Monday, March 25, 2013

Problematizing the B Condition on Knowledge

Central to contemporary epistemology is the question of what it is to know something. And the orthodox starting point in discussions of what it is to know something is the "JTB account" of knowledge: Knowledge is justified (J) true (T) belief (B), plus maybe some fourth condition to take care of weird cases where justified beliefs are true merely by accident (so-called Gettier cases). Discussion tends to focus on how to understand the J condition and whether some further fourth condition is necessary. The truth and belief conditions are typically regarded as unproblematic.

In a forthcoming paper, Blake Myers-Schulz and I pick up a mostly-cold torch from Colin Radford (whose seminal work on this topic was in the 1960s) and challenge the belief condition. Can one know that something is the case even if one doesn't believe that it's the case? We offer five plausible cases (one adapted from Radford) along with empirical evidence that our intuitions [note 1] about these cases are not idiosyncratic.

This paper has already drawn several follow-up studies, some critical and some supportive -- but interestingly, even the critical studies can be read as contributing to an emerging consensus that problematizes the belief condition. (I don't predict the consensus will last. They never do in philosophy. But still!)

First, to give you a feel for it, our cases:

1. An unconfident examinee who feels like she is guessing the answer but non-accidentally gets it right;

2. An absent-minded driver who momentarily forgets that a bridge he normally takes to work is closed and continues en route toward that bridge;

3. A prejudiced professor, who intellectually appreciates that her athletic students are just as capable as her non-athletic students but who nonetheless is persistently biased in her reactions to student-athletes;

4. A freaked-out movie-watcher who seems to have the momentary impression that the scenario depicted in a horror film is real;

5. A self-deceived husband who has lots of evidence that his wife is cheating and some emotional responses that seem to reveal that he knows this, but who refuses to admit the truth to himself.

Now maybe not all the cases work, but we think in each case there's at least some plausibility to the thought that the person in question knows (that Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, that the bridge is closed, that athletic students are just as capable, that aliens won't come out of her faucet, that his wife is cheating) but does not believe -- at least not as fully and determinately as she knows. And lots of undergraduates seem to agree with us! So we think the B condition on knowledge should at least be open for discussion. It should not be regarded as uncontroversially nonproblematic.

Follow-up studies (e.g., here, here, here, and here) have added some new plausible cases. Our favorite of these is:

6. A religious fundamentalist geocentrist who aces her astronomy class -- seeming to know that Earth revolves around the sun but not to believe it.
Although some of these follow-up studies are pitched as in agreement with us and others as critique, we think there's actually a pretty clear thread of consensus through it all, from a bird's-eye view:

Knowledge requires some sort of psychological connection to the justified, true proposition -- something broadly like a belief condition; but it doesn't seem to require full-on act-it-and-live-it-and-breathe-it belief. However reasonable it might be to think the Earth goes round the sun, that fact has to register with me cognitively in some way if I am to qualify as knowing it; but the fact needn't play the full functional role of belief as envisioned in behaviorally-rich accounts of belief like my own. But how exactly should we should conceptualize this somewhat weak but broadly beliefish psychological-connectedness condition? At this point, that's wide open.

Blake and I suggest that one must have the capacity to act on the stored information that P; Rose and Schaffer seem to suggest that what's crucial is that the information be "available to the mind"; Buckwalter and colleagues suggest that one must believe but only in some "thin" sense of belief; Murray and colleagues suggest that one need to be disposed to "assent" to the content. None of these approaches are well specified (and I've simplified them somewhat; apologies). Figuring out what's going on with the B condition thus seems like a potentially fruitful task that brings together core issues in epistemology and philosophy of mind.


[note 1] Yes, I use the word "intuition". Herman Cappelen has me worried about the term. But I stand firm!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hans Reichenbach's Cubical World and Elliott Sober's Beach

In his 1938 book, Hans Reichenbach imagines a "cubical world" whose inhabitants are prevented from approaching the sides. Outside the world, birds fly, whose silhouettes show on the translucent ceiling of the world. A "friendly ghost" has arranged lights and mirrors so that identical silhouettes also appear on one wall of the world, so that any time a silhouette on the ceiling flaps its wings so also, in perfect correspondence, a silhouette on the wall flaps its wings, etc.

