Professional philosophers often appeal to patterns in ordinary thought and talk — “commonsense” — in order to support theories or assumptions. In recent years, the emerging interdisciplinary field of experimental epistemology has revealed many instances where commonsense epistemology has been seriously mischaracterized. But even if professional philosophers misidentify what the folk think about knowledge, certainly they know what they themselves think about knowledge. Right?
In a fascinating paper forthcoming in Philosophical Studies, a pair of researchers tested ordinary people and professional philosophers (“experts”) on a range of cases.* A principal finding concerns knowledge attributions in cases where an agent sees an object that is surrounded by visually indistinguishable fakes.
Here is one case they tested:
(Sculpture) The director of a sculpture museum is so impressed with recent improvements of hologram images that she decides to perform a secret test on the visitors of her museum. To this end, she orders hologram images that even art experts cannot visually distinguish from the real sculptures in her museum, and she replaces all but one of the sculptures by their hologram image. As the director had expected, no one realizes any difference between the hologram images and the real sculptures. One day, the world’s greatest Rodin expert is visiting her museum. The expert is standing in front of a famous marble sculpture by Rodin, which is the only real sculpture that is presently on display in the museum, and she thinks to herself: “I’m facing one of Rodin’s famous marble sculptures now.”
Participants rated their agreement with whether “the Rodin expert knows that the sculpture in front of her is one of Rodin’s famous marble sculptures.”
The case is structurally similar to the famous “fake barn” case. Textbooks and review articles tell us that there is “broad agreement” among experts that these aren’t cases of knowledge. And this verdict is often treated as a litmus test for theories of knowledge: if your view implies that there is knowledge in a “fake barn” case, this is often treated as a decisive refutation of your view. Accordingly, we would expect that most experts will deny that Sculpture is a case of knowledge.
But that’s not what the researchers found. Instead, a majority of experts attributed knowledge. Surprised, the researchers tested the case again on another group of experts. And, just for good measure, they tested another case with a “fake barn” structure too. Perhaps the initial result was a fluke?
Again and again, most experts attributed knowledge. Ongoing work by another team of researchers has returned broadly similar results.**
The researchers also found that in a case structurally similar to a “lottery case,” the majority of experts attributed knowledge, which again contradicts “the textbook consensus.”
Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that “the discipline of epistemology is dysfunctional insofar” as it is “deluded about” its practitioners’ verdicts about cases.
I’ve only covered some of the paper’s interesting findings. Check it out!
*Horvath, J., & Wiegmann, A. (2016). Intuitive expertise and intuitions about knowledge. Philosophical Studies, 1–26. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0627-1
**Carter, J. A., Pritchard, D., & Sheperd, J. (ms). Knowledge-how, understanding-why and epistemic luck: an experimental study.