of the subject’s mind. For example, when one takes one’s experience to be of a mind-independent object, one is essentially judging that that object is located somewhere in space. Kant makes this point explicitly in the first edition of the Critique, where he posits: “experience consists of judgements”.[Kant, 1998] p. 202. fn.]

Putatively, judgement involves commitment to something being the case. Thus, to say that experience involves judgment is to say that experience involves actively taking a stand on how things are. But this seems to run counter to the conception of experience as passively registering the way things are, prior to and independent of taking a stand on whether or not things are that way. This suggests at least two ways in which experience putatively contrasts with judgement. First, experience is passive while judgement is active. Second, experience simply registers that things are a certain way, while judgement involves being committed to things being a certain way.

The forgoing considerations are meant to register what I believe to be a set of pre-theoretical intuitions regarding the nature of experience. These pre-theoretical intuitions seem aptly captured in the Lockean empiricist idea that experience is the means by which objects are given to a subject. On this picture, one may proceed to make judgments based on experience, but experience itself consists in simply registering sensory impressions. Thus, on the Lockean empiricist picture, experience does not seem to require a capacity to judge. If this is right, then both (K1) and (K3) would be false on the Lockean empricist account. If we wish to preserve the idea that experience is the means by which objects are given, within a broadly Kantian framework, then we must find some way to reconcile these two sets of intuitions. I have suggested that this is what McDowell wishes to do. This brings us the first formulation of the question that motivates McDowell’s Kant:
(Q1): How are we to reconcile the Kantian claim that experience involves making judgements with the Lockean conception of experience as the means by which objects are given to us?

Sunday 2 December 2007

The 2007 Dewey Lectures

...begin tomorrow! This year, Columbia University's Dewey Lectures will be delivered by Tyler Burge. Although I have only recently began examining Burge, I am already a big fan of the clarity and precision of his writing. As for his ideas, let's just say that he is one of the main philosophers I hope to spend lots of time thinking about over the course of my future philosophical career. In short, I am quite excited that he will be delivering the Dewey lectures this year.

The overall title of the talks is "Self and Self Understanding", and the schedule is as follows:

Lecture One: "Some Origins of Self"
December 3rd 2007, 6:15-8:00 PM, Davis Auditorium (Shaipro), Reception to Follow

Lecture Two: "Self and Constitutive Norms"
December 4th 2007, 6:15-8:00 PM, Davis Auditorium (Shapiro)

Lecture Three: "Self-Understanding"
December 5th 2007, 6:15-8:00 PM, Heyman Center Common Room

Thursday 29 November 2007

CFP: Aporia Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Aporia, Dartmouth College's Philosophy Journal, is organizing a conference for promising undergraduate philosophers. The core part of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Philosophy Conference will take place on Saturday April 5th with welcoming and closing events on Friday the 4th and Sunday the 6th.

The Aporia Editorial Board is now accepting submissions for presentation and question and answer sessions on Saturday. Top papers will be awarded prizes and be published in the spring issue of Aporia. They are also encouraging volunteers to provide comments on selected papers. The Dartmouth community will aid students with travel arrangements and housing when possible.

The paper submission deadline is January 1st. Students may register any time before the conference for $30. Those who register before January 1st will get $10 off the registration fee. Additionally, if five or more students from one institution register, they will all get $10 off the registration fee.

All those wishing to attend may email to receive registration information. See the conference webpage for details.

Monday 26 November 2007

Woodbridge Lecture-Links

You can find links to the full text of Robert Brandom's Woodbridge lectures here.

Also, be sure to check out Selbst's response to the lectures.

Monday 12 November 2007

Woodbridge Lectures 2007

The Columbia University Woodbriddge Lectures, featuring Robert Brandom, begin today! The title of the four day series is "Animating Ideas of Idealism". The program is as follows:

Lecture One: “Norms, Selves, and Concepts"

November 12, 6:15-8:00pm, 301 Philosophy Hall

Reception to follow

Lecture Two: “Autonomy, Community, and Freedom”

November 13, 6:15-8:00pm

Heyman Center Common Room

Lecture Three: “History, Reason, and Reality"

November 14, 2007 6:15-8:00pm

Heyman Center Common Room


November 15, 2007


716 Philosophy Hall

Monday 5 November 2007

Shopping for Apples and Appendixes

This is the final installment of my ongoing series of posts on Reid's shop argument.

In my previous post, I noted that the sceptic’s attempt to refute step (1) of the Shop Argument fails. However, the sceptic can also attempt to undermine the Shop Argument by refuting step (2); that is, the sceptic may argue that the fact that two faculties come from the same shop does not imply that they are equally trustworthy. In fact, it is quite easy to construct a counterexample to step (2) of the Shop Argument. For instance, the Apple computer company manufactures both ipods and desktop computers.

Now I am a big fan of the Apple ipod and would gladly class it among the ten greatest 21st century inventions. However, I also believe that the Apple desktop operating system remains the most non-user friendly invention to curse the planet and that their production should be immediately discontinued. (Okay, so I don't really believe this, but let us just suppose that this is true for the sake of argument.) The fact that both Apple ipods and desktops are produced by the same manufacturer, and even constructed in the same factory in Thailand, does little to ameliorate my approval of the former and disapproval of the latter. In short, the fact that both come from the same shop hardly seems like sufficient reason to assume they are of equal quality.

The same point can be made using an example from the natural world. For instance, few naturalists would disagree with the claim that the human eye is a marvel of biological engineering and that it executes its function in a superbly exquisite fashion. However, the same could hardly be said for the vermiform appendix, which fails to perform the task it was originally designed for and may even become inflamed and rupture, resulting in the painful death of its human host. Admittedly, both the eye and the appendix were produced in the same factory of nature, but while one works wonderfully the other doesn’t seem to work at all.

(NB: There has been speculation among scientists that the appendix may play some yet unknown lymphatic, exocrine, endocrine function. However, most physicians and biologists agree that it is merely a vestigial organ (a leftover from our cellulose-digesting herbivorous ancestors) that presently serves no significant function in humans.)

Consequently, the fact that two things proceed from the same shop or manufacturer does not entail that they are equally effective. A further story must be provided if we are to assume that the efficacy of the one entails the efficacy of the other. The need for Reid to provide additional grounds in support of the Shop Argument is made even more acute in light of the sui generis nature of reason vis-à-vis the senses. What makes the Apple and appendix analogies particularly striking is that the respective manufacturers (namely, the Apple computer company and Nature) produce very different products. If Apple only produced desktops and laptops, then one wouldn’t expect much of a difference in the quality of their products since both are merely types of computers. However, ipods are sufficiently different from computers to allow for a significant disparity in quality between the two.

