An expert is talking on the TV news about a mafia boss who just disappeared. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that the mafia boss is dead, but the expert is not sure. He says, ‘The mafia boss might be dead.’ As it happens, though, the mafia boss is not dead at all. In fact, he is watching TV right then, listening to the expert speak. In a case like this, what should the mafia boss say about the expert’s claim? Should he say ‘What the expert said is true,’ or should he say ‘What the expert said is false’?
This is a paradigm example of the sort of case — a so-called ‘eavesdropper case’ — that has led to a revolution in recent theories about epistemic modals. It is widely thought that the intuitive response in this case would be to say that the mafia boss should say that what the expert said was false, but traditional theories of epistemic modals seems to predict that the mafia boss should say that what the expert said was true. This thought is one of the main sources of motivation behind the idea that we might need to turn to a radically different form of semantic theory involving what has come to be called ‘relativism.’
In this brief manuscript, we provide new evidence that calls into question the need for a theory of this type. Specifically, we ran five experiments exploring people’s intuitions about precisely the kinds of cases that were supposed to motivate the theory, but when people received these cases, they simply did not have the intuitions that had been adduced in support of relativist theories. For example, in the case described above, when participants were asked how they would react if the mafia boss said that what the expert said was false, the overall tendency was for people to strongly disagree.
We would love to hear any thoughts you all might have about these experiments or about the larger philosophical and semantic issues. (Feel free to write in with comments even if you haven’t read the actual paper.)
Joshua Knobe and Seth Yalcin