Friday, November 30, 2012

Peter Klein's definition of knowledge

Last time, we finished with the Gettier cases. Now let's look at philosopher Peter Klein's attempt to solve what he thinks is a serious problem: defining knowledge. According to Klein, "[t]he development of a satisfactory definition of propositional knowledge is essential if an adequate theory of knowledge is to become possible." Epistemology is a philosophical field attempting to determine how we know what we know. It's an attempt to develop a robust theory of knowledge.

(We'll set aside the question of why someone would want to develop a theory of knowledge separate from the sciences or how any theory of knowledge developed in isolation of the sciences could succeed in explaining anything. In my view, the whole epistemological enterprise began in speculation and broad strokes out of necessity, before there were any scientific methods to investigate what kinds of knowledge we have or how knowledge works. Truth be told, however, these days we can conceive of the methods but we might not possess them or minimally do not have the means to achieve what we want to achieve when finding out knowledge. But this is just a hunch, a provisional position, and maybe I would give it up after more consideration.)

Klein admits that any theory of knowledge that he or anybody would try to develop "cannot encompass all our uses of 'S knows that p,' simply because that expression functions in so many various ways." That is, to say a person knows something or any similar sentence, if given fuller definition, might not cover all cases. But Klein hopes that it will at least cover the kinds we'd be interested in for a theory of knowledge.

To deal with the Gettier cases, Klein proposes a principle that does not allow something to be called knowledge, and it is a principle he thinks we would all agree with. He calls it the felicitious-coincidence principle, and elucidates it thusly:
[I]f S's evidence for p and a description of some of the particular circumstances in which S believes that p are such that it would not be reasonable to expect that p is true (based upon S's evidence), even if p is true, So does not know p.
I know that's a mouthful and maybe to someone not interested in philosophy or not used to reading philosophy will like seeing a sentence like that. (Heck, to be honest, I enjoy reading and studying philosophy, and I absolutely hate hate hate to see a sentence like that.) So I'll break it down and translate it like this.

My translation: Imagine that you believe something but the situation in which you find yourself or your evidence from that situation isn't quite adequate to know it. In that situation, even if what you believe then and there is true, and have good reasons for it, but there is somehow contrary evidence that the situation provides, then you don't really know what you thought you believed.

Think about this principle with respect to the Gettier cases mentioned in the last post. Gettier argued that his two cases show that justified true belief can't be what knowledge is because in his two cases people have justified true belief but not knowledge. In the first case, a man thinks the dude with two quarters in his pocket is going to get the job, and he knows that man with two quarters to be a man other than himself. But to his surprise, the man who has this belief gets this job and little did he know he had two quarters in his pocket.

In the other case, somebody makes a wild assertion like "My friend owns a Ford or else he's from Boston." Little did he know, despite having good reasons for believing his friend owned a Ford, he's friend does not in fact own a Ford, but his friend is from Boston. But the fact that the man was right about this is mere coincidence.

Both of these kinds of cases the felicitous-coincidence principle is supposed to block out of hand. Klein thinks that we can accept this principle and so not accept that these cases of justified true belief amount to knowledge.

So what is knowledge? Klein gives this answer. Knowledge, propositional knowledge at least, is when
(i) p is true;
(ii) S believes p at t1;
(iii) p is evident to S at t1;
(iv) there is no true proposition such that if it became evident to S at t1 p would no longer be evident to S.
Basically, Klein maintains the first part, then. Knowledge is (i) true (iii) justified (ii) belief, and here I use in parentheses the lower-case numerals to denote how Klein's view matches up with the traditional view to the time of Plato. But then Klein adds that there ought not be any contrary evidence to somebody's belief because if there were, then that would provide reasons for someone to stop believing what they do and believe something else.

There are some other interesting things Klein writes in his article "A Proposed Definition of Propositional Knowledge," especially at the end regarding the definition's neutrality between Cartesian and anti-Cartesian sentiments toward knowledge. Klein writes:
Cartesian doubt, in its strong form, must grant that a certain proposition p is evident, given all the standard tests for p, but yet it must maintain that it remains possible to doubt that we know p. Whereas the anti-Cartesians seem to be maintaining that, if p is evident as a result of all the standard tests being applied to p, then it becomes gratuitous to doubt that we know p.
I want to point out again my response to this Cartesian/anti-Cartesian debate, and insist that the very fact that both positions look both like polar opposites and attractive positions is sign that the debate/distinction is hopelessly confused. The big question is again "In what sense is 'knowledge' being used?' Surely we can all be anti-Cartesians in ordinary life where we use our standard measures for evidence. But in another sense we are very much Cartesians when science is pursued quite rigorously and it's assumed that the standard ways to measure or obtain evidence is admittedly limited, and so in a sense we are all fallibilists regarding what there is and what we can know about what there is.

