Contemporary Debates in Epistemology: A Survey

I’ve finally got around to taking at least a quick look at Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, which Jon called to our attention way back in February. It does look like a great volume, judging by its list of topics and contributors. So, first, I’d like to further advertise the volume simply by listing here the issues debated and the writers involved in each debate:

-Fred Dretske and John Hawthorne: “Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment?”
-Earl Conee and Stewart Cohen: “Is Knowledge Contextual?”
-Jonathan Vogel and Richard Fumerton: “Can Skepticism Be Refuted?”
-Laurence BonJour and Michael Devitt: “Is There A Priori Knowledge?”
-Peter Klein and Carl Ginet: “Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem?”
-Catherine Z. Elgin and James Van Cleve: “Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone?”
-James Pryor and Michael Williams: “Is There Immediate Justification?”
-Bill Brewer and Alex Byrne: “Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content?”
-John Greco and Richard Feldman: “Is Justification Internal?”
-Jonathan Kvanvig and Marian David: “Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal?”
-Richard Foley and Nicholas Wolterstorff: “Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief?”

For those interested, I’ll repeat the links Jon already provided to the Blackwell page and the Amazon page for the book.

Second, since we have a series of 11 yes/no questions on controversial epistemological issues, it occurs to me that we can use these to get a quick “read” on epistemologists, if they would give their answers to these questions. Since few have addressed all these issues in their writings, it would be interesting to me to see how various philosophers would respond. Of course, many of the questions call for some interpretation before one can answer, and one just has to interpret them in what seems to be the most plausible way. For instance, how one answers “Can Skepticism Be Refuted?” much depends on how one understands that “refuted”. (I’m inclined to say — somewhat mysteriously — that skepticism can be defeated, but not refuted.) And I feel I really have to answer yes to “Is Knowledge Contextual?”, since that seems to be asking whether one thinks that contextualism, as that position has been developed in recent years, is correct, and I certainly do think it is, though that quick question itself seems badly formed, and could be read in ways I’d answer negatively. (I’m fond of insisting that the contextualist does not claim that whether one knows or not depends on one’s conversational context.)

If anyone’s interested, I’ll put my own answers below the fold. I think some of my answers (especially to the first question) will surprise some of you.

So, here, without any explanation at all, are my answers:

1. Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment? No
2. Is Knowledge Contextual? Yes
3. Can Skepticism Be Refuted? No
4. Is There A Priori Knowledge? Yes
5. Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem? No
6. Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone? No
7. Is There Immediate Justification? Yes
8. Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content? Yes
9. Is Justification Internal? Yes
10. Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? Yes
11. Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief? No


Comments

Contemporary Debates in Epistemology: A Survey — 14 Comments

  1. Answers from someone almost totally unaware of whats behind the questions:

    1. Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment? No, thats just not how the brain works
    2. Is Knowledge Contextual? Yes, this follows from basic metaphysics
    3. Can Skepticism Be Refuted? Yes, if radical skepticism is implied simply having the
    the conversation refutes it.
    4. Is There A Priori Knowledge? Yes, but its all trivial.
    5. Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem? Yes, but only when mathematical induction
    applies (otherwise perceptual experience is the floor)
    6. Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone? Only tautological ones.
    7. Is There Immediate Justification? Yes
    8. Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content? Perceptual experience gives rise to
    conceptual content and is also primed by conceptual content.
    9. Is Justification Internal? Some are, but we don’t yet have access to most of our internals
    10. Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? Kinda, The process to obtain truth is the goal.
    11. Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief? overlap, but not clear that its complete

  2. OK, Keith, I’ll bite (and take a break from code work…)
    1. No to the exact question, but yes K is closed when the operation having to do with entailment is specified properly.
    2. No, knowledge is not contextual, but ‘knowledge’ might be!
    3. Yes.
    4. Yes, and everyone should read Casullo’s book on it.
    5. No.
    6. Yes.
    7. Yes. And the same beliefs can be justified both immediately and by coherence. Who else is going to affirm that one!
    8. Yes.
    9. Yes.
    10. No.
    11. Yes, if we read the question as asking about the implication from J to R.

  3. 1. Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment? No, but it would be if we were perfect deducers to whom all logical consequences occurred.
    2. Is Knowledge Contextual? I’m not sure what’s being asked, so I can’t reply.
    3. Can Skepticism Be Refuted? No
    4. Is There A Priori Knowledge? Yes, but there’s no synthetic a priori knowledge.
    5. Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem? Not knowing what infinitism is, I don’t know.
    6. Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone? Yes and no–it depends on what you intend ‘justification’ to mean.
    7. Is There Immediate Justification? Yes
    8. Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content? Yes, implicitly.
    9. Is Justification Internal? Yes and no–it depends on your use of the word.
    10. Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? Yes
    11. Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief? Not knowing what ‘responsible belief’ means, I can’t reply.

  4. Jon:
    On 2: I understood the question to be really asking whether ‘knowledge’ (not knowledge) was contextual (whether contextualism as it has been recently developed is correct), so we’re not in sharp disagreement on that: I believe what you’re saying might be the case.
    On 1: I went for “no” not only b/c, like you, I think how that’s how the exact question (the letter of the law) should be answered, but also b/c, when I tried to get more into the spirit of the question, I got a split verdict. I don’t accept any of the “counter-examples” to closure that would help against classical skepticism, but in some lottery cases, I do gaccept failures of closure: I think that, at ordinarily low standards for knowledge, one does know of each of the losing tickets that it loses, and all that knowledge, together with facts about the set-up, which you may also know, entail that the remaining ticket is the winner, but you can’t thereby come to know which ticket wins.

  5. Keith, I thought you might have said “no” to #1 because of the “just barely” problem as well. I agree with the idea that there’s lots of cases where people will say their ticket is a loser, and some cases where they’ll say that they know their ticket is a loser (though it’s easier to say that about someone else than about oneself). These are all cases I’d like to explain away, though I’m not confident it can be done. Here’s the rough idea, though: we’ve already got to treat some uses of ‘knows’ as to-be-explained-away, as in “I just knew I was going to make that three-pointer, but it just rimmed out on me!” These cases can be treated as expressing a kind of certainty. In the other cases, they perhaps can be thought of as expressing a kind of assumption appropriate for rational action.

    None of this would help if the “just barely” problem is under discussion, though…

  6. Jon: I agree that there are cases where folks fairly naturally issue knowledge attributions that we should explain away rather than accommodate in our theories. (Jonathan Schaffer & I discussed stress in relation to this this a bit in the comments for an earlier post here at CD; see comments 4, 7, and 8 at: http://bengal-ng.missouri.edu/~kvanvigj/certain_doubts/?p=218 ) And I think claims like “I just know that I’ll lose the lottery” are at least pretty good candidates for being explained away. [My own view is that, although folks do know by ordinarily low standards that they are lottery losers in the typical lottery cases, it should be problemmatic for them to claim to know, since such a claim should tend to induce high epistemic standards at which it isn’t true that they know this. So I too have an interest in explaining these claims away.]

    So my grounds for thinking that people know-ord that they’re lottery losersare not that they will sometimes claim to “know” this. Instead, my grounds for thinking that we do know-ord we’re lottery losers (unless, of course, we’re actually winners!) is that we do know-ord such things as that we can’t afford an
    expensive car, and that we couldn’t know-ord such things unless we knew-ord that we’re lottery losers.

  7. 1. Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment? Probably, with appropriate qualifications.
    2. Is Knowledge Contextual? Probably; Keith has made a good case for it.
    3. Can Skepticism Be Refuted? Yes, I already refuted it.
    4. Is There A Priori Knowledge? Yes.
    5. Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem? No.
    6. Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone? No, and Jon should read my paper on it (“Probability and Coherence Justification”).
    7. Is There Immediate Justification? Yes.
    8. Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content? Yes (and it also has non-conceptual content).
    9. Is Justification Internal? Yes.
    10. Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? Yes.
    11. Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief? Yes.

    Comment on (1): Contrast two closure principles:

    Closure1: If S knows p, and p entails q, then S is in a position to know q.
    Closure2: If S knows each of some set of propositions {p1, p2, …}, and {p1, p2, …} entails q, then S is in a position to know q.

    Closure2 is clearly false, as long as we have a nonredundant, fallibilistic justification requirement–more specifically, there is some minimal level of probability required for K, other than 100%. For the probability of q may be lower than that of any of {p1, p2, …}. But this does not create a problem for Closure1, since the probability of q must be at least as great as the probability of p. I take it that this deals with the “just barely” problem.

    However, the lottery example suggests to me that Closure1 fails for a different reason: it seems wrong to say one knows ticket N will lose, but right to say one knows that one can’t afford a new car. But I am not sure whether this is just because of a contextualist-type shifting of standards.

  8. Mike: Just to explain my own little terminology here: What I call the “just barely” problem is supposed to be a problem for single-premise closure. The problem you see with multi-premise closure is what I call the “accumulation of doubt” problem (though it’s perhaps better to follow John Hawthorne here & call it the accumulation of risk.) In this CD post, I argue that even single-premise closure faces some such problem — the “just barely” problem.

  9. Thanks, Keith. I was incorrectly guessing at the meaning of “just barely problem.” That is an interesting problem. I’m inclined to pull a Nozick and say that there must be some qualification to the principle that patches that up, though I don’t know what it is; and that the main issue over closure is about a different sort of problem (Nozick doesn’t seem to care much about the exact formulation of the principle; he’s interested in failures of closure for reasons that, roughly speaking, we wouldn’t expect any patch in the spirit of the Closure Pr. to fix). Which is to say that I think you should answer “basically, yes” to question (1).

    More on how the Just Barely problem is consistent with the “spirit” of the CP: in your sort of case, justification is still transmitting across the entailment, and you’re not proposing any other requirement for knowledge that would fail to transmit; it’s just that the amount of justification that gets transmitted is not quite as much as p had. But Nozick- and Dretske-style examples are different: there’s something (allegedly) required for knowledge that does not at all transmit across the entailment, not even close.

  10. Keith, I find this remark of yours quite interesting:

    So my grounds for thinking that people know-ord that they’re lottery losersare not that they will sometimes claim to “know” this. Instead, my grounds for thinking that we do know-ord we’re lottery losers (unless, of course, we’re actually winners!) is that we do know-ord such things as that we can’t afford an
    expensive car, and that we couldn’t know-ord such things unless we knew-ord that we’re lottery losers.

    What’s interesting to me is the way it depends on transmission of positive epistemic status to deny a closure principle. One way to get that result is to hold that transmission depends on the kind of proposition in question, so that the connection between knowing that we can’t afford an expensive car and knowing that our lottery ticket is a loser is OK, but the connection between lottery sentences isn’t. Is that the idea?

  11. That’s the basic idea, Jon. That (in the relevant situation) it seems that one knows-ord that one can’t afford an expensive car pressures us to conclude we also know-ord that we’re lottery losers. And that’s a pressure I think we should in the end respect. But we of course can’t come to know (even know-ord) of the lottery winner that she wins by means of our “knowledge” of each loser that he loses, and this can, if certain formulations of closure principles are accepted, pressure us to say that one doesn’t know-ord one is a lottery loser. This pressure should be resisted, acc. to me; the forumalations of the principle that would produce this pressure are not correct.

  12. Mike: I agree that the “just barely” problem is quite different fromt other alleged problems with closure. And we agree that the answer to question 1, interpreted strictly (by the letter) is “no.” And as to getting into the sprirt of question 1: We do agree, I take it, that there’s some correct principle in vicinity (though it still needs a few patches) that’s correct, and that the correct principle won’t allow for a Dretske/Nozick-type escape from skepticism. So, if skepticism were the only problem in question, I’m definitely in the pro-spirit-of-closure camp. But closure can also be used elsewhere. For instance, some will use closure to conclude that you don’t know-ord that you’re a lottery-loser, by this reasoning: if you knew-ord this, you could know-ord of each loser that she loses, and then could, by closure, come to know-ord of the winner that he wins, which is absurd. Here, I reject the formulation of closure which underwrites this reasoning (though others will accept it), and stick by the judgment that we do know-ord that we’re lottery losers. So I reject a form of the principle that others in the pro-closure camp will accept and use.

