Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thoughts on Contemporary Epistemology

I recently received Contemporary Debates in Epistemology as a birthday present. I was curious was the hot topics are among the epistemologists of today and figured that sooner or later I should branch out my reading if I seriously intend to pursue a degree in philosophy. Anyway, there are eleven topics debated in this book. I won’t go through all of them, not the least reason for which is that I don’t feel I have an adequate grasp of all of them. But among these topics are closure, skepticism [with respect to the external world], contextualism, and infinitism. With so many opinions, it’s hard not to find someone to [dis]agree with. It’s a mixing and matching. You have to read critically, i.e. you can’t just cross someone off for making one point with which you disagree. I disagreed with Dretske regarding closure, yet I think he makes a good argument against contextualism. The same goes for my readers. I’m sure I made bad points. Hopefully, I made some good ones too, and I hope further these points are not overridden by my bad ones. Now then, with respect to this book, you’ll have to get it to read specifics one way or the other, as I’m just going to comment on a few points that were of interest to me:


Closure is the idea that “If S knows p and knows that p implies q, then S is in a position to know that q” (pg. 2). On the face of it, this seems obviously true. Another author, Richard Fumerton – whose helpful distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge I have quoted on this blog before (link) and whose books Epistemology and Metaepistemology and Skepticism would seem to be worth a look – remarked in a footnote of an essay on a different subject that “the bottom line is that if a philosopher advances a view that forces us to reject closure, that should be taken as a reduction of that philosopher’s view” (pg. 96). A very well made and succinct point.

The reasons why one would reject closure, however, make it a worthwhile discussion. One reason to reject closure is that it allegedly makes possible “ordinary knowledge.” If we reject closure, we could in principle know, for example, that “John ate all the cookies” without having to know “There are physical objects,” “There are other minds,” or “The past is real” (pg. 3). “John ate all the cookies” may implies these propositions, but we don’t have to know these propositions to know “John ate all the cookies” if closure is rejected. Likewise, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about Descartes’ demon, solipsism, and recently spontaneously generated universes.

Of course, we could accept closure, these “heavyweight implications” of so-called ordinary knowledge, and on these accounts reject ordinary knowledge as infallibilistic. In fact, as a Scripturalist, that seems highly preferable. Much of what we say or do are not based on beliefs which can’t be mistaken. Clark was right to throw the objection that he couldn’t know his wife back in the faces of his critics. So what if our knowledge of such isn’t infallible? The more interesting question is what knowledge is infallible.


This brings me to the issue of skepticism with respect to the – or perhaps “an” would be less question-begging - external world. Surprisingly – pleasantly surprisingly – the two authors seemed to agree that “we cannot avoid knowledge skepticism with respect to the physical world if we understand knowledge as requiring justification so strong that it eliminates the possibility of error” (pg. 86). [This too was written by Richard Fumerton.] His reference to a sort of justification which would preclude the possibility of error is another allusion to infallibilism, which I wrote about here a few months ago. Scripturalists will do well, I think, to focus on metaepistemology – the definitions of knowledge, epistemic justification, truth, and the like. It may turn out there is more agreement to be had with the scholastic paragons of contemporary epistemology than one could hope for.


If I understand contextualism correctly, it rests either on an equivocation of the meaning of “knowledge” or is a flat contradiction, neither of which is particularly useful. It basically says (pg. 45):
…whether S knows something – that she has two hands, for instance – depends on the context of the person who is saying S knows it. If I, a philosopher, worried about brains in vats and Cartesian demons, say it, then S doesn’t know she has two hands… But if S, an ordinary person on the street, someone without the least tincture of philosophy, says she knows that she has two hands, what she says is true. She attributes knowledge to herself in an ordinary, practical, context, in which demons and handless-brains-in-vats are not relevant possibilities… 
So who, according to contextualism, is right? Am I, a philosopher, right when I (given my context) say that nobody knows they have hands. Or is S right? We are, I’m afraid, both right. And that is where my low opinion of contextualism comes from.
If there is an equivocation – if what S means by “knowing” she has two hands is different from what the philosopher means when he says S [does not] “know” she has two hands – then rather than preserving knowledge of having two hands, it just highlights that S is probably not squarely facing the skeptic’s challenges (cf. the “heavyweight implications” in the section on Closure above).


Of all the debates I skimmed, this and perhaps the debate on a priori knowledge seemed to arouse the most incredulity from any of the debaters. The ideas that infinitism could be true or that there is no a priori knowledge are, thankfully, seemingly minority positions. With respect to infinitism in particular, the closing paragraphs from the detractor will close out this post (pg. 155):
In my essay I said that the (to my mind) most severe difficulty with Klein’s infinitism is that it is committed to the thesis that inference alone can create justification. Here Klein seems to embrace this commitment wholeheartedly, holding that the longer the chain of inferential justification for a given belief the greater the justification created, and that, if the chain is long enough (but still finite), the justification can “increase to the degree required for knowledge.” This seems to give us the result that knowledge does not require infinitely long chains of inferential justification after all: infinitism gives way to inferentialism. Worse yet, given Klein’s thesis that inferential justification is the only sort of justification there can be, we seem to get the result that one could start with a belief (or set of beliefs) that is totally unjustified, because it lacks any inferential justification, and by spinning out a long enough chain of inference from it reach a belief that has the degree of justification required for knowledge. 
These results are so counterintuitive that I hesitate to attribute them to Klein. But how else are we to interpret the quoted remarks?

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