This is just a part of the debate I'd like to stress and part of why I think that it's so hopeless in being fought along Cartesian or anti-Cartesian lines. So this is an interesting path here that Klein is tracing, putting knowledge out there as justified true belief provided there's no evidence to the contrary.

Do you think this gets us out of the Gettier mess? Tune in, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Skepticism, defining knowledge and Gettier cases

In this post, I am going to look at two things. I am going to summarize my position on the debate about skepticism that was raised in the previous posts and then turn to attempts to define knowledge, particularly as they pertain to the "Gettier cases" (a phrase I'll explain in a bit).

Basically, I think that Descartes' argument is either incoherent or could be readily refuted common-sensically. It is not clear if Descartes or subsequent philosophers have intended 'know' and 'knowledge' to be taken in any special senses or if they are just supposed to be commonsense terms. If merely commonsense terms, perhaps some support would have to be given that the entailments that they, the philosophers, claim exist between their arguments' premises actually exist relative to 'know,' 'knowing,' 'knowledge,' etc. This would need to come from ethnolinguistics or corpus linguistics, perhaps, and would require the documentation of usage where such entailments have been shown to exist.

For example, in the English language as I speak it, in my understanding of how I use the word 'know,' none of the sentences I say about knowing something entail that I'm not dreaming, a brain-in-a-vat, etc. When I say "I know my friend pretty well" or when I'm working on a project and I say "I know what I'm doing," imagine someone replying, "Yeah, but if you know that, you must know you're not dreaming right now, huh?" Think about it: Why must I know that to know that I know what I'm doing at a given moment? So I would actually go beyond Moore's argument and not even allow this entailment.

But for the sake of argument, assume that Descartes is right and that I must know I'm not dreaming to know anything else, like that I'm wearing slippers right now. Just like G.E. Moore, I could claim that since I know I'm working slippers right now, I must know I'm not dreaming or in some other kind of weird scenario.

I will turn to the possibility that maybe philosophers intend some technical notion when they talk about 'knowing' or 'knowledge,' but before that I want to look again, very briefly, at the arguments that P.F. Strawson and Peter Unger gave regarding skepticism. I think Strawson's argument is basically right, that even if we could not answer the skeptical challenge that we have to assume knowledge as part of the basic framework of understanding the world or attempting to understand the world. But he is wrong that we can't answer the skeptic either way. We can, if we can understand what he's saying. And if he's talking about knowledge in the ordinary sense, at least as it's used in English, then yeah we can give an argument like the above: the entailment relations don't hold or even if they do ordinary sensory proof suffices for us to assign the word 'knowledge' to what we're talking about, and anything beyond that is demanding the impossible.

Unger on the other hand is worried about dogmatism, and he thinks that a person falls under one of two categories: one is either a dogmatist or a skeptic. He thinks a dogmatist is someone who claims to be certain of at least one thing and a skeptic is someone who claims to be certain of nothing. Unger combines knowledge and certainty as if they were two things. They're not. Typically, when we say that we know something we're not also saying that we are certain of it. He thinks we are. Claiming that we know something seems to me to be more like applying honorific terms: knowledge is just something we seek to attain, and when we seem to have enough descriptive or explanatory adequacy with regard that thing we say that we know it. The ideal is certainty but our best methods will never get us there. What I've just said here is basically a paraphrase of Chomsky in the previous post I made. But I think this is basically right regarding how we ordinarily use knowledge.

Now, if Descartes or subsequent philosophers mean some more technical sense of 'know,' 'knowledge,' etc., then it must be given definition and explained. Barring this, there's no reason for me to accept what anyone has said or to take the skeptical doubt seriously. If it's a technical notion, and the technical notion has not been given at least some rough definition, it is simply incoherent.

Luckily or unluckily for us, the next posts on this blog we'll be me looking at philosophers' attempts to define knowledge. We will entertain the notion, then, that philosophers are using some more technical sense of the word, and if they are we will look at their attempts to give this word fuller definition.

Plato was the first to try to give definition to what knowledge is in his dialogue Meno. This formulation of knowledge has persisted among philosophers even to this day, or at least some modified form of it has. The best definition the character Socrates and his interlocutor could come to in the Meno was something like this: knowledge is "true belief with a rational explanation." In some sense, this provisional definition seems to match up with our intuitions about what knowledge is. Think about it this way. When we say we know something, we believe it. We also think that what we say we both know and believe is true. And we think we could explain why it's true. So it doesn't look to be too bad.

The modified form, as this definition has been received to philosophers nowadays, is that knowledge is "justified true belief." (We could argue if this is the same thing Plato meant, but at least in the subsequent writings, I'll take it as equivalent, at least for the sake of argument.) This position among philosophers stood the test of time, so the history of ideas goes, until a man named Edmund Gettier, desperately looking for tenure track and not to be fired for not having published, actually did publish. He published a paper that was about two or three pages long. And this paper demolished this definition with two clear examples. These two examples have since been called "Gettier cases."

What the "Gettier cases" point out is that you can have justified true belief but not have knowledge. To get the demolition going, he makes two assumptions, and he hopes you'll accept them too. The first is that you could have good reasons or justification for believing something that's false. The second is that if you have good reasons for believing one thing, and you know that if that one thing is true then another thing is true, then you have good reasons for believing that other thing.

I don't know if I've expressed Gettier's two assumptions clearly enough but if not I hope the examples will flesh them out. I'm going to paraphrase the examples a bit to make them as clear as possible. We'll first look at the job interview scenario.

Suppose you and your buddy Bob are up for a job interview. You're pretty sure your buddy Bob is going to get the job, no matter how the interview goes, because you know the interviewer, and the interviewer said he thinks Bob is really the better applicant, and so the interview for you is really just a formality. Suppose also you and Bob were talking in the waiting room too and he showed you the two dollar bill he got in change. And then you saw him put the two dollar bill in his wallet. When Bob goes in there for the interview, and you're outside waiting, you're thinking: "Bob's going to get the job, and he's got a lucky two dollar bill in his wallet." You're also thinking: "The man with the lucky two dollar bill in his wallet is going to get the job." Maybe you even say this second sentence out loud. Now you have good reasons for knowing the first thing you think. Again, the interviewer told you he'd give the job to Bob. Also you saw Bob put the two-dollar bill in his wallet so you know he's going in there with a two-dollar bill. But if that first way of thinking is true, you're pretty sure that the man with the lucky two-dollar bill is going to get the job. Because of your first line of thinking, you think this, and so you've got good reason for thinking it, right?

But then there's a surprise. Bob leaves, you do your interview, and after you're finished, the interviewer tells you his first impression was wrong, Bob's the wrong man for the job, and you're perfect for the job, so he's going to give it to you. You get home, tickled pink, and later that night you examine the contents of your wallet. You realize that you two had a two-dollar bill stuck in there from change you got (maybe there's a lot of two-dollar bills out there this season). So here's something: You were pretty sure the man with the two-dollar bill was going to get the job, you were right that the man with the two-dollar bill did get the job, but you didn't really know he would because you didn't know that man was you. Does that make sense? Did I explain this correctly?

The next case goes something like this. Again, I'll change the example a bit. Your buddy Bob (who didn't get the job) has always owned a Ford truck and today he drove you to the job interview in the Ford truck. (Let's assume you took a taxi back and that you didn't want to tell him about your good news and his bad news yet.) Because he's always owned a Ford truck, and because he picked you up in one, you think this truck that he's driving is his. In fact, later you get into a spat with your best friend about this. Your best friend tells you Sam actually owns a Hyundai. You tell your friend, "Well, either he owns a Ford truck or I'm the product of incest." Your best friend proceeds to explain to you that the truck was Sam's brother's, and Sam was driving it today because Sam's new Hyundai already broke down and was in the shop for repairs. Then your friend tells you further that actually you are the product of incest. You investigate and find out that you are. So what you said was true, but not because you know you were the product of incest. In fact, you thought it was true because you were pretty sure you knew Sam owned a Ford truck. Again, a case of believing something to be true, something being true, and you having good reasons for assuming that it's true, but not really knowing it's true.

Is this clear so far?

And anyway, how do we answer this challenge?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Noam Chomsky on Knowledge and the Mysteries of Language

On dogmatism and skepticism

Last time, PF Strawson argued that we can transcend the debate about the existence of the external world. We feel it to be so, but we can't give an argue for or against its existence. But this is not a satisfying answer, it seems to me.

On the one hand Strawson is right, that we can avoid the question in practices and in a day-to-day understanding of the world, but on the other hand Strawson is just choosing to avoid the issue.

Peter Unger, in "An Argument for Skepticism," argues that we should all be skeptics, and "nobody ever knows anything to be so." The argument goes like this:

1. If someone knows something to be so, then it is all right for the person to be absolutely certain that it is so.
2. It is never all right for anyone to be absolutely certain that anything is so.
3. So, nobody ever knows that anything is so.

I'll try to break down the argument. Let's look at the first premise. He thinks this first premise is uncontroversial. To know anything at all is really to be certain about it.

Of course, if knowing something is to be certain of it, then to be certain about something is to not allow any contrary facts that could challenge your original way of thinking. But if you think that then you are being dogmatic. So, a la premise 2, it is never all right to be certain that you can't admit contrary evidence.

So the conclusion follows: Nobody knows anything.

Again, I'll break down the premises and give my replies.

1. If someone knows something to be so, then it is all right for the person to be absolutely certain that it is so.
I think this premise is false. Unger gives examples to try to generate that at least in ordinary language, this premise is true. Here is one of his examples: "He really knew that it was raining, but he wasn't absolutely certain that it was." Unger writes: "Such a sentence can express no truth." I don't know that he's right about this. First, I don't know anyone who would utter this outside of the context of philosophy. Second, if someone did, I don't know that I find anything particular odious. It seems intelligible. Either way, I don't think any support can be mustered for his first premise. It has to do with the fact that the word 'knowledge' is an honorific term, and we call knowledge that which we are understand or attempting to understand, or we could ascribe the term to whatever we would like. And I'm sure if we did an ethnolinguistic analysis, it would have diverse uses that don't permit someone to think that it entails certainty, that that thinking is too high-minded.

2. It is never all right for anyone to be absolutely certain that anything is so.
Maybe this is true. Maybe he's right that this amounts to dogmatism. But just for the sake of argument, maybe practically speaking, it is okay to be absolutely certain that something is true. Even if we allow that in principle everything is fallible, that that everything we know is fallible (no contradiction, I don't think), maybe practically speaking we have to hold on to certain premises without which we could not understand anything at all. Perhaps the premise "My laptop appears to me in such a way that I cannot adequately describe to someone." Maybe for sanity's sake I have to believe it.

Anyway, anyway, what do you think? Do you think I'm right? Do you think Unger's right?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A sweeping view of responses & Strawson's response

My understanding of the history of epistemology may be skewed, and I might not be able to provide quite an accurate account of the history of responses toward skepticism as someone who has had more time to look at the history. Much of my knowledge or lack thereof comes from Strawson's article where he surveys the literature himself.

For a moment, let's look at Descartes. Descartes' own response to whether or not we can know we're not dreaming was not exactly to confirm the idea that we don't know we're not dreaming. In fact, and if memory serves, Descartes thinks we can know we're not dreaming because there's a God and God is no deceiver. For a theist, this might be justification enough and so the argument could just end there, right? Well, it begs two questions: (1) If someone doesn't believe in God, it would be difficult to convince that person that this is ample justification, wouldn't it? This leads to the next question: (2) Are there other justifications for believing that we don't know we're not dreaming, or some such, than that we know there's a God and God's no deceiver?

And anyway, George Berkeley came along and argued that it could be true that God not be a deceiver and yet we not actually be seeing an external world. This is because the ultimate world could just be the infinity that is God and all this other stuff of the phenomenal world is the result of the sense experiences that God has endowed us with. They are just ways of seeing, and not actually what we see; they are mere representations in the mind.

As an aside here, I'd like to say I'm not endorsing either Descartes' or Berkeley's view, just laying out Descartes' response to his own argument and Berkeley's alternative explanation of Descartes' reason for thinking that his own argument is false.

In any event, if Berkeley's explanation could be a likely explanation, or something near enough, then Moore's argument might miss the point. Moore held up his two hands and said they were proof of two things in the world. He also argued that at least in the ordinary sense he knows that he is doing what he is doing now in the world and so knows that he's not dreaming. But, following Berkeley, a certain kind of way of looking at or responding to Moore's argument is that while it's true that Moore is using the ordinary means to arrive at evidence for there being at least two things in the world or his trusting his senses, it could alternatively be the case that he is merely having the sense-experiences of such. Therefore, with or without God's role here, it could be that the ordinary basis for evidence or for what we call knowledge is merely just representations in the mind.

Are you with me so far?

Then a fellow named Rudolf Carnap came along and argued that in some sense or other any kind of claims about the external world might ultimately be meaningless. He reasoned such by looking at sentences like this: "There are physical objects." He asked how anybody could verify such a thing in the world? If somebody already assumed that everything that there was was a physical object, it would be true by definition. But then this is just a convention that somebody has adopted to identify the things that one sees as physical objects. Carnap thought it was perfectly fine to do this, but otherwise the idea made no sense. This is because a person can't check to see if that sentence conforms to reality.

I will not examine Carnap's idea there rigorously but just acknowledge that some kind of theory of verification that Carnap had is kind of an old dogma philosophers have felt like they've dispensed with. This is not to say that his idea is wrong, only that people do not believe that this is a plausible account of how to deal with the skeptical claims.

Something along the lines of Carnap's idea persists among philosophers, however, and it was at one time advocated by philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell and still advocated today. This claim is, namely, that assuming that there are physical objects or an external world etc. is the best explanation for what we perceive and seems to do better than thinking that all we directly apprehend are representations. So philosophers try to lend support to the idea that it's just a matter of inference to the best explanation.

Philosopher Barry Stroud explains that that line of reasoning amounts to making use of a transcendental argument. A transcendental argument is when you say that for something to be, there is something else necessarily implied. For example, like for me to be able to have some sense of what it is like to be a human being, to experience pain and pleasure and so on, I must necessarily assume that other people do as well. Or to assume that I have a mind I have to assume other people have minds. These are all just examples of transcendental arguments.

Stroud and other philosophers are not convinced by these sort of arguments, for one reason because all that these transcendental arguments really establish is that perhaps we must believe that one thing necessarily entails another, like maybe we must believe that there is an external world because we can have experiences that suggest as much. This does not, according to Stroud and others, establish that they actually exist, however--again, only that we believe they do, or maybe that we must believe they do.

PF Strawson in his essay, "Skepticism, Naturalism, and Transcendental Arguments" thinks this whole debate is misguided. He appeals to philosophers David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein to find a coherent picture about what is going on here. Such proofs for or against an external world are idle speculation, according to Hume, and God or nature has endowed us with the idea that an external world exists. Given that we can't know beyond what we are hard-wired to believe, we should not ask questions like whether or not an external world exists but why we so believe that it does. And doing this ultimately will provide us with a more reasonable, perhaps more scientific explanation for our ways of thinking.

Hume thought there were philosophical speculations that lead us to skepticism about abstract issues (like the existence of the external world) and on the other hand commonsense speculations or intuitions which in daily life override any inclination we have toward skepticism in the abstract. Being so designed by God or nature, we cannot help but think the way we do and go on about our lives.

Wittgenstein had a different conception about the things we believe and know, thinking that what might count as an empirical fact and what might count as the scaffolding of beliefs that allow that way of thinking to flourish is not a sharp distinction. So, whether because of God, Nature or social convention (Wittgenstein actually seems to assume the latter) certain assumptions about the world existing is just part of the conventional practice and allows our thinking and interactions with what we call the world to better cohere. But it's not like we choose to affirm or deny these things. We can't help but take them for granted.

Strawson writes, in support of Hume that several beliefs we have are
outside our critical and rational competence in that they define, or help to define, the area in which that competence is exercised. To attempt to confront the skeptical doubt with arguments in support of these beliefs, with rational justifications, is simply to show a total misunderstanding of the role they actually play in our belief-systems. The correct way with the professional skeptical doubt is not to attempt to rebut it with argument, but to point out that it is idle, unreal, a pretense; and then the rebutting arguments will appear as equally idle.
So this is the position that Strawson takes, ultimately: that this whole debate about whether or not the external world exists is terribly terribly misguided and we all have to accept as part of our framework. He even thinks this thinking of his is actually what philosophy ought to be doing as a discipline.
[T]o establish the connections between the major structural features or elements of our conceptual scheme--to exhibit it, not as a rigidly deductive system, but as a coherent whole whose parts are mutually supportive and mutually dependent, interlocking in an intelligble way--to do this may well seem...the proper, or at least the major, task of analytical philosophy.
Lucky for him, this is what he is doing.

What do you think? Are you convinced with his position?

For my money, I am torn. But more on being torn later.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

G.E. Moore's response to Descartes

In G.E. Moore's "Proof of an External World," he gives a really simple argument that he thinks proves that at least two things exist and have existed in the past. He holds up one hand and says "Here is a hand." He holds up another hand and says "Here is another." And then he concludes that at least two things exist in the world.

Now maybe this doesn't look like much of an argument. Let's look at the form. It's something like this.

1. Moore's left hand exists.
2. Moore's right hand exists.
3. Moore's hands are things.
4. So two things exist (at least).

I added the third premise. But this looks like the basic argument. And on top of this Moore wants to let people know that he can give this truth for the past. So, like this.

1. Moore's left hand existed in the past.
2. Moore's right hand existed in the past.
3. Moore's hands are things.
4. So (at least) Two things existed in the past.

Maybe so far you think this is stupid, perhaps wondering why I would be interested in this or Moore would be writing this etc. But at least some people's aversion to this, perhaps yours, is quite similar to the kind that Moore has toward this issue.

Moore is basically giving a commonsense response to what philosophers feel like is such a problem. He doesn't think it's much of a problem, actually. He's responding particularly to Kant, but he believes this is a possible rebuttal to any kind of skeptical argument.

This is what Moore says about the skeptics.
[W]hat they really want is not merely a proof...but something like a general statement as to how any propositions...may be proved. This, of course, I haven't given; and I do not believe it can be given: if this is what is meant by proof of the existence of external things, I do not believe that any proof of the existence of external things is possible.
What Moore is saying is the kinds of ordinary sentences we say and think can't all be justified. Like, for example, I can't just give a justification in terms of some other kinds of ordinary sensory evidence about how I know that I'm sitting in bed typing this on my laptop.

Moore goes on, responding to Descartes.
How am I to prove now that 'Here's one hand, and here's another'? I do not believe I can do it. In order to do it, I should need to prove for one thing, as Descartes pointed out, that I am not now dreaming. But how can I prove that I am not? I have, no doubt, conclusive reasons for asserting that I am not now dreaming; I have conclusive evidence that I am awake: but that is a very different thing from being able to prove it.
Moore means, perhaps, that he and I and you and everybody can know a lot of things but not be able to prove them. So, according to Moore, we can't prove that we're not dreaming, but, so it seems, that does not mean we don't know many other things.

In Moore's "Four Forms of Scepticism" he talks about something pertinent to this issue. He talks about the degree to which we are certain about certain statements as opposed to others. In this essay, he is responding to philosopher Bertrand Russell who accepts some philosophical premises that support a skeptical conclusion about what we know. But Moore argues that, at least in his mind, these premises are less certain than Moore ordinary premises, like 'I have a left hand.' He writes: "It seems to me more certain that I do know [e.g.[ that this is a pencil and that you are conscious, than that any single... [philosophical] assumption is true... I do not think it is rational to be as certain of any of of these... [philosophical] propositions, as of the proposition that I do know that this is a pencil. And how on earth is it to be decided which of the two things it is rational to be most certain of?"

How does this kind of thinking work with Descartes' orginal argument? Moore doesn't address it head on in his "Proof..." essay nor in "Four Forms..." but he does in "Certainty." But let's see.

First, I'll give the short form of Descartes' argument.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
2. I could be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
3. So I can't know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing.

I'll fill it out a little differently using Moore's specific premises in the essay "Certainty." Same basic idea, but slightly different in expression.

1. If I know that I am standing up, then I do know that I am not dreaming.
2. I do not know that I am not dreaming.
3. So I don't know that I am standing up.

More has an interesting reply. He says he can actually accept the first premise. He writes:
But this first part of the argument is a consideration which cuts both ways. For, if it is true, it follows that if I do know that I am standing up, then i do know that I am not dreaming. I can therefore just as well argue: since I do know that I'm standing up, it follows that I do know that I'm not dreaming; as my opponent can argue: sinceyou don't know that you're not dreaming, it follows that you don't know that you're standing up. The one argument is just as good as the other, unless my opponent can give better reasons for asserting that I don't know that I'm not dreaming, than I can give for asserting that I do know that I am standing up.
He thinks that Descartes or the Cartesians just can't give the kind of support they would like to to the second premise. Their support for the second premise seems to be something like the following. We've all had experiences when we've thought we've been dreaming but weren't actually. Moore thinks this is tantamount to claiming knowledge of dreams and having dream experiences in the past. In the same way that Moore argued against abstract philosophical propositions about which he is less sure of than concrete ones he can say that he doesn't see how it is logically possible that somebody both be dreaming and know that he has had previous experiences of such. He doesn't see how both are as likely as knowing now you're not dreaming. He writes, "The conjunction of the proposition that I have these sense experiences and memories with the proposition that I am dreaming does seem to me to be very likely self-contradictory."

So, here's a kind of recap with regard Descartes' argument and Moore's argument. Moore or anyone who'd been sympathetic to Moore's way of thinking could accept the first premise. But instead of getting to the second premise, Mooreans could adopt a different second premise, namely "I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now." Furthermore, they could support it, for example, by saying that they have ample ordinary sensory evidence which in ordinary circumstances counts as knowledge. So what the Moorean can do is invert the reasoning of Descartes. So here goes the Moorean argument.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
2. I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now.
3. So I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.

Such is the Moorean strategy, and such is one reply to the skeptic.

Whaddaya think so far? Are you convinced?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Descartes' First Meditation

In Rene Descartes' First Meditation, he creates quite a powerful argument for how and why we could know nothing. The conclusion might seem absurd, but if you look at the argument, it's difficult to see where the misstep took place. Disagreeing with the conclusion is no help. Let's look at the steps he takes to get to this conclusion. Let the following be a kind of paraphrase of his argument.

When we think about where most of our knowledge comes from, we're pretty sure it comes from our senses. Maybe there are some exceptions, like mathematics for example, but we're talking about knowledge for the most part. 'I know he was in the park today because I saw him there.' 'What do you mean how did I know the restaurant was playing Weezer's "The Sweater Song"? I heard it.' But if our five senses could be proven unreliable across the board, then maybe they're not really a source of knowledge. Maybe, just maybe, we can't know anything.

So we need a representative example of when we think we know something but could be proven not to know it after all. Here's as good example as any. Take me. It's the afternoon. I feel fatigued, which is not unusual for me, because I often feel fatigued, perhaps because I'm unhealthy, maybe for other unknown reasons, I dunno. I'm typing on my Macbook Pro. I'm thinking about my debt in the intermittent moments when I'm not thinking about how to arrange what I'm writing. In most ordinary situations, I'd say I know I'm sitting in front of my laptop typing. But I've been wrong before. I've had vivid dreams where I think I'm doing something, and I'm not doing them at all. Recently, for example, maybe two nights ago, I had a dream that someone I saw someone I had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with in college, and who I would be reluctant to say hello now, was sitting outside of a college and talking with a friend, books in lap, and I approached him and said hello, albeit nervously. When I woke up, I knew it was just a dream. I wasn't really seeing that guy or listening to him or speaking to him. So back to this moment, right now, where I am typing this and thinking and having intermittent thoughts about my future. This could all be a dream too, right? I mean, like the children's song, this whole life could be a dream.

Let's recap, then, to see what the argument is. Put concisely: If it's really possible I'm asleep right now, then I can't possibly know that I'm typing this and sitting here and trying to drink coffee to stay awake and so on. But I must know that I'm typing this and sitting here and so on if I know anything at all about the world around me. Oh, but gosh, I can't really know I'm not sleeping right now. But if I don't know that, then I might be asleep. So I can't know I'm sitting here and so on, and so I can't know anything about the world around me.

Reality check: I don't actually believe this, mind you. The above is just a little thought experiment. I just want to spell out the argument and think about where the argument goes wrong. Maybe some people who read this will still be confused about what the argument is or why it's a problem. So in keeping with the reality check, making sure any of you passersby to this blog are with me so far, I'll lay the argument out point by point. Sometimes it's better for people if they see it like that. So here goes, again, laying out the basic form.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
2. I could be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
3. So I can't know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing.