Likewise, the fact that our rational faculties are sui generis vis-à-vis our sensory faculty increases the likelihood that there may be a difference in the reliability between the two. In brief, the sui generis nature or reason vis-à-vis the senses places a greater burden on Reid to say why he assumes that the reliability of one entails that of the other. This is not to deny that both our rational and sensory faculties are products of Nature—i.e., come from the same shop. Rather, it is to recognise that the same shop may produce two very different products of radically different quality.

Monday 22 October 2007

Shopping for an Efficient Cause (Part 2)

In my previous post, Shopping for an Efficient Cause (Part 1), I presented an argument against Reid's "same shop" argument. In this post, I will say why I think the previous argument fails and point towards a more effective strategy for combating the Shop Argument.

As we noted earlier, Reid accepts the first three premises aforementioned argument. Moreover, premise 4 follows from premises 2 and 3. However, premise 5 does not follow from premises 1 and 4. Premise 5 confuses the claim of premise 4, that sensory receptions and rational judgements have different efficient causes (a thesis Reid would accept), with the thesis that the sensory faculty and the rational faculty have different efficient causes (a thesis Reid would reject).

Although we are the efficient cause of our rational judgements, we are not (by Reid’s lights) the efficient cause of our rational faculty. What is at issue in the Shop Argument is not the acts of judging or sensing but rather the faculties involved. Reid’s point is that the faculties (not the actions they perform) both come from the same shop. Thus, although we are the efficient cause of our rational judgements, God is the efficient cause of our rational faculty. Since God is also the efficient cause of our sensory faculty, then both the rational and sensory faculties do come from the same shop after all. Consequently, the sceptic’s attempted refutation of the first step of the Shop Argument fails.

Though unsuccessful, the sceptical argument just limned is instructive since we are now closer to explaining what makes reason sui generis vis-à-vis the senses. Reason is not sui generis because the rational faculty comes from a different shop to the sensory faculty. What sets reason apart from the senses is that we are the efficient cause of our rational judgements but not of our sensory deliverances. Herein also lies the explanation for the unilateral relationship between reason and the senses I promised to provide earlier. Since I am the efficient cause of my rational deliberation, I am unconstrained in my attempts to weigh evidence and arguments. The same, however, is not true of my sensory deliverances—i.e., I am not free to decide whether or not I see a red flower before me. I am of course free to doubt the reliability of what I see. For instance, for whatever reason (i.e., I just ate a handful of ‘magic’ mushrooms) I may decide to doubt that the red flower I see before me is really there. However, my doubting the reliability of what I see does not change the fact that I am seeing it. Thus, when it comes to the content of my sensory deliverances I am (at least in this respect) completely passive.

The upshot of the above observations is as follows: We noted that it is because I am the efficient cause of my rational judgements that I am free to weigh and evaluate evidence. Without such freedom, my beliefs would amount to mere effects at the end of a long causal chain leading back to the first cause (i.e., God), and my personal rational agency would be lost. However, that which qualifies reason to engage in its evaluative capacity is the very thing that the sensory faculty lacks.

This observation also explains my earlier claim that the senses can never be used to evaluate our rational judgements. In sum, the fact that I am the efficient cause of my rational judgements allows reason, given the right circumstances, to effectively evaluate the reliability of the senses. Since we are not the efficient cause of our sensory deliverances, the sensory faculty lacks the unfettered (which is to say ‘autonomous’) evaluative capacity necessary to assess the reliability of our rational deliberations. This difference between reason and the senses gives rise to the unilateral relationship between the two that serves as the basis for the sui generis thesis. In my next post on this topic I will outline the implications of the sui generis thesis for Reid’s Shop Argument.

Monday 15 October 2007

Shopping for an Efficient Cause (Part 1)

I am continuing my series of posts on Thomas Reid. Let us recap Reid’s Shop Argument:
Reason, says the sceptic, is the only judge of truth, and you ought to throw off every opinion and every belief that is not grounded on reason. Why, sir, should I believe the faculty of reason more than that of perception?—they came both out of the same shop, and were made by the same artist; and if he puts one piece of false ware into my hands, what should hinder him from putting another?
This argument can be broken down into three steps:
1. Reason and the senses both come from the same shop. (premise)
2. That two things come from the same shop implies they are equally reliable. (premise)
3. Reason and the sense are equally reliable. (From 1 and 2)
Given that reason and the senses are equally reliable, the sceptic who privileges reason above the senses is guilty of an unwarranted epistemological prejudice.

One way in which the sceptic can resist the Shop Argument would be to reject the first step; namely, that reason and the senses come from the same shop. But how are we to understand the ‘same shop’ metaphor? Reid never explicitly spells out what he means when he says two things come from the same shop, though he does explicitly equate it with two things being “made by the same artist”. Thus, at least one way to understand the same shop metaphor is in terms of efficient causes. That is, two things are from the same shop if they share the same efficient cause (for example, God). By implication, things with different efficient causes can be described as coming from different shops, having been made by different artists.

Given the above reading of what it means for two things to come from the same shop, the sceptic prima facie seems able to construct a refutation of the first step of the Shop Argument. In Essays on the Active Powers, Reid asserts that human beings are the efficient cause of their actions. In this claim he stands in contradistinction from Malebranche (who held that only God is an efficient cause) and Hume (who denied efficient causes altogether). Reid insists that humans are the efficient cause of their actions in order to preserve, among other things, the idea of moral responsibility. While Reid does not explore the epistemic implication of this thesis I believe it is safe to assume on Reid’s behalf that we are the efficient causes of our rational judgements as well. That is, just as being responsible moral agents requires that we be free to choose among moral alternatives, being responsible epistemic agents implies that we are free to weigh and discriminate between rational arguments. In sum, we cannot be held responsible as rational agents if God (or some other external entity) is the efficient cause of our rational deliberations. I will refer to the idea that we are the efficient cause of our rational judgements as epistemic-agent causation (or EAC).

If being responsible epistemic agents entails that we are the efficient cause of our rational judgements, then the notion that the external world exerts some sort of influence on our empirical beliefs requires that we are not the efficient cause of our sensory receptions. This is not to deny the Reidian notion that our rational powers are active when we judge that we see a chair. Rather, it is to recognise that if Reid is to maintain that our beliefs have empirical content at all, he must distinguish between an active faculty of rational judgment and a passive faculty of sensory receptions. In brief, I cannot be the efficient cause of the fact that I see a red flower in front of me if I am to preserve the idea that there is an external world that gives rise to my perceptions. I will refer to the notion that we are not the efficient cause of our sensory receptions as the passive receptivity thesis (or PRT).

