A forum for VE lucubration

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Summary/Analysis of "Epistemic Luck" Chapters 1 and 2

(Note: What follows in this post is mostly my own summary of "Epistemic Luck" (Chs. 1 and 2), although I've added some critical analysis at some points; mostly, though, my attempt was to get clear on what the main claims were. I am open to suggestions as to whether I have some points misconstrued. --AC)

Chapter 1: Scepticism in Contemporary Debate

The task of this chapter seems to be twofold; first, to explain what will be a key term in Part two: the epistemic luck platitude (i.e. the pervasive supposition that knowledge excludes luck) and pose as a question (which will not be addressed until Part II) how it is that the epistemic luck platitude is a motivation for skepticism; secondly, Pritchard presents two separate motivations for skepticism that drive the contemporary debate, the infallibilism-based radical skeptical argument, and the closure-based radical skeptical argument.
His argument is that the closure-based argument is logically weaker, and because it is also capable of generating the radical skeptical conclusion generated by the infallibilsm-based argument, it is the most appropriate for the antiskeptic to address. A correlative point Pritchard makes is that, because the closure-based argument is what should be dealt with by the antiskeptic (and not the logically stronger infallibilism-based skeptical argument), we can conclude something important about the relationship between skepticism and epistemic luck, namely, that we are prevented from “identifying the skeptical challenge as simply arising out of an unduly demanding—indeed, an unqualified—reading of the claim that knowledge excludes luck. We would only do this if tackling the skeptic amounted merely to tackling the infallibilism-based argument. However, because the task is more difficult (i.e. to combat the closure-based argument), we can see that the skeptical challenge arises out of a “qualified” reading of the epistemic luck platitude. However, it does not follow from the fact that skepticism is motivated by a qualified reading of the epistemic luck platitude that that qualification requires adopting fallibilism. Closure provides an alternative to fallibilism, and among motivators for skepticism, appears to be the strongest contender.
Two principles are introduced in this chapter, which serve for the basis of the two arguments he presents that motivate skepticism.

(1) Infallibility Principle: For all agents, ϕ, if an agent knows a proposition ϕ, then that agent knows that all error-possibilities associated with ϕ are false.

(2) Closure Principle for Knowledge: For all agents, ϕ, ψ, if an agent knows that ϕ, and knows that ϕ entails ψ, then that agent knows that ψ.

Let’s see why closure is “logically weaker”: to do this we must identify that both principles can be used to generate the radical skeptical conclusion, and secondly, that between two arguments which generate the same conclusion, the logically weaker (i.e. closure) is the “stronger” argument to rebut. Here are the two arguments which are formed from these respective principles.

The infallibilism-based skeptical argument
1. If one is to have knowledge of a wide range of everyday propositions, then one must know the denials of all error-possibilities that are associated with these propositions, including radical skeptical hypothesis.
2. One cannot know the denials of radical skeptical hypotheses.
3. Therefore, one cannot have knowledge of a wide range of everyday propositions.

The closure-based radical skeptical argument
1. If one is to have knowledge of a wide range of everyday propositions, then one must know the denials of all radical skeptical hypotheses that one knows to be incompatible with the relevant everyday propositions.
2. One cannot know the denials of radical skeptical hypotheses.
3. Therefore, one cannot have knowledge of a wide ranger of everyday propositions.

∀x [(Ks(Ixt ) → EAxt]

(For all x, if x is incompatible with a target proposition and s knows this, then x is an error-possibility associated with that target proposition).


~∀x [EAxt → Ks(Ixt)]

This is because not all error-possibilities associated with a proposition are known by the agent to be incompatible with that proposition. The entailment which takes place in the closure principle involves only those propositions that the agent knows are incompatible with the target proposition. And so, the set of those error-possibilities that must be ruled out according the infallibility principle could be, in principle, larger than the set that the agent knows to be incompatible with the target proposition, however, the inverse could not be the case. And hence, the closure-based argument requires that we rule out (in principle) less error-possibilities than the infallibility-based argument requires. Because the closure-based argument can reach the same conclusion (radical skepticism) as the infallibility-based argument, and with a smaller set of error-possibilities we must rule out, it is a more dangerous threat for the anti-skeptic.

