Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

This reminds us, of course, of Quine's injunction to naturalize epistemology. Quine suggested that we give ourselves full access to the deliverances of science when it comes to understanding how we have knowledge of the world around us. Contemporary externalists have simply given us more detailed metaepistemological views which allow us to rationalize following the injunction to naturalize epistemology. If the mere reliability of a process, for example, is sufficient to give us justified belief, then if that process is reliable we can use it to get justified belief wherever and whenever we like.

All of this will, of course, drive the skeptic crazy. You cannot use perception to justify the reliability of perception! You cannot use memory to justify the reliability of memory! You cannot use induction to justify the reliability of induction! Such attempts to respond to the skeptic's concerns involve blatant, indeed pathetic, circularity. Frankly, this does seem right to me and I hope it seems right to you, but if it does, then I suggest that you have a powerful reason to conclude that externalism is false. I suggest that, ironically, the very ease with which externalists can deal with the skeptical challenge at the next level betrays the ultimate implausibility of externalism as an attempt to explicate concepts that are of philosophical interest. If a philosopher starts wondering about the reliability of astrological inference, the philosopher will not allow the astrologer to read in the stars the reliability of astrology. Even if astrological inferences happen to be reliable, the astrologer is missing the point of a philosophical inquiry into the justifiability of astrological inference if the inquiry is answered using the techniques of astrology. The problem is perhaps most acute if one thinks about first-person philosophical reflection about justification. If I really am interested in knowing whether astrological inference is legitimate, if I have the kind of philosophical curiosity that leads me to raise this question in the first place, I will not for a moment suppose that further use of astrology might help me find the answer to my question. Similarly, if as a philosopher I start wondering whether perceptual beliefs are accurate reflections of the way the world really is, I would not dream of using perception to resolve my doubt. Even if there is some sense in which the reliable process of perception might yield justified beliefs about the reliability of perception, the use of perception could never satisfy a philosophical curiosity about the legitimacy of perceptual beliefs. When the philosopher wants an answer to the question of whether memory gives us justified beliefs about the past, that answer cannot possibly be provided by memory.

Richard Fumerton
Metaepistemology and Skepticism


Timothy Mills said...

An interesting thought. Not that I follow all of it, I confess - I am no philosopher.

I have noticed that circularity seems to be very difficult to escape. I know I succumb to it all the time - I start with a "default" position, I apply that to my experience of the world, and if it is consistent I am inclined to take that as support for my default position. And I see it much more plainly in others' views (an unfortunate but universal human bias, I'm afraid). The latest example for me has been the excruciatingly shallow and self-congratulatory arguments presented in Letters to Doubting Thomas by C. Stephen Layman.

On a pragmatic level, it seems to me that if a process is reliable (in the sense that it tends to lead to successful results), then we can consider beliefs acquired by that process to be reliable. (I'm thinking of science as a powerful example.) And, still speaking pragmatically, that would constitute justification for holding those beliefs.

The end of the first paragraph quoted seems to suggest this is flawed. Could you elaborate on the philosophical holes there?

Timothy Mills said...

I can already see a couple - one that will simply remain a presupposition, and the other which I think can be solved.

The first is that I've presupposed that induction is valid. I don't pretend to have a means of justifying it; I simply accept it as a premise, as virtually everyone does.

The other is that I haven't defined "successful results" rigorously. Would it be enough to say that they are "results consistent with the goals one had when applying the process"? In this way, scientific "knowledge" as such could not be called a successful result (that would be circular). But technology intentionally developed through the application of the scientific method (such as effective medicines, cell phones, etc) would be "successful" in a non-circular sense.

Jim S. said...

I think you can avoid circularity, but such avoidances have their own problems. Agrippa's trilemma points out that we can ask "how do you know?" to anything (and then "how do you know that?" etc.), and that eventually we will have to resort to one of three alternatives: 1) We can keep giving distinct reasons forever; 2) We can eventually refer back to something the skeptic has already challenged us to explain; 3) We can eventually reach a rock-bottom level, where we don't need to give a reason anymore. The problem with the first alternative is that it is an infinite regress, and I've only ever heard of one philosopher who defends it. The problem with the second is circularity. The problem with the third is that it's dogmatic: you don't have to justify a claim to knowledge anymore.

I'm inclined to combine the second and third options: pure circularity is unacceptable, but I think there is some level of it that is necessary. And I don't feel the negative force of the third option: I think some things simply are the ground level ("the last word" as Thomas Nagel puts it) and don't need to be justified by something else. So, to take induction, we could either try to justify induction with the use of induction (circularity) or simply say that we don't need to justify it (dogmatism). Your position sounded more like the latter than the former. Everyone simply assumes its validity and moves on.

Ilíon said...

All lines of enquiry, all attempts at rational justification of belief, sooner or later must end at “that’s just the way it is” – the important task is to avoid the temptation of saying that too soon.

ALL our rational knowledge is built upon a foundation of non-rational knowledge, which may properly be called ‘intuition.’ (Of course, the term ‘intuition’ is also frequently misused to refer to wishful-thinking and/or anti-rational thinking.)

Jim S. said...

Well, if Agrippa's Trilemma is valid, then "that's just the way it is" is one of three possibilities, the other two being circularity and infinite regress. Circularity is expressed by coherence theories of knowledge and truth, although Plantinga has argued convincingly that they boil down to special cases of foundationalism (i.e. "that's just the way it is").

I deny that intuition is non-rational. Properly basic beliefs are rational, and it would be irrational to disbelieve them. What you're pointing to is that basic beliefs, being intuitive, are not the product of ratiocination, the activity of reasoning. But ratiocination is not the only way for a belief to be rational.

Ilíon said...

"I deny that intuition is non-rational."

Then you're declining to understand what I said.

First off, I didn't say "intuition," I said "intuitional knowledge."

"What you're pointing to is that basic beliefs, being intuitive, are not the product of ratiocination, the activity of reasoning."

Which is what I said ... so why the denial?

Jim S. said...

Sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were confusing "rational" with "ratiocination" and tried to show that rational is a larger category, and includes intuition, or intuitive knowledge.

Ilíon said...

And I'm sorry I wasn't clear enough ... yet I cannot see how I might have been more clear. Well, perhaps if I'd written a book on the matter.

Yet, the book would have said nothing that is not already contained in the few sentences I'd written.

I purposely said “non-rational,” rather than “irrational” – for which word C.S.Lewis was criticized by Anscome and others, as though he had meant “anti-rational” (when he had already made it clear that he was distinguishing between that which we know via reason and that upon which we know via intuition).

"Rational knowledge" is that which we know via the use of reason acting upon some prior knowledge. This prior knowledge is likely also to be an instance of “rational knowledge” … but, soon or late, we always come to “intuitional knowledge” (which is “non-rational” in that it is not the product of ratiocination), which is that which we know because it is self-evident (or, to put it another way, “that which we know because we know it”), and which is the ultimate foundation upon which all the “rational knowledge” we possess, or can ever hope to possess, rests and depends.

"Rational knowledge" is that which we know via the use of reason

Ilíon said...

An interesting implication of this distinction is the understanding that ALL God's knowledge is intuitional: none of his knowledge is the product of ratiocination.