If we concede both EAC and PRT, then we are free to construct the following reply to the first step of the Shop Argument:
1. That two effects have different efficient causes implies they come from a different shop. (premise)
2. Human beings are the efficient cause of their rational judgements. (EAC)
3. Human beings are not the efficient cause of our sensory receptions. (PRT)
4. Sensory receptions and rational judgements have different efficient causes (From 2 and 3)
5. The sensory and rational faculties do not come from the same shop (From 1 and 4)
If the sensory and rational faculties do not come from the same shop, as the above anti-Shop Argument argues, then Reid has been denied a premise he needs for his Shop Argument to work. In my next post on this topic I will look a possible objection to 1-5.

Monday 1 October 2007

Shopping for the Sui Generis

In this post I will be further developing the reply to Reid adumbrated in my previous post; what I will refer to as the sui generis thesis. This thesis is not in tension with Reid’s observation that all the cognitive faculties are equally susceptible to “disorders of the body”. To wit, I am not claiming that reason is somehow less fallible than the faculty of sense. For example, we can imagine someone in the exact opposite position to Nash; someone whose schizophrenia utterly undermined the reliability of their rational faculty while leaving their sensory faculty perfectly intact. I do not wish to deny such a possibility.

My point is that if someone’s reason were so corrupted, there would be no way for them to use their sensory faculty to discover this fact. By contrast, in the case of someone whose sensory faculty is compromised by schizophrenia, it is nevertheless conceivable that they could discover this fact using their rational faculty (in fact, this is precisely what John Nash does).

Reid may object to my Nash counterexample by pointing out that John Nash could only use his reason to evaluate his sensory deliverances because he had prior veridical sensory experiences to use as a paradigm. But if we were to posit, let us say, a global scepticism in which the senses were always mistaken, reason would be powerless to discover this fact. The upshot of this objection is that reason could not effectively evaluate the senses independent of prior aid from the senses themselves.

However, the preceding objection merely points out that there are certain circumstances (i.e., in the case of pervasive sensory scepticism) in which reason would be unable to effectively evaluate the reliability of the senses. However, the sui generis thesis does not rely on the bold (and implausible) claim that reason is always able to effectively evaluate the reliability of the senses. Rather, it rests on the much more modest (and highly plausible) claim that it is possible, given the right circumstances, for reason to evaluate the senses. To wit, if we grant that it is never possible to use the senses to evaluate the reliability of reason, then it merely has to be the case that under some circumstances we may effectively use reason to evaluate the reliability of the senses in order to establish a unilateral relationship between the two faculties.

In sum, I am not claiming that reason is somehow free of the foibles that threaten the senses. Neither am I suggesting that reason can always be effectively used to evaluate the reliability of the senses (i.e., independent of prior aid from the senses themselves). Rather, I avow that there is a unilateral relationship between reason and the senses in that (under favourable circumstances) the former can be used to discover defects in the latter but not vice versa. I believe this unilateral relationship between reason and the senses is sufficient to establish, contra Reid, that there is something sui generis about reason vis-à-vis the senses.

In my next post on this topic, I will provide an account of what makes reason sui generis vis-à-vis the senses and outline how the sui generis thesis bears on Reid’s Shop Argument.

Monday 24 September 2007

Reid's "Same Shop" Argument (Part 2)

The central contention of the Shop Argument is that our trust in our sensory faculty (along with the other cognitive faculties) is a first principle just like our trust in reason. The reliability of both faculties is derived from the same place—i.e., how we have been designed by Nature—and neither is therefore better than the other. In a slogan, all first principles are created equal.

However, pace what Reid has to say on the matter it seems to me that there is in fact something special about the rational faculty that sets it in sharp contradistinction to the sensory faculty. Specifically, there appears to be a unilateral relationship between the two faculties such that our rational deliberations can be employed to evaluate the reliability of our sensory deliverances, but our sensory deliverances cannot be used to evaluate our rational deliberations.

This claim is illustrated by the Ron Howard film, A Beautiful Mind, which is loosely based on the life of the mathematician and winner of the 1994 Noble Prize in Economics, John Forbes Nash. In the movie, Nash suffers from an extreme form of paranoid schizophrenia that gives rise to sensory experiences (both visual and auditory) of people, places and objects that do not exist. Nash’s hallucinations are phenomenally indistinguishable from actual objects. However, he learns to use his superior gifts of logical reasoning to figure out which phenomena are real and which are not. (For example, he is able to deduce that his supposed best friend Charlie was merely a hallucination by noticing small inconsistencies in his dress and in the way he aged.)

We have no problem imagining someone using their rational faculty to evaluate the veridicality of their sensory deliverances in the manner John Nash did. However, it only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that it would be absurd to talk about someone using their sensory faculties to determine whether or not their rational judgements are veridical. Thus, while we can imagine using reason to evaluate the reliability of the senses, we cannot imagine using our senses to evaluate the reliability of reason. I believe that this unilateral relationship between reason and the senses suggests that there is something unique about the rational faculty that sets it apart from the faculty of sense. I will refer to this thesis by saying that reason is sui generis vis-à-vis the senses. In my next post on this topic, I will develop my sui generis thesis further and respond to one possible objection to my proposal.

Saturday 15 September 2007

Reid's "Same Shop" Argument (Part 1)

External-world scepticism is the thesis that we cannot know that the external world exists or that it is as we perceive it to be. The canonical summary of Reid’s reply to external-world scepticism is that found in chapter 6 of the Inquiry:
The sceptic asks me, Why do you believe in the existence of the external object which you perceive? This belief, sir, is none of my manufacture; it came from the mint of Nature; it bears her image and superscription; and, if it is not right, the fault is not mine: I even took it upon trust, and without suspicion. Reason, says the sceptic, is the only judge of truth, and you ought to throw off every opinion and every belief that is not grounded on reason. Why, sir, should I believe the faculty of reason more than that of perception?—they came both out of the same shop, and were made by the same artist; and if he puts one piece of false ware into my hands, what should hinder him from putting another?[Inquiry, VI, 20: 168-9]
Reid notes that whether we believe that the objects we perceive exist independently of our perceptions is not up to us. To wit, when it comes to the external world, to believe or not to believe is never the question. This belief is something that arises from how we have been constituted by Nature and is therefore something over which we have little or no control. At first glance, Reid seems to be suggesting that we can’t be held responsible for the fact that we believe in the external world since we simply have no choice in the matter. This interpretation is further supported by Reid’s mot: “if it [belief in external objects] is not right, the fault is not mine”. However, to say we can’t help but believe in an external world would be to offer exculpations when what the sceptic demands are justifications. That is, the fact that we cannot help but believe in the external world does not imply that we should believe in the external world.