Here's Reichenbach's diagram:

The inhabitants of this world, Reichenbach says, will eventually come to infer that something exists beyond the cubical boundary that causes the shadows on the ceiling and wall. So also likewise, he says, can we infer, from the patterns of relationship among our experiences, that something exists beyond those experiences, causing them.

It is crucial to Reichenbach's argument that the inhabitants of this world ("cubists", let's call them) infer the existence of something beyond the walls that is the common cause of the pairs of corresponding silhouettes. If the cubists could reasonably believe that only the shadows existed, with laws of relation among them, no external world would follow; and so correspondingly in the experiential case there might only be laws of relationship among our experiences with no external common cause beyond.

Unfortunately, it's obscure why Reichenbach thinks the cubists couldn't instead reach the conclusion that the shadows on the ceiling directly affect the shadows on the wall or vice versa, e.g., by the transmission of invisible and unblockable waves through the interior of the cube or simply by action at a distance. (In Reichenbach's mirror set-up, height has no influence on the bird's ceiling position but it does influence position on the wall; and the reverse holds for horizontal position; but direct-causers can posit hidden-variable explanations or similar.) Reichenbach addresses this worry with a single sentence: Within the confines of cubical world, he says, the cubists will have found that "Whenever there were corresponding shadow-figures like spots on the screen, there was in addition, a third body with independent existence", so they'll reasonably regard it as likely that the same is true on their walls (p. 123).

There are two serious problems with this response. First, it cannot be straightforwardly adapted to the sensory-experience/external-world case, which is of course the real aim of Reichenbach's argument. Second, it is false anyway: We can readily construct cases where one spot on a screen causes another on a separate screen without a common cause behind them, e.g. by using a mirror to reflect light from one screen onto another or by making the first screen sufficiently translucent and staging the second screen directly behind it; this is no less natural than the friendly ghost's arrangement.

In a 2011 article, Elliott Sober (the Reichenbach professor at UW-Madison!) notices the weaknesses in Reichenbach's argument and offers a new approach in its place. Call it Sober's beach.

Sober imagines sitting on the beach, noticing the correlation between visual experiences of waves breaking on the beach and auditory experiences of crashing waves. The two types of experience cannot be related as cause and effect because he can stop one while the other continues: When he closes his eyes he still hears the crashing; when he stops his ears he still sees the breakers. Presumably, then, there's a common cause of both.

So far, so good. But to establish an external world beyond the realm of experience, we must establish that this common cause is something outside the realm of experience. Sober responds to this concern by considering one solipsistic alternative: the intention to go to the beach. He then argues that this intention cannot serve as an adequate common cause because the visual and auditory experiences are correlated beyond what would follow simply from taking the intention into account. So he challenges the solipsist to produce a more adequate common cause. He suggests that this challenge cannot be met.

But it can be met! Or so I think. The common cause could be my first beach-like experience. This experience, whether auditory or visual or both, then causes subsequent beach-like experiences. That takes care of the correlation. If I have an experience as of closing my eyes, the auditory experience at time 1 causes the auditory experience at time 2 and also the visual experience at time 2 conditionally upon my having an experience as of opening my eyes; analogously if I stop my ears. The solipsist can either play this out with the first experience causing all the subsequent ones until conditions change, or she can have each experience cause the next in a chain. On the chaining version, if I have my eyes and ears simultaneously closed, my opinion that I will soon have beach-like experiences then does the causal work. (There are imperfections in these regularities, of course, e.g., I might seem to myself to have booted up an an audiorecording of waves, but to take advantage of those imperfections is contrary to the spirit of the toy example and would cause trouble for Sober's model too.)

I agree in spirit with what Reichenbach and Sober are trying to do -- and Bertrand Russell, and Jonathan Vogel. The most reasonable explanation of the patterns in my experience is that there is an external world behind those experiences. But the argument isn't quite as easy as it looks! That's why you need to read Alan Moore's and my paper on the topic. (Or for short blog-post versions of our arguments, see here, here, and here.)

Revised 4:42 pm.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Give $1 Million a Year to Philosophers

I hate grants.

I got into philosophy to think and to read and to teach -- to write articles and blog posts, to meet with grad students, to put together engaging classes for undergrads, to argue with colleagues. That's what I want to do with my time. What I don't want to do is spend lots of time applying for grant money.

And society should feel the same way. I'm an employee of the University of California, my salary funded by taxpayers. Taxpayers want me to teach. Taxpayers should want me to do research too -- if for no other reason than to make me the kind of leading scholar who can teach cutting-edge classes. But taxpayers should not be paying me to spend large amounts of time writing down stuff to convince some committee that I deserve money more than Professors X, Y, and Z deserve money. The amount of time academics spend applying for grants is a giant, loathsome waste of energy of some of the most capable minds in the world.

Plus, why should we want to tie researchers down to what they thought they wanted to do two years ago, when they applied? Times change, ideas mature, opportunities arise!

But society has to fund research, right? So there need to be grants out there to support researchers.

The solution is simple: Give money to researchers for their research without their having to apply, and let them spend it on any reasonable research expenses. That should be the dominant model of grant funding. The committees that award grant money should spend their time finding out who, based on recent performance, is likely to put research money to best use, and they should simply hand those people the money. This will free up the time of those people to do more of their interesting research. Think MacArthur "genius" grants on a small scale.

A few strings should be attached, so that recipients don't just pocket the money as salary. Suppose you're a foundation with $1 million a year to fund philosophical research on Topic X. Here's how you might do it. Form a committee of leading scholars on Topic X. Have them find 40 people who are actively doing excellent work on Topic X -- from post-docs through distinguished professors, some at every level. And then send each of the potential recipients a letter offering them $25,000 over the course of five years, with the following two conditions: (1.) The money be spent only on documented research expenses (provide a list of allowable expenses), and (2.) In the last year they receive money, they come to your annual conference to present some of their research on Topic X. (Right, you now have to host an annual conference on Topic X, where your brilliant researchers can argue with each other. That seems like a good idea anyway, doesn't it?)

(Or make it $10,000 to 100, or $100,000 to 10, or whatever -- depending on the committee's vision.)

A good committee (maybe eventually composed of past recipients) can easily identify a good pool of leading active researchers on Topic X. Look at who is publishing; look at who is presenting at conferences; etc. Those are the people to fund. They want to travel; they want to buy sabbatical time to be able to focus better on their research; they want to spend money on books and equipment and graduate student research assistants. I predict that the committee would end up funding better research overall, with less waste -- at least in philosophy -- than if they wait for applicants to come to them, funding on the basis of shiny-tight-looking proposals.

If the committee is especially interested in encouraging certain sorts of activities, the committee could also offer some funding contingent on executing those activities: $15,000 of research money if the recipient is willing to use it to organize a mini-conference, $4,000 bonus research money if the recipient speaks at four universities in continental Europe, whatever.

To counteract some of the elitism inherent in the proposal, the committee should be especially directed to look for researchers with large teaching loads and non-elite appointments who are able to be research-productive nonetheless. Such people especially deserve funding, and they might be especially likely to put their funding to good use.

I don't think this is the only way research should be funded. The standard model can still play a role: People with no brilliant track record, or who have been overlooked by the committee, should be funded if they can put together excellent proposals. Some people might have especially ambitious visions requiring sums of money larger than the usual amounts. For these cases -- but, I would argue, only for these cases -- the standard granting model makes sense.

(Templeton, are you listening?)

