Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ripped at the seems

I don’t often have ideas about epistemology. Longtime readers may remember me talking about epistemic virtues of personal concern, and for a while I misguidedly tried to push the idea that Gettier was wrong about knowledge not being justified true belief. Recently though, I was listening to Peter Adamson’s excellent podcast series on the history of philosophy, and when he got to the ancient sceptics I started thinking about epistemology again. Here’s my idea.

In epistemology, there are (of course) lots of debates, arguments and projects about knowledge. For example, sceptical arguments say that nobody knows anything, at least in some domain of inquiry. There’s also a kind of Kantian project that starts instead from the fact that we do have knowledge, and asks how everything else might be set up to make that possible. My idea is to have analogous debates but replacing “S knows that P” or “I know that P” with “it seems to S that P” and “it seems to me that P”. This goes off in a few directions.

First, there’s a sceptical argument that nothing seems to you to be true other than that you’re having the experiences you’re now having. Just as with knowledge, you can argue for this by considering sceptical scenarios, such as that you’re a brain in a vat hooked up to a virtual reality machine (a bit like the Matrix), or that you’re dreaming, or that Descartes’ evil demon is tricking you. Now, maybe you don’t know that these things aren’t happening, but at least they seem not to be happening, right? Well, that isn’t obvious. I mean, what would these things seeming to be happening be like? It’d be just like it is now. So maybe it actually does seem exactly like you’re in the Matrix, apart from the greeny-grey colour filter which we can ignore for present purposes. At least, it seems you’re in the Matrix just as much as it seems you’re in the regular external world. The only thing these seemingly-true scenarios have in common is your experiences, so maybe all we can really say is that you seem to be having the experiences you’re having now.

For fans of modal logic, I guess this is an understanding of seeming according to which something seems to be true iff it’s true in all possible worlds where you’re having the experiences you’re actually having. Maybe you could try replacing “all possible worlds” with “close possible worlds”, producing a kind of externalist understanding of seeming which is a bit like Nozick’s understanding of knowledge. I wonder if it’d be open to similar objections to Nozick’s view, including the absolute pummelling of it that Kripke published in 2011.

We don’t have to revise our understanding of seeming that way, though. We can revise it a different way which allows some things other than our experiences to seem to be happening, while avoiding the objections to Nozick's view. We can think about what seeming, and people, and the world would have to be like for there to be non-experiential seemings. This is like the Kantian project I mentioned before. Maybe biology can help. To me it, er, seems that this might be more plausible than coming up with a biologized conception of knowledge that lets us have what we want, because knowledge is a more normatively loaded concept. Being lucky enough to have cognitive biases might make things seem to be true, but could they make you know things? I don't know. Maybe we can construct a plausible naturalized epistemology around seeming which isn't vulnerable to the same normative criticisms as one constructed around knowledge.

If you’re still on board at this point, there are a couple of ways you might want to go. One is to be like Sextus Empiricus (I think), and never make claims about knowledge: you just say how things seem to you. You might think a position like that was unstable, because when you assert the position you’re committing to knowing it, not just to it seeming to be true. I don’t think that’s necessarily right though: we could posit a speech act which is correct when its content seems to you to be true, as assertions are (let’s say) correct when you know their contents. (More boringly, we could just allow that we do know how things seem to us.) We could investigate what kind of logical norms would apply to such a speech act. Maybe you can’t know contrary propositions, but can contrary propositions both seem to be true? If P&Q seems to be true, does that mean P seems to be true as well? There’s room for productive debate about those and similar questions. I think it’s perfectly possible that an epistemology constructed around seeming might be stable in a way that full-on scepticism of a kind which doesn’t allow any assertions or put anything in assertion’s place isn’t stable. The seeming-based epistemology might not be stable either, but I’d like to know, and if it is, and it’s what the ancient sceptics had in mind, that would be very cool.

Maybe we don’t have to content ourselves with seeming, though. One way epistemologists sometimes frame the problem of scepticism is as the problem of getting knowledge from non-knowledge. Maybe a beefed-up notion of seeming can give us some traction on this. That’s because if something seems to be true, that’s plausibly a defeasible reason for believing that it is true. So from seeming, which isn't knowledge, we get reasons for belief. Can we get all the way to knowledge? Maybe we could with a bit of ingenuity. Mark Schroeder wrote a book called Slaves of the Passions in which he tried to reduce all of our normative concepts to the idea of facts being reasons for people to do actions. I don’t actually think he succeeds, but it’s impressive how far he gets. (It really is a fantastic book; I can't praise it enough.) And if you can construct a bunch of normative concepts out of ‘P is a reason for S to do X’, maybe you can construct some epistemic concepts out of ‘S has a reason to believe P’. That would also be very cool.