However, I believe Reid’s argument is much more subtle and sophisticated than it may first appear. Reid is not simply saying that we cannot offer a rational justification for our belief in the external world. He is making the further point that such a belief is not the kind of thing one should offer a rational justification for. In brief, our belief that our senses provide us with reliable knowledge of the external world is a first principle—that is, a belief that arises out of how we have been constituted by Nature:
All reasoning must be from first principles; and for first principles no other reason can be given but this, that, by the constitution of our nature, we are under a necessity of assenting to them. Such principles are parts of our constitution, no less that the power of thinking: reason can neither make nor destroy them; nor can it do any thing without them. [Inquiry, VI, 7: 71]
Among the first principles is included the belief that our faculty of sense is a reliable source of knowledge. Our trust in this faculty is independent of reason, which is itself merely one among the several cognitive faculties we take to be reliable because of how we have been designed by Nature.

Reid can therefore be described as offering a poly-foundationalism. Cartesian foundationalism (or what may just as easily be called traditional foundationalism) is the idea that there is some indubitable first principle upon which all our other beliefs can be built—it is where the epistemic buck stops. However, Reid represents a poly-foundationalism in that he offers not one, but several first principles. But the most distinctive feature of Reid’s foundationalism is that he sees reason as merely one among the many sources of knowledge. Within the Cartesian rationalist system, only beliefs that bore reason’s stamp of approval were deemed acceptable. However, the Reidian system forsakes the monopoly of reason found in Cartesianism and in its place establishes an epistemological oligarchy comprised of various first principles, each equally authoritative in their own right.

The mistake the sceptic makes, then, is seeking for rational justifications in places where she has no business looking. Our belief that our sensory faculty is, all things being equal, trustworthy is a first principle that stands on its own two feet and does not need to be vindicated by reason. This is not to deny that we may sometimes be mistaken about our perceptual beliefs. However, the fallibility of the sensory faculties is shared by all other faculties, including reason:
They are all limited and imperfect…We are liable to error and wrong judgment in the use of them all; but as little in the informations of sense as in the deductions of reasoning. And the errors we fall into with regard to objects of sense are not corrected by reason, but by more accurate attention to the informations we may receive by our senses themselves.[Essays, II. 22: 252]
Reid maintains that if we reject the faculty of sense we must reject the faculty of reason as well since they both share the same foibles. In sum, since no cognitive faculty is in anyway privileged above the others, they all stand or fall together:
Thus the faculties of consciousness, of memory, of external sense, and of reason, are all equally gifts of Nature. No good reason can be assigned for receiving the testimony of one of them, which is not of equal force with regard to the others.[Essays, VI. 4: 463]

Relevant Reading:
De Rose, Keith. (1989). ‘Reid's Anti-Sensationalism and His Realism’, Philosophical Review. 98, 313-348.

Greco, J. (2004). ‘Reid’s Reply to the Skeptic’, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. T. Cuneo and R. Van Wouldenberg (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reid, T. (1969). Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, (ed.) Baruch A. Brody (ed.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reid, T. (1990). Practical Ethics, (ed.) Knud Haakonssen, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Reid, T. (1997). An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, (ed.) Derek R. Brookes, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. (Inquiry)

Reid, T. (2002). Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, (ed.) Derek Brookes, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. (Essays) Yaffe, G. (2004). Manifest Activity: Thomas Reid’s Theory of Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thursday 13 September 2007

The Nagel Lectures

Columbia University's Philosophy department will be hosting its annual Nagel Lectures on Thursday, September 27th. The first lecture, which will be delivered by Anita Feferman, is entitled "Uncovering Tarski", and begins at 4:00pm in room 716, Philosophy Hall. The second lecture, entitled "Gödel, Nagel, Minds and Machines", begins at 6:15pm in the same venue and will be delivered by Solomon Feferman (winner of the Rolf Schock prize in logic and philosophy). There will be a short reception between the two sessions.

Monday 10 September 2007

An Argument for Atheism (Martin)

The following is the second installment of a two-part cross-post written by Martin Cooke from Enigmania:

I shall, in this post, take atheism to be the belief that there is (probably) no God, where God will be defined to be an omniscient and omnipotent being that is also totally good (much as Richard defines Him), and I shall argue (as I did briefly in a comment on this post of Richard's) that such a God is (probably) impossible. There are of course other definitions, e.g. atheism is sometimes regarded as the absence of a belief in God, so that it would include both atheism (as defined above) and agnosticism (the absence of a belief either way, which includes the belief that knowledge either way is impossible, which is another definition of agnosticism), and God is sometimes defined to be the Creator of this Universe.

Such a Creator would know (more or less) all that could be known about this Universe, just as an author would know all about her story, or a painter all about his painting; and similarly, such a Creator would have (more or less) complete power over this Universe. So, it may have been that God was originally defined to be the Creator, and that it was then deduced that such a God would be all knowing and all powerful in that sense (which is, after all, the sense that concerns us, as beings within this Universe), and that such properties only then became definitive, e.g. through their apparent utility—certainly many arguments (as in that linked post) do begin by defining God to be infinitely perfect (rather than the Creator). So, I’ll now argue that such a God, which I’ll refer to as ‘He,’ is (probably) impossible.

My argument is primarily concerned with omniscience, with God knowing absolutely everything. Not only does He know everything about His Creation (as any Creator would), He also knows whether or not there are, for example, other Gods. If there are any, He knows everything that they know, including precisely what it is like to be them (which might imply that there is only one God), and if not then He knows how he knows that there are not. But it is quite inconceivable how he could know that there are not any other Gods (either at all, or beyond those that He does know all about). The problem is not so much with the “omni,” but with the “science.” It would of course not follow, from some conjectured infinitude having inconceivable properties, that it did not exist; but the concept of knowledge is the concept of true beliefs that are in some way tied down to (or that in some reliable way arise from) the things known about, and we are here considering one being’s knowledge of the non-existence of other similar beings, where there might well be absolutely no connection between them.

Ironically this problem (for this fairly common kind of theism) resembles a fairly common reply to atheists, who are told that while they might obtain a justified belief that there was a God by His revealing Himself to them, they could hardly obtain scientific knowledge that there was not a God (not even in Heaven) just by failing to have had such a revelation. Imagine (for an analogy) completely separate spacetimes with absolutely no causal connections between them—how could any being, in one of them, know anything about what was going on in the others, or even whether or not there were any others? Similarly, even were there only one spacetime, and a being within it had that true belief, how could that belief be justified?

