Reid rides again 
My Reid paper has now appeared at Philosopher's Imprint.

It's a publication, which is always a good thing, but I'm especially happy with this one. I pointed to an on-line draft of this paper in my first ever blog post. As I've mentioned before, I have a high regard for the journal.

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Brief debriefing 
Yesterday was the last day of class, and so it was time for the usual debriefing. I asked slightly different questions in 17th&18th c. Philosophy than last year, so I can't compare numbers directly. Considering favorite and lease favorite material with respect to philosophical content, the results were these:

yay boo
Descartes 4 5
Locke 5 2
Berkeley 3 10
Hume 7 3
Kant 4 1

Even moreso than last year, even students who find Berkeley engaging and interesting tend to be boo about his philosophy. I am surprised by the dearth of Kant haters, but they appear in a moment.

We also ended up discussing philosophical style, and so I had them indicate which text they found the most enjoyable (least unpleasant) to read and which they found most unpleasant (least enjoyable). Most enjoyable is a tossup between the texts not written by Kant, least enjoyable is a transcendental landslide:

yay boo
Descartes' Meditations 7 -
Locke's Essay (selections) 4 -
Berkeley's Principles 5 1
Hume's Enquiry 6 1
Kant's Critique (abridged) - 23



In my Theory of Knowledge class, I ended with a lightweight question: If you had to summarize the course on a t-shirt, what would it say? Answers tended toward what would make a funny shirt, rather than toward what would convey wisdom. For example:

"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for evil demons."

"ARE YOU SURE IT'S A BARN? (and not a cleverly disguised mule?)"

"You won't know what knowledge is, but you'll know what it's not."

"Knowledge: It's not just for brains-in-vats anymore."

In a similar vein, some students volunteered mottoes for bumper stickers:

"In fake barn country, beliefs in the vehicle are not justified."

"My other car is Nogot's Ford."

Now the only thing between me and a summerful of research is reams of grading.

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What I believe about easy knowledge 
I've been thinking about this since the conference a couple of weeks ago.

The problem of easy knowledge is alleged to put the kibosh on reliabilism.* Consider, for example, a situation in which I make a series of perceptual judgments. There are many piles of cardboard tokens on the table and I count the number in each. For the first pile, I form a belief B1 about the number of tokens in it.I can reason
1. B1. (That is, B1 is true.)
2. I believe B1.
3. Therefore, I formed a true belief here.
4. Repeating this process for each pile: I formed a true belief in every case.
5. So the process at work in these instances of chit-counting is reliable.
6. Having a belief formed by a reliable process is sufficient for knowledge. (Reliabilism.)
7. Therefore, I know each of the beliefs.

There is no problem with saying that line 7 is true, because we are setting aside sceptical worries here. Nevertheless, there is something wrong with thinking that I can learn line 7 in this way. I extrapolate knowledge about my knowing from mere belief by a kind of legerdemain.

An epistemic rabbit from a doxastic hat!

Second-order knowledge is not really so easy, so something has gone wrong. If premise 6 is where the absurdum comes in, then this is a reductio of reliabilism.

There are several ways to respond:

First, one might problematize the step from the collection of instances to the claim that they are formed by reliable process (4-5). In his conference paper, Colin Caret argues that this inductive move doesn't come for free. It requires a further premise that all of these instances of pile counting are the result of the same process. That premise, he argues, requires some heavy hitting cognitive science. The easy knowledge is not so easy after all.

Second, one might insist that similar problems arise for non-reliabilist epistemologies. As such, it is everybody's problem and not a reductio of reliabilism. Hilary Kornblith suggested this approach after Colin's talk. It has the same bitter taste that accompanies any tu quoque reply.

Third, one might deny that I am entitled to intermediate conclusion 3. This seems awkward, because 3 is a deductive consequence of 1 and 2. Certainly the inference is unobjectionable in the third-person:
A1. P is true.
A2. Colin believes P.
A3. Therefore, Colin believes something true.

Consider, however, what I need to do in order to assess the soundness of this alternate argument. In order to know A2, I need to learn Colin's doxastic state. In order to know A1, I need to learn about whatever part of the world P is about. This is not trivial, at least not as trivial the easy argument is supposed to be. It won't be a reductio if we change the first-person 'I' to the third-person 'Colin'.

When I ask myself whether Colin believes P, I observe him and infer his doxastic state. (Perhaps I just ask him and accept his answer.) When I ask myself whether I believe P, however, I do not simply introspect and determine my preexisting doxastic state. As Gareth Evans and Richard Moran have noted, my determining whether 'I believe that P' is true typically just becomes my determining whether 'P' is true. Determining whether I believe P requires determining whether P, and I mobilize whatever cognitive resources are relevant to it.

In the argument, I am supposed to learn about my own doxastic state by introspection. My introspection just notices that I've formed a belief in B1 by whatever cognitive process is at work. This is the very same state of affairs recorded in premise 1, when I work through the argument for myself. I am tempted to say that 1 and 2 are not even distinct premises here.**

In any case, I don't see how I can accept premise 1 and premise 2 in the way the easy knowledge argument requires. They only make sense as distinct claims if we treat 2 as a third-person belief ascription, but then it no longer comes along for free. So the problem is not with reliabilism at all.


* Specifically, this is the bootstrapping version of the problem.

