The view that one can never truthfully ascribe to a subject knowledge of a fact if their belief in that fact is insensitive has often been ascribed to me. Often, but wrongly. Since graduate school (long, long ago (in a place far, far away)), I’ve thought that there are situations in which “S knows that p” is truly asserted, though S’s belief that p is insensitive, and I had a couple of examples of what I took to be such cases in my dissertation. In fact, I’ve thought that there are likely lots of different types of situations where such (truthfully saying someone knows something to be the case, though their belief in that something is insensitive) would happen, but I was trying to present cases where it seems most plausible to suppose it was. In a recent paper (“Insensitivity Is Back, Baby!”, Philosophical Perspectives, 2010; links to the paper are here), I finally got around to tidying up those cases a bit. I’m presently incorporating that material into the book I’m working on, so I thought I’d try one of the cases out on my fellow Certain Doubters to see if you think it is in fact plausible to suppose this is an example in which the “knowledge”-ascribing assertion is true. What do you think? (Feel free to email me if you’d rather not leave a public comment.)
It’s worth also considering another case I’ve used (DeRose 1990: 223–4), since, riffing on a well-known case from the epistemological literature (Dretske 1970: 1015–16), it involves a more moderate “skeptical hypothesis.” So, suppose a group of friends is meeting by the zebra cage at the local zoo, and as two of the friends, Nico and Lou, who are a bit late, approach from a distance, one who is already at the meeting place, Andy, devises a practical joke to play on them: the rest of the friends will try to get Nico and Lou to falsely believe that the zebras are cleverly painted mules. When Nico and Lou finally arrive, the friends around them start saying things like, “What a great paint job! I would have never guessed that they’re just painted mules,” and, “When I heard of this painted mules scam, I never thought the zoo would be able to get away with it so easily.” After Andy walks away to buy several stuffed zebras from a nearby concession stand, Nico catches someone snickering, and has to be let in on the joke, but Lou is completely taken in by it. So, when Andy returns, one of the friends pulls him aside to apprise him of the situation, explaining: “Nico knows that they’re not painted mules. Sorry, we had to tell her. But Lou totally bought it!”
So, when the friend says to Andy, “Nico knows that they’re not painted mules,” is it plausible to suppose her assertion is true? My own take (report of my impression, plus some very theory-laden explanation) is below the fold:
Here Nico, like all her friends, has not performed any of the investigations that would make her belief that the animals aren’t cleverly painted mules sensitive (see DeRose 1995: 25), and as a result, her belief is (“really”) insensitive. Yet here it seems, at least to me, that “knowledge” that the animals are not painted mules is truthfully attributed to her. Given the conversational circumstances, the assertion that “Nico knows that they’re not painted mules” does not have the effect of raising the epistemic standards to the unusually high level at which Nico’s belief in that proposition must be sensitive to count as “knowledge.” The point our speaker fairly clearly means to be making is not that Nico has the kind of fairly exalted knowledge of the fact that the animals are not painted mules that some special investigation (perhaps, as has been suggested (Stine 1976: 252), one involving paint remover) or special knowledge (as in the case of my “boastful zoologist” (DeRose 1995: 11–12)) would allow her to have, but just that she has the more humble (and strangely difficult to claim, in most conversational circumstances) “knowledge” of such facts that most trusting zoo-goers at reputable zoos have — but that Lou here lacks.