By hypothesis God would know that He knew everything, and He would also know how he knew that there were no other Gods (beyond any He might know about more directly, via informative connections), but how could that be? Could He have deduced that fact from His knowledge of His own omniscience? But how could He not then know that such circular justification would not make His belief (that there were no other Gods) knowledge? It is all very well for us to define God to be omniscient, because we can then ask whether or not God exists, but God could hardly do that! In short, the concept of omniscience (in this strict, absolute sense) seems to be self-contradictory. It seems to be, but it may not be, but as there seems to be little logical room for manoeuvre, I regard that conclusion as at least very likely (and not necessarily inconvenient for the theist, as I mentioned here).

Regarding omnipotence, if God has the power to do absolutely anything, then could He make 2 plus 2 equal 5? If not then it again seems that we cannot interpret His definition in such a strict way after all. And of course, God would not get any less implausible were combinations considered, such as omniscience and (via free will) responsibility, together with omnipotence and (via this Universe existing, whether or not God created it) evil. After all, if God knows what we are going to do, and if He could have stopped us but did not, then, given that He is good, it seems that whatever we do must also be good, or at least (since we are only human) good enough (in what might have to be the best of all possible worlds), which seems unlikely.

Friday 7 September 2007

New Philosophy of Mind Blogs

I am pleased to announce that both Tim Crane and Colin McGinn have joined the philosophy blogging world. Go have a peek!

Monday 3 September 2007

An Argument for Agnosticism (Martin)

The following is a cross-post written by Martin Cooke from Enigmania:

Either the world was deliberately created, so that some sort of theism is true, or else atheism is true, but both options involve us in such mysteries (as the two below) that to choose either, given only such evidence as is publicly available (and so worthy of being called ‘evidence’), would be to favour irrationally one mystery over another, whence agnosticism (i.e. the absence of a belief either way) is to be preferred.

The obvious problem with theism is that, when we look at the world we see only mundane things, no gods and not even angels or fairies. We don’t even see any clear evidence that the world was deliberately created, or is being guided from above, or even watched over. But more importantly our language is so orientated towards the world that we are unable even to form a clear idea of what its creator might be like.

Conversely we know a lot about the world. We even know that our brains are composed of many brain cells, each of which is composed of a lot of organic molecules, many of them highly complicated but all of them composed of atoms. Atoms themselves have a very tidy structure (as shown, for example, by the Periodic table of the elements), and they are the building blocks of, not just brain cells but rodents and radishes, rocks and raindrops, robots and radios.

But it is precisely because we know so much about how atoms behave that it is so troubling that (although we can see how information-processing mechanisms can be composed of them) we are unable to make much sense of the idea of their giving rise to such conscious individuals as we know ourselves to be. We might deduce that there must be more to them than we know at present, but it is quite mysterious even what sort of stuff there would need to be (or even its whereabouts, given how much we already know about atoms).

Perhaps the way that organisms have atoms is akin to how they have skeletons—if the X-ray photograph of an organism shows only its skeleton (which could account for all its scientific properties, had few enough of its properties been observed and measured) that does not mean that there is not more to the organism. But again it is difficult (and not so much because of the complexity as the conceptual obscurity) to make much sense of that idea, not without introducing some sort of non-physical substance (akin to the flesh on the skeleton).

Still, prima facie we are non-physical individuals, and the mysteries of how and why such mental beings interact with physical structures would seem less of a problem (less of an unlikely coincidence) were the world created because then both the mental and the physical would have had a common origin in a deliberate creation (cf. inventing trains and tracks together). So were we to reject the obscure possibility of atoms giving rise (via natural processes) to conscious beings like ourselves, then we might conclude that the physical world is (probably) a deliberate creation.

But of course, were we to reject the possibility of a creator for its obscurity, we could instead conclude that there must be some way in which atoms do give rise to us. After all, the considerable evidence that the world is Newtonian turned out to only be evidence that it is approximately Newtonian, and so it is not unreasonable to suppose that atoms might also be only approximately how we think of them, deviating from our simplest picture of them in some similarly unforeseeable way.

But similarly, neither would it be unreasonable to suppose that we might have been created (e.g. as below). So, it being completely obscure (at present) how either theism or atheism could be consistent with what we know of the world, it is surely impossible to tell, from the publicly available evidence, which one is most likely. And so although (for various reasons) each of us is actually quite likely to presume one of them, the more objectively rational option is surely agnosticism.

I shall end with an example of one such reason (evolution) for preferring one of those two options (atheism) that seems to be fairly common amongst philosophers (for fairly obvious reasons, e.g. see ScienceBlogs). (This example was suggested by Aaron's comment on the recent post that inspired this post.) Suppose that modern accounts of the evolution of life are (at least approximately) true (as a lot of quite varied evidence indicates). Even so, only such ideas of creation as a too-literal reading of Genesis would consequently be false (and even then, only correspondingly approximately). (In this post I considered one possible motive for creating a world via evolutionary processes, but of course any actual motive is likely to lie well beyond our imaginations.)

Similarly a simplistic, billiard-ball style of materialism is rendered improbable by our self-awareness, but I’m here considering theism vs. atheism, not literalism vs. materialism. It was once said (fallaciously) that incremental evolution could never explain our eyes, but we now have mathematical models of how eyes might arise incrementally. Nonetheless the likelihood of our being unable to provide any such explanation would surely (had it existed) have undermined this reason for preferring atheism. And so we return to the lack of any indication whatsoever of how an evolutionary explanation of consciousnesses such as ours might go.

Thursday 23 August 2007

Goodbye Scotland...Hello New York!

I’ve finally submitted my M.Phil dissertation (‘viva’ pending), which brings my research career at the University of St Andrews to a close. I begin my Ph.D at Columbia in less than two weeks. This entry represents my very first post from the American continent. The geographical transition will also mark a transition in the content of this weblog. From now on, The Space of Reasons will be a full-fledged LEMMing, taking in a wider range of philosophical topics and issues. (The most recent posts on Naturalised Epistemology represented my initial steps in this direction.) However, McDowell’s theory of knowledge will continue to figure prominently here.

And while we’re on the topic of McDowell, I am pleased to announce the appearance of a brand new McDowell blog, spontaneity&receptivity. This new philosophy weblog (or ‘philog’) focuses on McDowell’s philosophy of language and mind, particularly as set forth in his book Mind and World. (This fills in the gaps left by my own philog which has been limited primarily to epistemology.) Thus far, I have found the discussions both interesting and insightful. Welcome to the McDowell-blog family James!

Monday 20 August 2007

Naturalising Epistemology: Quine vs. Crumley (Part 2)

In my previous post I outlined two objections presented by Jack Crumley to Quinean naturalised epistemology. While I’m not altogether unsympathetic to Crumley’s process, I believe that as they stand, Crumley’s objections require further defence.

