Testimony, Lies, Fiction and Benign Falsehoods

Have intuitions, will travel — but not very far this time without your help. Recent work by Peter Klein on benign falsehoods leads to the recognition of conflicting intuitions about testimonial knowledge in a particularly bewildering case for all parties in the epistemology of testimony. In what follows, I sort through this thicket of problems with a view to laying out the hard choices. In the course of doing so, I also make some exploratory remarks for an epistemology of fiction.


1. Little Virginia, Santa Claus and testimonial justification

Consider the elements of the problem. We’ve been discussing how best to account for the apparent acquisition of inferential knowledge from false premises (that is, false beliefs on which a given belief is apparently both causally and evidentially based). The details of that discussion will not occupy us here. [1] Suffice it to note that there are cases of inferential knowledge from beliefs which are false, testimonially justified (or warranted, whatever the preferred analysis of the concept), and epistemically benign, that is, are contextually such that certain true beliefs based on them clearly seem to be cases of inferential knowledge. Here is one such case:

The Spokesperson: The very reliable spokesperson for the president assures me that (q) the president is in Jordan. Based on my belief that q, I infer that (p) the president is not in the Oval Office. Suppose that p is true and q is false: A last-minute change in his Middle Eastern tour schedule now has the president in Israel, not Jordan. Don’t I know that p? [2]

This is a case of inferential knowledge from a benign false belief that is testimonially justified. But there is nothing here that would be of any use for the epistemology of testimony. Now, in setting up his analysis of the benign falsehood phenomenon, Klein (2007) puts forward this case of putative inferential knowledge:

The Santa Claus Case: Mom and Dad tell young Virginia that Santa will put some presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. Believing what her parents told her, she infers that there will be presents under the tree on Christmas morning. She knows that.

I have agreed with Klein that this is a case of inferential knowledge. I have also put it to the test a number of times in talks on the issue, and my audiences invariably accept it as a case of inferential knowledge. But this is a putative case of knowledge from testimonially justified false belief that does seem to wreak havoc with some of the most important intuitions in play in the current debate in the epistemology of testimony. The problem is brought to my attention by Felipe Müller’s question (in conversation): How can little Virginia’s premise-belief (that Santa will bring presents) be testimonially justified?

2. Credulism, epistemic growth and testimonial knowledge

The obvious answer to that question is that there is a seemingly tenable externalist thesis in the epistemology of testimony according to which Virginia’s premise-belief does acquire positive epistemic status (justification, warrant…) from the reliability of her sources. In Duncan Pritchard’s (2004) words, the externalist thesis that concerns us here is the following:

Bare Credulism: For all of one’s [testimony-based beliefs], one’s TBB can be justified even though one is unable to offer any supporting grounds in favour of that TBB. [3]

The obvious answer must be wrong. Some of its implausibility comes from the troubles of anti-reductionism in the epistemology of testimony. Why would anyone want to defend any form of Credulism in view of its apparent absurdity? [4] The pre-theoretical answer appeals to putative counterintuitions in everyday cases where testimony is ostensibly accepted in the absence of justifying grounds: We do solicit information from strangers on a regular basis (“which way to x?”, “what time is it?”, “do you know whether x?”…), and there are those who think that that would hardly make any sense unless we were inclined to believe what we are told. But this is a flimsy case at best. We also have a very substantial intuition according to which the usefulness of such everyday offer of information does not depend on our believing our sources. If the stranger tells me that my destination will be found around the corner, and I have no practical way of checking for reliability, I give it a shot and look around the corner. The situation is akin to betting (regardless of the existence of beliefs about the odds): I have little to lose and much to gain from acting as if I had been told the truth, though actually believing what I have been told by a complete stranger is no indispensable part of an appropriate response to the offer of information. Intuitions are wobbly at best. Sometimes it looks like there’s belief there; sometimes, it doesn’t. My undergraduate students are split on this. (Some think they always believe; some think they never do; and there are those who are simply perplexed by why they sometimes do and sometimes don’t – and why, in any case, it could ever be reasonable to do so.) There is no solid pre-theoretical case for Credulism. [5]

We then come to the theoretical case. It’s built around the claim that some form of Credulism is needed to account for epistemic growth. In Elizabeth Fricker’s (2004) words,

we cannot explain the status as justified and knowledgeable of a person’s system of beliefs without invoking a [credulist thesis] applicable at least in her developmental phase. But this does not entail that for a mature individual, now possessed of a commonsense view of the world and her place in it, this epistemic right ungroundedly to trust still holds. One way of explaining such a distinction between the developmental phase and the mature phase is to hold that an infant starts off endowed with the epistemic right to trust what she is told as such; but by the time she has matured, this has been permanently defeated by the knowledge she has acquired of the deceitfulness and folly of human nature: once one is old enough to know better, one should not trust blindly what others tell one. [6]

The question that this immediately elicits is: Why is the positing of an epistemic right of which we have no independent evidence (and would deny for mature adults) be the best explanation of what goes on in a person’s developmental phase with regard to her believing what she is told on blind trust? The question is urged by the apparent availability of this alternative explanation of a small child’s exercise of blind trust: While the child’s reaction to testimony can only be one of blind trust, she can have no testimonial knowledge. The best she can get (and does get) from reliable testimony is true belief. Why is that a problem? Although she doesn’t explicitly consider the alternative, we find this answer in Fricker’s work:

If there can be no thought without language, and if — as is almost certainly a law of human psychology and neurobiology, even if not logically necessary — a human being cannot acquire language except through being taught it, then it is at least a psychological necessity that all humans have extensive historical dependence on testimony in their development of a system of empirical belief.

This is her basis for concluding that

the prospects of eliminating dependence on ungrounded trust are as we saw: it cannot be done, since the very idea of setting aside all my beliefs which depend on past simply-trusted testimony, to reconstruct my entitlement to them out of the materials that are left, is absurd.

But what is the basis for thinking that what is acquired at the developmental phase (concepts, language, the barest commonsense view of the world) should count as propositional knowledge and not mere true belief (which is clearly sufficient for all practical purposes)? If I’m not mistaken, this is as close as Fricker comes to facing that hard question:

The early phases of language-learning involve such accepting reactions to ostensive teaching of word meanings. Quibbling over whether this is precisely ‘testimony’ does not do away with the basic fact that an infant’s learning of language involves unquestioning practical acceptance as true of what her teachers say to her.

No, let us not quibble over whether what the child feeds on can properly be called “testimony”. I will be happy to call it “testimony”. The hard question that is dodged here (by every author in the field, as far as I have been able to determine) is whether a child’s acceptance of veridical testimony, of propositional knowledge that is conveyed by trustworthy testimony, on the basis of blind trust can properly be called “testimonial knowledge”, whether that is the best we can do with the data.

We have an alternative. Suppose that, at a given moment, all that a very small, blindly trusting child can get from testimony is only true belief, precisely because, as far as testimony is concerned, she’s essentially on a par with the cognitively impaired (mentally retarded, psychotic, aphasic) adult to whom we would unhesitatingly deny entitlement (warrant, justification…). When the child acquires the concepts required for judgments of reliability, all the veridical testimonial beliefs that persist through the move into a phase of higher cognitive competence are immediately turned into knowledge en bloc. (A detailed description of the change in epistemic status may be complex, requiring the satisfaction of some deliberation requirement, or maybe just the disposition to trust on the basis of grounds for thinking the testifier reliable, etc. But this should suffice for our purposes.) The massive change in epistemic status of the child’s veridical TBB’s may be effected all at once, as a result of the child’s keeping all of those beliefs acquired from sources that she now (somehow) acknowledges as reliable. (Again, I’m not trying to describe the process in any detail.) [7] Is this absurd?

If it is, Fricker does not have a convincing explanation of why it is. And I can’t see a defensible positive answer to that question that would not ultimately rely on linguistic evidence from everyday, ordinary knowledge attributions to children, animals, and even inanimate objects (“the elevator door knows when to close”, etc.). But that kind of evidence is notoriously problematic. We know that ordinary attributions of knowledge are routinely retracted when the attributor becomes aware (is reminded) of the distinction between knowledge and true belief. It happens in our undergraduate classes all the time! It is a well-known fact that, in many contexts, all intended purposes are well-served by calling “knowledge” what we would more cautiously refer to as “true belief” in contexts where the distinction matters. Even philosophers who are well-aware of the distinction — even those whose awareness of the distinction is beyond suspicion — occasionally find no harm in calling “knowledge” what they know is only true belief. Thus, Alvin Goldman (1999):

By know, in this context, I mean only: have an accurate, or true, belief. I do not mean: have a justified true belief (or whatever else is entailed by the richer concept of knowledge).

How reasonable is it to expect the non-philosophical speaker to make the distinction in ordinary parlance?

But, if it is not this kind of assumption — the perceived need to render an analysis of TBB’s that accounts for cognitive growth with knowledge at the base, with knowledge playing the role of cognitive propeller — that is tacitly operative in Fricker’s account (her motivation to insist that we must account for the acquisition of testimonial knowledge at the developmental stage), I can’t see what is. The mistake is to think that it is impossible for one’s true TBB’s that survive some reliability check (that I’m not concerned with describing) to turn into testimonial knowledge all at once. This will, indeed, be impossible if the acquisition of concepts and language must itself occur only on the basis of (a posteriori) propositional knowledge. But there seems to be no reason to think that that is the case. As Robert Audi (2003, 143-144) notes,

[a]t the time concepts are initially grasped in childhood, it may not be necessary that (propositional) belief and knowledge are acquired in every case. Conditions sufficient for conceptual learning may not be automatically sufficient for propositional learning… Testimony…can be concept-producing, belief-producing, or both. The former case seems to be more primitive, and the conditions for its possibility should not be taken as sufficient for the possibility of the latter. [8]

3. Lies, testimonial knowledge and benign falsehoods

It is noteworthy that the Santa Claus case — insofar as it is reasonably taken to be a case of inferential knowledge — connects in an interesting way with Jennifer Lackey’s (2007) claim that testimonial knowledge is not essentially knowledge transmitted by testimony, since the testifier may have no knowledge (or justified belief, or even belief) to transmit. One of the two very salient and essential features of the Santa Claus case is that Virginia’s parents are lying to her. And, yet, that apparently does not keep her false TBB (that Santa is coming with the goodies) from being a benign falsehood. Since benign falsehoods are as good a basis as knowledge for the acquisition of inferential knowledge, the Santa Claus case seems to provide evidence for a very obvious consequence of Lackey’s claim: Epistemic good can indeed result from insincere assertion in some contexts.

4. Santa, we hardly know you: notes for an epistemology of fiction

The other very salient and essential feature of the Santa Claus case is what makes Virginia’s false TBB such an interesting benign falsehood: It’s about a fictional character. And that should make us ponder an intriguing possible explanation of the intuitions in play in the case.