Ch. 2: Closure and Context

By the beginning of Ch. 2, “Closure and Context”, Pritchard hopes to have already have taken us aboard in adopting a template closure-based skeptical argument over the logically stronger infallibility-based template skeptical argument; secondly, he hopes that, in making this move, we will come to reject the idea that the skeptical problem merely arises from a robust reading of the claim that knowledge excludes luck.
How can the skeptic, viz. motivating skepticism with the closure-based skeptical argument be rebutted? This purpose of Chapter two is to offer two attempts, which ultimately fail. These attempts are (1) to deny the closure principle, a move made most notably by Fred Dretske, and (2) to embrace the position of attributer contextualism. Pritchard shows how each of these two strategies attempts to counter the skeptic with the closure-based argument in mind; he argues, though, that each fails, and for a common reason. Both denying closure and embracing attributer contextualism are examples of externalist positions which are, as he says, “at certain key junctures, implicitly motivated by internalist epistemological intuitions. ” Ultimately, Pritchard’s goal here isn’t so much as to prop up two straw men, as to instructively show why particular responses can’t work in the face the closure-based motivation for skepticism, and only given such instruction, does it become as blatantly clear (as Pritchard seems to want it) why a third response, Neo-Mooreanism, is the most desirable strategy. Merely arguing for neo-Mooreanism would not have been so persuasive if it were not made obvious why other attempts run into dead ends.

Denying Closure: Dretske

Dretske proposes that we can know a given proposition Φ while at the same time lacking knowledge of the known entailment Ψ, because “the truth of Ψ is already presupposed in the agent’s knowledge of Φ.” What is significant here is that, when a knowledge operator is applied to Φ, it doesn’t “penetrate the (known) entailment Ψ because, qua being a presupposition of the agent’s knowing Φ, it is not part of what is being operated on when the knowledge operator is applied to the known proposition.

Pritchard captures the force of what Dretske’s up to here in saying that: “most knowledge quite legitimately presupposes the truth of certain propositions that one does not know. ” Denying closure allows us to preserve a motivation for fallibilism that was advanced by J.L. Austin’s “relevant alternatives” proposal: the proposal that to know an everyday proposition, one need only rule out error-possibilities that one has a reason to take into account. We must be careful, though, not to conflate the two. What is preserved of the this fallibist motivation by the closure-principle is the possibility that one can have knowledge of an everyday proposition without knowing the denial of skeptical hypotheses (which would be incompatible with knowledge of that proposition). It is in this sense that the closure principle can preserve a fallibilist motive. However, there is more to denying closure than merely rejecting the knowledge operator entailment. Dretske also advocates a sensitivity-based theory of knowledge, which is externalist (i.e. it rejects that facts needed to justify a proposition must be reflectively accessible), and which preserves his anti-closure position previously mentioned. The sensitivity principle Dretske advocates is as follows:

Sensitivity Principle: For all agents, Φ, if an agent knows a contingent proposition Φ, then the agent does not believe that Φ in the nearest possible world or worlds in which ~Φ.

Interestingly, accepting this principle (as Dretske does) as essentially the necessary and sufficient condition for knowing a proposition, leads us to the fallibilist-intuition-preserving-friendly result that we can know everyday propositions (which do meet the sensitivity condition) whilst not knowing the denial of skeptical hypotheses which we know to be entailed by the everyday propositions we know, because the denial of skeptical hypotheses will fail to meet the sensitivity condition. They will fail for the reason that, even if we believe the denial of a skeptical hypothesis and it is true, we would still believe it was true in the nearest possible world in which the denial was false (i.e. in worlds in which we really are BIVs).
One problem of denying closure Dretske-style is that there emerges an asymmetry between the relevant-alternatives motive for fallibilism, and Dretske’s position. The asymmetry can be presented as follows: on the relevant-alternatives view, we need not know the denials of skeptical error-possibilities because (given that they are presumed to be in such far-worlds) they are not relevant to our knowledge of everyday propositions. However, what is interesting is that in our discussion of the denials of skeptical hypotheses, the denial of the skeptical hypotheses is relevant to knowledge. And so, in principle, it seems that the core relevant-alternatives thesis would allow that we would need to know the denial of skeptical hypotheses in at least some contexts; however, because Dretske’s position would never allow us to know such a denial (given that knowledge of it fails to meet the sensitivity condition), we should, Pritchard claims, “be wary of any view which proclaims itself to be the true heir to the relevant alternatives tradition.” I suspect Pritchard means this both in the sense that the relevant alternatives tradition is problematic in that it is somewhat ambiguous (in that it has a double standard, arguably) and in the sense that Dretske’s view claims itself to be an heir to a position from which it appears to relevantly stray.
It seems, though, that Pritchard’s central problem with Dretske’s closure-denying-sensitivity approach lies not in its relation to the relevant-alternatives thesis from which it is a supposed heir, but rather, with a problem which involves an ambivalence in motivation. The problem is that: Dretske’s position endorses an externalist theory of knowledge. Given this, Dretske’s view must be committed to not requiring internalist justification as necessary for knowledge. Pritchard thinks, though, that internalist intuitions are just what Dretske his in mind when explaining how it is that we lack knowledge of the denials of skeptical hypotheses. The passage of Dretske’s which Pritchard quotes to support this claim is:

If you are tempted to say [that the agent does know (Q)…[, think for a moment about the reasons that you have, what evedence you can produce in favour of this claim. The evidence you had for thinking them zebras has been effectively neutralized, since it does not count toward their not being mules disguised. Have you checked with the zoo authorities? Did you examine? Did you examine the animals closely enough to detect such a fraud? (Dretske 1970: 1016)

Pritchard claims here that, if we substitute a radical skeptical hypothesis in for the local one in this passage, then Dretske would be claiming that what prevents an agent from knowing the denial of a skeptical hypothesis “is that she is unable to adduce good empirical evidence in favour of thinking that this position is true. Since there is, intuitively at least, a close connection between the evidence that one is able to explicitly adduce and the evidence that is reflectively available to one, it follows that a natural way of reading this passage is as saying that agents are unable to know the denials of skeptical hypotheses because they lack internalist justification for their beliefs in these propositions.” (53) Pritchard’s problem with this is that, if Dretske’s position, qua being externalist, denies the necessity of internalist justification for knowledge, then it is a problem that he motivates the denial of closure (which I take it is what he was up to in his passage regarding the local hypotheses) with what appears to be an explanation for a lack of knowledge resulting from a lack of internalist justification.
I’d like to comment on this problem briefly before moving on to the second anti-skeptical strategy, which is attributer contextualism. I think that Pritchard’s motivation-based criticism of Dretske’s position is intuitively right-on. Although some more reflection led me asking questions down this avenue:
Is his position properly externalist? If it is, then that doesn’t seem completely evident by the definition given of the sensitivity principle. Recall that the sensitivity principle is claiming that:

Sensitivity Principle: For all agents, Φ, if an agent knows a contingent proposition Φ, then the agent does not believe that Φ in the nearest possible world or worlds in which ~Φ.