Crumley claims that nature may favour belief-forming mechanism that form false beliefs. However, Crumley seems to be overstating the case. (Here, Quine’s frequent admonition seems quite apt: let's not overreact.) The survival value of being overly cautious is limited to certain special situations and circumstances. However, a general paranoia is as equally destructive as the alternative. For example, the individual that runs every time the bush rustles because she assumes it is a lion will prove less adaptively fit than the one who learns to tell the difference between the bush rustle caused by a lion (potential predator) and a rabbit (potential prey). While being overly cautious may prove evolutionary valuable in specific circumstances, it is detrimental if had as a general practice.

Additionally, Pascal Boyer (2001) notes that our tendency to err on side of caution (what he refers to as our over-active agency detection system) is balanced by our ability to quickly revise our beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. That is, evolution has endowed us with various mechanisms of self-correction that pre-empts our occasional over cautiousness developing into a detrimental general paranoia.

Moreover, one of the reasons for engaging in the study of evolutionary epistemology is to uncover what natural biases nature has built into our belief forming mechanisms so that we may better take these biases into account. In this regard, the practice of evolutionary epistemology is itself simply an expression of one of the many truth-conducive mechanisms nature has given us.

Crumley's second objection is that many of our scientific beliefs seem to lack survival value. However, what the evolutionary epistemologist claims is not that our beliefs, but rather that our belief forming mechanisms have been selected by evolution because of their survival value. This posit does not imply that all of the applications of our belief forming mechanism must in some way impact on survival. Rather, it simply means that the story behind why a certain cognitive mechanism first came to be generally employed is because of its survival value.

For example, no one would doubt that from an evolutionary standpoint the primary purpose of sex is reproduction. However, the evolutionary account of the origins of sexual behaviour has not prevented it from extending to a much broader array of contexts. In fact, as many college students can testify, reproduction is often the least desirable outcome as far as our sexual practices are concerned.

Likewise, the original contexts and reasons why our epistemic practices emerged place no set limits on their expression or application. To put the matter somewhat poetically, the very cognitive mechanisms that once enabled us to tell the difference between a lion or rabbit in the bushes may also enable us to decipher the chemical makeup of a distant star.

Boyer, Pascal, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Crumley, Jack, An Introduction to Epistemology. California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999.

Quine, W.V.O., "Epistemology Naturalized." Naturalizing Epistemology. Edited by Hilary Kornblith. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Monday 30 July 2007

Naturalising Epistemology: Quine vs. Crumley

Thus far we have established that naturalised epistemology is no longer concerned with providing some justification for science that is prior to science. However, defenders of traditional epistemology point out that this still leaves room for sceptical worries that find their starting place within science. Science, remember, informs us that our theoretical conception of the world is underdetermined by our sensory evidence. Thus, even if we give up first philosophy, Quine still needs to account for the gap between "meagre" input and "torrential" output. Of course Quine can easily account for such a gap in causal terms. That is, science can, at least in principle, provide a complete causal account describing how sensory stimulation is eventually translated into theoretical posits. However, it is not the causal gap between evidence and theory that bothers defenders of traditional epistemology, but rather the inferential gap. In other words, the problem of the underdetermination of theory by evidence amounts to a normative question: what justifies the inferential leap from observation to theory?

There are two possible replies that Quine may wish to advance in response to the inferential gap question. He may simply, and stubbornly, maintain that such questions are no longer relevant once we dispense with first philosophy. However, it is not immediately clear that giving up the quest for a justification of science means that all normative questions regarding inferences are therefore irrelevant. Quine's second option would be to provide a normative description of what justifies our theoretical inferences, but from a naturalistic perspective.

Which of these options Quine himself would opt for is not clear since on separate occasions he seems to make statements suggestive of both possible replies. However, in what follows I will take the second line of response (if only because doing so would make for a much more interesting post). To wit, I will argue in favour of a normative, and yet naturalistic, description of our inferences from evidence to theory. The starting point for just such a normative description is alluded to by Quine himself: "Again there is the area [called] evolutionary epistemology [that] shows how some structural traits of perception could have been predicted from survival value."[Quine (1994), 30]

Defenders of traditional epistemology emphasise that epistemology is not only concerned with which belief forming mechanisms are truth-conducive, but also with why they are truth-conducive. Hence, an adequate naturalistic account of knowledge should provide no less. The naturalistic response to this challenge is an evolutionary epistemology that explains justified belief in terms of natural selection. On this view, nature has endowed us with cognitive mechanisms and epistemic practices that are biased towards truth. The underlying assumption here is that natural selection isolates and preserves those belief-forming mechanisms that are truth-conducive. Creatures with belief forming mechanisms that are generally not truth-conducive fair very poorly in the evolutionary struggle and eventually go extinct. If nature has constructed us so that we are biased towards truth, then the best means at arriving at truth is to use the very cognitive mechanisms nature has given us. Thus, evolutionary epistemology's investigation into our use of induction and our reliance on our perceptual mechanisms turns out to be not merely a descriptive but also a normative endeavour. In brief, had our belief forming mechanisms not been generally truth-conducive (as the sceptic fears) we would not even be around to talk about them.

Jack Crumley raises two objections to the above evolutionary account of epistemic justification. Crumley notes that the evolutionary argument depends on the assumption that natural selection favours mechanisms that are generally truth conducive. However, he points out that false beliefs may often have survival value. For instance, erring on the side of caution may often prove be of greater survival value than an even-handed assessment. To wit, the individual that ran away every time the bush rustled because she assumed that there was a lion in the bushes may fair better than her pathetic, yet epistemically more praiseworthy, companion who sticks around to investigate. Secondly, Crumley notes that it is questionable that many of our scientific beliefs contribute to our survival. Thus, he remarks poignantly: "Nature seems, at best, indifferent to whether we truly believe that quarks have flavours."[Crumley (1999), 203]

In my next post on this topic I will respond to Crumley’s objections.

Jack Crumley, An Introduction to Epistemology. (California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999).

Monday 23 July 2007

Naturalised Epistemology: Quine vs Stroud (Part 2)

In his notoriously laconic reply to Stroud, Quine treats Stroud's dilemma as merely an instantiation of the sceptical worry that reality might be very different from how we perceive it to be. If the first horn of the dilemma, that science is wrong, obtains then it naturally follows that reality is not as we perceive it to be. If the second horn of the dilemma, that all our theories are merely unverifiable posits, obtains then there is no way for us to rule out the possibility that reality is not as we perceive it to be. Both horns of Stroud's dilemma, then, amount to the sceptical worry. I take this conclusion to be uncontroversial, and I will therefore treat a successful reply to the sceptical worry as a successful reply to Stroud's dilemma.