Update March 19:

In the comments, Neil reminded me about people whose salary is paid for by grants. This can easily be added to my system. One way is contingent directed funding: Offer some recipients $N of funding for a post-doc if they are willing to do the search and supervision. Another way is to have people apply for either renewable or non-renewable salaried grants, much as they might apply for a job. For the renewable ones, continuation would be based on actual performance during the lifetime of the grant.

Update April 9:

See Helen De Cruz's excellent post on this at NewAPPS, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Coolest of All Possible Worlds (a Theodicy for the 21st Century)

If I knew that there were a planet with life on the far side of the galaxy, with no hope of contact with us, what would I wish for it? Not that it be merely bacteria, nor that it be merely happy cows, but rather that it soar with the heights of civilization, science, the arts, philosophy -- right? Wouldn't that be better, cooler? Let's, see, what else....

"Really cool wars?" suggests one of my TAs (Will Swanson), when I run the idea by him.

Yesterday, another one of my TAs (Meredith McFadden) was guest lecturing to my course, Philosophy 5 ("Evil"), on "the problem of evil": If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, this should be the best of all possible worlds, shouldn't it? But it doesn't look like the best of all possible worlds. There are of course some traditional theological responses to this problem, though they all face considerable obstacles. However, with the help of Will's suggestion about wars, we might construct a somewhat different theodicy. In this theodicy, God is not omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent but rather:
(1.) omnipotent,
(2.) omniscient, and
(3.) super-cool.

Thus, instead of creating the best of all possible worlds, God creates the coolest of all possible worlds. The question then arises: Do we in fact live in the coolest of all possible worlds?

My first inclination is to say no. But the super-cool theologian can respond to some of the obvious objections. The issue isn't entirely straightforward.

Objection 1: The world would be cooler if magic were real.
Reply 1: No, if magic were real, we would just call it physics. Maybe, in this sense, magnetism is magic. It's much cooler for magic to be imaginary. (I owe this point also to Will.)

Objection 2: The world would be cooler if aliens were real.
Reply 2: The universe is large enough that aliens probably are real. We're not in contact with them (yet?), but it's not obviously cooler to have a universe in which every intelligent species is in contact with other intelligent species than to have a universe in which some intelligent species are isolated.

Objection 3: The world would be cooler if dorky person X didn't exist.
Reply 3: Although joy seems to be possible without suffering (a problem for traditional theodicies, especially those with a Heaven), coolness is arguably impossible without uncoolness as a contrast. For example, The Rolling Stones wouldn't have been nearly so cool if there weren't also dorky Beatles-imitators to contrast with.

Objection 4: The Holocaust was seriously uncool, and in a way that cannot be fully counterbalanced by any contrast effect.

Now before I reply let me say that I don't think this reply ultimately works, and I am reluctant to say anything good about the Holocaust. But theologians who think that this is the best of all possible worlds are in an even worse position, because all the super-cool theologian needs to say is that the world is cooler for having had the Holocaust than for not having had it -- not that the world is better all things considered for having had the Holocaust.

Reply 4: Let's suppose that the super-cool theologian does in fact buy into the idea of cool wars -- buys into the idea that violence, disaster, and tragedy can make for a cooler world than a world in which people are always placid and happy. Maybe The Lord of the Rings can be a model here. If Tolkien's world is cool, well, Sauron perpetrates some serious death and horror, and that's essential to the coolness of the world. If we think about Tolkien's world or a world on the other side of the galaxy, maybe we can warm up to the idea that huge amounts of horrible tragedy and undeserved suffering can belong in a maximally cool world, if there's also enough triumph at the end. Will likes Nietzsche, and maybe this attitude fits with Nietzschean yes-saying to even the most horrible aspects of the world.

