Foley and Swampman

Fake Barn Country is having a lively discussion on Foley’s work, gypsy lawyer counterexamples as well as other topics in epistemology. Some of the discussion I’ve been part of as the lone defender of my illustrious mentor’s views, and I thought it would be interesting to see here what kind of reception there is to the primary motivator of Dick’s view that Gettier examples can always be explained in terms of the lack of true beliefs. The primary motivator is, I think, Dick’s Swampman case, where a new creature arises from the swamp as a result of a lightning strike, with a strikingly broad and comprehensive range of truths within its expressive powers (I’d call them beliefs, but at this point, I don’t want to have to go into the externalist worry about this): ask Swampman anything you wish, and he’ll produce a correct answer and be able to construct an explanatory answer as well that is both thorough and complete. Moreover, his answering in this fashion is counterfactual-supporting, so can’t be counted as mere luck (though of course it involves luck to have the ability itself). Swampman is thus much more intellectually impressive than any of us, and Foley’s assessment is that we’d have to admit that Swampman knows a whole lot more than any of us.

Any takers? Any critics?


Foley and Swampman — 11 Comments

  1. Jon,

    A couple quick questions. Is it fair to say that Swampman is eminently reliable with respect to all the things he has beli… er, expressive powers about? Is it also fair to say that there’s some important sense in which Swampman’s “beliefs” couldn’t easily have been false?

  2. John, in some fairly straightforward ways he is reliable and what he says couldn’t easily have been false, and in some other ways the answers go the other way. His words are much more trustworthy than anyone you know, so he is the most reliable source of information around. And we could presumably tell a deterministic story here about exactly how he came to have the beliefs he had, so that it turns out true that if Swampman believes something it will be true.

    I don’t think, however, that we should evaluate the case by considering our favorite requirements on knowledge and noting that Swampman fails to meet them, and concluding that Swampman doesn’t have knowledge. That would bar counterexamples to every theory. I think what Foley is fair in asking is to evaluate the case and see if you’re not pulled toward the view that Swampman knows a lot more than you do.

  3. Jon,

    It seems to me that Swampman does have lots more knowledge (and understanding) than I do. My questions were intended to probe the significance of the case. Does it really serve as strong motivation for Foley’s view if competing views would also straightforwardly imply that Swampman has more knowledge than me?

  4. John, when I talked about the reliability and safety of Swampman’s remarks, I wasn’t trying to assess him by the standards of such theories as reliabilism and Sosa’s appeal to safety. There’s nothing reliable or safe(!) about forming beliefs by lightning strikes, and Foley argues that none of the standard theories of knowledge can grant that Swampman knows. So to the extent that we agree with Foley that Swampman knows a lot more than we do, then we have grounds to that extent to be dissatisfied with standard theories.

  5. Jon, it seems to me that Swampman’s beliefs [you heard me] aren’t counterfactual-supporting in the way that usually comes up in epistemology. Swampman believes that the U.S. celebrates its independence on July 4.” But is it the case that if the U.S. did not celebrate its independence on July 4, Swampman would not believe this? It doesn’t seem that way to me. And that’s the kind of counterfactual that’s at issue in tracking accounts of knowledge.

  6. Matt, I agree that Swampman’s beliefs are not counterfactual-supporting, and so does Foley–in fact, he insists on it. Which, according to Foley, makes the case so instructive, since, he claims, you have to admit that Swampman knows a lot more than we do…

  7. Jon, in the original description of the case, you said, “[Swampman’s] answering in this fashion is counterfactual-supporting, so canĂ¢??t be counted as mere luck.” Now you say it is not counterfactual-supporting. Did you have different kind of counterfactual support in mind in the original description of the case?

  8. Ah, good point, John. Yes, I did. His answering is counterfactual-supporting: if you were to ask him anything you wish, you’d get a correct answer together with a correct explanation of why the answer is correct.

  9. Does anyone else here wonder why we should put any credence at all in our intuitions about hypotheticals as radically farfetched as Swampman? Why think that our concepts like KNOWLEDGE or BELIEF are so fine-tuned as to help us make solid judgments about cases like this? Shouldn’t we suspect that such judgments will be rather theory-laden at best?

    But, fwiw, my intuition is: sure, Swampman knows everything.

  10. Jonathan, I think there are two things that one might be doing in appealing to intuitions here. The first succumbs to your worry a bit more than the second. On the first one, we want to know what knowledge really is, and we somehow think our intuitions are useful guides in that project. On the second project, I’m trying to sort out inconsistencies in my belief system, so I look at what I think about knowledge and what I think about particular cases.

    An example’s being far-fetched might be a reason to be suspicious about appeals to intuitions for the first project, but surely not for the second. And even regarding the first project, the reason for discounting such intuitions isn’t going to be merely that they are far-fetched, but also to some understanding we have about how we acquire the concepts we do and the the inherent nature of such things, such as whether our concepts are vague, etc.

    So suppose you have two theories, one of which requires that Swampman doesn’t know. The other theory implies that he does know in such circumstances. In every other way, the theories are equal: they have the same theoretical elegance, unity, scope, power, fecundity, etc. They disagree only on Swampman and Swampman-like cases. In addition, suppose you think it’s obvious that Swampman knows (and to the extent that the word of your colleagues counts here, they all agree). It would be hard to explain how you don’t have grounds to prefer the second theory over the first. Maybe not enough grounds to believe the second rather than the first, but it sure looks like the second theory has something to be said for it that the first doesn’t.

  11. Yeah, what Jon said. Also, Jonathan, I think there is a difference between a situation being far-fetched and its being such that we have no idea how to react, conceptually, about it. If our conceptual reaction to a situation is very weak indeed, then I agree with you that we shouldn’t put much weight in that reaction in evaluating theories. If the situation is far-fetched but the reaction is as strong as it can be (and some people claim this is what is going on with Swampman), then its far-fetchedness is neither here nor there, I think.

    (Joke for two or three: Jonathan, could it be baby back ribs?)

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