Quine maintains that the meaning of words is determined by their usage within a linguistic community. When we say: "there is a spoon," we are simply referring to a certain set of sensory stimulation’s to which our linguistic community has inter-subjectively applied the label "spoon." Ontological worries regarding the nature of what lies behind sensory stimulation is irrelevant to the relationship between language and these sensory stimulations. In short, what science regards as a "real" spoon is just that inter-subjective set of sensory stimuli:
What then does our overall scientific theory really claim regarding the world? Only that it is somehow so structured as to assure the sequences of stimulations that our theory gives us to expect. More concrete demands are indifferent to our scientific theory itself. (Quine [1981], p. 474).
This does not of course mean that our scientific theories can never be mistaken. However, they will be mistaken precisely in terms of a failure to accurately predict observation. If, however, a scientific theory were to account for all possible observation, in what sense could that theory be described as mistaken? Once this question is viewed within a naturalistic framework, Quine insists that the answer is none. The sceptical worry that reality may be radically different from what we take it to be rests on the assumption that there is some description of objects prior to the scientific description by which the scientific description may be evaluated. However, once we have located epistemology within science such worries become obsolete. If sceptical possibilities do not affect science's ability to predict observation then they are irrelevant. If, on the other hand, a sceptical worry does impact on science's predictive power then that worry does fall under the umbrella of science and its dissolution becomes the task of science.

For a detailed and extended discussion of Quinean naturalised epistemology see Ben Bayer's paper, Varieties of Naturalized Epistemology: Criticism and Alternatives.

Quine, W.V.O., "Reply to Stroud." Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. VI The Foundations ofAnalytic Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. French et al. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press,1981.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Back in Scotland

I’m finally back in Scotland, after my all too brief Caribbean adventure, and will be submitting my M.Phil dissertation in less than a month. Very exciting times. This is also a sad time since I will soon be saying goodbye to St Andrews. I begin my PhD at Columbia University in September, which I am eagerly looking forward to. And while we’re on the topic of grad school, there is a great discussion over at Philosophy, et cetera on Getting the Most out of Grad School. The post is actually from last month, but it is definitely worth reading (especially for those who will be beginning their graduate studies this Fall).

Friday 13 July 2007

Naturalised Epistemology: Quine vs. Stroud (Part 1)

The central difference between Quinean naturalised epistemology and traditional epistemology is located in Quine's rejection of first philosophy. Traditional epistemology is involved in the following two-fold task. First, traditional epistemology seeks to identify the regulating criterion for knowledge. Second, it tries to determine, based on this criterion, whether or not we truly have knowledge. This two-fold task is referred to as first philosophy because it is analytically prior to all of our sensory or empirical knowledge. In brief, traditional epistemology attempts to find the epistemic foundation and justification for all scientific knowledge.

Quine believes that traditional epistemology's attempt to find a justification for knowledge outside of or prior to science has either failed or is moribund. Our only remaining hope of finding a validation for science is within science itself. Hence, Quine's now famous (or is that infamous?) declaration:
"Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. " (Quine [1994] p. 25).
By Quine’s lights, epistemology is like the mariner in Neurath's parable that has to rebuild his ship as he is sailing on it. We can no more attain a pre-theoretical understanding of science than we can get off a ship while already out at sea.

Defenders of the traditional view tend to object to Quine's naturalised epistemology on two grounds: (1) because it is circular and therefore incoherent and (2) because it lacks the normativity central to epistemology. Stroud's "Reply to Quine" draws on both of these objections. Like traditional epistemology, naturalised epistemology seeks to uncover the relationship between observation and theory. This means providing an account of the disparity between the "meagre" sensory input and the "torrential" theoretical output. This difference between meagre input and torrential output suggests that most of our theoretical knowledge is posited rather than given. In normal scientific investigation we are able to compare a subject's output to the actual world and thereby ascertain how accurately it represents the world.

However, Stroud notes that when we attempt to engage in such a scientific analysis reflexively we encounter the following two-horned dilemma. First, if we assume the accuracy of the scientific picture of knowledge, we find ourselves confronted with the conclusion that all our theories are merely posits. This would not be as bad as it sounds if it we were somehow possible to verify whether our theories accurately represent the world or not. However, when we realise that all our means of evaluating our theories are themselves merely theoretical constructions, or so the argument goes, we find ourselves in a vicious circle. The second horn of the dilemma would be to assume that our scientific picture is wrong, in which case we would simply be confirming the sceptic’s worse fears. Either horn of the dilemma appears to present Quine with an unfavourable outcome.

In my next post on this topic I will look at Quine’s reply to Stroud.

For further reading on this debate, see:

Quine, W.V.O., "Epistemology Naturalized." Naturalizing Epistemology. Edited by Hilary Kornblith. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Quine, W.V.O., "Reply to Stroud." Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. VI The Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. French et al. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press, 1981.

Quine, W.V.O., The Roots of Reference. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1973.

Stroud, Barry, "The Significance of Naturalized Epistemology." Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. VI The Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. French et al. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press, 1981.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

St Thomas or Bust

I’m heading off to St Thomas to recharge my Caribbean batteries. A son of the sun like myself can spend only so much time in grey Scotland without going completely insane. Since I probably won’t have internet access for the duration of my trip my blog will be going on a brief hiatus. However, I will be back in about two weeks time.

Sam, from over at Philosophy Hurts Your Head, has paid me the compliment of including the Space of Reasons on his top 5 open-minded bloggers list. I feel honoured! I will be posting my list of 5 when I get back.

Until then…

Monday 25 June 2007

The St Andrews Dolphins

The Conditional Probability Solution to the Swamping Problem (Carter)

Note: The following is a cross-post written by J. Adam Carter, from over at Virtue Epistemology.

Goldman and Olsson (forthcoming) in “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge” offer several insightful responses to the ‘swamping problem.’ I think that the ‘conditional probability’ solution that they offer is the most interesting; evaluating this solution requires attention to some important, and sometimes unnoticed, aspects of the problem.

The swamping problem has been articulated a variety of ways, and unfortunately, different versions of the problem have been referred to under the same label.

Here’s a general and (hopefully) uncontroversial formulation of the problem, as presented by Goldman and Olsson:

Template Swamping Argument

(S1) Knowledge equals reliably produced true belief (simple reliabilism)
(S2) If a given belief is true, its value will not be raised by the fact that it was reliably produced.
(S3) Hence: knowledge is no more valuable than unreliably produced true belief. (reductio)

(S2) of the argument expresses what has been called the ‘swamping premise.’ Of course, (S3) is counterintuitive, and so the idea is to either reject the swamping premise, or to reject simple reliabilism (S1).

