Tuesday 27 March 2012

Outline of Gettier’s “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”


Gettier argues that the tripartite conception of knowledge—according to which an agent, S, counts as knowing that p just in case (i) P is true, (ii) S believes that p and (iii) S is justified in believing that p—provides us with an insufficient basis for knowledge.


STEP 1: Gettier describes himself as setting out to impugn the following three closely-related conceptual analyses of knowledge:

(a) S knows that P IFF (i) P is true,
(ii) S believes that P, and
(iii) S is justified in believing that P.

(b) S knows that P IFF (i) P is true,
(ii) S accepts P, and
(iii) S has adequate evidence for P.

(c) S knows that P IFF (i) P is true,
(ii) S is sure that P, and
(iii) S has the right to be sure that P.

Step 2: Gettier introduces two cases that he believes represent counterexamples to (a), (b), and (c).

Case I: Smith has the justified true belief that: “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket”, but his belief is based on the premise that Jones, who has ten coins in his pocket, will get the job, when in fact it is Smith who will get the job and who also (unwittingly) has ten coins in his pocket.

Case II: Smith has the justified true belief that: “Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona”, but his belief is based on the premise that the aforementioned disjunction is made true by the fact that Jones owns a ford, when in fact Jones does not own a ford but it so happens that (unbeknownst to Smith) Brown is in Barcelona.


Insofar as the subject in Gettier’s examples, Smith, has a belief that is justified, supported by adequate evidence or has the right to be sure, Case I and Case II represent counterexamples to (a), (b) and (c), respectively.


1. Do you share the intuition that the subject in Gettier's examples, Smith, does not have knowledge?

2. Does the subject in Gettier’s examples, Smith, have the right to be sure? What would Ayer say about Smith’s reasoning?

Thursday 22 March 2012

Outline of Ayer’s “Knowing as Having the Right to be Sure”


A. J. Ayer argues that the necessary and sufficient conditions for S knowing that p are:
(1) p is true.
(2) S is sure that p.
(3) S has the right to be sure that p.


STEP 1: Ayer begins by noting that it is not a sufficient condition for S to know that p that (i) S is sure that p, and (ii) p is true. The source of S’s belief that p must be generally reliable.

Example: A superstitious person who is sure that he will suffer misfortune for walking under a ladder, who happens to be right, still does not know that he will suffer misfortune. This is because his superstitious belief about ladders is not generally reliable.

Upshot: S knows that p only if her belief that p is formed via a generally reliable process (of reasoning).

STEP 2: Ayer considers whether we can arrive at the standards of knowledge by determining what would be a satisfactory answer to the question: How do you know? He opines that one’s answer to this question is only satisfactory if the source of knowledge is reliable in the particular case.

Examples: If my eyesight is bad or my memory is poor, they may fail to provide an adequate basis for knowledge, even if I turn out to be right. However, attempting to list the conditions under which perception, memory, testimony etc. are reliable may be a moribund affair.

Upshot: Determining if S’s belief is formed via a reliable process may have to be determined on a case by case basis.

STEP 3: Ayer suggests that reliability may be sufficient for knowledge even when an answer to the question, “How do you know?” is not available. The most salient question seems to be whether or not one has the right to be sure.

Example: A man who is reliable at predicting lottery results may be credited with knowledge if his run of success is sufficiently impressive.

Upshot: Whether S knows that p depends, not on her inner states or on whether she arrived at her belief by an accredited route to knowledge, but on whether S is reliable enough for us to concede that she has the right to be sure.

STEP 4: Ayer suggests that debates about whether or not it possible to know that p are actually debates about whether or not one ever has the right to be sure that p.

Example: The sceptic about knowledge is not trying to get us to revise the meaning or use of the verb “to know” but rather is denying that we have the right to be sure.

Upshot: Arriving at a definition of knowledge does not settle the question of whether it possible to have it since whether or not we have the right to be sure remains open to debate.


The central problem confronting contemporary epistemologist is not trying to figure out the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, but rather trying to determine if and when one necessary condition in particular has been met; namely, if and when we have the right to be sure.


By Ayer’s lights, who decides if S has the right to be sure that p? Do you agree? Why or why not?

Tuesday 20 March 2012

The 2012 Princeton-Rutgers Philosophy Grad Conference

Hosted on March 31 and April 01, 2012,
by Princeton and Rutgers Philosophy Departments.

Keynote Speakers:
Adam Elga
Dean Zimmermann

Saturday March 31 (Princeton)

9:30am Breakfast

10:00am Keynote by Adam Elga (Princeton), How to Make Things Riskier by Trying to Make Them Safer

11:30am Coffee Break

11:50am Uwe Peters (King’s College London): How We Don’t Know Our Own Thoughts: Self-Knowledge and Cognitive Phenomenology
Commentator: Patrick Kelly-Decker (Princeton)

1:10pm Lunch

2:10pm Ryan Perkins (Oxford), Of Grounding and Explanation
Commentator: Michaela McSweeney (Princeton)

3:30pm Coffee Break

3:50pm Avery Archer (Columbia), Competing Aims: Velleman vs. The Guise of the Good Theory of Desire
Commentator: Stephanie Leary (Rutgers)

5:10pm Reception

7:30pm Dinner (for speakers, commentators and organizers)

Sunday April 1 (New Brunswick)

11:00 Breakfast

11:30 Justin Khoo (Yale), On Stalnaker’s Unified Theory of Conditionals
Commentator: Carlotta Pavese (Rutgers)

12:40 Lunch Break

1:40 Harjit Bhogal (NYU), The Chancy Past
Commentator: Heather Demarest (Rutgers)

2:50 Break 3:00 Saif Ansari (NYU), The Threshold Account of the Badness of Death Commentator: Daniel Wodak (Princeton)

4:10 Break

4:30 Keynote by Dean Zimmermann (Rutgers): TBD

6:00 Dinner

For abstracts and copies of some of the papers, see here.

