Nico at the Zoo with Zebras

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.


Nico at the Zoo with Zebras — 4 Comments

  1. I share the intuition that what the friend says is true. But it’s possible that we are merely intuiting that the *implicature* of what shevaays is true. The implicature is that Nico knows that they were playing a trick. This she does know, and her belief here is sensitive.

    (The evidence for the implicature is pretty clear in the last couple of sentences, the last of which introduces the pronoun “it”, which seems to refer to the trick: “Nico knows that they’re not painted mules. Sorry, we had to tell her. But Lou totally bough it.” The penultimate sentence here also seems to be elliptical for “We had to tell her that we were just playing a trick”. This seems to be more evidence that we’re just intuiting that the implicature of the first sentence is true.)

    None of this is decisive of course, but I can’t see a way to rule out this alternative account of our intuition.

  2. Thanks, Dustin. Yes, “it” in “Lou totally bought it” pretty clearly refers to the joke or deception. But given what immediately precedes it, I’d have to think the most natural reading of the penultimate sentence is that they had to tell Nico *that the animals are not painted mules*.

    But it’s hard to believe the friends wouldn’t tell Nico they were playing a trick when they told her (as we can imagine they explicitly do) that the animals aren’t painted mules, and the info that they were playing a trick is very closely connected in this scenario to the info that the animals aren’t cpm’s. And so, yes, it’s possible we judge that the friend’s attribution is true not because Nico knows what the friend says she knows but b/c she knows the nearby, closely related thing.

    In the end, for my purposes, I don’t have to rule out every contrary possibility to my own verdict. I’m not really giving an argument that takes my judgment about this case as a premise. I’m trying to give an example of how I think knowledge attributions can sometimes be true even when they’re about insensitive beliefs. I do want the example to be a plausible one, however. (Which is why I’m checking.)

    That said, when we make it clear that Nico doesn’t know that the animals aren’t cpm’s, I don’t think we have any tendency to find the friend’s knowledge attribution to be true because Nico does know the closely related proposition that the friends were playing a trick. I guess the best way to make it clear that Nico doesn’t know that the animals aren’t cpm’s (sorry for all the negatives!) is to make it false that they aren’t cpm’s. So we consider this revision… The friends, assuming the animals are genuine zebras, devise and play their practical joke. Nico catches someone snickering, and so is told about the joke and is told that the animals aren’t really cpm’s. But then the friend who is about to talk with Andy, but nobody else in the party, finds out that, lo and behold, the animals really are (& were) cpm’s, after all! Then Andy comes back. In this revised case, it’s quite clear that the friend cannot say to Andy, “Nico knows that the animals aren’t cpm’s,” and if she does say that to Andy, I think we’ll have no tendency to find the claim true, even though Nico does still know the closely related proposition that the friends were playing a joke. I guess that provides *some* reason to doubt that when we find the attribution in the original, unrevised case to be true, we so respond because Nico knows the closely related proposition rather than what the friend says she knows.

  3. Hi Keith,

    For what it’s worth, I agree that the knowledge attribution to Nico seems true. But it’s not obvious to me that Nico’s belief is actually insensitive, because it’s not obvious to me that “special investigations” are the only thing that would make such a belief sensitive. Because Nico comes to believe (after Andy and co. let him in on the joke) that they’re not painted mules by way of testimony, and because the guys doing the testifying may possess (somewhat) sensitive beliefs in virtue of having been at the zoo around the zoo cage and NOT hearing the kinds of things they’re themselves saying when trying to trick Nico and Lou, I can get in a frame of mind where Andy’s (and co.) belief is sensitive, or at least, somewhat sensitive.

    Because the very ploy of the trick is to raise the possibility both that they’re cleverly painted mules AND that some of the spectators can recognize this and then talk about it, the kind of “cleverly” painted mule I’m thinking they’re sensitive to isn’t the kind that none of them could discern, but the kind that, if one looks at closely, one could discern; that, coupled with the fact that those playing the trick would presumably be somewhat sensitive to whether they’re actually mules (because if they are, it wouldn’t be much of a trick!), makes me waffle on how insensitive their beliefs are. What their beliefs are sensitive to depends on the kind of skeptical scenario you have in mind. Does that make any sense?

  4. Hi,

    I’m a random person who came across this post through the Philosophers’ Carnival. As a preface, my opinion is based on intuition without too many theoretical considerations. Although Nico did not do any empirical investigation to affirm that her friends were pranking her (i.e. didn’t confirm that the animals in the cage are actually zebras), I would say this is a case of knowledge. Since Andy is her friend (presumably a friend that likes to pull pranks), she’s assuming that he’s telling her the truth about the fact that it was a joke. I think the element of trust is important here, which may or may not be totally relevant to your work. However, if one replaces Andy with “Random Dude,” I think it would be less likely that Nico would feel comfortable with the notion that the animals are actually zebras (since it could be the case that RD is a zoologist or a busboy or whatever else; for the sake of my example, Nico can’t tell what RD’s occupation is). Since Nico does not know or trust RD, she may be skeptical of his claim that the zebras are not cleverly-painted mules and will want to investigate further. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the element of trust necessarily removes the “need” to investigate further, but it may make Nico not feel like she has to apply paint remover to the poor zebras.

    Anyway, that was my gut reaction. Again, not sure if it’s helpful or relevant, but thank you for the insights.

    — RW (Random Woman)

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