David Lewis (1978, 1983) called our attention to the fact that there is such a thing as truth in fiction. (Call it “f-truth”.) It is f-true, he notes (without using the term), that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street, but f-false that he lived in a bank, assuming it true (but f-false) that there was a bank at that address in Victorian London. (What is f-true can be true in the world where the story is told as fiction, provided the f-fact is not nomically or otherwise impossible there. Call this assumption “Coincidence”. More about it shortly.) In the same vein, we should say that it is f-true that Don Quixote was a stubborn man, that Lady Chatterley was no deceiver, that Santa Claus is busy on Christmas Eve. There is, indeed, this intuitive aversion to saying that it is simply false (or neither true nor false) that, for instance, Santa is busy on Christmas Eve. Santa is, of course, busy on Christmas Eve — even to those who believe it false that there is a Santa in our world. [9] What, to my knowledge, has not been noticed (or analyzed in any detail) is that, if there is f-truth, there must be f-knowledge, and also f-justification (f-warrant, f-entitlement…). We do need such notions to account for the fact that not all of one’s non-true beliefs tell against one’s reliability as a believer (or testifier). From the fact that all of the beliefs that an exclusive reader of fiction forms on the basis of what he reads are false (or neither true nor false), it would be fallacious to conclude that, if he tells you he has read that Don Quixote had a dependable friend, you shouldn’t believe that Don Quixote had a dependable friend. The testifier may be very f-reliable. And f-reliability may be indistinguishable from reliability as a sign of certain desirable traits of epistemic character. There is a crucial difference between your beliefs which are f-justified and the reveries of a lunatic, even if they are the same beliefs (beliefs with the same content). This is more obvious when the beliefs are true: The reveries of a lunatic obviously can’t be knowledge when true – on the commonsensical assumption that mental illness (some form of it, in any case) is a decisive bar to reliable believing. But they can’t be f-knowledge either when f-true. Madness precludes f-knowing too! We shall now look into the matter.

As regards our understanding of the epistemic workings of testimony, the distinction between f-knowledge and knowledge, f-justification and justification seems largely (perhaps entirely) irrelevant. Consider the main features of testimonial f-knowledge.

The more natural — or, in any case, the simplest — account of the structure of f-justification is foundationalist. [10] There is basic f-knowledge. Testimony by the storyteller is the only source of basic f-knowledge. If you get the story from its author, it’s f-knowledge. Foundational f-justification is infallible. [11]

But notice how this gives us our Hard Choice #1: The epistemology of fiction does seem to provide us with a cozy theoretical environment for Credulism. On a foundationalist account, we rely on the peculiarities of f-assertion, assertion within a context of storytelling. F-assertion is peculiar in that the ritual that constitutes the act of storytelling does itself, as a rule, establish the storyteller as the sole, infallible authority on the matters reported on in his storytelling. Blindly trusting what the storyteller asserts does seem to be the appropriate response to storytelling. It does seem to be essential to constituting somebody as audience of an act of storytelling. (Think of how bizarre a skeptical attitude would be on the part of the hearer: “Then the starship landed on…Jupiter?! You’ve got to be kidding!”) Which seems to support this form of Credulism in the epistemology of fiction (or “Ci-Fi”, for short): Any TBB caused by f-assertion is f-justified (just by being so caused). [12] And yet, even here, Credulism may seem unacceptable in the absence of much non-obvious qualification. A crucial aspect of f-justification is that the storyteller – either the author or a suitable representative – must establish his authority in those particular matters of f-truth. He must either submit his credentials as author (and be accepted as such), or must give us some evidence that he has read the original story, or has been told the f-truth by somebody in the f-know, etc. Those of us who are not persuaded by the available case for Credulism (section 2 above), will likely be suspicious of Ci-Fi too. One reason to be suspicious is that it’s hard to see how those who – like very small children and cognitively impaired adults – cannot acknowledge a testifier’s authority on matters of truth might be better-positioned with regard to matters of f-truth. Mustn’t one be able to make the distinction between reliability and f-reliability as a necessary condition of f-knowing? And how about mixed contexts — as when one flips into and out of storytelling repeatedly? It is a staple of comedy (particularly stand-up comedy) that the testifier is not to be trusted entirely; but the comedian does purport to be partially trustworthy. When the partial trustworthiness is not picked up by the audience, the joke may fail.

Our foundationalist account of f-justification does, in any case, give us a rationale for denying that, when we have a belief that can at best be f-true (because, say, it is nomically impossible in the world of the believer), we are like the mad believer who holds the same belief. If the structure of f-justification is foundational, with basic f-knowledge at the base, every f-justified belief is causally traceable to an act of storytelling. No such act of storytelling, we may assume, can be found as a causal basis of the mad belief (except, perhaps, schizophrenic storytelling to oneself). There is no problem that I can see with holding that the mad believer is a prisoner in his fictional world. And that fictional world may conceivably be the world where the action described in our f-justified beliefs takes place too. But our foundationalist assumption about how basic f-knowledge is acquired implies that the f-justified believer’s access to the fictional world is provided by testimony (in the act of storytelling), whereas we may assume that the mad believer’s access to that same world is provided by his illness. [13]

My story about f-knowledge is a chapter in the epistemology of testimony. [14] A moment’s reflection suggests that there cannot be anything like perceptual f-knowledge. Suppose that you see a man in a Santa Claus suit robbing a bank. The man looks exactly like Santa, and he looks exactly like he’s robbing a bank. Can you be f-justified in believing that Santa is a bank robber? Of course, not. (Never mind the fact that you may need at least some non-perceptual f-knowledge in order to be described as perceptually f-knowing any f-truths about Santa. This is still as close to a perceptual f-knowledge case as we can get here.)

The reason why you cannot be f-justified in believing that Santa is a bank robber makes us consider inferential f-knowledge. A work of fiction gives you basic f-knowledge in the storyteller’s text/speech. It also constrains the inferences you can f-justifiedly make about its characters. From what you read in Conan Doyle’s stories, you are f-justified in inferring that Holmes’ IQ is higher than Watson’s. You f-know it, though not because you find that assertion in the novels. Likewise, even though you f-know that Santa has a lot of free time in his hands (it’s inferential f-knowledge for you) and you have no basic f-knowledge that he is not a bank robber, you do inferentially f-know that he is no bank robber in his spare time.

This brings us to the social dimension of f-justification. [15] Suppose you know that you are now looking at an unpublished manuscript by Conan Doyle. It’s another Holmes story. In it, the author claims that Holmes is actually the murderer in some of his most famous cases. He is said to have killed the victims and brilliantly forged the evidence with which he framed the accused. (Suppose the forgery was so brilliant that it instantly drove the accused mad, making them confess to being the murderers they in f-fact were not.) Holmes the murderer in his own cases?! F-false! Not even Conan Doyle had the power to produce such a dramatically surprising turn of f-events. We wouldn’t recognize the Conan Doyle we once knew. We would seriously consider the hypothesis that he had gone mad while writing the sequel, or the hypothesis that the manuscript is just a bad joke, or maybe it’s a draft Conan Doyle himself discarded, or maybe we should think the faux Holmes a different character altogether. The bizarre assertions wouldn’t cause any TBB’s (or, at any rate, wouldn’t f-justify any TBB’s). Lady Chatterley a transvestite?! F-false! Don Quixote an alien from outer space?! F-false! Santa Claus painting the town red with his buddy Count Dracula?! F-false! [16]

If this is on the right track, the author’s (the original storyteller’s) infallibility vanishes sometime after the original story is told. At some point – a point of which we may remain ignorant – the storyteller’s authority can be reasonably questioned. We’re still getting basic f-knowledge from him (as the story goes on in subsequent episodes of storytelling about the same characters), but it’s f-knowledge resting on fallible foundations. What the storyteller puts forward as testimony will reasonably be questioned – the very identity of the characters will be jeopardized, his testimonial authority will come under suspicion (his sanity, his seriousness, etc.) – when his account of the f-facts becomes wildly incoherent with what we originally f-knew about those characters. But, notice that nothing here conflicts in any obvious way with the storyteller’s presumptive infallibility when the story is originally told. Nor is there any obvious difficulty in our describing this account of the structure of f-knowledge as a form of foundationalism. Recall that there are versions of foundationalism (“moderate foundationalism”, of one kind or another) according to which a belief is epistemically basic iff its prima facie justification does not depend on any beliefs. Ultima facie justification is a different matter altogether. [17] Foundational beliefs may not be ultima facie warranted when they are incoherent with the doxastic superstructure.

But now we must face our Hard Choice #2: It seems entirely unproblematic to hold that, as regards inferential f-justification, the author of the story is epistemically on a par with his audience: The author may lack f-justification for some of his inferential beliefs because they arise from bad inference from what he f-knows. We have also seen how his would-be basic f-knowledge is constrained (defeasible) by the widespread beliefs that he himself generated with his original story. But where does his basic f-knowledge come from? He has simply made his story up. A tentative answer: The author does have basic f-knowledge and his basic f-knowledge is a priori. It shouldn’t be a problem to think that, if something that you make up is an item of knowledge at all, it is an item of a priori knowledge. What could be more a priori to you than what you yourself have made up?! That surely explains why you are an infallible testifier. The problem is in the idea that anything that can be fabricated at will may deserve to be seen as an instance of the natural kind knowledge. It is entirely not obvious that the author believes what he has made up. On the other hand, there is this seemingly strong intuition that he can believe what he infers from what he has made up. But, again, consider the counterintuition: Apparently, our only hope of distinguishing an act of literary creation from mad believing lies in the claim that, unlike the madman, the author does not believe what he has created. And yet, again: Why not accept that, with regard to an item of putatively basic f-knowledge, the author is indistinguishable from the madman with the same belief? What would then make the desired distinction is the fact that the author is not a prisoner in his fictional world. Unlike the madman, he does go back and forth. We might then try to account for the distinction with the following requirement: A person can f-know only if she can know.

To the best of my understanding, Lewis rejected Coincidence in the following passage of his 1978 paper:

[A] real-life Holmes might have had his real-life Watson who told true stories about the adventures he had witnessed. But even if his memoirs matched Conan Doyle’s fiction word for word they would not be the same stories… So our world would still not be one where the Holmes stories — the same Holmes stories that Conan Doyle told as fiction — were told as known fact. (pp. 266-267)

So, for him, there might have been a real-life Holmes, but our f-knowledge of him could not have become knowledge had we found out that he was, after all, a real-life character. This seems a mistake to me. I can’t see why the change in status – from f-knowledge to knowledge – couldn’t conceivably take place. I suggest that Lewis is confusing knowledge that one has f-knowledge about Holmes with simply having one’s f-knowledge turn into knowledge upon learning that the Holmes stories, the very same stories, were actually eyewitness reports. That is, contra Lewis, I would hold that your knowing that you have f-knowledge that p is consistent with your piece of f-knowledge turning into knowledge that p — in which case, you cannot, at that later time, still know that you f-know that p. Consider: You’re visiting a nursing home. An old man approaches you and says: “My name is ‘Bond’, ‘James Bond’.” He then proceeds to give you overwhelming evidence that he lived all the 007 adventures up to “Goldfinger”, after which he retired. The stories were published under his nom de plume, “Ian Fleming”. No wonder you thought they were all fiction: He’s lived an ultra-secret life, which is why the stories came out as fiction. The evidence he gives you that he is Bond includes detailed, eye-popping evidence of why the stories never hit the news as fact. If you can so much as imagine that you would be driven into suspension of judgment by his account, isn’t that an intuition that those stories, the very same stories, could conceivably become knowledge for you? You would then, apparently, cease to know that you had f-knowledge of the Bond adventures. It seems wrong to think that you can both know and f-know that p (at the same time). But it certainly remains that you once f-knew what you now know. What’s wrong with that?

