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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Labouring over master arguments 
I have been teaching Berkeley in my 17th&18th c. philosophy course. It is always a bit of trip, because students never come to the good bishop's defense. That leaves me in the role of trying to make the view seem as plausible as possible. I won't convince any of them, of course, but I can perhaps engage them enough that they can think through the view's consequences without scoffing dismissively.

At the beginning of Part I of the Principles, Berkeley gives what I reconstruct as the following argument:

P1 What you perceive are ideas.

P2 Ideas cannot exist outside minds.

C1 Therefore, what you perceive can't exist outside of some mind.

P3 You perceive (eg) the screen in front of you.

C2 Therefore, the screen in front of you cannot exist outside some mind.


The conclusion is a naked consequence of idealism, the kind of claim that makes people scoff and kick stones.

It is interesting to work through the argument backwards from there: P3 is required if we are not going to be sceptics, and C2 is a deductive consequence of C1 and P3. So any principled resistance will have to come earlier than that.

C1 is similarly a deductive consequence of P1 and P2. So the two options for avoiding the conclusion of the argument are denying P1 or denying P2.

P2 is motivated by our introspection into the nature of ideas and also by Berkeley's attack on abstraction in the Introduction. I had one student this time who was tempted to deny P2, but most are willing to accept it. (Moreover, denying P2 would lead to a wacky metaphysics; possibly even wackier than Berkeley's idealism.)

So that leaves P1. It is a seductive position. Having starting with Descartes' first Meditation, we are invited to consider the play of sensations as a kind of flickering movie in our consciousness. This 'veil of perception' stands between us and the world, and the task of epistemology is to trace out the inferences that lead to belief in an external world behind the theater of sensation. Arguably, this premise frames the whole period from Descartes through the late-18th century. Kant accepted it, after a fashion, but put the empirical world on our side of the screen. Reid rejected the premise, which he called the theory of ideas.* Berkeley brilliantly distills this element of the tradition. He states P1 at the outset, in Sec 1 of Part 1 of the Principles.

That's is where the action is, and Berkeley knew it.

This is fun to teach because it is valid. If we accept P1 and P2, we are committed to idealism: Students always want to know about the consequences of idealism, how it can be reconciled with science and religion, and so on. But it is too late to worry about its consequences once you've accepted the first two premises. However strange they are, you are committed to them.

The argument cleverly, deductively draws the wildest metaphysics out of what seem like plausible premises. The first time I taught the Bishop of Cloyne, back at Bowdoin College, I had a student who stared intently at the argument on the chalkboard after class had ended. He stayed fixed on it even as he got up to leave. "This can't be right," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with it, but something has to be."

So in preparing lecture notes, I jotted down "Berkeley's master argument" above my reconstruction of it. However, I noticed today that Jonathan Dancy identifies a different argument as GB's "master argument" (in the "Analytical Contents" Dancey prepared for the OUP edition of the Principles that he edited.) Roughly, it goes like this:

P1 Necessarily, everything of which you can conceive is conceived by some mind.

C1 Therefore, everything is necessarily conceived by some mind.

P2 You can conceive (eg) the screen in front of you.

C2 Therefore, the screen in front of you is necessarily conceived by some mind; that is, it cannot exist except as conceived.


Admittedly, Berkeley does make this argument in the course of the Principles. Perhaps I have reconstructed it uncharitably, but greater care would not do it any favors. It equivocates like a mongoose eating a garden hose. It slides around modal operators like a hockey player who mistook necessity for a puck. It does things which are too unspeakable to be captured by cheeky metaphors.

So, when I teach the Berkeley, I either skip over this argument entirely or mention it only in passing. There is certainly a tradeoff here. If I discussed the argument in more detail, I could discuss why it is so many kinds of terrible. Although this might teach students something, it would not help them take our man GB seriously. The first argument is much better at that, because it can be pretty seductive.

Unsound, yes. But seductive.


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Making teen moms disappear 
PZ Meyers links to a news item about a Texas high school that is censoring the yearbook. The students staffers of the yearbook wrote a profile of two teen mothers who are part of the graduating class. The excuse for the censorship?
Principal Paul Cash said the topic of the article conflicts with the school's abstinence-based curriculum. He also said he does not think the community would want that topic covered in the yearbook.
Yet, as the story notes, these two girls are among eight or ten students at the high school that are either pregnant or have children. Add to this an untold number of girls who have had abortions, girls who use some form of birth control, and girls who have thus far managed to dodge the sperm-meets-egg bullet in all their carnal recreation.

Although fodder for blogs, this would not be in the purview of this blog if not for one little fact: The high school in question is Burleson High School, my dear alma mater. As I am writing this, I happen to have a copy of the 1992 edition of The Elk yearbook on a shelf within arm's reach. I don't live there anymore, but this hits close to home.

When I was in Burleson, we had informative if disappointingly non-salacious sexual education. I can even recall specific filmstrips from the sex ed in Mrs Pressel's science class. (Remembering filmstrips makes me feel old.) There was some component of parental permission, so that psycho-fundamentalist parents could shield their kids from Captain Condom, but I don't actually recall anyone opting out. We learned about STDs, birth control, and possible consequences of bumping and grinding. Now these banal but useful facts are verboten in elktown, because useful truth is at odds with the school's grotesque sensibilities.

If you find that acknowledging the existence of some of your students conflicts with your curriculum, Principal Cash, the wrong response is to efface the record of their existence.

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