Discussed at Experimental Philosophy, one study on bank cases and another on knowledge ascriptions being sensitive to practical concerns. The former is being done by Wesley Buckwalter and the latter by Mark Phelan and Ram Neta. The posts contain links to papers with the results, and the results give some evidence that ordinary folk don’t share the view that when the stakes go up, knowledge (or “knowledge”) goes down.
It’s interesting to ask such questions of non-philosophers, and I do it every time I teach epistemology courses. I don’t share the views, though, that make the results important for epistemological theorizing. If I held a simplistic foundationalism about the role of intuitions in philosophy and in epistemology in particular, I’d attach greater weight to the results, for example. Since I tend to think more in coherentist terms, when I present cases such as these (as well as Gettier cases), I present them as generating conflicts with some relatively straightforward assumptions we tend to make about knowledge or justification. Without presenting the theoretical background, I expect non-philosophers to respond in ways that are quite confused. So I present some of the theoretical background in order to get students to engage in the process of achieving some sort of reflective equilibrium. Thinking of the cases in this way still allows surveys on the uninitiated interesting, but little more than that. After all, reflective equilibrium takes hardly any work at all until you develop, or bring to the surface, some general commitments.
There are other assumptions that if true would also give the studies much more probative force, turning philosophical theorizing into a semantic enterprise of one sort or another, with elicited intuitions displaying speaker competence when elicited properly. I don’t find such a picture attractive, and have only a historical understanding of why some philosophers think this way. The straightforward account of what epistemologists do is that they think about knowledge and justification and the like, and try to understand the natures of these kinds of things. It takes an argument to get us from an interest in these kinds of things to an interest in the concepts or in words and ordinary meanings of words. There are historical explanations of how 20th century philosophy made those leaps, but no good arguments, as far as I can tell.
All that said, I’m thus not surprised when students think fake barn cases are cases of knowledge or when they have trouble taking account of misleading defeaters in the Grabit case (just think of the difficulty ordinary jurors had in the O.J. Simpson case of sorting through the defeaters and rebutters about the glove that O.J. couldn’t get on his hand). I find it intriguing that there might be cultural differences here as well, and wonder what would explain that. But, as is typical of inquiry, the word of the uninitiated doesn’t carry much weight: teach them some epistemology, get them to think hard about it for awhile, and then their opinion about thought experiments will matter more.
One might think these points apply only at the object level, but that when epistemologists move to the metalevel, theorizing about the truth of epistemic sentences in English, the studies will have more significance. That’s not right either. What may be right is that if one is constructing a theory about the ordinary language use of an epistemic term, a theory about what people would say, then of course the armchair response is responsible to such studies (with the caveat that the studies need to be properly designed, follow appropriate methodology, and all the other stuff that social scientists are (supposed to be) experts about). But simply moving to the metalevel doesn’t commit one to ordinary language philosophy of that sort.
It remains true, however, that lots of epistemologists think of what they are doing in precisely the ways necessary to make their views answerable to well-designed and well-run empirical studies of this sort. And that makes the studies interesting in just the way that any difficulty for a view one doesn’t hold is interesting. I just find it fascinating to see what various groups of people think about the kinds of things I theorize about. So I’d like to see what people with PhD’s are inclined to say, versus undergrads. And what people with substantive PhD’s versus all the rest… 🙂 (No, I won’t divulge my views here about that!) And women versus men, and high IQ versus low IQ, and red-state inhabitants versus blue-state inhabitants, and high income versus low income, etc. Such information would give some data relevant to which types of theories different groups are attracted to, and that would be nice to know.