Maybe nothing is wrong with that, but it does lead us into our Hard Choice #3: Can storytelling be deceiving with regard to the f-truth? The apparent problem here is that, if you pretend to have made something up while meeting all the necessary objective conditions of an act of storytelling, it would seem that you cannot have failed to make it up. Literary creation seems infallible, no matter what the author may presume he is doing in the act of storytelling! But that would imply that the storyteller cannot be deceitful with regard to the f-truth (even though he can certainly be somehow insincere, that is, he can falsely believe that he is being deceitful). While this seems forced on us by the seemingly unproblematic story about how basic f-knowledge is generated — since it follows from the storyteller’s infallibility with regard to items of basic f-knowledge in the original story — it just seems wrong to think, for instance, that our retired James Bond was not being deceitful in his storytelling (and then coming clean when reporting about the cover-up). (There should be no question that he was insincere, that is, that there was intent to deceive.)

This leads straight into Hard Choice #4: Must storytelling be deceiving with regard to a truth that is represented as an f-truth? This is particularly troubling for anyone who accepts Coincidence. Again, if you don’t, you can resolutely hold, with Lewis, that the real-life Bond did not live that Goldfinger adventure, since only the fictional Bond did, and, appearances notwithstanding, the real-life Goldfinger adventure must not be relevantly related to the fictional Goldfinger adventure, which seems absurd. The real-life Bond was not making anything up when he reported on Goldfinger! But he surely was relying on his storytelling’s being perceived as fictional. He was lying with the truth! If you want to hold that the real-life Bond was somehow deceitful, the only acceptable explanation seems to be that we do tacitly suppose that an f-truth must be false (in the world where the story is told as fiction). That’s why Bond’s original report on Goldfinger seemed safe as an ostensive piece of f-truth. So, Coincidence comes under suspicion.

Hard Choice #5: If you accept Coincidence, why would you want to claim that you can’t both know and f-know that p (at the same time, and assuming p can be known where f-known)? In the Bond case, we were compelled to hold that, once he told you the truth as truth, your f-knowledge turned into knowledge. But, if he was infallible as a storyteller, and if we now have seemingly good reasons (discussed under Hard Choice #3) to regard him as infallible about f-truth, why would you lose your f-knowledge when you gain knowledge? And yet, there is something downright uncomfortable about this, isn’t there?

Lastly, a seemingly unproblematic observation of a general theoretical nature in the epistemology of fiction: F-justified f-true belief may not amount to f-knowledge. You may be f-Gettierized. Suppose you have basic f-knowledge that character C is about to A. When you turn the page, you are led to believe that C has A-ed. You infer that C has A-ed, and your belief is f-true. However, you are reading a defective copy of the novel. When you turned the page f-knowing that C was about to A, you were actually thrown two pages ahead, but had no reason to think that that was the case. We wouldn’t say that you f-know that C has A-ed, even though C has indeed A-ed and you have good, undefeated (but non-entailing) evidence that C has A-ed. Had you believed (or justifiedly believed) that two pages are missing from your copy, you wouldn’t have f-justifiedly believed that C has A-ed. Something surprising might have kept C from A-ing within the missing pages.

Now, back to Virginia and Santa Claus. When Müller posed his question (how can Virginia’s premise-belief have positive epistemic status?) my immediate reaction was: “Her premise-belief cannot have positive epistemic status, because, no matter how reliable her parents may generally be as testifiers, nobody can be reliable about Santa Claus!” We can now see how that initial reaction was a crude expression of a useful point. We can all, of course, be reliable in testifying about fictional characters, provided that our testimony is not a piece of storytelling or otherwise f-justifiedly inferred from what we f-know. We can reliably testify, for instance, that Santa is a beloved fictional character. But we can at best be f-reliable in testifying that he wears a funny red suit.

So, from our foray into the epistemology of fiction, there emerges a fairly simple explanation of the troubling intuitions in the Santa Claus case. It’s certainly not inconceivable that, in claiming that Virginia knows that there will be presents under the tree, the most that we are entitled to claim is that she f-knows that. She certainly can f-know that the presents will be there on Christmas morning on the basis of her f-knowledge that Santa will leave the presents there. Since the language of ordinary knowledge attributions does not discriminate between truths and f-truths, we are inclined to say that she knows what she can only f-know — and we then mistakenly identify her f-true premise-belief with a benign falsehood and agonize over the positive epistemic status that it cannot have acquired (since nobody can be reliable, as opposed to f-reliable, about what can only be f-known).

5. Concluding remarks: Virginia, what’s gotten into you?!

Hard Choice #6: Virginia is obviously very gullible. She has no firm grip on the distinction between fact and fiction. (If she did, it would be obvious to her that there can be nothing even remotely like Santa Claus in our world.) And Mom and Dad are, by hypothesis, generally reliable when testifying to Virginia. Suppose further that Mom and Dad inferentially f-know that Santa is coming on Christmas Eve. It follows from the f-fact that Santa is extremely likely to reward well-behaved children like Virginia. Can Virginia f-know, by Ci-Fi, that Santa is coming? Earlier, it was suggested that only those who can know can also f-know, and Virginia certainly cannot have justified (as opposed to f-justified) beliefs about Santa. But, unless something very much like Ci-Fi is defensible, we haven’t come anywhere near explaining how Virginia can f-know that there will be presents under the tree on Christmas morning. (Notice, she certainly cannot be f-justified in her premise-belief by reasoning inductively about her parents’ f-reliability, since, by hypothesis, she has no concept of f-reliability.) And that may seem to be the closest we can get to explaining why we are — as we undoubtedly are — inclined to say that she knows that there will be presents on Christmas morning.

Hard Choice #7: There is an alternative account of the temptation to say that Virginia knows that there will be presents under the tree that does not involve a confusion between knowledge and f-knowledge. It may plausibly be held that Virginia has gathered much evidence of her parents’ reliability as testifiers. On very many occasions, what they said turned out to be true. Rarely did what they asserted prove false. So, she has much evidence available to her for a good inductive argument in support of her premise-belief (that Santa is coming). Isn’t that enough for her to be justified in her premise-belief? The problem with this is twofold. First, it is far from obvious, given the degree of gullibility required for a belief in Santa, that we can reasonably expect a child like Virginia to avail herself of the evidence and use it effectively in support of her premise-belief (on what would then be a reductionist account of her testimonial justification). So, it remains more reasonable to conclude that Virginia could not be doxastically justified in holding her premise-belief. [18] Moreover, we could simply stipulate that she does not avail herself of the evidence, and it wouldn’t be an unreasonable stipulation. Thus, a reductionist account according to which she is justified in holding her premise-belief would have to resort to the unpopular view that the mere availability of the evidence is enough for her to hold a justified belief. Second, even if we let Virginia use the evidence of her parents’ reliability, thus giving our understanding of the case a reductionist twist, Virginia must still remain gullible enough to believe in Santa – which implies that she must remain insensitive to the overrriding effect of the (overwhelming) evidence of Santa’s non-existence on her prima facie justification from the inductive argument. So, on a reductionist account of testimonial justification, Virginia must hold an unjustified premise-belief. But, hold the thought that we are not going anywhere! It may be claimed – not implausibly – that it takes quite a bit of epistemological reasoning to conclude that Virginia cannot be justified in her premise-belief. Maybe what accounts for the commonsense reaction to the case – according to which Virginia does not unreasonably hold her premise-belief – is the fact that the non-philosophical folk (all of us in our non-philosophical moments) tend to attribute to her the kind of inductive reasoning that mature adults would deploy in support of her premise-belief. What then goes wrong – very wrong – is that the non-philosophical folk miss the part about epistemic defeat and cut Virginia the kind of slack that epistemological theory would deny us all. This may indeed explain the intuitive appeal of the claim that Virginia’s premise is a benign falsehood. Trouble is, on this account of the commonsense reaction, Virginia must still remain unjustified in her premise-belief. So, we haven’t really made any progress in explaining how Virginia can know that there will be presents under the tree. Must we throw in the towel as regards her knowing anything and rest content with this attractive explanation of why people tend falsely to think that she does know?

Being one who finds it hard to shake the conviction that Virginia knows that there will be presents on Christmas morning – regardless of whether Ci-Fi is tenable and she also f-knows – I’m as puzzled about the Santa Claus case as anybody can be. [19]

Notes

1. See Klein’s 2007. The main features of this forthcoming paper were disclosed by him in 2004 and discussed at Certain Doubts in Jon Kvanvig’s posts “Klein on Useful Falsehoods”, “Klein on Useful Falsehoods II” and “The Significance of Useful Falsehoods”, and in my post “On Useful Falsehoods”. Fritz Warfield joined the discussion with his 2005 paper.

2. I used the example in my unpublished 2003 talk at the Central States Philosophical Association meeting in Chicago, where EJ Coffman was my (insightful) commentator.

3. Pritchard goes on to discuss two other qualified versions of Credulism — Modest Credulism and Modest Restricted Credulism. But the distinctions shouldn’t make any important difference in what follows, though they certainly matter for a more extensive discussion in the epistemology of testimony. Bare Credulism is implied by a claim (derived from Tyler Burge’s work and opposed by Elizabeth Fricker) that Matthew Weiner (2003) has recently argued for: “We are justified in accepting anything that we are told unless there is positive evidence against doing so.”

4. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Credulism will ultimately prove untenable. I simply acknowledge the fact that it’s taken quite a bit of work to turn it into a view worth discussing. It is, to my knowledge, universally conceded that externalism is on the defensive in the epistemology of testimony. This is consistent with believing, as I do, that a much qualified version of Credulism is prevalent in the contemporary debate, since it has been made compatible with Humean reductionism (specifically, some form of “local reductionism”). The main argument for Credulism is briefly discussed below.