** Moran argues that 2 as distinct from 1 is coherent, but that rational agents almost never pose 2 in that way. (He calls it the 'theoretical question.') Ron (in conversation) suggested some cases where one might actually pose it. Perhaps I just need for this context to make it impermissible to pose 2 in its distinct, theoretical sense.***

*** I am treating it here as if it's a semantic point. A parallel point might be made if it's a pragmatic difference. (I just footnoted a footnote. I think that is a blogging first for me.)

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Two realisms enter, only one can leave 
I gave my Saturday over to the UAlbany Grad Student Philosophy Conference, and I am glad I did. There were some very good papers. Props are due to the grad students who organized it. This post records a thought I had during the conference. I'll start by explaining the point in terms of Philip Kitcher's metaphysics and epistemology, but I think the problem generalizes.

PK is committed to relativism about epistemic significance but realism about scientific claims. This combination yields a pluralist realism; cf. my previous posts here, here, and here. In this replete realism, our interests determine what language we speak and the world determines what sentences are true in that language.

PK is also committed to reliabilism, the view that a true belief counts as knowledge if it results from a reliable process. Crudely, a process is reliable if it has the propensity to produce more true beliefs than false ones. This requires that there be some fact of the matter about which process type produces a particular belief token. Failing that, there will be no determinate answer as to whether the belief is produced by a reliable process or not; it might be an instance of some reliable types but also of some unreliable types. This is the generality problem for reliabilism.

The generality problem can be answered by insisting that there is some determinate process that produces each belief. Even though we can't say with any great confidence what the process is, we can appeal to a general doctrine of psychological realism (Alston) and write a promissory note to be cashed in with future cognitive science (Goldman).

This response to the generality problem requires that future cognitive science will or at least could give us a unitary answer to questions of the form "What process produces belief X?" According to the pluralist realist, however, future cognitive science will depend on our concerns and interests. There is no reason to think that identifying cognitive processes is any less interest-dependent than identifying (eg) species. So the pluralist realist seems unable to accept the psychological realist solution to the generality problem.

There seem to be three options:

1. The interests and projects of epistemologists are sufficiently precise that they strongly constrain what future cognitive science could mean by "cognitive process." There need not be a single, inevitable possibility, but the possibilities must be sufficiently constrained so as to allow for reliability judgments.*

2. The generality problem may be answered in some other way, saving reliabilism without psychological realism. (Good luck with that.)**

3. Pluralist realism and reliabilism are inconsistent. At least one must be abandoned.


* This approach tries to rein in the pluralism, at least for cognitive science. This does not really seem to be an option for PK, who is committed to a maximally pluralist realism; again, see previous entries.

** PK has probably written about the generality problem somewhere, but I can't recall what he says. Bishop and Trout claim that their strategic reliabilism completely avoids the generality problem, but I am not entirely clear on why they think that. Their approach still requires recognizing particular beliefs as the outcome of strategy types.


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Rook takes Bishop, Angler takes Trout 
In Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment,* Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout argue that epistemology needs to be informed by empirical results about how humans actually reason. I am sympathetic with this approach, having myself advocated using a psychological hammer to crack a traditionally philosophical nut. Nevertheless, Bishop and Trout too often overreach.

In part this is a matter of rhetoric. They celebrate psychology without pausing too much to consider weaknesses in various lines of research, while denouncing epistemology sans psychology as bankrupt. They advocate combining the two without retreating from that assessment; in the conclusion they write, "Gin is better than vermouth, but they're still better together" [p. 154]. This is an odd metaphor, because gin is only better than vermouth to some tastes and for some purposes; vermouth is key to tomato sauces (where it releases alcohol soluble flavors) and cheese sauces (where it stops long strands from forming). Regardless, lines like that occur throughout the book. They aim to be glib, and they hit a bullseye.

This fresh enthusiasm for empirical results contra the epistemological tradition elides deep problems with their own approach. They advocate what they call 'strategic reliabilism': We ought to engage in whichever reasoning strategy best balances high yield of true beliefs with low cognitive demands; that is, we want to believe true things, but we don't want to think too hard. Of course, this cost-benefit calculation can't be done from the armchair. It is an empirical question as to which strategy best balances these desiderata. Part of the problem, however, is that the truth desideratum isn't just a passion for truth simpliciter. What we want is significant truth.

They discuss this point in a breezy ten-page chapter, but it's mostly just bravado. Many truths are significant because they give us power to do what we want to do. We have prudential reasons for wanting those truths. Since those truths will all be hypothetical imperatives, then their account would just be a kind of vulgar pragmatism if that were all of 'significance'. They avoid that outcome by insisting that some things are objectively significant; for example:
We take it that discovering the truth about the physical or social structure of the world is intrinsically valuable. So even if we can't be sure that it will lead to any practical results, the physicists at CERN and Fermilab have epistemic reasons (beyond their prudential reasons) for spending cognitive resources on trying to discover the Higgs boson. [p. 97]

This is a natural enough thing to say, even though it's wrong.

The point is not even that it's wrong. My writing on the subject all came too late, and I won't fault them for failing to anticipate me.** But they had read Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy, in which he attacks the natural but wrong position.*** Bishop and Trout cite parts of STD approvingly when it suits them to do so, and the core of Kitcher's book is the attack on the notion of objective epistemic significance. They could not have just overlooked it.

It's the 21st-century now, and you can't naïvely rely on two sentences about objective significance when significant truth is a lynchpin of your would-be new paradigm.


* Oxford University Press, 2005. Amazon link

** See variously an excerpt of an old paper, more blogging, the bits on the function of science in my d-cog paper, and this recent draft.

*** Oxford University Press, 2001. Amazon link

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