Friday 9 March 2012

Korsgaard's Kantian Moral Theory (Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin)

The following is a guest-post by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, which provides a succinct summary of Korsgaard's Kantian Moral Theory:

According to Christine Korsgaard, our first-person experience of agency reveals a requirement. We need reasons to act and to live. You are a creature that stands at a “reflective distance” from your motives. You are not simply determined by your desires to act this way or that, but you can and do choose which desires to act on.
When you deliberate, it is as if there were something over and above all your desires, something which is you, and which chooses which desire to act on. This means that the principle or law by which you determine your actions is one that you regard as expressive of yourself” (Korsgaard (1996), p. 100).
You regard your reasons as self-imposed.

In deliberation, on Korsgaard’s view, you form conceptions of your “practical identity,” and these are the source of your reasons and obligations. A conception of your practical identity is “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking” (101). When you choose to act on a given desire, you do so because this is justified by some or other of your practical identities. Typically, one has many practical identities—a philosopher, a parent, a neighbor, a citizen, a student, a teacher—and each one gives rise to reasons and obligations. “Your reasons express your identity, your nature; your obligations spring from what that identity forbids” (Ibid, p. 101).

There is one practical identity, however, that has pride of place on Korsgaard’s view. Most of your practical identities are contingent. You could have valued yourself under different descriptions (and might do so in the future). But your identity as a human being is necessary. Korsgaard argues for this claim as follows:
It is necessary to have some conception of your practical identity, for without it you cannot have reasons to act. We endorse or reject impulses by determining whether they are consistent with the ways in which we identify ourselves. Yet most of the self-conceptions which govern us are contingent. … Because these conceptions are contingent, one or another of them may be shed. … What is not contingent is that you must be governed by some conception of your practical identity. For unless you are committed to some conception of your practical identity, you will lose your grip on yourself as having any reason to do one thing rather than another—and with it, your grip on yourself as having any reason to live and act at all. But this reason for conforming to your particular practical identities is not a reason that springs from one of those particular practical identities. It is a reason that springs from your humanity itself, from your identity simply as a human being, a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and to live. And so it is a reason you have only if you treat your humanity as a practical, normative, form of identity, that is, if you value yourself as a human being. (Ibid, pp. 120-121)
The claim that your human identity is a necessary part of your self-conception is central to Korsgaard’s moral theory. Your human identity both “stands behind” your particular practical identities and is the source of your moral reasons and moral obligations. These points merit extrapolation.

The central idea of Korsgaard’s view is that you impose reasons and obligations on yourself by valuing yourself under certain descriptions. Each particular description under which you value yourself is a particular practical identity of yours—teacher, parent, citizen—and imposes a consistency constraint on candidate motivations for actions. You have reason to act on those motivations consistent with one of your practical identities and are obligated not to act on those motivations inconsistent with any of your practical identities.

But the fact that you have any practical identities at all means that you value yourself under the description of one who needs reasons to act and to live. That you have contingent practical identities entails that you have the necessary practical identity of a human being. Your human identity is explained in the same way as all other practical identities: you value yourself under a certain description. But it is special in two ways. First, your human identity is implicitly affirmed in the adoption and maintenance of all of your particular practical identities. It “stands behind” them. Your particular identities are normative only given that it is normative. The normativity of any particular practical identities is parasitic on the normativity of your human identity. And your human identity requires that you have some particular practical identity or other. Without these particular identities you would not have reasons to do particular things. Your human identity is necessary, in other words, because you do act for reasons, and this presupposes that you value the need to do so. Second, your human identity is the source of all of your specifically moral reasons and obligations. Your human identity gives you reason to value others’ humanity, and it obligates you not to flout the value of others’ humanity.

This introduces a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons and obligations. One has a moral reason to act on those motivations consistent with one’s human identity and a moral obligation not to act on those motivations inconsistent with one’s human identity. One has a non-moral reason to act on those motivations consistent with one of one’s particular practical identities and a non-moral obligation not to act on those motivations inconsistent with one of one’s particular practical identities. This makes room for conflict between obligations. For example, a non-moral obligation may conflict with a moral obligation when it would be both inconsistent with one’s human identity to act on a given desire and inconsistent with some particular practical identity not to.

The resolution of such conflicts is dictated by the structure of Korsgaard’s view. From the two special characteristics of your human identity, it follows that morality is both rationally inescapable and overriding. Morality is rationally inescapable because your human identity, the practical identity that underwrites moral reasons and moral obligations, is necessary. It is not one that can be shed. Morality is overriding because, in a case of conflict, the conflict must be resolved by shedding the source of one or the other conflicting reasons or obligations. But since the source of your moral reasons cannot be shed, it will always be the case that a conflict between a moral reason or obligation and a non-moral reason or obligation will be resolved in favor of the moral reason or obligation. Morality always wins the day because the source of its normative force is a necessary feature of human agency.

Saturday 3 March 2012

A Universe From Nothing (Lawrence Krauss)

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.”