Alternatively, maybe we can do some natural theology here: We can try to infer the attributes of God by looking out at the world God chose to create. If God was going for coolness, God must have thought a world with the Holocaust would be cooler than one without. Maybe this says something about God's moral character. Maybe we're like soldier ants God finds it cool to shake up and watch fight? A God with little sympathy for us but an interest in "cool wars" might think Nazis are the coolest bad guys, in part because because of the irredeemably evil awfulness of the Holocaust. I can't say that I would be fond of such a God, but if "coolness" isn't sharply separable from benevolence, super-cool theology is no real alternative to orthodoxy.

A Euthyphro question arises. Is something cool because it is seen as cool by the super-cool God, or is God super-cool because God loves things that are cool -- things that would be cool regardless of God's preferences? Although there are surely limits -- an uncool dork God seems possible -- to some extent it seems God could make things cool by finding them cool. For example, if God started wearing hightop sneakers, that might make hightop sneakers cooler than they would be if God weren't wearing them. I doubt this works for the Holocaust though.

The picture, then, would be an unbenevolent God who is entirely willing to inflict vast undeserved suffering in the interests of a "cool" historical arc, with maybe some triumphs and awesomeness down the road that we can't yet anticipate, and for whom uncoolness is justified mainly to make current and future coolness pop out ever more coolly. I can't say we have great evidence for this view. But a sufficiently motivated theist might find it avoids some of the problems that flow from assuming divine benevolence.

[Revised March 13]

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Against the One True Kant

I start with two premises:
Premise 1: All human beings are bad at philosophy.
Premise 2: Kant was a human being.
Therefore, um, uh, let's see....

It is sufficient a person's for being "bad at philosophy" in the relevant sense that when that person tries to build an ambitious, elaborate philosophical system that addresses the great, enduring questions of metaphysics and epistemology, there will be some serious errors in the system, as a result of the person's cognitive shortcomings (e.g., invisible presuppositions, equivocal arguments). It is very easy to be bad at philosophy in this sense, and we have excellent empirical evidence for Premise 1. Premise 2 also seems well attested. Further supporting evidence for the conclusion comes from the boneheaded things Kant sometimes says when he is speaking clearly and concretely rather than in a difficult-to-evaluate haze of abstracta.

Here's a vision, then, of Kant:

Kant has a brilliant sense of what it would be very cool to be able to prove -- or at least a brilliant sense of what lots of philosophers think it would be very cool to be able to prove. For example, it would be very cool to (non-question-beggingly) prove that the external world exists. It would be very cool to prove that immorality is irrational. Kant also has some clever and creative pieces of argumentation that seem like promising elements in potential proofs of this sort. And finally, Kant has an intimidating aura of authority. He creates a fog of jargon through which the pieces of argument appealingly glint, in their coolness and cleverosity. And, voila, he asserts success. If you fail to understand, the fault seems to be yours.

Maybe this sounds bad. But the thing is: There really are interesting pieces of argument in there! It's just that they don't all fit together. There are gaps in the arguments, and seeming inconsistencies, and different possibilities for the meaning of the jargon. Because these gaps, seeming inconsistencies, and possibilities might be variously resolved, there need be no one right interpretation of Kant. We can be Kant interpretation pluralists. Although there are clearly bad ways of reading Kant (e.g., as an unreconstructed Lockean), there might be no determinately best way, but rather a variety of attractive ways with competing costs and benefits.

Interpret the terms this way and fill in the gaps that way, and find a Kant who thinks that there's stuff out there independent of our minds that causes our sensory experiences. Interpret the terms this other way and fill in the gaps that other way, and find a Kant who regards such stuff as merely an invention of our minds. Yet another Kant holds that there might be such stuff, but we can't prove that there is. Call these Kant Model 1, Kant Model 2, and Kant Model 3. There will also be Kant Model 4, Kant Model 1a, Kant Model 5f, etc. Similarly across the range of Kantian issues.

But surely only one of these things is what Kant really thought? No, I wouldn't be sure of that at all! When our terms admit multiple interpretations, when our arguments are gappy and dispositions unstable, the contents of both our occurrent thoughts and our dispositional opinions can be muddy. When I say, "the only really important thing is to be happy" or "all men are created equal", what exactly to do I mean? There might be no exactness about it! (See my dispositional approach to attitudes.) This is as true of philosophers as of anyone else -- and, I would argue, as true of the mortal Kant as of any other philosopher.