5. Some writers seem to simply assume that the correct phenomenology of testimony acceptance in those kinds of situations calls for thinking that one normally believes what one is told in the absence of grounds for distrust. See Weiner 2003 for an instance. For another, consider this passage in James B. Freeman’s 2005 work on the issue:

Just as in perception, when we are appeared to in a certain way through the senses, we automatically form certain beliefs as a consequence of our constitution or design plan, so when we are appeared to “testimonially” we are constitutionally set to assent to the belief formed through this experience… As a presumption for the reliability of perception is a first principle of common sense, so a presumption for the reliability of relying on testimony is also a first principle of common sense. As such, there is no need to argue for these principles and indeed such an argument would be wrongheaded. (292-3)

The problem is that this is woefully at odds with our institutional practices, which constantly and essentially call for the scrutiny of credentials, and, if anything resembling Freeman’s description is even ballpark-right, it must be a mystery what sets us on our distrustful ways so early in life. Contrast that descriptive credulist assumption with the discussion in Jonathan Adler 2002, pp. 143-144:

By and large, hearers accept speakers’ testimony, unless hearers have specific reason to object… When the stranger tells me, in response to my inquiry, to take the number 4 downtown to 14th Street…I, as the hearer, will generally do so because I accept his word. Admittedly, the uniformity that we observe is imperfect, and the behavioral data somewhat equivocal… The behavioral data are equivocal because when the hearer conforms to the default rule, he may not truly accept the speaker’s word. If the hearer is under time pressures, he may have no practical choice but to do what the speaker says, and a hearer can appear to be accepting the speaker’s word, but not do so in the privacy of his mind…

In spite of this, Adler goes on to claim that,

normatively and statistically, speakers expect hearers to take their word. If I am offered directions and do not challenge them, then if the speaker observes me not following his directions, he will be offended (“Why didn’t you trust me?”); and if he confronts me, I am shamed.

I haven’t been able to confirm that the adverb “normatively” is correctly used here. On the contrary, the classroom experiment indicates that it doesn’t take much coaxing at all to get people to admit that it is unreasonable for a stranger to expect to be trusted in the absence of evidence of reliability. So, the statistical data seems of little value here. It doesn’t take much discussion for people to reconsider their initial reaction to skeptical inquirers. Moreover, insincerity is unpopular — occasionally perceived as immoral — even when socially valuable. Also, the non-philosophical folk tend to confuse epistemic with prudential justification, but seem to have no difficulty embracing the distinction when confronted with it. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it takes the controlled environment of the philosophy class to make our subjects reconsider their instinctive behavior.

6. For good criticism of the asymmetry in Fricker’s reductionist stance, see Weiner 2003.

7. Another attractive alternative will be mentioned shortly (note 8 below).

8. Stephen Hetherington’s “epistemic gradualism” is a very attractive alternative to my proposal here. (See Hetherington 2001 and 2005.) Exploiting the well-known fact that justification is a graded phenomenon and that we are notoriously incapable of telling, non-arbitrarily, where the cut-off point is between justification that is insufficient for knowledge and that which is, he puts forward a gradualist view of knowledge with mere true belief as its lower bound:

We may accept…that no step along the spectrum is a cut-off point between knowing and not knowing…[A]ny true belief is already knowledge. Justification makes it better knowledge — and better justification makes the belief even better knowledge still. (2001, 148-9)

On that basis, he is engaged in our discussion about how best to account for epistemic growth:

When a young child is told that the earth orbits the sun, she thereby comes to know that it does. If this is not knowledge, her education at that stage is not the imparting of knowledge. But of course that is what it is…Other things being equal, being told by five sources — rather than just one — that the earth orbits the sun improves one’s knowledge of its doing so. Don’t you know better now that the earth orbits the sun than you did as a child? It is obvious that you do. (2001, 148-9)

I can’t discuss Hetherington’s gradualism at length here and would hate to oversimplify it. It is an attractive alternative. But I can’t say that I’m fully persuaded that he has the best overall account of the intuitions in play when we use the language of knowledge in describing that crucial transition in our epistemic growth. I have preferred to account for it as the crossing of a threshold: At some point, the child is equipped with whatever it takes for us to describe some of her true beliefs as knowledge. (This will still be consistent with speaking of the improvement of one’s knowledge, as per Hetherington’s admonition.) The crucial element is the desired reliability check, whatever the best explanation of that may be (the acquisiton of beliefs about the reliability of sources, or just some ability to detect unreliability, whatever). Granted, Hetherington’s view will make the most of out this admission of ignorance. (It’s a good thing that it will; it’s what gives us a viable alternative.) On the other hand, his view may suffer when confronted with the time-honored, intuitively well-founded and apparently sharp distinction between knowledge and true belief. I wonder if the good premise concerning the undoubtedly graded phenomenon, epistemic justification, will safely deliver Hetherington’s conclusion about the existence of a degree of knowledge that coincides with merely true belief. I suspect that the linguistic evidence from ordinary parlance in cahoots with the argument from vagueness is no firm ground for the conclusion about “minimal knowledge” (true belief). And I must leave it at that.

9. From the standpoint of a plausible phenomenology of belief, I can’t see that there is any good reason to assume that belief in what is ostensibly an f-truth is a propositional attitude to be distinguished from ordinary belief (in truths which obtain in the world of the believer). I think Lewis would agree with this. But his acceptance of a notion of “make-believe learning” (in his 1983), derived from Kendall Walton’s work on “make-believe truth”, may indicate otherwise. In the case of Gareth Evans’ work on the issue (1982, ch. 10), Walton’s influence does lead to the positing of “make-believe propositional attitudes”. I shall not discuss Evans’ view of “make-believe belief” here. I shall only note, in passing, that it strikes me as ill-founded. (See note 14 below.)

10. Here, I will only go so far as to offer you the main features of a foundationalist epistemology of fiction.

11. As we shall shortly see, the storyteller may not be able to cause any basic f-justified TBB’s. The fact that some TBB’s can’t be f-justified even if they are appropriately received from the storyteller — because their f-justification is defeated by one’s f-justification for some inferential beliefs — suggests that this is a form of moderate foundationalism (with both infallible and defeasible f-justification generated by the author at different times). More on this shortly.

12. For the remainder of our discussion, I will rest content with focusing on this very rough formulation of Ci-Fi. The tough questions ahead wouldn’t significantly be affected by more sophisticated formulations of that claim.

13. The question of whether our prototheory provides for any difference between the storyteller and the madman will shortly be tackled.

14. If you are inclined to think that it is a fundamental mistake to think of storytelling as the offer of a kind of testimony (testimony purporting to convey f-truths), consider again the cost of buying your way out of here: Very clearly, storytelling seems to cause beliefs, and those beliefs seem very ordinary indeed. (Notice that, for us, what one may want to call an “f-belief” is an ordinary belief that is a case of f-knowledge. There are no special propositional attitudes, which is why I’ve avoided the term “f-belief”.) A fortiori, the other relevant propositional attitudes will also be a part of the picture. We f-justifiedly disbelieve that Don Quixote used to ride a motorcycle, and we f-justifiedly suspend judgment on whether he was once cared for by a Chinese nanny. But, again (see note 9 above), one will find an alternative in Evans (p. 359):

A story-teller pretends to tell (inform) us about things. He pretends to be informed about these things. (That is, he pretends to be informationally related in some way or other to the events he relates; although the precise relation need not enter into the pretence.) We, hearing him, are prone to carry on the pretence…we pretend to have been told of these things (to know them by testimony).

I think this will yield a counterintuitive explanation of the data. I’m not pursuing the comparison at length here. Still, consider: Why do we need a notion of make-believe truth if the storyteller is only pretending to be informative? Why not simply have the truth (falsehood) as the object of pretence? Also, if pretending to believe (“make-believe belief”) is incompatible with full-blown belief, as Evans seems to suppose, shouldn’t it be under your voluntary control? Is the propositional attitude that you have toward the proposition that Quixote battled windmills under your control? Can you just pretend to believe that he did? Mere pretence surely is under voluntary control.

15. Lewis tacitly recognized the social aspect of f-knowledge as a part of his rationale for letting the set of “collective belief worlds” of the community where the story is told as fiction (defined by the beliefs that are “overt” in that community) constrain his analysis of f-truth.

16. There is, of course, a kind of spoof that exploits the outrageous misplacement of well-known fictional characters. If the misplacement could yield f-knowledge, it wouldn’t be funny.

17. See Audi 2003, ch. 7, for a sketch of a version of moderate foundationalism.

18. The classic presentation of the doxastic/propositional justification distinction is in Roderick Firth 1978.

19. A special thank-you goes to my colleague Felipe Müller for the question that set these cogitations in motion. For the insightful comments they so generously offered, I thank Rodrigo Borges, Stephen Hetherington, Jennifer Lackey, and Ed Ribeiro.

References

Adler, Jonathan E. 2002. Belief’s Own Ethics (MIT Press).

Audi, Robert. 2003. Epistemology, 2nd edition (Routledge).

De Almeida, Claudio. 2004. On Useful Falsehoods. Certain Doubts,
http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/?p=195#more-195

___. 2003. Benign Falsehoods: A Lesson about Inferential Knowledge. Unpublished talk at the Central States Philosophical Association, Chicago.

Evans, Gareth. 1982. The Varieties of Reference (Oxford University Press).

Firth, Roderick. 1978. Are Epistemic Concepts Reducible to Ethical Concepts?. In A.I. Goldman and J. Kim, eds., Values and Morals (Reidel).

Freeman, James B. 2005. Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem (Cambridge University Press).

Fricker, Elizabeth. 2004. Testimony: Knowing through Being Told. In Ilkka Niniluoto, Matti Sintonen and Jan Wolenski, eds., Handbook of Epistemology (Kluwer Academic Publishing).

Goldman, Alvin. 1999. Internalism Exposed, The Journal of Philosophy 96.

Hetherington, Stephen. 2005. Knowing (How It Is) That P: Degrees and Qualities of Knowledge. In Claudio de Almeida, ed., Perspectives in Contemporary Epistemology, Veritas, vol. 50, No. 4 (Porto Alegre, Brazil), downloadable for free at http://revistaseletronicas.pucrs.br/veritas/ojs/viewissue.php?id=4&locale=en .

___. 2001. Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge (Oxford UP).

Klein, Peter. 2007. Useful False Beliefs. In Quentin Smith, ed., New Essays in Epistemology (Oxford UP, forthcoming).

Kvanvig, Jonathan. 2004. Klein on Useful Falsehoods. Certain Doubts, http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/?p=161#more-161 .

___. 2004a. Klein on Useful Falsehoods II. Certain Doubts, http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/?p=162#more-162 .

___. 2004b. The Significance of Useful Falsehoods. Certain Doubts, http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/?p=164#more-164 .

Lackey, Jennifer. 2007. Learning from Words (Oxford UP).

Lewis, David. 1983. Postscripts to “Truth in Fiction”. In his Philosophical Papers, Volume I (Oxford UP).

___. 1978. Truth in Fiction. In his Philosophical Papers, Volume I (Oxford UP).

Pritchard, Duncan. 2004. The Epistemology of Testimony. In Ernest Sosa and Enrique Villanueva, eds., Philosophical Issues, 14, Epistemology, 2004 (Blackwell Publishing).