  13. 1. Is Knowledge Closed under Known Entailment? Yes.
    2. Is Knowledge Contextual? No.
    3. Can Skepticism Be Refuted? No. Perhaps the arguments for it can be defused, however. Defusing an argument requires showing that we are not committed to its premises. This is not easy to do, since the most powerful arguments for skepticism–the infinite regress argument, the problem of the criterion, and the problem of induction–require only weak, plausible premises that seem essential to our intellectual and moral self-conceptions.
    4. Is There A Priori Knowledge? “Yes” in the sense that there are propositions we can know that cannot be reduced to or otherwise derived from observation statements. “No” in the sense that whether or not these statements are reasonable is partly a function of the sytemic properties of the descriptive/predictive/explanatory system of which they are a part, which might be radically mistaken. Hence a proposition can be justified a priori but false. Consequently a priori beliefs cannot play the robust foundational role some thinkers want them to.
    5. Is Infinitism the Solution to the Regress Problem? No. For details see my “The Trouble With Infinitism,” Synthese 138 (2004), pp. 101-123.
    6. Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone? I don’t know. Not given any concept of coherence I have seen, though, as I indicated above, systemic considerations play a key role in epistemic justification.
    7. Is There Immediate Justification? Maybe. But it would have to be the kind of justification that is compatible with the possibility that the concepts in which our immediately justified beliefs are formed are radically wrong. So big questions for epistemology concern the provenance of our concepts and their corresponding epistemic standing.
    8. Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content? It must if it is to play any role in supporting our beliefs. So, yes.
    9. Is Justification Internal? I think so, though I find it hard to draw a clear line between what’s inside and what’s outside the believer.
    10. Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? Almost. I think the primary goal is knowlege, which requires truth but also includes a grasp of the reasons for our true beliefs.
    11. Is Justified Belief Responsible Belief? I don’t like the way this question is put: it seems simply to assume that justified belief is belief supported by good evidence. I think it can be responsible (perhaps even obligatory) to believe some propositions that are highly disconfirmed by evidence (e.g. believing that I will not die from a disease that kills 90% of persons relevantly like me who contract it if my best chance of survival depends on believing that I’ll survive). The standard evidentialist response that this confuses prudential rationality with epistemic justification seems like a dodge to me, but I can’t put my finger on why I don’t go for it. The theory of justified belief should tell us what we ought to believe, period. It is then an open question whether what we ought to believe is what is best supported by the evidence available to us.

    The volume that produced this thread is on my “to read” stack. As a fallibilist, I reserve the right to change my mind on any or all of these answers after I have read the contributions. It looks like a very interesting collection.

  14. For what it’s worth, these are the only issues I have any tentative judgments on:

    3. “Can Skepticism Be Refuted?” No. Skepticism (even hard skepticism) is a third of the foundation of epistemology, the other thirds being intuition and (cooperative) conversation. None of these can be refuted, they can only be counterbalanced.
    4. “Is There A Priori Knowledge?” No. In no sense, Kantian or otherwise, is any knowledge a priori.
    6. “Can Beliefs Be Justified through Coherence Alone?” No. Take a system of ideas which is exhausted by “A=A”: it is meaningless drivel which provides no knowledge whatsoever, yet it is coherant.
    7. “Is There Immediate Justification?” No. Immediate objects of awareness are underknown. Justification is the output of a method which requires deliberation upon (for example) immediate sensation and past objects of sensation, and the comparison of the two.
    9. “Is Justification Internal?” Yes. Knowledge is optimally justified belief, with truth as a goal.
    10. “Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal?” Yes, though we never know if we’ve achieved it.

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