There’s been an email exchange between the three of us that makes a nice follow-up to my previous post on pragmatic enroachments into the theory of knowledge, so I’ll post it here to see if anyone wants to pursue the discussion further. I’ll put the longer discussion between Matt and me first, and then put in Keith’s response to Matt as well.
McGrath: Jon, in truth, I regard accepting a practical condition on knowledge as rather unfortunate (since I fully appreciate the appeal of the idea that whether you know depends on your position with respect to the truth — your purely epistemic position). I don’t think, though, that adding anything about the possibility or cost of inquiring further will help, though. Suppose the stakes are high and there’s no real question of inquiring further (somebody threatens you, say, if you inquire further, or maybe it’s just clear you won’t be able to acquire more evidence). This can make a difference to knowledge, it seems. Why? Well, there might be a risky option A and a safe option B. Now, suppose that you know that p. And suppose you know that if p, then A alone will have the best results of your available options. So, it seems you’re in a position to know that B will have worse results than A. How could you rationally do B, then? If we are steadfast in saying that B is what you rationally should do, we’re going to have to give up the claim that you know that B is worse than A, aren’t we? The idea that one should do B even though one knows that B will have worse results than A is very hard to accept, it seems. No appeal to inquiring further will help, I think. That said, it’s also hard to give up the idea that epistemic position determines knowledge-status.
Kvanvig: Matt–the case you describe is interesting. here’s my reaction to it. I don’t think that appeals to further inquiry is what needs to be used to save the purely theoretical nature of knowledge. I’m not sure what will work, but the salience of the possibility of error is surely playing a role in the case you describe. of course, the explanation for why it plays a role adverts to practical considerations, but even so, the appeal to salience itself may be all that is directly needed in the theory.
OK, that depends on a couple of things. first, whether salience can do the work described; and second, whether there is a careful account of salience that will avoid some of the difficulties you’ve pointed out with appeals to salience. The former problem is worse, I think, but to show that it can’t work, we’ll need a case where practical considerations have the effect you describe and yet the person in question fails to take the possibility of error to be unusually salient in the circumstances. When I think of cases of this sort, I don’t find myself tempted to say the person lacks knowledge.
McGrath: Jon, to put it in a nutshell, I am unhappy with the following claims:
1. I should do B even though I know that B will have worse consequences than option A.
2. S should do B even though S knows that B will have worse consequences than option A.
And I think it seems very intuitive to accept the generalization:
If somebody knows an option B has worse consequences than an option A, he shouldn’t do B.
If both 1 and 2 are false, we can’t use salience of error in an invariantist semantics to explain their falsity; we’ll need contextualism. But I don’t think that will work either. There are other alternatives to the falsity hypothesis, like pragmatic implication, of course. But…
Hey, maybe I should just attach an in-progress paper Jeremy and I are writing on such matters — don’t feel you need to give me comments (although they would be appreciated). We go into all this stuff in detail. We haven’t really put together a conclusion, but the rest is probably close to what it will be in the final draft.
Kvanvig: Matt–i got 3 sentences into your paper, and realize where we are separated. I think of an appeal to salience as a move that can preserve the purely epistemic character of justification (if the appeal is handled in terms of an internal defeater). But you characterize epistemicism so that this position is not available.
I’ll read on…
McGrath: Jon, we’re not really separated. I think our first footnote addresses this concern, but maybe we should move it into the body of the text. Really, we don’t look at salience much, but rather practical stuff. We should probably say: traditionally epistemologists have not regarded salience of error as evidence against p (or a defeater).
Kvanvig: After seeing the paper, I don’t think you consider the possibility I suggest. That possibility is that salience is doing all the work, and that salience can be incorporated into epistemicism by adopting a subjective theory of internal defeaters (as in my post on Certain Doubts). Do you see what I mean?
McGrath: Jon, we talked about this in a previous version of the paper, when we had a section on the salience condition SC. I don’t see how salience bears on practical environment, though, unless through a contextualist move. The claim “If S knows that B is worse than A, then S shouldn’t do B” is true whether S is thinking about counterpossibilities or not — I would think. Or better: if it is true, its truth has nothing to do with what S is worrying about.
Kvanvig: Yes, the claim is true, but it won’t do any explanatory work if the antecedent goes false whenever a person starts worrying about possibilities of error. Oops, meant to say “if the antecedent goes falso whenever a person starts worrying about possibilities of error, and in the examples you use to motivate it, that happens. (We should talk about this, cuz I’m having the feeling that we are talking past each other?)
McGrath: We should talk. I think the question is what makes it go false, the fact that the speaker worries or the fact that the subject worries? In first person cases, this is a distinction without a difference. But in a third person cases, there is a real difference. If the antecedent goes false because the speaker worries, we’ve got contextualism. The idea would be that the conditions one must meet to satisfying ‘know’ become more stringent. I think you’d reject this idea. But there are limits to the appeal to salience as a subject-factor. Whether the subject worries or not, if the stakes are high enough, it might be that he ought to worry. If he doesn’t, and so possibilities of error aren’t salient, that doesn’t allow him to “luck out” and have knowledge.
By the way, I think the blog is a huge success. I was skeptical at first, but, wow. I don’t see how you have time to respond to everyone. It’s a full time job.
