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Factivity of knowledge makes it redundant

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I’m thinking of taking an epistemology course this year. Which means that I’ve been thinking about knowledge. Now, a lot of epistemology starts from the assumption that whatever knowledge is, it must be true. This is called the “factivity of knowledge”. Basically, I am supposed to have the intuition that attributing knowledge of a falsehood to someone sounds a little odd. Consider “Ptolemy knew the Sun orbited the Earth”. We should be inclined to think that this sounds odd, and what we should say is “Ptolemy thought he knew the Sun orbited the Earth” or “Ptolemy believed the Sun orbited the Earth.” This is an intuition I just do not share. I take the point that perhaps it is a little odd to suggest Ptolemy knew the Sun orbited the Earth, but take modern instances of scientific “knowledge”: I know there are electrons; I know that nothing can go faster than light. Accepting that scientific knowledge is fallible, does that mean that it is not knowledge? Or rather, does my accepting that any piece of scientific knowledge might be wrong mean I cannot be confident that I have any scientific knowledge? After all, knowledge is not defined as “justified, approximately true belief”… It seems that epistemology tries too hard to accommodate the intuition that there’s something fishy about attributing knowledge of falsehoods to people, while ignoring the use of words like “knowledge” in science, for example. Any theory that fails to live up to the “folk” use of knowledge in science had better be damn good at what it does elsewhere…

And what’s the point of an analysis of “knowledge” that makes it so inaccessible. Given my acceptance of my own fallibility, I can never know I have knowledge: accepting that any belief of mine could be false makes the KK principle radically false. Do knowledge attributions help us understand or assess the rationality of someone’s reasoning or decision? No: once we’ve a picture of their doxastic state (their beliefs), and the relevant truths, then attributing knowledge doesn’t seem to add anything. I can never say “I merely believe this proposition, so I will act in this way in respect of it; but this proposition I know and can therefore act in this different way…” since I never have access to which of my strong justified beliefs are also true. So what role does this kind of knowledge play?

Maybe this attitude is caused by my being corrupted by LSE’s interest in decision theory. Perhaps I am too focussed on using a theory of knowledge to assess the rationality of some action of set of beliefs. Maybe the real problem is to understand what is special about knowledge, over and above mere belief. And maybe one thing that sets knowledge apart is that knowledge is true. But, to my (hopelessly pragmatically based) mind, that’s not an interesting distinction, since it’s one that never makes a difference to me. But maybe there are some belief states that do have practically privileged status: maybe some kinds of belief (e.g. justified beliefs) allow me to act differently. And if this sort of belief looks a bit like knowledge, then maybe we should adopt that label.

Perhaps the best course of action is just to give up the word “knowledge” to the epistemologists and to focus on the practically useful propositional attitudes like belief. Obviously, truth is still important. Not only is having true beliefs often pragmatically the best way to go, but having true beliefs may well have some kind of “epistemic value” in and of itself. But to make the truth of some belief part of characterising what kind of belief it is seems wrong. Maybe the misunderstanding I have of epistemology (or at least of analyses of the concept of knowledge) is that I want to focus on those aspects of my propositional attitudes that can influence my behaviour, that I can be aware of.

This post grew out of something I posted on Twitter, and thus thanks are due to all the people who argued epistemology with me over there. I’m beginning to think that Twitter is uniquely unsuited to philosophical discussions, but I’ve had some interesting conversations on there nonetheless. Thanks to:

This also marks my third blog post of the day. The others being here and here. I must have a deadline or something. (In my defense, the other two were already substantially written before today). I will be at EPSA so I will continue to not post here.


Written by Seamus

October 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Is there a version of the equal weight view of disagreement that is reasonable and non trivial?

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So, I haven’t read up on the “epistemic significance of disagreement” literature (as may become obvious below). I do intend to, but I currently have several other things on the go. I’ve seen a couple of talks/blog posts that seem to add to this sort discussion, so I have a rough idea of what it’s about.

The idea is that if you and someone you take to be an epistemic peer disagree, then you should give their opinion equal weight. What “equal weight” means is something I’m not going to explore. But I’m worried that the notion of an “epistemic peer” makes EW a trivial claim. When do you decide if someone is an epistemic peer?

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Written by Seamus

June 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm