Epistemic closure and folk epistemology

Consider this case:

When Maxwell arrives at work in the morning, he always parks in one of two spots: C8 or D8. Half the time he parks in C8, and half the time he parks in D8. Today Maxwell parked in C8. It’s lunchtime at work. Maxwell and his assistant are up in the archives room searching for a particular document. Maxwell says, “I might have left the document in my car.” The assistant asks, “Mr. Maxwell, is your car parked in space C8? It’s not unheard of for cars to be stolen.” Maxwell thinks carefully for a moment and then responds, “No, my car has not been stolen. It is parked in C8.”

Which of the following options best describes Maxwell?

  1. He knows that his car is parked in C8. And he knows that his car has not been stolen.
  2. He does not know that his car is parked in C8. But he does know that his car has not been stolen.
  3. He knows that his car is parked in C8. But he does not know that his car has not been stolen.
  4. He does not know that his car is parked in C8. And he does not know that his car has not been stolen.

The epistemic closure principle says, roughly, that if one knows that P, and one knows that if P then Q, and one infers Q, then one knows Q. Some philosophers, most notably Robert Nozick and Fred Dretske, reject the closure principle. However, many epistemologists have claimed that rejecting closure is extremely counterintuitive and radically revisionary. Related to these claims, philosophers have also claimed that conjunctive assertions suggesting a violation of closure are “abominable” and “repugnant.”

So if conventional wisdom in epistemology is correct, then when people consider the question about Maxwell above, the intuitively best answer will not be option 3. Instead, option 3 should seem absurd.

However, as reported in a paper forthcoming in Philosophers’ Imprint, when I tested this case, it turned out that option 3 was viewed as the best option: nearly two-thirds of participants selected it.

best option


We see a similar pattern if we just ask people whether (A) Maxwell knows that his car is parked in the lot, and (B) Maxwell knows that his car has not been stolen. Roughly 80% of people agree with A, while only about 35% of people agree with B.

In light of these results, it seems that closure-denying conjunctions don’t actually strike people as absurd. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that rejecting the epistemic closure principle actually is revisionary.


8th Annual Midwest Epistemology Workshop

October 17-18, 2014; Ann Arbor, MI; Location: Assembly Hall, Rackham Building

On October 17-18 the University of Michigan Philosophy Department will be hosting the 8th Annual Midwest Epistemology Workshop. The featured speakers will be Deborah Tollefsen, Memphis; Chris Pincock, Ohio State; Ishani Maitra, Michigan; John Bengson, Wisconsin; Eileen Nutting, Kansas; Susanna Rinard, Missouri-KC/Harvard; Jeremy Fantl, Calgary; and the keynote speaker David Christensen, Brown. (See the full schedule below the fold.)

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Reminder: 8/31 Deadline for 2 Prizes in Philosophy of Religion

The sidebar has an ad for the Sanders Prize for scholars 15 years or less from their PhD. The same competition includes a separate prize for graduate students. The Sanders Prize pays $10,000 and the grad student prize $3000. Yes, it is possible for one entry to win both.

Deadline: August 31, 2014. (Entries sent to me as an email attachment; pdf documents, please.)

Workshop: Epistemic Consequentialism

November 21, 2014
London School of Economics

Clayton Littlejohn (KCL)
Jennifer Carr (Leeds)
Richard Pettigrew (Bristol)
Hilary Greaves (Oxford)
Jeffrey Dunn (DePauw)
Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (Kent)

Time and place:
10:00 to 17:45 in LAK 2.06 (second floor) in the Lakatos building. A workshop schedule will be posted closer to date.

Registration is free, but please e-mail Jeffrey Dunn (jeffreydunn@depauw.edu) if you plan to attend. Limited funding may be available to defer travel and lodging costs for graduate students who would like to attend the workshop. If interested, please send a short statement of interest and CV to Jeffrey Dunn.

The workshop is made possible by a grant from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, and supported by the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at LSE, University of Kent, and DePauw University.

CFP for November 13-16 Conference on the Nature of Faith

Announcing a call for papers for a conference at the Chase Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, MO, November 13-16, 2014. Those selected will have expenses paid for the conference. Titles and abstracts are required at this point to be considered, though full drafts would be helpful as well. Send material to jonathan_kvanvig@baylor.edu.

The conference is made possible by funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, Baylor University, and Western Washington University.

2014 Summer Conference in Social Epistemology

One of our grad students has organized a conference in social epistemology that will take place on Notre Dame’s campus, Saturday, August 16th, from 8am until 5pm. The presenters will be Jennifer Lackey (Northwestern), Edward Hinchman (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), and Sandford Goldberg (Northwestern). Registration is free and includes lunch. If interested, please complete the registration form below.


Paul Blaschko is the organizer, and you can contact him at paul.blaschko@gmail.com if you have any questions.

What Experimental Philosophers Actually Do: A Quantitative Study

These past few years have seen a surge of metaphilosophical work exploring the implications (or lack thereof) of the empirical studies being conducted in experimental philosophy. Much of this metaphilosophical work is being done by people who are not experimental philosophers themselves but who simply want to address the larger philosophical questions that certain kinds of empirical research can raise. This development is very welcome indeed, and I have gotten a lot out of reading many of these contributions.

However, I do have some misgivings about one aspect of this work. Typically, papers in this tradition start out by (a) briefly describing the sort of empirical research that experimental philosophers do and then proceed to (b) engage in a discussion of the larger philosophical implications of such research. In my experience, the discussion of philosophical implications usually shows a truly impressive degree of clarity and rigor, but the description of the actual research can sometimes be a bit inaccurate. (Thus, there is a real danger that one will end up with a impressively rigorous analysis of the implications of something that experimental philosophers don’t actually do.)

To address this issue, I thought it might be helpful to conduct a quantitative study that explored the question as to what experimental philosophers have actually been doing.

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Limitations on X-Phi?

So here’s an X-Phi investigation I and others interested in logic and its philosophy needn’t care about: use of the term ‘contradictory’. (This thought occurs to me when listening to reporters and commentators on the news, proclaiming that some people’s testimony about various events is “contradictory” or “inconsistent,” by which I taken them to mean not much more than that successive querying by authorities or reporters generates different answers on different occasions.) That is, the study and development of logic has only the remotest connection to ordinary language and thought involving the use of the term ‘contradictory’ and ‘inconsistent,’ remote enough that it would be a matter more of individual psychology than required methodology to guide theory by such X-Phi investigations.

I expect widespread agreement on this point, and it raises an interesting question about when and where X-Phi investigations should matter more. Some, for example, think they matter more in epistemology, especially that part of epistemology constituting the theory of knowledge (shame, shame, shame on those or you who have thought that’s the entirety of the discipline! :-) ). So what’s the difference between logic and epistemology on this point?