The speckled hen

Sosa raises the problem of the speckled hen for Fumerton’s account of justification, an account that depends on direct acquaintance with experiential states and the with the relationship of correspondence between these states and certain facts. The example involves the experience of a hen with 48 speckles, but where any belief formed on the basis of such an experience is unjustified (after all, if you’re a normal human being, forming such a specific belief upon seeing such a hen would be ridiculous).

I’m looking at a draft of a response to this problem by Rich, which includes a response of the sort I indicate below. But first, there is one kind of response to this problem that seems not to work. Rich agrees that it doesn’t work, though I think his reasons are a bit different from mine. The account asks us to distinguish between properties of the experience that one notices and properties that one doesn’t. So, on this account, one notices the property of being a hen and having speckles, but not the property of having 48 speckles, and that’s why we’re not justified in believing that the hen has 48 speckles.

Such claims may be plausible about ordinary human beings. At least it is true that we don’t notice the latter property. The only means I have for drawing the conclusion that my experience has such an unnoticed property, however, is to notice that we don’t form the related belief, but do form the related beliefs for the other properties. So when someone says, “well, just imagine someone who does notice the latter property, with no other changes from what normal human beings are like: if they form the belief that the hen has 48 speckles, their belief would still be unjustified,” it’s hard to see how to respond.

What can one say to this objection? Well, one might bow one’s neck and insist that the belief would be justified. But recall the point that the only way you can tell whether you’re noticing a property or not is with reference to whether you form the belief in circumstances where you lack reason for thinking perceptual conditions are abnormal in a way that makes them untrustworthy. The problem is not that this point refutes the theory; it’s that if this point is granted, then the theory is too good. It appeals to noticing a characteristic that has the occult property of explaining the justificatory status of perceptual beliefs. When the objector says to add noticing, and the related belief is still unjustified, we want an account that makes intelligible why noticing doesn’t allow the related belief to be present and unjustified, and the mere claim that it doesn’t fails to provide such intelligibility.

So, what about the following alternative? We have an experience prompted by a 48-speckled hen. Conditions are normal, and one is an ordinary human with ordinary perceptive abilities. Assume that there is no vagueness associated with the hen having 48 speckles. Will one be appeared to 48-speckled-henly? Why not just many-speckled-henly?

Suppose we put this question as follows: is experience fully determinate in terms of the properties it possesses? If the way one is appeared to is fully determinate, then one could notice this feature of it. But if the appearance is not fully determinate, one couldn’t. It’s simply not there to be noticed.

Notice as well that this question of the nature of experience can be investigated independently. If we had a good scientific theory of the brain, we might be able to correlate brain states with experiential states, and find out that after a certain number of speckles, the brain state remains the same.

Moreover, armchair speculation would seem to suggest that we shouldn’t expect experience to be fully determinate. Exactly what level of determinateness is characteristic of experience, I don’t know; but wouldn’t it be plausible to formulate the direct acquaintance theory in terms of an account of experience of this sort? Then, when faced with Sosa’s hen, the answer is: to add to the description of the case noticing the 48 speckles, you’ve got to imagine the person with enhanced perceptual capacities, and if you do that, you no longer have any reason to assume that the belief would be unjustified. Just as in baseball where hitters with fantastic eyesight can see a different spin on a curveball versus a fastball, some imaginary perceivers might have an experience involving the property of having 48 speckles. You and I don’t, but if we did, we could justifiably believe that the hen has 48 speckles on the basis of that experience (even though given our present experience we can’t). That’s just like the gifted hitter being justified in believing that the pitch is a curveball when those with weaker vision would be unjustified in so believing.



The speckled hen — 11 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    I agree that perceptual experience is not fully determinate. For instance, it looks to me as if the person standing outside my office window has eyelashes. But there is no determinate number x which is such that the person looks to me to have x eyelashes.

    I also agree that normal human beings don’t normally form beliefs to the effect that their perceptual experience has some highly determinate character (e.g., 48 speckles). A fortiori, normal human beings don’t normally form false beliefs to this effect, and they don’t normally form unjustified beliefs to this effect.

    But we can grant all of the above, and still face the problem of the speckled hen. Here’s what I have in mind. Let P be the conjunction of all of the propositions about your current perceptual experience that you’re currently propositionally justified in believing. Now, consider the claim:

    (SH) Your perceptual experience is more determinate than P.

