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?


Taylor ffitch said...

In response to the discussion question, Ayer seems to imply that whether or not S has the right to be sure of P is determined by a sort of amorphous group of others--essentially whoever has the ability to verify whether S's knowledge is reliable. This seems problematic to me only in a situation in which determining reliability is more complex than waiting for chickens to grow up or for the winning lottery numbers to come out. It's possible that this isn't an issue we're concerned with at this level of the discussion, but Ayer's formula for determining whether someone has knowledge fails when there is no simple way to assess reliability. For (a kind of odd) example, if someone were to say that he knew that Schroedinger's cat was dead, how could we determine if he has real knowledge?

Benjamin Altshuler said...

In a social world, it is not enough that S know that she has the right to be sure that p. The peers (and likely superiors) of S must recognize her reliability. Whether or not S trusts herself, if she is always right, she will be recognized as reliable. On the other hand, one who demonstrates unreliability will struggle to regain recognition, even if he knows he has the right to be sure of some p (see the Boy who cried Wolf). In this socially determined reliability framework, assertions that are not readily verifiable provide a problem (I agree with Taylor). This gray area requires suspension of disbelief or holding on to unverifiable truths.

Na'Quelle Davis said...

According to Ayer's phrasing, or at least what I understand of it, the "right to be sure" must come from an outside source such as other people or simply popular opinion. Someone who believes they are right will almost always give themselves the "right to be sure" whether or not they are actually right. Therefore, the right to be sure must come from outside the person, or at least come through an accredited means. As we said in class about the Boy Who Cried Wolf example, the boy may have the right to be sure that there is a wolf because he sees one with his eyes and because this form of sensory perception is widely accepted as a valid means of determining whether someone has the right to be sure. However, it is unclear from Ayer's writings what exactly "having the right to be sure" actually means. And because we cannot really say what it means objectively, it is hard to determine who grants a person the right to be sure except to say that, in most cases, the person cannot grant that right to themselves.

Russell Buehler said...

While I'm not sure what course the class discussion took, I'm fairly certain that I disagree with all of the above comments; in particular, I'm not convinced that the `right to be sure' should come from an outside source (at least of the kind everyone else seems to be considering). Someone doesn't obtain a `right to be sure' by collecting a large group of individuals who think they do; if it did, I could claim to have a right to be sure to anything so long as I carried around a suitably large group of adamant and unquestioning devotees.

As a response to the point raised by Taylor, perhaps we simply shouldn't be making claims to knowledge about things which we cannot verify; I don't have any particular problem (at least for the sake of argument) biting the bullet on your point and just saying that if it's not verifiable, you can't know it.

As a response to Benjamin, my intuition is that someone can have a right to be sure even if no one else knows of the grounds for this right; a right to be sure isn't something handed to you by society, but rather an abstract property dependent on the reliability of the process used to infer some conclusion (this position, at least to my mind, is very much in line with Ayer's analysis). I don't doubt that the way many people are taught which processes are reliability is social (most things are), but I don't think it is necessarily so; which processes are reliable has nothing whatsoever to do with society--they are all independently verifiable, dependent on the world or--at an even higher level--logical necessity. As motivation for this view, consider Tom who, for as long as he can remember, has always been able to correctly predict the next person to walk through a particular doorway. Tom has, at this point, been correct several thousands times and never wrong; moreover, he has a means to determine when he is right or wrong (simply waiting) which he has utilized often. Tom has not, however, ever told anyone about his near magical ability. Does Tom have a right to be sure when he looks at a doorway and `learns' who the next person to walk through it will be? Of course, if others are to use or trust Tom's knowledge, they will want to confirm Tom's grounds for the reliability of his magical ability, but--crucially--this has no impact on whether or not Tom himself has a right to be sure, just whether these individuals recognize this right.

Finally, in response to Na'Quelle, I simply reject the premise that someone who believes they are right will always give themselves the 'right to be sure' whether or not they are actually right (as a minor note, I've removed 'probably' above because the argument given requires the universalization; I respond to the weakened premise briefly at the end). As a counterexample, I don't think god exists. I really, really don't think god exists; no matter how hard I try to believe god exists, I still can't escape the fact that I don't. That doesn't mean, however, that I believe that I know god doesn't exist. I'm perfectly cognizant of the fact that I don't know; that he/she/it might. My belief that god doesn't exist (and that I'm right about this) is perfectly consistent with the belief that I also don't have the right to be sure. Moving to the probabilistic formulation given, if many people believe they have the right to be sure simply by believing they're right, that's their problem. The irrationality of most people doesn't change reality.

Andrew Cely said...

I'm going to side with Russell on this topic, since I like the foundation of some of his major arguments. What I will say in response to his answer, is that while it may be true that the "right to be sure" stems from the person, not something handed over from society, I do think that the "reliability of the process" which you mention is more or less determined by society in general. There must be a genesis for your "right to be sure," and more often than not, it stems not necessarily from past experiences, but rather from other example in the society which you live. This would of course be less relevant if you are using your own prior history as a foundation for your "right to be sure" considering that personal experiences often times lead to more self-convincing beliefs. An example of this could be something like drugs. I know they're bad based on the outside examples society has continually given me from social media and other forms of communication. Based on the reliability of these examples, I can have the "right to be sure" that drugs are harmful and should not be consumed. I also realize that some people don't approve of the social norm and would choose to act in spite of such data. Therefore, it is also, inevitably, true that we sometimes do not have the "right to be sure" unless we try and experience something for ourselves.