But even if Kant did have absolutely specific private opinions on all the topics of his writings, it doesn't matter. The philosophy of Kant is not that. Maybe in the secret grotto of his soul he was an orthodox Thomist and he invented the critical philosophy only as a joke to amuse his manservant Martin Lampe. This would not render the Critique of Pure Reason a defense of Thomism. Kant's philosophy is embodied in the words he left behind, not in his private opinions about those words. And those words might not, very likely do not, determinately resolve into one single self-consistent philosophical system.

Historians of philosophy can and should fight about whether to treat Kant Model 2b, Kant Model 5f, or instead some other Kant, as the canonical Kant. But those of us who don't make Kant interpretation our profession should have some liberty to choose among the Kants, as best suits our philosophical purposes -- as long as we bear in mind that Kant Model 2b is no more the One Kant than Hamlet Interpretation 2b is the One Hamlet.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Spatial Location of Inner Speech

Last night, my six-year-old daughter Kate told me she had a song "in her head". I asked her if it was really inside her head, and she said yes it was. I asked her how big it was. At first she said she didn't know, but when pressed she agreed that it was larger than a pea but smaller than a dog, and she spread her fingers a few centimeters apart.

Most of the people I've interviewed are willing to attribute a spatial location to their experience of inner speech and imagined tunes -- and that location is virtually always inside their heads, not in their tummies or their toes or out in the environment, unless it's a hallucination or a case in which they're not sure whether the origin is some subtle environmental sound. Why, I wonder, this uniformity of report?

You might say -- as my 13-year-old son Davy said later last night, when I interviewed him -- that it's experienced as in the head because its origin is in your brain, and your brain is in the head. But that argument can't work without some supplementation. Phantom-limb pain, for example, is experienced as spatially located outside the head, even if its origin is in the head (or in peripheral nerves closer to the center of the body). Visual experience is a product of the brain but not normally described as located in the head. Visual imagery, too, although often described as "in the head", is sometimes experienced as out in the environment. For example, I might imagine a demon crouching in the corner of my office as I now look into that very corner. Also -- somewhat surprisingly to me! -- when I interview people about their visual imagery experiences, about 25% describe their visual imagery as spatially located a few inches in front of the forehead. In contrast, I have never heard anyone describe their inner speech as transpiring a few inches in front of their forehead!

You might say that it's because the origin of our outwardly verbalized speech is our head, so we're used to locating our speech inside our heads. But that doesn't quite work either. When I speak, the spatial origin of the sound, it seems to me, is my mouth. Although that's part of my head, most people, when they locate their inner speech, locate it not in their mouths but in the interior of their cranium.

You might think that it makes sense that we would imagine music as transpiring in our cranium, since that's where it seems to be when you're listening with headphones. But that doesn't quite work either, I think, since people with limited exposure to headphones (like Kate), who hear most of their music from exterior sources, still report tunes as spatially interior. (I'd wager one finds this "inside the head" phenomenological positioning, too, if one looks at phenomenological reports in Anglophone culture pre-stereophonics, but I haven't done the search on that (yet).)

A more interesting possibility is this: Sometimes imagery is experienced as environmentally positioned -- like that demon in the corner of my office. We might imagine a representation like this {demon with properties a,b,c; egocentric location x,y,z}. But most of the time we don't visually imagine things as environmentally located, so the representation is just {demon with properties a,b,c}. Without an environmental position explicitly represented, we might default to representation at our subjective center -- either actually experiencing it as there or erroneously thinking we experience it as there. And maybe our subjective center is inside our cranium. But even if so, the view has problems accounting for visual imagery reported as in front of the forehead, and with reports of inner speech as moving around inside one's head (as some of Russ Hurlburt's interviewees report).

So I'm left still wondering....