Thursday, December 29, 2011

Essay on scepticism and intuition

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on scepticism and intuition
Date: 11 September 2006 10:44

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 4 September, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'An Intuitive Response to Philosophical Skepticism'.

This is an excellent piece of work which clearly lays out the options from someone seeking a response to the challenge of scepticism (or skepticism - either is acceptable so long as you are consistent!). These are:

1. rejection of the sceptical hypothesis
2. denial of the principle of closure
3. acceptance of the sceptical paradox

However, you have gone further than many students would, and sought to provide a fourth option which is distinct from these three common moves. All credit to you for that. This is the way to get a First.

I have nothing to comment on your analysis of the three options, which is clear and succinct.

I will concentrate on your proposal which on a first look I find very appealing, but at the same time can't help wondering whether this is too easy a 'way out'. But let us see.

Why do we have the word 'know' in our language? what use is it? What am you or G.E. Moore telling me, for example, when you say that you know that you have two hands?

This isn't a question about the analysis of 'know' in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather looks to the context which gives the concept of knowledge its point.

When I say I am 'certain' that X, I am telling you about my state of belief. It is legitimate, for example, to say I am certain that I am going to win the lottery this Saturday. I had a dream when the lottery angel came to me and told me. Or I feel it in my bones. You can't argue with my state of belief. But if I say I 'know' then you can reasonably ask me what right I have to make this claim. To say that I know is to say, in effect, that 'you can take it from me', i.e. I am an authority so far as the question whether X is concerned. But no-one can have this knowledge about the lottery unless the lottery is fixed and they are in on the scam.

Third-person analyses of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge miss this point, because all you can see from a third-person perspective is that if A 'knows' that X, then X is true. However, our interest in knowledge isn't confined to cases where we are already given the truth of X, and our only interest is deciding whether A satisfies the conditions for knowing that X or not. The central case - so far as the point of a concept of 'knowledge' is concerned - is where we don't know whether X but A claims that he knows. If we accept A's authority to pronounce on this particular question, then we will accept that X is indeed the case.

I know that you have two hands because you told me, and I accept your authority on this point. It is possible (though I haven't checked this) that not all Pathways students have two hands.

From this perspective one can kind of see how one could both hold on to a legitimate concept of 'knowledge' in daily life, while admitting at the same time that from a metaphysical perspective no knowledge claims are justified, no-one has the 'right' to make any statement about anything.

So far so good. However, I am not so sure how much space there is here - despite what you say about making the assumption that we have knowledge 'axiomatic in a theory of knowledge' - between your view and that of Lewis. As it happens, David Lewis gave a paper at the Philosophy Dept at Sheffield a few years ago, where he argued the case for context sensitivity. However, rather than use grand sceptical hypotheses of the 'brain in a vat' variety, he pointed out very ordinary assumptions which we do not think to question when we make knowledge claims.

I have no idea about the level of technical development required to maintain a genuine brain in a vat (Dennett somewhere casts considerable scorn on this idea). However, there are any number scenarios which might indeed be the case, which could be used to undermine many, or most of the knowledge claims that I make.

'I have two hands' is an exception - one of the minority of knowledge claims - in that there is no undermining scenario that one can think of short of the brain in a vat variety. However, I think it would be perfectly proper for me to say that I know that I have a student 'James Smith' who is taking the BA via the University of London External Programme; or that George W. Bush is President of the United States; or that my beige G3 Powermac is worth less than a hundred Pounds.

If you asked me, Do I know that Bush has not been assassinated during the last half hour, obviously I would have to say I don't know. However, by the principle of closure that means I don't know that he IS the President of the United States. Or you could ask me, Do I know that the person who sold me my beige G3 on eBay was not the unwitting girlfriend of an international jewel thief who hid his cache of diamonds underneath the hard drive? In that case I don't know that my G3 is not worth a million Pounds.

What these cases seem to show is that there are things we DO know, on the condition that we are not asked certain awkward questions. This looks like a generalization of your case, but there seems far less - if any - justification for an 'axiomatic' solution.

All the best,

Geoffrey