Warfield, Ted. 2005. Knowledge from Falsehood. In John Hawthorne, ed., Philosophical Perspectives, 19, Epistemology, 2005 (Blackwell Publishing).

Weiner, Matthew. Accepting Testimony, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 53, No. 211.


Comments

Testimony, Lies, Fiction and Benign Falsehoods — 19 Comments

  1. Pingback: If-Then Knots ---------------------->

  2. Hi, Jeremy, thanks for the comments at If-Then Knots. For the time being, I’m focusing on this passage:

    Something strikes me as funny sounding in the account of the status of storytellers. When they are telling their stories it’s not as if there is anything independent of the utterances themselves against which to measure their truth. Because of this, it strikes me as awfully strange sounding to talk of them testifying as authorities. Authorities to what? Fiction can be coherent or incoherent, but accurate/inaccurate? Authority strikes me as measured by how likely a testifier is to be accurate. The storyteller while telling the story is engaged in the fabrication of a text that can later serve as a kind of f-truthmaker, but during the storytelling there’s nothing to testify to.
    Well, there’s quite a bit more than that going on in Claudio’s post that I’m still puzzling over, but I think that it is misleading from the start to think of storytelling as a kind of testimony of f-facts.

    The view of storytelling as testimony seems to be the one that best fits the seemingly undeniable fact that there is truth in fiction. Truth is the object of belief, and storytelling conveys truth in fiction. It would be a strange view if we held that truth in fiction is unknowable, wouldn’t it? As for what strikes you as funny-sounding, isn’t that the presumptive infallibility of the storyteller (when the story is originally told)? In any case, I’ll have no problem agreeing that it’s all funny-sounding. But that’s a description of philosophy, isn’t it?

  3. Suppose I’m recounting the Appollo mission. If I say “they landed on the moon” then I’ll have said something true. If instead I say “they landed on Mars” then I’ll have said something false.

    Suppose I’m weaving a tale of space travel. If I say “they landed on the moon” then I’ll have said something f-true. If instead I say “they landed on Mars” then I’ll still have said something f-true.

    That disanalogy is what’s driving my suggestion that it’s mistaken to construe storytelling as a kind of authoritatize testimony of f-facts, but rather as a kind of fabrication of f-facts. I agree that the storyteller is infallible but that’s because whatever she says goes as far as f-truth and not because she’s got some kind of special access to the f-facts. That’s just my intuition, not having read much of anything on this topic.

  4. I suppose you believe that Don Quixote battled windmills. We both know he did. How do we know? Cervantes told us that. So, we’ve learned about Quixote by testimony, haven’t we? It’s testimonial knowledge because Cervantes couldn’t have misinformed us when he told us about Quixote, could he? Anything counterintuitive here?

    We really had better start by asking ourselves where those f-true beliefs come from. And then we’ll eventually get to the hard questions about whether and how the storyteller f-knows what he’s told us. (In any case, it will be good to keep in mind Jennifer Lackey’s claim according to which you can learn that p by testimony even though the testifier doesn’t know, oe even believe, that p.)

    I hope this helps.

  5. If what Cervantes were doing when he said “Quixote battled windmills” was testifying to the f-fact that Quixote battled windmills then had Cervantes said “Quixote battled watermills” he would have said something f-false. However, if Cervantes had said that Quixote battled watermills then that would be the f-truth and hence his saying “Quixote battled watermills” would have been saying something f-true. Therefor, what Cervantes was doing when he said “Quxote battled windmills” was not testifying to an f-fact. I think he was fabricating the f-facts.

    Anyhow, I could be just confused and it being finals time I don’t have the time to invest in thinking very hard about this or reading any of the literature you mention in your top post, so I’ll have to apologize and bail on the thread, before I allow myself to get too sucked in and neglect other duties.

    Best,
    Jeremy

  6. Hi Claudio,

    Isn’t fiction highly dependent upon what is known about our actual world? Your wish to disqualify stories of madmen suggests that there are bounds on what will count as a story, if my quick reading of you is right, which to me sounds like there are conditions for when a story teller has epistemic authority over the tale he tells other than the act of fabricating it.

    Fictional stories seem to be effected as much by artful omission as by explicit fabrication; we don’t get a specification of Santa’s workshop (How does he heat the place? Where does he get his supplies? How does he get the elfs to work for him? Why doesn’t he move?), for instance, for the art to telling a story seems to be to construct only enough falsehoods necessary for the purposes of the story and then allow your audience to fill in the rest with their background knowledge. On this view, the audience has an active role in giving coherence to a story. A well-crafted tale will put bounds on what the audience can reasonably contribute, and I take it that one thing that students of literature do is evaluate how the great authors do this, and what we can learn about their view of the societies they lived in by the decisions they made in crafting their work. But, still, f-truth, f-justification, and f-knowledge are all highly dependent upon what is true, what is justified, and what is known.

    The point behind this last paragraph is to try to soften up the ground under which the infallibility of a story teller thesis rests.

  7. Jeremy,

    Okay, I have no problem at all with that. Again, it’s interesting to note how Lackey’s views on testimony support your preferred view on how we get f-knowledge from somebody who’s made it all up (though, actually, I’m the one claiming you should see it that way, and I’m also the one claiming that nothing here will obviously conflict with her views). So, there would seem to be no reason for you to resist the f-knowledge story.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  8. Hi, Greg,

    Yes and no, I’d say.

    As regards the author’s infallibility when the story is originally told, it seems hard to maintain that “f-truth, f-justification, and f-knowledge are all highly dependent upon what is true, what is justified, and what is known”. Consider the sci-fi & fantasy genre. It’s pretty much anything goes there, right? And yet, after the original story is told, we get this feeling that the author is “caged” to some extent by coherence constraints. Here’s a passage from Lewis’ 1978 paper:

    I claim that it is true, though not explicit, in the stories that Holmes does not have a third nostril; that he never had a case in which the murderer turned out to be a purple gnome; that he solved his cases without the aid of divine revelation; that he never visited the moons of Saturn; and that he wears underpants.

    This is accounted for in the post in a way that I think Lewis would have liked if he were primarily concerned with f-knowledge: it’s inferential f-knowledge. (You get basic f-knowledge, by testimony, from the author’s assertions.) It’s not what one would reasonably suspend judgment about. That’s where the constraints that you emphasize come into the picture.

    One of the things that some people find off-putting about sci-fi & fantasy is the extent to which you are forced to suspend judgment. It seems that the scope of your inferential f-knowledge there is drastically reduced. That’s very frustrating to some people (I speculate). And that is exactly what others find appealing in the genre. But I’m definitely not venturing into psychoanalysis!

    I think the reference to madmen is important. It’s interesting to see that one’s rationality cannot reasonably be put into question when some non-true belief is acquired in an act of storytelling no matter how outrageously fanciful that belief may be.

  9. Hi Claudio,

    I was actually thinking of Sci-Fi; I’m not convinced that anything goes in this genre. Rather, key features of our world are relaxed or violated, sometimes for clever purposes, other times gratuitously, but otherwise things are presumed to be enough like our world for us to understand the story.

    I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, either. But, I take it that readers are in the habit of not so much suspending judgment but rather are in the habit of quickly revising their beliefs about the world they are reading about. And I guess that could be fun. So A, from outer space, has two nostrils in act 1, and three in act 2. That might be okay, a distinguishing feature of creatures from outer space, or it might be ridiculous, a flaw in the story. Is A a character in a Stanislaw Lem book? Then it probably is a compelling feature of creatures from outer space. Is A a character from an Ed Wood film? Then it is probably ridiculous…like perplexed cops scratching their heads with the barrels of their pistols, or pilots describing plainly saucer-shaped flying saucers as ‘cigar-shaped’.

    I’m not sure I follow your last remark about madmen.

  10. Greg,

    Sorry about the cryptic remark on madmen. I was actually just repeating what I wrote at the beginning of section 4 in the main post (where the remarks are not cryptic, I hope).

    Consider two agents, A and B, whose belief systems are filled with ordinary beliefs about the world as we know it. Both believe that (p) there was once a man who pulled himself out of a bog by his own hair. The only relevant difference in their mental lives is that A believes that she has read The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen – whereas B’s only belief about Munchausen is p. B is a lunatic. A can be perfectly rational and knowledgeable.

    If there is truth in fiction, a complete epistemology will have to include an explanation of f-knowledge.

    As regards sci-fi, I like your suggestion that readers/viewers are busy making huge revisions in their relevant system of f-justified beliefs with every twist and turn in the plot (about a dramatically changing world). Maybe that is what some people find off-putting about the genre: massive belief revision every few minutes! But this can be combined with my suggestion: There’s also the drastic limitations on one’s inferential f-knowledge. Contrast sci-fi (of the most unpredictable kind) with a good whodunnit. In the latter case, after a certain point in the story, there is at least the promise that you can learn all that there is to f-know about the crime by inference.

  11. My response is limited to Claudio’s (comparative) scepticism about any default view of testimonial justification (though Claudio directs his objections to an externalist form of Credulism). Claudio writes:

    The pre-theoretical answer [favoring default/credulist view] appeals to putative counterintuitions in everyday cases where testimony is ostensibly accepted in the absence of justifying grounds: We do solicit information from strangers on a regular basis (“which way to x?”, “what time is it?”, “do you know whether x?”” … ), and there are those who think that that would hardly make any sense unless we were inclined to believe what we are told. But this is a flimsy case at best. We also have a very substantial intuition according to which the usefulness of such everyday offer of information does not depend on our believing our sources. If the stranger tells me that my destination will be found around the corner, and I have no practical way of checking for reliability, I give it a shot and look around the corner. The situation is akin to betting (regardless of the existence of beliefs about the odds): I have little to lose and much to gain from acting as if I had been told the truth, though actually believing what I have been told by a complete stranger is no indispensable part of an appropriate response to the offer of information. Intuitions are wobbly at best. Sometimes it looks like there’s belief there; sometimes, it doesn’t. My undergraduate students are split on this. (Some think they always believe; some think they never do; and there are those who are simply perplexed by why they sometimes do and sometimes don’t — and why, in any case, it could ever be reasonable to do so.) There is no solid pre-theoretical case for Credulism. [5]

    5. Some writers seem to simply assume that the correct phenomenology of testimony acceptance in those kinds of situations calls for thinking that one normally believes what one is told in the absence of grounds for distrust….The problem is that this is woefully at odds with our institutional practices, which constantly and essentially call for the scrutiny of credentials……..[But as an example of Claudio’s is meant to show] it doesn’t take much coaxing at all to get people to admit that it is unreasonable for a stranger to expect to be trusted in the absence of evidence of reliability….. It doesn’t take much discussion for people to reconsider their initial reaction to skeptical inquirers. Moreover, insincerity is unpopular — occasionally perceived as immoral — even when socially valuable. Also, the non-philosophical folk tend to confuse epistemic with prudential justification, but seem to have no difficulty embracing the distinction when confronted with it. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it takes the controlled environment of the philosophy class to make our subjects reconsider their instinctive behavior.

