Thoughts on Sosa and His Critics

I’m reviewing this book for Notre Dame Philosophical Review, so I will use this forum to raise some issues that occur in the discussion that I won’t bring up in a relatively short review. Here’s one such issue, one between Feldman and Sosa on the problem of the speckled hen.

Sosa’s original argument distinguished between aspects of one’s visual field and what one notices, so that there could be a hen in one’s visual field with 48 speckles and yet one not notice this aspect. Feldman makes a further distinction, between peripheral and focal noticing. His example concerns the red light on his telephone, which he comes to be aware of focally while at the same time becoming aware that he has been peripherally aware of the light being on for some time. Feldman says that focal awareness produces phenomenal concepts and only phenomenal concepts play a role in justifying beliefs. So, Feldman holds, one might peripherally notice the 48 speckles, but not acquire that phenomenal concept.

Sosa responds (p. 289) by supposing someone to have the phenomenal concept of 48 speckles on the basis of seeing the hen, but who is terrible at discriminating this aspect from 47 speckles or 49 speckles. Sosa holds that such a case is possible, and that the person would not be justified in believing that the hen has 48 speckles.

The issues that arise here for me are these. Is Sosa’s supposition a case of unjustified belief? Does Feldman’s view imply that it’s justified? And, is the case a possible one?

In response to the third question, I see no reason to think the case isn’t possible. If it is possible, it won’t count as a case of knowledge on either Sosa’s view (since reliability is absent) or on Feldman’s view (since there is a defeater of whatever justification is present). Moreover, I see no clear and obvious answer to whether the belief is justified, so I’m inclined to treat the case as one to be decided by theoretical considerations alone. If that’s right, then the problem of the speckled hen may not be debilitating for Fumerton after all.


Thoughts on Sosa and His Critics — 6 Comments

  1. Jon, I think the case is clearly possible. I think the belief is not justified, at least in the sense of justification most relevant to knowledge. However, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that Feldman can explain these intuitions by adverting to the presence of defeaters. What defeaters? The case is underdescribed as it stands, but it looks like we’ll be able to fill in the details in various ways, and it’s not clear that each of these ways will feature defeaters.

    Not that anything you say here in any way contradicts this, but as I understand Sosa’s response to Feldman, it’s basically a challenge to non-reliabilist foundationalists: without bringing reliability in the back door, please explain why employing phenomenal concepts can produce justification/knowledge in some cases (e.g., the white triangle on a black background), but not in others (e.g., the speckled hen or the eleven-membered array).

  2. John, I’m assuming that the fact that a belief is produced by an unreliable method or mechanism is a defeater of whatever justification might be present. I agree with your characterization of the challenge Sosa’s case presents, and the challenge is most damaging when we’re thinking about knowledge rather than justification. This point should not be surprising, though, since any internalist about justification is going to have to be an externalist about knowledge, anyway.

  3. Jon, can an internalist about justification countenance external defeaters like that? (Well, I guess a Felmanian internalist–a “mentalist”–could, since facts about how the belief was produced are facts about the subject’s mind, and so are internal to him in at least that sense.) I was under the impression (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that you thought all defeat relations had to do with propositional contents. Or is that just for evidential defeat relations, where evidential defeaters are only one species of defeater, alongside “etiology defeaters”? If so, that would make for a schizophrenic account of justification–the mirror image of the problem that John Greco addresses for reliabilists in his “Holding Defeat to the Fire.”

  4. John, the defeaters I was speaking of are those relevant to the fourth condition for knowledge. I think what you have in mind is internal defeaters relevant to the justification condition. What I was pointing out is that differences between externalists and internalists about justification tend to come out in the wash once we talk about knowledge, since what the externalist says is relevant to justification, the internalist says is relevant to satisfying the gettier condition. The significance of that point is, I think, that we can’t settle the internalism/externalism controversy without recourse to theoretical virtues of various approaches to knowledge, rather than hoping to settle the disputes by appeals to intuition.

  5. Okay. But now I’m wondering how this connects back to the original question about justification. If the defeaters you had in mind are those relevant to the fourth condition for knowledge as opposed to the justification condition, then how is their presence or absence relevant to whether the speckled-hen belief is justified?

    Is the idea that the only intuition that we need to respect is that the subject does not know that the hen has 48 speckles, and whether this is because justification is lacking or the fourth condition hasn’t been met is irrelevant?

  6. Sort of, but not quite. I’m suspicious of appeals to intuition about justified beliefs, in part because both externalists and internalists have in mind something of epistemic value and both theories can be combined into theories of knowledge that yield the same sorting of cases into what’s known and what isn’t. That said, however, Sosa’s original speckled hen problem is a serious problem for internalists, since they need some account of when an aspect of one’s perceptual field can produce justification and when it can’t. Feldman’s distinction between focal and peripheral noticing is an attempt along these lines, and if the only objection here is that the concept formed as a result of focal noticing might not be the product of a reliable mechanism, I don’t find that point by itself telling. If it were telling, the game was over long ago for internalists, since it is well-known that they favor accounts of justification that don’t require reliability. Most relevant here is the new evil demon concern, which can be formulated to make any phenomenal concept we choose the product of an unreliable mechanism.

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