The consequent is something that could hold independent of an agent’s reflective accessibility to it (i.e. one might have no idea whether something holds in nearest possible worlds), and so the consequent represents an externalist condition. Also, the sensitivity principle presents the externalist condition as a necessary condition. Epistemological internalism with regard to knowledge has, itself, one necessary condition: i.e. that the belief must be internally justified (i.e. all facts needed to justify the proposition must be reflectively accessible). I’m probably going wrong somewhere here, but it seems to me that: a position can require that all facts needed to justify a proposition must be reflectively accessible (i.e. internalist with regard to knowledge) and stipulate that, for a proposition to be known, not only must this internalist justificatory condition be met, but also, an externalist (non-justifying) condition must be met (i.e. the consequent in the sensitivity principle). Notice that the consequent in the sensitivity principle need not be understood as a justificatory condition (maybe I’m wrong here). And so it seems as though an externalist with regard to knowledge, in so far as she stipulates an externalist condition for knowing (i.e. as Dretske has done in his consequent of the sensitivity principle), and still require internalist justification for a belief. (For how is requiring internalist justification for knowledge incompatible with requiring an externalist condition for knowing?)
I think there are two points that are at the source of what is probably just confusion on my part. First off, my point hangs on whether the consequent of the sensitivity principle is to be read as a justificatory condition. Secondly, I don’t think I am fully clear as to the extent to which the sensitivity principle is externalist by virtue of its requiring an externalist condition for knowing. If Dretske’s position is externalist for this reason (i.e. that it requires an externalist condition for knowing), then I’m not clear as to why this externalist-making feature of the sensitivity principle would require a rejection of internalism with regard to knowledge (which is what Dretske’s position must do if it is properly externalist).
The next anti-skeptic alternative presented is attributer contextualism, a position that combats skepticism with the added benefit of remaining true to the intuitive closure principle. Attributer contextualism amounts to the position that, for a given proposition, its truth value will be in part determined by the conversational context of the proposition circumscribed by the attributer of that proposition. This is the position advanced most notably by DeRose (2005), Lewis (1996) and Cohen (2000). A consequence of attributer contextualism is that a given proposition, “S knows that p” can be uttered in one circumstance and be true, and in another circumstance and be false. Obviously, a motivation for adopting such a view would be to preserve that we can have quite a bit of the knowledge we think we have. Why? Because, given that (we grant that) skeptical hypotheses (and the task of ruling them out) are not relevant to most everyday circumstances in which we think we have knowledge, it is not necessary to rule them out in order to say that we know (for example) that it is raining today. Ruling out the denials of skeptical hypotheses is relevant only in the context of decisively skeptical conversations. Attributer contextualism seems on the surface to be capable of preserving two generally incompatible intuitions: (1) The infallibilist intuition that skeptical conversational contexts lead us to discover that we lack knowledge of the denial of them, and a fortiori, we lack most of the knowledge we have; (2) In everyday contexts, we “know” a great deal (p. 55) of what we think we know.
An instinctive reaction would be to think that, surely, these apparently contradictory claims cannot be reconciled without denying closure, and so how can attributer contextualism preserve closure (whilst in any sense remaining true to these antithetical intuitions?) The solution for attributer contextualism is to claim that closure is preserved only within the same conversational context. And so, John’s knowing that the bottle is on the table whilst not knowing that he is not a BIV doesn’t deny closure because his lack of knowledge of the latter is appropriate only within a skeptical conversational context in which he wouldn’t have even known the bottle was on the table.
Pritchard gives two objections to attributer contextualism. The first is somewhat comical; he says, “The most obvious difficulty with attributer contextualism is its commitment to the counter-intuitive thesis that ‘knowledge’ is a context-sensitive term sin the manner described, with the epistemic standards relevant to whether or not knowledge can be truly ascribed to an agent being determined by conversational factors” (58). This is another way of saying, “One problem for attributer contextualism is that its thesis amounts to a reductio against it.” And, indeed, it seems that way. If we grant the platitude that knowledge entails truth, and also grant (as A.C. wishes to) that knowledge is context sensitive, then truth is context sensitive; further, if truth is understood (loosely) as having something to do with how things are, then how things are would be relative to presuppositions that are held within discourse. How odd that would be.
The other problem that is presented is in tune with the second problem presented to Dretske’s anti-skeptical strategy of denying closure: and the shared problem here is a problem with motivation—specifically, the problem of offering externalist positions which are motivated in part by internalist commitments. The way the argument goes (contra attributer contextualism) here seems to be this: A.C. commits itself to the claim that we can know the denial of skeptical hypothesis. This commitment arises once closure is preserved within everyday contexts in which we claim knowledge of any everyday proposition. However, it has been argued that no internalist account can account for knowledge of the denials of skeptical hypothesis (given that no internalist justification is available to support such a claim). Resorting to the available externalist option, though, will lead one to wonder why it is necessary to import all of the “sophisticated theoretical machinery” (60) of contextualism. “Why not just simply argue that agents know everyday propositions and thus, given closure, that agents can know the denials of skeptical hypotheses also” (60). The point the author appears to be making is that: once the denials of skeptical hypotheses are claimed to be “known”, then the skeptical problem seems to disappear in such a way that one ought not resort to the apparently counterintuitive contextualist assumptions in order to explain it. (My aside: ironically, it was importing just this machinery that got us to the position of having externalist knowledge of the denials of skeptical hypotheses, knowledge of which would render the machinery cumbersome). And, on another note, the externalist knowledge of denials of skeptical hypotheses which are closurelly-entailed by everyday knowledge in normal contexts, is not obviously explained. Says Pritchard: “Of course, a great deal needs to be said to explain how one could know the denials of skeptical hypotheses even on an externalist theory of knowledge” (60). A.C. doesn’t have a very clear answer to this, even though it is committed to it.
The moral of the story seems to be this: we’ve looked at two anti-skeptical strategies, and independent of other problems of these respective strategies, each is inconsistently motivated. On this note, the dialectical transition will be to investigate a third anti-skeptical strategy that is not inconsistently motivated: neo-Mooreanism. Unfortunately, though, we’ll see that whilst neo-Mooreanism looks quite good compared to the Dretskean and attributer contextualist anti-skeptical strategies, there is another problem on the table, which has to do with any externalist response to the skeptical dilemma which does not recognize that the tenor of the skeptical strategy is essentially internalist.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Zagzebski on the Value of Knowledge