    There are no doubt many cases that fit Claudio’s characterization. But the significance of those various cases is undermined if there are a very broad set of core cases (direction, someone’s name, sports scores, the weather, time…) which count as providing the rudiments for an epistemology of testimony. One way that they are core is that they are minimal in regard to the antecedent knowledge one has as to the specifics of the setting and the setting lacks any special reasons pro or con: They involve a stranger; they are information-seeking settings/questions (as contrasted to, say, mainly social occasions); the information sought is on a matter where it is mutually expected to be in a stranger’s competence to answer (or to say he does not know, if not); the information sought is satisfied by a single, simple assertion and there is no incentive to lie. (Here, as elsewhere, there are elaborations on these points in the literature.)

    Now in such alleged core cases: If a speaker S asserts p (within a core case and normal circumstances) would the hearer H accept it? If H learned that S’s reason for believing p was testimony, would he regard S’s belief or the testimony it expresses as formed irresponsibly or negligently?

    These questions are asked assuming the knowledge-norm for assertion, which, though controversial, raises the bar for a default rule. If S tells H to take the #2 to Eastern Pkwy, in response to H’s query (in NYC) how to get to the Brooklyn Museum, H would take himself to be entitled to just accept it because he would be entitled to take S to know it. (Is, though, the normative language of entitlement and default needed? Opposed to both the sceptical/reductionist view and the empirical or a priori default view, is the position of Lipton and Schiffer that testimonial acceptance is just inference to the best explanation.) If competence (or reliability) is not in question and there is no incentive to deceive, what’s left beyond fallibility?

    Another way to assess testimonial evidence is by comparisons. Consider numerous propositions that you think you know, not primarily through testimony (a hard condition to meet, as Coady emphasizes) and which can be organized into groups (on the basis of the subject and circumstances in which the relevant kind of proposition, within that subject, would be acquired): that Jones is depressed (observational); that the cold weather caused the car not to start (observational; causal inference); etc. Are these more secure as groups than testimonial core cases? I assume the answer is ‘no’.

    Claudio’s scepticism would greatly ramify if much of our beliefs are full or all-out (not the kind that would arise from the cases Claudio touches on, where one only practically accepts). These beliefs originate in testimony, and it is not feasible in the ordinary testimonial setting to engage in checks of the speaker that would eliminate what Claudio regards as potential sources of error.

    A final problem: If there were not a presumption or default for acceptance, and this was understood (i.e. that testimony was to be evaluated, as a case-by-case evaluation without a default) would testimony thrive? Would it remain as epistemically valuable a practice in the information it transfers as it is and as we take it to be?

    If the answers to these last questions are ‘no’, as I think, that is a difficulty for Claudio’s position. But it is also problematic for various opposing positions. It leaves open the question as to whether this utility for the practice counts as an epistemic utility, which can serve as an epistemic reason for justifying a belief or for justifying our coming to beliefs in the ways we do, though not any specific one.

  12. The idea that a child’s true beliefs become knowledge en bloc, at the time of acquiring suitable epistemic concepts, seems to me quite unrealistic. Since we normally forget our sources, it is unrealistic to suppose that we recall them and subject them to epistemic scrutiny. However, your point against Fricker does not need that picture: it still could be that the child starts off with true belief which is not knowledge, but later, events which, had they occurred earlier, would not have generated knowledge (but only true belief) now generate knowledge. And of course there is room for retrospective considerations which effect piece by piece some of the transformations you envisaged to occur en bloc.

    I think you need to be careful about impugning ordinary intuitions about the distinction between JTB and K. Responses to Gettier cases are, in my experience, very robust.

    The Santa case is very interesting, but here is an alternative account: it’s not that the child infers from “Santa will bring you presents” to “There will be presents”. Rather the implicit reasoning is something more like: Parents are saying something which entitles me to believe that there will be presents; so there will be presents”. I can’t say I much care for your view that the child ends up merely with f-knowledge. Even if, according to the story, she gets presents, if she gets no presents in fact she would be entitled to be VERY ANGRY! It would be no consolation (and she would be right not to be consoled) to be told that f(she got presents).

    Although I agree that there is f-knowledge (i.e. knowledge of f-truth) this does not follow from the fact that there is f-truth. Indeed, it would not follow even if f-truth were a species of truth (a computer may process truths, yet know nothing), which it is not (truth is closed under entailment, f-truth is not, etc.).

    Not sure about infallibility. There are stories in which the imaginary narrator misleads, first telling us how things did not happen before revealing the f-truth. So we have at one stage f(p), at another f(not-p). Unqualified, we have to say f(not-p) despite the fact that a reader could get p from the author. Also even in the most straightforward kind of fiction there’s plenty of room for doubt about whether or not f(p), once we move beyond the explicit content of the tale. I guess there’s room for anti-realism (if whether f(p) is not resolved once the best humanly possible interpretative efforts have been applied, then not f(p)), but any such metaphysical view is much weaker than what you wish to claim.

    Although I am essentially on your side in regard to the point about making-up and the apriori, I think you rather overstate the case: an author may well forget what he has made up, or misremember it. There are plenty of authorial “errors”.

    I think Lewis would agree (and certainly should agree) that we might mistake fiction for fact, or fact for fiction. But I agree with Lewis that if Holmes is a fictional character (so we are not mistaken in treating the stories as fiction), then, necessarily, Holmes is not a real person. Currie strikes me as very convincing on this (in On the Nature of Fiction).

  13. Thank you both, Jonathan and Mark, for the exciting comments in #12 and #13. I’ll have some replies to each of you.

    Jonathan,

    I’ll be happy to focus on the core cases “(direction, someone’s name, sports scores, the weather, time…) which count as providing the rudiments for an epistemology of testimony”, as you aptly put it. Does a plausible analysis of those cases recommend embracing a “default rule” for testimonial entitlement?

    Your view of a default rule is complex, as you note, not neatly classifiable as either reductionist or anti-reductionist, since you’re promising a “reconciliationist” position in the epistemology of testimony. My gripe in the main post was about a clearly anti-reductionist claim, Credulism (of varying degrees of generality), rightly identified by Duncan Pritchard as externalist in character. I was mainly concerned with Elizabeth Fricker’s acceptance of a limited form of Credulism — the connection with the Santa Claus case being the need to account for a young child’s reasoning from a false testimony-based belief to what appears to be inferential knowledge. The reference to your work is valuable in that context because your views on testimony arise from much careful consideration of those core cases in a broadly evidentialist theoretical setting that still leads to a default rule for testimony acceptance.

    You’re walking a very fine line and you know it. I didn’t expect to do more than raise suspicion about the descriptive accuracy of some of your key remarks on the phenomenology of testimony acceptance in a note in the main post, nor can I hope fully to do justice to the subtlety of chapter 5 of your 2002 book here. Still, your commentary (#12) above gives me the opportunity to further elaborate on my suspicion, which I must do, since I’m not yet convinced that it is ill-founded.

    Those of our readers who are not familiar with chapter 5 of Belief’s Own Ethics should be told that it is a discussion of the main arguments for these two positions:

    [t]he neutral position: that trust or acceptance should be judged on a case by case basis. There is no presumption favoring or disfavoring acceptance of testimony. In null settings [i.e., our core cases] one should accept testimony as one should accept any hypothesis, just in case one has adequate evidence that it is true…

    and

    [t]he positive-bias (or default) position: that one ought simply to accept a speaker’s testimony unless one has special reason against doing so.

    At first sight, your default position seems identical with the credulist (broadly Reidian) claim that I was concerned with, but your case for it is a very complex hybrid of Reidian and Humean views. To my mind, it confronts us with some very thorny phenomenological, methodological and meta-epistemological issues. I shall deal with each of these as far as I can in what follows.

    The phenomenological problems I have in mind arise from our difficulty in assessing the introspective data from those core cases – largely because the data just seems unavailable to the extent that we need it. The classroom experiment shows that people are, for the most part, reluctant to commit to a definite answer to the following question: When you ask a complete stranger, for instance, what time it is, do you believe, do you fully trust what the stranger tells you (without any specific evidence concerning the person’s reliability, her sanity, her good will, etc.), or do you just tentatively accept what she tells you, as when you pursue the practical consequences of a working hypothesis that you are in no position to disregard without risking significant practical loss (like being late for that appointment)? Pragmatic considerations usually gain prominence once the question is posed. (“If I have the time, I’ll ask somebody else, just to make sure”, “It depends on how important it is for me to know exactly”, etc.) This, in itself, suggests that the case for a default rule — the philosophical, normative case — from ostensive acceptance of testimony in those core cases cannot be conclusive on that basis alone. And yet, as you rightly note, we should expect to build our epistemology on top of an accurate description of the relevant facts.

    If these alternative views are stated precisely enough to sustain the contrast, the facts can decide between them. The correct position is the one that fits our testimonial practices, broadly conceived. Our practices are well shaped by a large amount of experience, so that they will reflect only one of these positions, given the sharpness of the contrast. The way the practice proceeds will also reflect how it ought to proceed, since it is not credible that we would remain so heavily dependent on testimony were it not able to secure for us overwhelmingly useful (true, relevant) information. (p. 143)

    Agreed! But our time-honored, successful reliance on testimony may still not be captured by a default rule. The evidence from those core cases is very clearly compromised by pragmatic pollution. In the classroom experiment, some of that pollution comes to the surface when it is explained to our subjects that suspension of judgment does not necessarily lead to paralysis at the practical level — which is often greeted with relief. When given the option of acting on information offered by strangers in the absence of trust, thus retaining practical gain without surrendering the prized prerogative to submit other people’s assertions to critical scrutiny, most people see it as a sign of epistemic virtue, epistemic virtue the exercise of which may often be impeded by convenience, but virtue nonetheless. Moreover, when the question about blindly trusting testimony offered by strangers is brought up in the classroom, most respondents quickly rationalize the matter (“If the person looks normal, serious…”) in a way that conforms to a reductionist phenomenology.

    The foregoing is perfectly compatible with your claims in this passage (p. 148):

    Of course, there is the occasional lie or deception, and more often, the innocent error: Those who give (complex) directions…omit to remark on potential interruptions or special conditions or confuse routes, or their interest in being helpful leads them to overestimate their knowledge…The extent of these cases is easily exaggerated because false or misleading testimony is far more salient than the vast, but routine, accurate testimony. When we are spoken to falsely, we suffer the costs of accepting another’s word. Naturally, we then tend to think of ourselves as foolish, and the default and trust we extend appears as gullibility…The result is that the possibility that new testimony will be defective is inflated.

    But that, you must admit, does not help make the case for a normative default rule, since the descriptive content of the passage might fairly be appropriated by those who will emphasize the fact that we have thrived under the powerful grip of the skeptical inquirer as a role model. People invariably surrender to the suggestion that, if it were not for the tyranny of practical interests, we would and should emulate our skeptical role models (usually nothing as radical as the philosophical skeptic; just something of the order of a great detective, or a successful scientist, or the thoughtful-sounding academic featured on the newscast on primetime TV).