Now, truly consider the argument. If Descartes is wrong, you can't just disagree with the conclusion because it's tasteful. If that conclusion is wrong, then one of the two premises that get you there must be wrong. I will address these premises in turn. Here goes.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
Does this seem right to you so far? Think about it. Put more plainly, 'I can't be dreaming right now if I really know what I'm doing right now.' If I'm typing this and thinking about how sick I am of thinking about this topic, I can't really be asleep. That can't be possible. That is, if I really know I'm doing what I'm doing right now. Let me give you my two cents on this point.

Even though this sentence looks perfectly harmless, I think it suffers from a kind of ambiguity that often pervades philosophical argumentation. Namely, I don't think it is clear in what sense we'd be using the word 'know' here. Is 'know' here being used in an ordinary sense or in a technical sense? If it's being used in an ordinary sense, is it possible that there are certain semantic ambiguities with usage of the word? To take this seriously requires corpus linguistics and ethnography. It cannot just be assumed outright that people always and everywhere mean the word 'know' in the same sense. The reason this is important is because it might be possible to examine the usage of this word and find that people do not in fact seem to have the requirement that to know something, you need to know you're not dreaming. Triangulate this with survey information and observation of particular usages and you could make a good case one way or the other. This is just a hunch, but, my intuition is that I don't think people believe this at all. I mean, I don't think that people in ordinary situations using 'know' in its ordinary sense require that you know you're not dreaming to know anything else. So, if in this argument Descartes or any subsequent philosophers are appealing to some kind of common sense notion or notions of 'know,' it must be clear that the entailment that they claim really is there. I don't see a reason to believe that it is, although I do think that if you present the argument in this way, some people could be easily convinced to believe that one thing entails the other, that is, that you have to know you're not dreaming to know, for example, that you have to use the bathroom (like I know now). If, on the other hand, it is being used in a technical sense here, that too must be explained and the word be given at least a provisional definition that distinguishes it from its ordinary usage, in the same way that words like 'work' or 'charm' in physics have meanings that deviate from ordinary usage.

Let's step away from this, though, for a moment. Suppose that Descartes and the other philosophers are right and I am wrong, and premise (1) here is true. Even if it is true, we still have another reason to doubt the argument. Premise (2) also seems false to me. Here goes.

2. I could be dreaming what I think I'm doing.
I don't even think this is true, at least right now. The reason is because being awake and being asleep feels different. Being able to distinguish between dreams and wakefulness is one of the hallmarks of waking life, something I feel right now. A dream experience has never, in its totality, felt as qualitatively rich or, to set value judgments aside, the same as a waking state. In fact, if these different states of consciousness were not very qualitatively different we would not have much grounds for knowing the difference between them. If you think that is too strong a claim, how about this? Dream states of consciousness as opposed to wakeful states of consciousness would not be amenable to scientific study or even ordinary distinction because we could not even feel the difference between them. But we do and so this premise is bunk.

So have I shown that the argument for skepticism Descartes puts forward is malarkey? Have I dismissed all possibilities for skeptical argument that takes this form? Tune in to the next exciting edition to find out. Varied Bat Time but Same Bat Channel.


Klein, Peter, "Skepticism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Stroud, Barry, "The Problem of the External World," Epistemology: An Introduction (2000 Edition), Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim (ed.), Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I am a very normal dude limited in knowledge and virtue. I don't like the way the part in my hair lies. I am disappointed about how kinky and dark my beard is compared to the hair on my head. I am also frustrated with myself about how lazy I am predisposed to be especially regarding exercise and study. So I do not have much authority writing about abstract topics or attempt to provide answers to deep philosophical questions; I am just too normal and not that intelligent. Nevertheless, since everybody is entitled to her two cents, this blog is an expression of mine (my two cents, I mean).

I won't pretend to know what I don't know. Sometimes this will translate into not providing much in the way of empirical facts. I apologize in advance for that. In the coming posts, I am going to give my two cents on some classic epistemological topics: skepticism, the meaning of 'knowledge,' and when we're justified in saying we know what we think or say we know, among others, I'm sure.

I'll take up skepticism in the next post. Or at least I'll begin to.

But now, I have to go eat Chinese food with my gal.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

New ideas

I have some new ideas I want to write about here. I will write about them in the coming days. It will just take some time to get sorted up. Yup yup yup.