    If (SH) is true, then there will be some features of your perceptual experience which are such that you’re propositionally justified in believing that they obtain, and other features of your perceptual experiences which are such that you’re not propositionally justified in believing that they obtain. But since all of these features are features of your perceptual experience, you’re equally “acquainted” with all of them. And so acquaintance with such features is not a sufficient condition for being propositionally justified in believing that they obtain in your experience.

    I think that Sosa’s problem arises so long as we grant (SH). So any defense of acquaintance theories in response to Sosa’s problem will have to tell us why we shouldn’t accept (SH). And it’s not going to be easy to do this, in light of the fact that we can construct series of perceptual experiences that are pairwise indiscriminable (so you can’t be propositionally justified in believing that you’re in one rather than the other), even though the endpoints of the series are clearly different in their character.

  2. i don’t quite see why “if youâ��re a normal human being,
    forming such a specific belief upon seeing such a hen would be ridiculous.”
    as i understand the case, the experience is indeterminate with
    respect to how many speckles the hen looks to have, and 48 falls
    within the range of the indeterminateness – as do some other numbers.
    let’s say they are 46, 47, 49 and 50. jon, as you describe things,
    the case seems to take it as a datum that one would not be
    justified in believing that the hen has 48 speckles.
    but it seems reasonable to me to suppose instead that
    one would be equally justified in forming the belief that the
    number of its speckles are any of the numbers in the range.
    eg, one would be equally justified in believing that it had 48
    speckles, as one would be in believing that it had 49 or 47.

    it seems that the alternative is to say that there is no
    number of speckles such that you’d be justified in believing
    that it had that number of speckles. this seems to put on a par,
    with respect to epistemic status, the belief
    that the hen has zero speckles, the belief that it has two speckles, and
    the belief that it has 40. that seems wrong! compare the experience
    of looking at an auditorium full of people. i wouldn’t be
    justified in believing there were no people, or that there
    were just two people there. my experience might not tell me how many
    people are in the auditorium, but on the basis of it i can make some
    guesses, and some of these guesses would be much better than others. that
    suggests to me that some beliefs about numbers of people will be more justified
    than others. the same seems to hold for the case of the speckled hen.

  3. Hi Jon,

    It’s great to see a post about the speckled hen! I have two quick thoughts about this. First, about unnoticed properties of experience I think there’s another basis for thinking that one’s experience may exemplify such properties. Think of cases in which one has a certain experience–say of a n-sided figure–where at first one doesn’t believe that the figure has n-sides. After a brief inspection, though, one comes to believe that the figure has n-sides. In this case it’s reasonable to think that one’s experience exemplifies properties that one doesn’t notice straight-off. If this holds, then it’s not a stretch to think that one’s experience can exemplify properties that go completely unnoticed.
    Second, I’m a bit unclear about your suggestion at the end of formulating an acquaintance theory in terms of experience that contains determinate properties. Are you supposing that if experience has determinate properties then persons are (or could be) directly aware of those properties? I don’t see the reason for supposing that the determinate/indeterminate distinction should track the possibility of awareness/impossibility of awareness distinction, unless, of course, awareness somehow bestowed determinateness on the properties of one’s experience.

  4. Susanna, I think it’s true that you’d be equally justified in believing that the number of speckles is 47, or 48, or 49, etc. But I don’t think it follows from that, and I don’t think it’s true, that you’d be justified in believing any of these. You can be justified in believing that the hen has some speckles, and even that it has many. But not that it has a specific number (in this case, for normal humans).

    I don’t think this means that believing the hen has any given number is of equal epistemic status with any other number. Believing that it has zero speckles is worse off than believing that it has 40 speckles. It’s just that none of these beliefs will pass the threshold needed for them to be justified tout court.

  5. Ram, SH is very intriguing, but I can’t quite see its plausibility yet. Can you motivate accepting it in any way?

    I take it we’re restricting our notion of perceptual experience to features of it that are intrinsic to it. Then, if we’re equally acquainted with all the intrinsic features of such experience, I guess I’m pulled toward thinking that we’ve got propositional justification of the prima facie sort for all of this. But I’m hesitant about this claim as well–so argue away!

  6. Ted, nice example to motivate unnoticed aspects of experience. That suggests that an answer to the problem can appeal both to Fumerton’s idea of determinate/determinable properties, and the distinction between noticed and unnoticed (intrinsic) aspects of experience.

