Tuesday, September 27, 2011

UK govt proposal to ban the use of the verb 'to know'

To: Harry D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: UK govt proposal to ban the use of the verb 'to know'
Date: 20 February 2005 13:13

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your email of 9 February, with your second essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, ''In view of advice from the philosophical think-tank formed last year from six eminent professors, we shall be introducing legislation to ban the use of the verb 'to know' and its derivatives from all official documents.' - Comment on this imaginary extract from the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament.'

I enjoyed reading this. I could almost believe that a Government minister might make this speech (although it sounds more like something you'd hear in the European Parliament).

How would a member of the Opposition respond? One way might be to deploy arguments against scepticism. The problem with this approach is that philosophers are still debating the pros and cons of scepticism. A law banning the use of the verb 'to know' and its derivatives might be seen as the safest option, given the possibility that the sceptics might be proved to be right after all.

This would be one way of developing the argument of the essay. However, there is another line of attack. It looks as if, in banning the use of a mere word, everything can carry on as before. What exactly has changed?

Suppose you ask me, 'Do you know if the number 25 bus runs today?' I reply, 'I believe that it does.' In normal conversation this would normally be taken to imply that I am allowing room for doubt. Maybe I've seen the number 25 on Sundays before, and have no reason to suppose that the schedule has been changed. On the other hand, suppose I say, 'Yes it does.' This implies that you can take it from me that the number 25 does run today. I do not entertain any doubts about the matter. I just know. If I did have doubts, then in making a categorical assertion I would be misleading you about my authority as a source of information.

However, the argument for scepticism in Meditation 1 applies to all beliefs equally. It follows that for all practical purposes, there will still be room for a distinction between the two cases where I inform you about the number 25 bus, between making a qualified assertion and making a categorical assertion. The only difference will be - as it were - that I tell you, 'I believe that it does,' or 'Yes it does,' with a wink, and you wink back showing that we are both fully aware of the impregnability of the sceptic's case.

So there will still be the need, in official documents, to mark the practical difference between qualified and categorical assertion, between, 'We think' and 'You can take it from us'. No-one is seriously maintaining that there is a real risk that we will wake up to discover that we have been dreaming etc. etc.

In this way, it looks as though the doctrine of philosophical scepticism is toothless. Having made the point about 'Know' with a capital 'K', there is no danger that any harm will be done by re-introducing the word 'know' with a small 'k'.

However, as proponents of scepticism have pointed out (e.g. Peter Unger in his book 'Ignorance'), it is far from clear that the sceptic will be happy with making his point, and then quietly accepting the status quo. The ancient school of sceptics who followed the philosopher Pyrrho (not to be confused with the General Pyrrhus who won a famous 'Pyrrhic victory') maintained that their doctrine did have practical consequences, and so they did not travel or undertake any projects which required assumptions which might turn out to be false, and instead lived a life of ease and spent their time debating philosophy.

If we accept the case for scepticism which Descartes makes in Meditation 1, then no-one ever has the *right* to make a categorical assertion about anything. One response is to say, 'We will still make categorical assertions but recognize that we do this even though we do not have the right to do so.' The alternative response is to say, 'We must no longer make categorical assertions.' On the first alternative, there is no practical harm in retaining the use of the word 'to know'. On the second alternative, it is not sufficient merely to remove all occurrences of the verb 'to know' and its derivatives. Every categorical assertion must also be removed, or rephrased.

Either way, the Government's case collapses.

All the best,

Geoffrey