    Moreover, the case for the default rule seems to ignore the extent to which our self-image is dominated by our reverence for the perceived accuracy of our institutional practices. We largely measure our worth by the extent to which we approximate our collective strength. Notice how some people, our role models, acquire a larger-than-life character when they become the voices of our institutions — for instance, the revered editor whose fallibility is thought to be negligible by the standards of his community, or the Supreme Court justice whose pronouncements are studied with exegetical fanaticism by Law scholars, or the Nobel prize winner who sets the coordinates for research in his field. The skeptical strand runs deep in our social lives, and it discourages our lending credence very causally in our private lives too.

    And then there is the methodological problem alluded to above — that deep and dark abyss that our best metaphilosophy will have to come to terms with: the problem of bringing our constant and inevitable appeal to pre-theoretical intuitions — the appeal to common sense — under some kind of sound methodological principle. Very often, we seem to be talking at cross-purposes in philosophical disputes. Consider the debate between contextualists and invariantists. If I’m not much mistaken, one of the seemingly intractable aspects of that dispute is our community-wide indecision with regard to the methodological weight that is to be assigned to certain claims about pre-theoretical intuitions. Notice how, for instance, invariantist Peter Klein (2002) and invariantist Earl Conee (2005) both can concede that much of what contextualists claim about the relevant intuitions is undeniable and yet rightly feel that the concession will not undermine their invariantist position. Likewise, for instance, contextualist Stewart Cohen (2005, p. 59) is entitled to claim that “[t]he point of contextualism is to provide an explanation for the intuitive data in a way that can explain the appeal of skepticism while still preserving the truth of our everyday knowledge ascriptions” — and Cohen cannot possibly be wrong in thinking that, on some metaphilosophical assumption about the importance of the data, there will at least have to be an account in the neighborhood of what he proposes. Cohen and the contextualists are not fantasizing about the existence of important conflicting intuitions across contexts which call for explanation. But, then they are (fairly) hit with an allegation about certain other intuitions that simply cannot be squared with their view. Speaking for invariantists (at least for those among invariantists whose epistemologies make room for significant skeptical challenge), Conee (2005, 65) claims that

    I did not offer the invariantist view to explain what Stew regards as our intuitions about knowledge…[Ordinary knowledge] attributions are efficient loose talk [that may be all false]. The “really and truly” test is supposed to show that this status is how we ourselves think of the attributions in our best moments.

    But there can be no such “best moments” on a contextualist view of the matter! All our moments are equally good — both when we claim to know and when we (later) claim not to know. Here’s how invariantist Richard Feldman (1999, 107) puts the point:

    According to contextualism, when I first think that I know, but then think about skepticism and come to think that I don’t know, I should look back on my previous claim to knowledge and think that it was correct as well. But I don’t. I think that I was (or may have been) wrong. My point isn’t just that I now think, in the new context, that I don’t (or might not) know. Rather, once skepticism becomes appealing, I think that my previous claim to know was false. Yet, according to contextualism it was true and, if I understood what I meant, I shouldn’t doubt that it was true.

    Wherever that particular discussion may go from here, my point is simply that it’s easy for us to talk at cross-purposes if our appeals to conflicting intuitions cannot be judged by a single higher-order standard. But setting up that higher-order standard may require no less than a fully developed metaphilosophy.

    There is a version of that metaphilosophical lawlessness, so to speak, in the epistemology of testimony. Notice the parallel: Like the invariantist, the reductionist implicitly requires that the intuitions involved in testimonial entitlement survive scrutiny in our “best moments”. They must withstand the onslaught of one’s reflection (maybe certifiable by one’s deepest epistemic standards, to speak with Richard Foley). They must be stable. Like contextualism, the view of entitlement based on a default rule takes advantage of that fleeting (easily assailable) impression of propriety that accompanies the casual acceptance of testimony. After dignifying our behavior at its happy-go-lucky best, the view is then further protected by a blanket anti-skeptical stance of suspicious philosophical quality. As Pritchard (2004, 330) notes, “it is hardly much of an objection, in and of itself, to a particular epistemological view that it leads to scepticism, since such scepticism could well be warranted“. (Cf. Matt Weiner, 2003: “To avoid widespread scepticism about testimony, we must grant default justification to all testimony.” Well, might some measure of skepticism conceivably do us good?!)

    To recap and prevent misunderstanding: Earlier, I did concede that we should be led in our philosophical theorizing about testimony by an accurate description of testimony consumption in everyday contexts. But I have also claimed that (a) it is far from clear that we already have an accurate description of the introspective data in everyday contexts (where practical and epistemic concerns get mixed and belief may be absent) and, (b) even if we do, it is far from clear that well-founded normative principles must countenance any form of entitlement which does not seem stable under reflection. Some appeals to the intuitive data are bad (in a way that I am unable to fully account for here). There are junk intuitions.

    Lastly, a brief comment on the meta-epistemological problem: Is your default-rule view best seen as a form of externalism? At times, it looks more like run-of-the-mill evidentialism to me. You write (p. 157-8):

    On the view I am defending, our normal situation is both Humean and Reidian. We both have an enormous grounding for accepting a piece of testimony and do not first investigate its credibility. We ought to reject the following natural reasoning:

    Since it is normally infeasible to gather evidence as to the reliability of our informants, if we are to rely on testimony, we must do so without evidence to trust them. But the empiricist view demands that the hearer have specific evidence before accepting the assertion of an informant. Consequently, either accepting testimony is generally unwarranted, or we should reject the empiricist view.

    The arguments [in sections 1-8, chapter 5] are directed against the opening statement in this reasoning. Lack of evidence as to the reliability of one’s informant is compatible with overwhelming, effortlessly obtained evidence to accept the informant’s assertion according to the positive-bias or default rule.

    At #12, you note that, in core cases, “the information sought is on a matter where it is mutually expected to be in a stranger’s competence to answer (or to say he does not know, if not); the information sought is satisfied by a single, simple assertion and there is no incentive to lie” — and I can’t avoid thinking that this is how you see the hearer reasoning as she accepts testimony from the stranger.

    But here’s where I hit a brick wall. Looking as closely as I can, I must conclude that I don’t understand how the default rule operates in your epistemology, how it accounts for the generation of entitlement when one conducts oneself in accordance with it. You grant that the hearer has abundant evidence of a non-specific kind for the reliability of testimony acceptance in core cases. But you don’t want to claim that the available evidence is deployed in reasoning about the reliability of a given testifier, presumably because that would require specific evidence that the hearer is not in a position to acquire, if I follow you. So, the default rule must really be doing all the work when a hearer simply acts in accordance with it (without reasoning from it). Why isn’t this externalist Credulism? It looks like, having argued for the reliability of testimony in general, you’re claiming that believing on the basis of testimony is reliable believing (in the absence of overriding evidence). So, in the end, it looks just like Credulism to me. And I fail to understand why we should care about the abundant evidence that is supposed to be available to the hearer but not used to generate justification when testimony is accepted.

    I hope you will correct me if I’m wrong.

  14. A PS on Jonathan Adler’s views on testimonial entitlement:

    Jonathan,

    I want to quote some more from your book, because I’m afraid I may have mistakenly downplayed the evidentialist element in your epistemology of testimony at the end of my #14. And, if I did, my doubts at the end of the previous post should be reconsidered (as follows).

    Here’s the text that I wish I had highlighted above:

    [W]e have enormous background evidence supportive of compliance with the default rule…Besides the easy, but limited and variable, on-the-spot ways of detecting a speaker’s major lack of reliability or trustworthiness, we have knowledge of the massive success of the practice, of constraints to speak reliably and truthfully, of the teachings of the institutions and community of our informants, and of how the world works (and lots of other facts about it). e also have patterns of reasoning and assessment that inform our testimonial acceptance without special effort or attention (and so in conformity with the point of the default rule) [p. 148]…Even when beliefs are accepted fairly automatically and routinely, they are implicitly screened for minimal plausibility, especially by testing against our well-founded background beliefs. [p. 161]

    So, it now looks a whole lot more like evidentialism to me. But I’m now baffled by the persistent reference to a default rule. With all that screening and testing going on (implicit though it may be), where is the need for a default rule? Why isn’t this a form of reductionism?

  15. Hi, Mark,

    Some replies to your comments at #13. More soon.

    1.

    The idea that a child’s true beliefs become knowledge en bloc, at the time of acquiring suitable epistemic concepts, seems to me quite unrealistic. Since we normally forget our sources, it is unrealistic to suppose that we recall them and subject them to epistemic scrutiny. However, your point against Fricker does not need that picture: it still could be that the child starts off with true belief which is not knowledge, but later, events which, had they occurred earlier, would not have generated knowledge (but only true belief) now generate knowledge. And of course there is room for retrospective considerations which effect piece by piece some of the transformations you envisaged to occur en bloc.

    Yes, you’re essentially right about this. I was candid, however, about leaving that explanatory blank — a detailed account of that stage in one’s epistemic growth — for future discussion. Still, I regret not having been more careful there anyway and welcome your criticism in that regard. The important point in the passage is exactly what you emphasize: There seems to be no need to assume that there is knowledge at that early stage in life when true belief is clearly present (and we may be tempted to call it “knowledge” in ordinary talk). In any case, the idea of quasi-gestaltic transformation in epistemic status was a clumsy way to oppose the objectionable idea of independent, non-testimonial confirmation of every testimony-based belief as a reductionist requirement (though I can find no more than a hint in the literature that something like this might actually be required by some forms of reductionism). This is what I worried about: Suppose that, at some point in time, your five-year-old niece justifiedly believes that (P) everything Uncle Mark says is true from what would ordinarily be regarded as good inductive reasoning (worries about epistemic circularity be damned). (Suppose her premises are items of perceptual knowledge of the form “Uncle Mark said that q, and q”, where no q is one of her TBB’s.) From then on, in the absence of non-overridden counterevidence, she will, by hypothesis, use her belief that P as a reason to accept everything you say, and, on that basis, all else being equal, will acquire knowledge from the testimony you offer her (without any need of independent confirmation, although, again, this may be too obvious to mention.) But we should also ponder the question of how much retrospective reflection she will need, if any, in order to have all those true beliefs she had previously acquired from Uncle Mark’s testimony alone turn into knowledge. Although I’m tempted to require that her belief that P bear a certain important causal relation to every other belief that it may justify (the standard requirement of doxastic justification), I’m far from certain that we can’t find a plausible way of relaxing the synchronic evidentialist requirement (maybe some subjunctivist account requiring only that certain dispositions to use the belatedly acquired evidence be present).

    Be that as it may, I’d caution against the idea that a testimony-based belief whose origin has been forgotten might unproblematically be regarded as a potential case of testimonial knowledge (though, in fairness, you haven’t suggested that it might). (How do I know that Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese in 1500? I’ve learned about it from history books (or teachers, or parents, or relatives…) though I can’t identify the source any further and don’t need to in most contexts. But, if I were at a complete loss for words when confronted with the question…)

    2.