The swamping premise expresses a conditional claim. Those who want to save reliabilism are burdened, as it were, to show how a reliably produced true belief is more valuable than an unreliably produced true belief.

Kvanvig (2003) throws down the gauntlet at this point and suggests that we can, in principle, rule out a rejection of (S2).

His suggestion is that reliability is a valuable property for a belief to have insofar as it is valuable for a belief to be ‘objectively likely to be true.’ He argues that for a reliabilist to suppose that reliability is a valuable property for a belief to have for reasons other than its being likely to be true (i.e. say, because the “normative dimension that accompanies the right kind of objective likelihood of truth introduces a new valuational element distinct from the value of objective likelihood” (Kvanvig 2003b, p. 51) would seem magical, he says, “like pulling a rabbit from a hat” (51).

He argues further that being ‘objectively likely to be true’ isn’t a property that, when added to a true belief, increases its value, and thus, (S2) is true.

Goldman and Olsson take issue with Kvanvig’s reasoning here for a couple of reasons. First is what I’ll call the ‘entailment’ objection. Goldman and Olsson think that Kvanvig overlooks the fact that although being reliabily formed entails being likely to be true, being likely to be true doesn’t entail being reliably formed. They say:

John may have acquired his belief that he will contract lung cancer from reading tea leaves, an unrealiable process, and yet if John is a heavy smoker, his belief may well be likely to be true” (Goldman and Olsson, p. 8)

Goldman and Olsson overstate what they take to be the crime here. This example would damage Kvanvig’s view only if Kvanvig actually defended that the entailment goes both ways, that is, that (as Goldman and Olsson attribute to him) “Being produced by a process that normally produces true belief just means being likely to be true” (Goldman and Olsson 8). Kvanvig says nothing to pin him to such a biconditional. His view is, rather, that the extent to which being produced by a reliable process is a valuable property for a belief to have is exhausted by the extent to which being likely to be true is a valuable property for a belief to have. And so, an objection to Kvanvig’s claim here should take the form, rather, of pointing out some feature of being produced by a reliable belief forming process that is valuable for a belief to have in a way that is not reducible to the value that a belief would have qua being objectively likely to be true.

This is, indeed, the route they go in their ‘conditional probability’ repsonse. They argue that being produced by a reliable belief forming process can be valuable for a belief in a way that merely being objectively likely to be true isn’t valuable, and further, that its value is such that when combined with a true belief, yields a collectively more valuable whole. They write:
“Knowing that p is more valuable than truly believing that p. What is this extra valuable property that distinguishes knowledge from true belief? It is the property of making it likely that one’s future beliefs of a similar kind will also be true. More precisely, under reliabilism, the probability of having more true belief (of a similar kind) in the future is greater conditional on S’s knowing that p than conditional on S’s merely truly believing that p. (p. 16)
This claim, if correct, would amount to a counterexample to the swamping premise, which recall, says:

(S2) If a given belief is true, its value will not be raised by the fact that it was reliably produced.

Goldman and Olsson, thus, think that a true belief will be more valuable if produced by a reliable process because, as such, it contributes to the diachronic goal of having more true beliefs (of a similar kind) in the future. I want to turn to an example that helps illustrate their idea; it is the espresso example Zagzebski uses to support the swamping premise. Goldman and Olsson write:
If a good cup of espresso is produced by a reliable espresso machine, and this machine remains at one’s disposal, then the probability that one’s next cup of espresso will be good is greater than the probability that the next cup of espresso will be good given that the first good cup was just luckily produced by an unrealiable machine. If a reliable coffee machine produces good espresso for you today, and it remains at your disposal, it can normally produce a good espresso for you tomorrow. The reliable production of one good cup of espresso may or may not stand in the singular-causation relation to any subsequent good cup of espresso. But the reliable production of a good cup of espresso does raise or enhance the probability of a subsequent good cup of espresso. This probability enhancement is a valuable property to have (p. 16)
This attempted assault on the espresso analogy scores a victory at the expense of betraying a deeper, and perhaps untractable, defect in the ‘conditional probability’ response. The victory, in short, is that it gives an explanation for why two equally good cups of espresso might be such that one is more valuable than the other; this explanation rejects an assumption that Zagzebski seemed to make in the analogy, which is that ‘taste is all that matters’ for espresso (as she thought, ‘being true’ is what matters for a belief).

This sword cuts two ways, though. Consider that True Temp is a reliable belief former, and so the conditional probability of his future beliefs (of a similar kind) being true is greater given that they are formed from a reliable process (i.e. a reliable thermometer, perhaps purchased at the same store as you’d find a reliable espresso maker), than it would be had his beliefs been merely true, but unreliably produced. But, we should object, True Temp is not a knower, and so whatever makes his state valuable should not be as valuable as it would be if he were a knower. However, the conditional probability view has no way to explain this. In sum, the conditional probability response to the swamping argument works only if True Temp knows. But he doesn’t. So it doesn’t work. (Or so my objection goes…)

Here’s a second objection:

Suppose I have cancer and am in the hospital, and my 12 year old boy (I don’t really have one) is playing baseball in the little league world series. He has been practicing every day from sun up till sun down in hopes of making it to the world series and hitting a homerun. It is the ninth inning of the game, and my son (little Johnny) is up to bat. I am watching the television screen with intensity as he shouts (this one is for you, Dad!). The pitch is on the way, and then……

(Option A): The television suddenly blacks out. Knowing I might die any minute, I decide that Johnny has practiced hard and probably hit a home run, and so I believe that he did, although sadly, I realize I will never know. (And then I die, my last thoughts being ones of curiosity).

(Option B): The television does not black out, and I get to see Johnny hit the home run on TV. In fact, (for even more evidence) my hospital is close to the baseball field, and the ball comes through the window and lands on my bed. I know that Johnny hit the home run, and then I die (in peace).

On the conditional probability view, my true belief in Option B (in which I form my belief from reliable processes, i.e. watching a previously non-deceptive TV broadcast, which doesn’t display phantom images) is more valuable state than my true belief in Option A in so far as the true belief in B was produced by a reliable process, and as such, raises the probability that future beliefs (of a similar kind) will be true. However, as I know I am dying, I have no interest in future beliefs, as I am aware I am in my last throes. (And, in fact, I don’t form any more future beliefs of a similar kind). The conditional probability approach, then, seems committed to claiming that my true belief in B is no more valuable than my true belief in A. But surely that’s not true!

Friday 22 June 2007

St Andrews Graduation 2007

The Procession

The Convocation

The Garden Party