Kvanvig: OK, now I think we’re on the same page again. Can you think of a case where a person ought to worry, but doesn’t, and hence lucks out in having knowledge?
McGrath: Jon, I think the the general principle is compelling on its face: people shouldn’t do what they know will have worse results than other options available to them. Or consider: people shouldn’t do what they know will have worse results than all other options available to them.
Kvanvig: I agree the principle looks good. Maybe some tiny tinkering from non-consequentialist concerns, but those are details only. My worries are not about the truth of the principle, but the explanation of its truth. So, you claim that the principle is clearly incompatible with epistemicism, but that’s what I’m questioning.
McGrath: For an example, take Cohen’s airport case. I take it that the fact that Mary and John ought to go inquire further about whether the plane stops in Chicago has nothing to do with what’s salient to them. Whether they worry or not, they ought to check further. Now, it doesn’t seem that they could also know that not checking is best. As soon as I think about this, I run a little reductio: if they knew that, then they shouldn’t waste time checking. Think of Smith: he’d mildly prefer that there was no stop in Chicago. But he doesn’t check. Why? He knows that checking is more effort than its worth.
Or take any case in which one knows, say, on the basis of something casual testimony, or a casual induction, of the kind that suffices for knowledge when nothing is really at stake. It can happen that, given the stakes, we think the person shouldn’t do the “risky” option, but should opt for the safe one; this makes us think that she must not know that the safe one is best. Here what the subject is worrying about seems irrelevant. (Oops–should have said: Or take any case in which one knows, say, on the basis of something casual testimony, or a casual induction, of the kind that suffices for knowledge when nothing is really at stake. It can happen that, given the stakes, we think the person shouldn’t do the “risky” option, but should opt for the safe one; this makes us think that she must not know that the risky one is best. Here what the subject is worrying about seems irrelevant.
There’s stuff on this in the paper. Consider a rebuke by a mother: “Oh, Johnny, why are you fussing; you knew I would be gone only a little while.” This counts as a rebuke — regardless of salience of error to Johnny (presumably error was salient to Johnny) — because this knowledge is taken to make it irrational to fuss.
By the way, I don’t think people who ought to worry but don’t luck out and have knowledge. But I think the view you’re attracted to does have this consequence. Mary and John in Cohen’s case, who do worry, don’t know, according to you. But had they not worried, they would.
Kvanvig: Here’s a claim I defend about knowledge (in my new paper on saving coherentism from the lottery paradox): when you know, you have a justification which legitimates the experience of closure with respect to further inquiry. So, if pragmatic factors undermine the legitimacy of closing off further inquiry, they do so by preventing the justification in question from constituting epistemic justification. But since epistemic justification is understood solely in terms of getting to the truth and avoiding error (and not in terms of practical benefits), the role that pragmatic factors play here could be at most indirect.
Actually, I don’t think you disagree with this in the end (maybe I’m wrong, though…) If that’s right, then the only disagreement is over what it takes to have a purely epistemic theory of knowledge. Do you think this take on our discussion is correct?
McGrath: If you want to put this stuff on the blog — together with DeRose’s remarks on “epistemicism” — please feel free. I would be interested in what others had to say. Our discussion has morphed into an interesting back-and-forth. Same for mine with Keith.
DeRose: Hi, Jon. I’ve been in recent e-mail discussions with your colleague, Matt McGrath, and some of what I last wrote to him strikes me as relevant to your post on pragmatic aspects of knowledge. Anyway, while you write of contextualism as being a view that allows for pragmatic encroachment, Matt construes contextualism as claiming the advantage of “epistemicism”:
“epistemicism”: knowledge that p is solely a matter of meeting purely epistemic standards. It’s “the” advantage of contextualism — isn’t it — that it retains commitment to epistemicism.
There’s lots of room for terminololgy to be slipping around among us here, but with that in mind, in case it’s relevant, here’s what I wrote to Matt about contextualism & epistemicism:
Epistemicism: If we have factors somehow divided into “epistemic” and “pragmatic” camps — and I’ll assume we divide those two up about the same — the sense in which contextualism is an epistemicist view is this: Pragmatic factors (of the attributor’s context, which can also, in some contexts, derivatively bring in prag factors of the subject’s context) affect only which standard governs (gives the truth-condition for) a knowledge attribution; but the standards are all such that, given the particular standard selected, whether S satisfies that standard is entirely a matter of epistemic factors. Using somewhat different terms (using “subject factors” for what we’re here calling “epistemic factors”, and using “contextual” and “attributor” factors for what I’m here calling “pragmatic” factors), here’s how I put it in “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” (PPR, 1992):
Insofar as we do have *this* belief, that the conditions *for truly saying* that someone
knows do not depend on the sorts of contextual factors we have been discussing, then
contextualism goes against at least one of our beliefs. But it seems that much of the
appeal of this belief derives from the plausibility of the thesis (with which the
contextualist can agree) that whether *we know* something or not does not does not depend
on such factors. The answer to the question, “Does she know?”, in whatever context it is
asked, including a philosophy paper, is determined by facts independent of contextual
factors (or what I have been calling attributor factors). These contextual or attributor
factors affect the content of the question, but once the question is asked with a specific
content, its answer is determined by subject factors, which are precisely the kinds of
factors which *can* very plausibly be thought to affect whether or not the subject knows.