    I think you need to be careful about impugning ordinary intuitions about the distinction between JTB and K. Responses to Gettier cases are, in my experience, very robust.

    Where do you see me trying to impugn intuitions about the distinction between JTB and K? I most definitely wouldn’t consciously want to do that.

    3.

    The Santa case is very interesting, but here is an alternative account: it’s not that the child infers from [f] “Santa will bring you presents” to “There will be presents”. Rather the implicit reasoning is something more like: [t]”Parents are saying something which entitles me to believe that there will be presents; so there will be presents”.

    No, I don’t think you can make that work. The problem is: How can the child get from the assertion that f to the belief that t? The choice is forced here: Once her parents assert that f, does she believe them? If she does, we’re back to the benign-falsehood perspective, whether you require the detour through t or not. If she doesn’t, where does the belief that t come from? (This is discussed in my 2004 CD post “On Useful Falsehoods”.)

  16. More replies to Mark Sainsbury’s comments at #13:

    4.

    I can’t say I much care for your view that the child ends up merely with f-knowledge. Even if, according to the story, she gets presents, if she gets no presents in fact she would be entitled to be VERY ANGRY! It would be no consolation (and she would be right not to be consoled) to be told that f(she got presents).

    Regardless of the fact that acquiring f-knowledge is no consolation to a child — which it definitely isn’t — I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea that a very young, gullible child may conceivably have testimonial f-knowledge even if you think she can’t have testimonial knowledge. (I didn’t claim that she does get f-knowledge; I just conjectured that she might conceivably f-know and was tempted to claim that she might not.) The intriguing idea, if I’m not mistaken, is that, in view of the peculiarities of f-knowledge, it may be harder to oppose a credulist account of testimonial f-knowledge (Ci-Fi) than it may be to oppose Credulism in the epistemology of testimony. Moreover, I thought the discussion might give us something worth pondering as regards the temptation to say that there’s some kind of knowledge that the girl gets from her parents. They’re lying if their assertion is expected to convey knowledge, but they are certainly not insincere (or falsidical) if their assertion is a piece of storytelling. Etc.

    5.

    Although I agree that there is f-knowledge (i.e. knowledge of f-truth) this does not follow from the fact that there is f-truth. Indeed, it would not follow even if f-truth were a species of truth (a computer may process truths, yet know nothing), which it is not (truth is closed under entailment, f-truth is not, etc.).

    OK, and also not-OK. It’s true that acknowledging the mere existence of a kind of truth does not imply that it’s knowable truth. But f-truth is, for the most part, the knowable kind. The account acknowledges that it may be f-justified for you to suspend judgment with regard to certain f-facts. And there are all those beliefs about f-facts that we think of as knowledge of some kind or other.

    As regards closure under entailment, f-truth seems unexciting to me — except in the case of impossible fiction, which may be what you have in mind. But can we sensibly speak of f-truth in that case? I’d appreciate it if you elaborated on this point.

    6.

    Not sure about infallibility. There are stories in which the imaginary narrator misleads, first telling us how things did not happen before revealing the f-truth. So we have at one stage f(p), at another f(not-p). Unqualified, we have to say f(not-p) despite the fact that a reader could get p from the author. Also even in the most straightforward kind of fiction there’s plenty of room for doubt about whether or not f(p), once we move beyond the explicit content of the tale. I guess there’s room for anti-realism (if whether f(p) is not resolved once the best humanly possible interpretative efforts have been applied, then not f(p)), but any such metaphysical view is much weaker than what you wish to claim.

    (a) As long as the f-truth is finally revealed, you can after all learn that your previous belief to the contrary was an f-justified f-false belief. This doesn’t look problematic, if I get your point. (b) Doubt (suspension of judgment) is covered by my account of f-knowledge. (c) The move into the epistemology of fiction is friendly to a realist semantics, even though, as far as I can see, there’s no pressure for epistemologists to be partisan in that regard.

    7.

    Although I am essentially on your side in regard to the point about making-up and the a priori, I think you rather overstate the case: an author may well forget what he has made up, or misremember it. There are plenty of authorial “errors”.

    Is the point about the storyteller’s presumptive infallibility when the story is originally told overstated? You may be right. But maybe we can agree about the author’s fallibility after the story is originally told — which is a very interesting point, because it looks like the author may become as reliable a source about his own story as his readership/audience. The more fallible we allow the author to be, the more surprising the story about f-knowledge becomes!

    8.

    I think Lewis would agree (and certainly should agree) that we might mistake fiction for fact, or fact for fiction. But I agree with Lewis that if Holmes is a fictional character (so we are not mistaken in treating the stories as fiction), then, necessarily, Holmes is not a real person. Currie strikes me as very convincing on this (in On the Nature of Fiction).

    Thanks for the Currie reference, which I look forward to reading.

    This is really bewildering to me. Suppose I have all the subjective experiences associated with making up a story about a character C, my own creation as far as I can tell. But further suppose that I come to learn that a certain Mr. C has lived the adventures that I thought only my fictional character C had lived in the stories I created (or thought I had created). Multiply that coincidence significantly. Along come Mr. C1, Mr. C2, Mr. C3, Mr. C4… Should I still believe these are all fictional characters? Shouldn’t I at least look into the possibility that I am, for instance, endowed with paranormal powers, or being manipulated by very advanced cognitive science (into thinking that I’m making up what I am actually discovering in a mysterious way)? Why assume that one’s evidence of literary creation may not be misleading? If one can mistake fact for f-fact (as we do when misled by my retired James Bond), as you concede we can, why assume that there was fictional creation (as opposed to serendipitous cognitive access to preexisting reality) to be mistaken for reality in the first place? Why assume that there must still be f-fact when what was supposed to be f-fact turns out to be fact after all?

    Although the article was largely aimed at seeing how far we can take the story about f-knowledge without getting entangled with any metaphysical or semantic view (particularly, any form of modal realism), I did put forward a metaphysical claim, Coincidence, but dealt only with some of its epistemic consequences for storytelling as a species of testimony. I should note, at this juncture, that new work by Peter Ludlow (that I wasn’t familiar with when I posted the article at CD), a paper entitled “From Sherlock and Buffy to Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces: Pretense, Contextualism, and the Myth of Fiction” (Philosophical Issues 16, Philosophy of Language, 2006), offers a contextualist view in the semantics of fiction, denouncing what he provocatively calls “the myth of fiction”, that is perfectly consistent with Coincidence. I shall quote at some length from the introductory section of his paper in order to exhibit the compatibility. But notice that I don’t need to endorse the case for Coincidence that arises from his proposal. His proposal is only the most radical espousal of Coincidence on record. One of the surprising consequences of his account of fictional discourse is that the distinction between knowledge and f-knowledge may have to be scrapped in some contexts, which does furnish us with an intriguing way out of Hard Choice #5 in the main post above, one which vindicates my suggestion that Coincidence can get very strange. Still, compare: A real-life Holmes which is in every way identical to the fictional Holmes but must be thought of as a different entity altogether?…

    In this paper, I want to advance a thesis that is highly contentious and no doubt quite difficult to believe on first hearing. How do we explain the two-way flow between fictional and real worlds? How do fictions become real? Answer: they don’t become real; they always were real. There is no such thing as fiction, and there are no such things as fictional objects. There are, however, certain predicates that are only satisfied in limited contexts of use, and this gives the illusion of different kinds of entities (fictional objects), and different modes of existence (fictional existence).

    More specifically, the idea is this: In the case where we have props or actors involved, certain predicates (‘is a vampire’, ‘is a stake’, ‘are fangs’, ‘is a slayer’) may be true of those props and actors in limited contexts of usage…In a case where there is no actor involved (as when we read a book that has not been adapted for theater or screen) we can say that certain general claims (e.g. ‘there is a slayer having certain properties’) are true in a limited context (as when we read the book)…Once the relevant contexts are identified, the notion of pretending and/or the introduction of a PRETEND operator in the semantics become redundant exercises at best. From the point of view of the semantics of “fictional” discourse, the PRETEND operator plays no interesting role and is arguably harmful in that it forces semantic theory to abandon the principle of semantic innocence and leads to a number of difficult semantic puzzles.

  17. Mark, this is better than what I wrote at #16, 3.

    Your proposed dissolution of the benign falsehood problem:

    The Santa case is very interesting, but here is an alternative account: it’s not that the child infers from [f] “Santa will bring you presents” to [p] “There will be presents”. Rather the implicit reasoning is something more like: [t]”Parents are saying something which entitles me to believe that there will be presents; so [p] there will be presents”.

    Why won’t this work? Because you can’t reasonably move from t to p unless you also believe that f. In general, we can’t reasonably move from anything like “S has asserted that p, and the proposition that p is a good reason to believe that q” to q. You must also believe that p. Not even “my reliable parents are saying…” can do the job. (Isn’t “My reliable parents are saying something which entitles me to believe that q” short for “My reliable parents are saying something which entitles me to believe that q, and I believe what they are saying”?)

  18. A minor technical error and a major worry:

    The error: When I suggested, in section 1, that I was concerned with the third condition of a JTB+ account of testimonial knowledge, I also suggested that I didn’t care for the term that one might use to refer to that condition. But I wrote that I was concerned with beliefs which are “testimonially justified (or warranted, whatever the preferred analysis of the concept)”. Later, however, a prima/ultima facie distinction becomes important to the discussion, and, if you think of warrant as whatever turns true belief into knowledge, you can’t sensibly speak of “prima facie warranted beliefs”. So, it should be clear that the first reference to the term “warrant” meant to exclude some of the concepts that term has been used to refer to. I suppose that the inconsistency would be read charitably by those who noticed it. (There is a long-established pre-Plantingian use of the term as a synonym for “justification”.)

    The worry: I’ve described Credulism as an externalist view. That is not incorrect. But that doesn’t mean it’s good, tenable externalism. Think of how the most popular externalist views (Goldmanian process reliabilism, Sosian virtue-theoretic reliabilism, Plantingian proper-functionalism, Dretskian information-theoretic causalism) are all governed by truth-tracking considerations (sensitivity, safety, etc.). Credulism, by contrast, seems to allow for plain lucky gullibility — an epistemic vice by any standard. I wish I hadn’t (unwittingly) reinforced the idea that, if you are the externalist who thinks that very young children can have any knowledge at all, Credulism is the natural expression of your externalism when it comes to testimonial knowledge. Credulism is an externalist view, yes, but it’s not a legitimate representative of any tenable form of externalism. It’s driven solely by anti-skeptical considerations as expressed in ordinary knowledge attributions, unlike the best externalism we’ve known. The best externalism we’ve known is perfectly compatible with the view that the gullible cannot acquire testimonial knowledge (though I’m afraid this is not emphasized enough in the literature on testimony).

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