    On the second point, the only point I wished to make is that if experience contains only determinable properties, then you can’t be acquainted with more determinate properties related to the determinable. I leave open the question of whether, if experience contains a particular determinate property, one might not be acquainted with it (though your first point gives a good reason to think that one need not). And certainly, there’s no reason to think that your acquainted, in such a case, only with a determinable property.

  7. hi jon, i didn’t conclude that the belief that the hen has 48 speckles is justified from the fact that it seems to be on a par epistemically with the belief that the hen has 47 speckles. i agree that that doesn’t follow. the issue is whether either of the beliefs is justified, period. i don’t see why it isn’t.

    it seems reasonable to think that justification comes in degrees. that could in principle distinguish between the epistemic status of the belief that the hen has two speckles and the belief that it has 47. you seem to be granting the belief that the hen has 47 speckles is justified to some extent, and i thought that’s what was at issue. i’m not sure what it is to be ‘justified tout court’, or what that adds to whatever justification you’re already granting is had by the belief that the hen has 48 (or 47 or 49…) speckles. i’m not sure, but i suspect that once the notion of justification tout court is spelled out we might still disagree about whether these beliefs have that status or not. why aren’t the beliefs that the hen has 47 speckles, the belief that is has 48 speckles, the beliefs that it has 49 speckles, and so on for all the numbers in the range all justified tout court?

  8. Hi Jon,

    So why should we accept (SH)? Consider the following case:

    First, you have an experience as of a 45 speckled hen. Next, you have an experience as of a 46 speckled hen, and you can’t distinguish this second experience from the first one you had. Then, you have an experience as of a 47 speckled hen, and you can’t distinguish this third experience from the second one you had. This goes on, and after a while you have an experience as of a 99 speckled hen, and you can definitely distinguish this experience from the very first experience you had (as of a 45 speckled hen).

    Now, consider a particular point in this series of experiences. For instance, consider the point at which you’re having an experience as of a 52 speckled hen. At that point, are you justified in believing that you’re having an experience as of a 52 speckled hen? No. You might be justified to some degree, as Susanna points out, but you’re not justified simpliciter, you’re not justified enough for knowledge, you’re not justified enough to permissibly assert, etc.

    So, at that point in the series, your experience has a determinate character (52 speckles) but you’re not justified in believing that it has that determinate character. (SH) is therefore true.

    How to avoid this conclusion? We could say that your experience doesn’t really have the determinate character that I’ve posited. But in that case, what explains the gradualness of the change from the first experience in the series to the last experience in the series? Whatever explains the gradualness, it can’t be any gradual shift in the determinate number of speckles — at least not if (SH) is false. So what is it?

    It seems to me that an opponent of (SH) has to answer that question. Maybe there’s a good answer to it, but I don’t know what it is.

  9. Susanna, sorry for the mysterious language! I only meant to distinguish degrees of justification from the absolute notion of what is justified. To achieve justification, one’s degree of justification must meet or exceed a certain threshold. It’s this threshold that I don’t think the 48-speckle belief meets.

    That still leaves your question, why not? I think of justification in terms of requiring one’s evidence to beat or neutralize competitor claims to the one in question, and the 47-speckle belief is a competitor of the 48-speckle belief. Since our evidence doesn’t beat or neutralize either belief (claim), we don’t pass the threshold of degree of justification needed for justification simpliciter.

    You might wonder what it is for two claims to be competitors of each other, and one necessary condition is that they be incompatible with each other. Beyond that, I’d have to work out some kinks with the notion, but perhaps the idea is clear enough? If not, push some more!

  10. Sorry, Ram, for making you repeat yourself–this argument was already there in your first comment!

    There are two reasons I’m resisting here. First, if one’s experience is determinate, then I think Ted’s example is a good reason to think you’re not acquainted with all of the (intrinsic) aspects of your experience. The second reason I’m less comfortable with, but here it is. If experience is characterized in these cases only in terms of determinables, then I’m not sure there’s any gradualness to explain. When a distinction is noticed, we should expect the experience to be characterized in terms of different determinables, but that’s not a problem. Using determinables such as “more than” or “less than” should do the trick.

    Do you have in mind something along the lines of Williamson’s anti-luminosity argument? I think the two cases are different. I think your gradualism claim needs the intrinsic character of the experience to involve the feature of being 48-speckled. Right? or am I missing something?

  11. What would one think of someone like Raymond from the movie “Rain Man” who *could* see the hen as having forty-eight speckles? (I mention this to bring into vivid focus the notion that it might really happen this way.)

    Keith Brian Johnson

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