In her paper “The Source for the Epistemic Good” Linda Zagzebski attempts a solution to what she calls the “value problem”—the problem of accounting for how it is that knowledge is more valuable than true belief. She claims that “if knowing a proposition is more desirable than truly believing it, it is because it is more desirable to believe in an admirable way” (Pritchard and Brady, 26). Believing a true proposition in an admirable way amounts to a way in which the agent gets credit for believing the true proposition; this credit is earned when the agent arrives at the true belief because of her virtuous intellectual acts motivated by a love of truth (25).
Her solution looks strong in comparison to what she convincingly shows to be bad approaches (i.e. the machine-product approach). However, while reading through this, I couldn’t help but to wonder how she would account for knowledge of tautologies (i.e., from now on, the law of non-contradiction) as being more valuable than true belief in this law. Believing that ~(p and ~p) seems to be of the sort that couldn’t be believed because of intellectually virtuous inquiry. For what sort of person could possess intellectual virtue to the extent that she could inquire into whether the law of non-contradiction holds prior to knowing that it holds? Put another way, how could one virtuously inquire whilst not already knowing the law of non-contradiction?

The problem I offer can be stated as:

1. An agent’s knowing that ~(p and ~p) is more valuable than her merely truly believing it only if the agent believes the true proposition in an admirable way.
2. It is not possible to believe ~(p and ~p) in an admirable way.
3. Therefore, knowledge of ~(p and ~p) is not more valuable than true belief in ~(p and ~p).

I’ll anticipate some responses:

First, she might just flat deny that the law of non-contradiction cannot be reached in an admirable way. However, I’d be prepared to say that it could also be reached not in an admirable way (for instance, by someone who hates being bound by logical truths, and hates the fact that the law of non-contradiction is obvious to him). It seems funny to say that the truth-hater’s knowledge of ~(p and ~) is not more valuable than merely true belief whereas the intellectually virtuous agent’s knowledge of ~(p and ~p) is more valuable than her true belief in it. This route isn’t promising, and it could only be pursued if we grant the (I think implausible) assumption that truth in the law of non-contradiction can be reached through virtuous inquiry.

Another response she might have: She could deny that knowledge in the law of non-contradiction is more valuable than true belief in it. This might be more promising (at least more so than the other suggestion). However, she would then only have a conditional solution to the value problem, in the sense that her position explains the value of knowledge to true belief only if the propositional content of the belief is not tautologous.

Another possibility is that I am missing something here and not being fair to Zagzebski’s view with this criticism…

Any thoughts would be welcome!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lucky Virtue and Neighbor's Knickers: Two Problems with Goldman's Veritistic Unitarianism

In his essay “The Unity of the Epistemic Virtues,” Alvin Goldman defends a species of virtue unitarianism which he calls veritism—a consequentialist, truth-linked account of what, exactly, shall qualify as an epistemic virtue. Goldman defines veritism as:

V1: A process, trait, or action is an epistemic virtue to the extent that it tends to produce, generate, or promote (roughly) true belief.

Veritism is a species of virtue Unitarianism not in traditional senses which suggest the virtues are either reducible to one, or inseparable, but rather, because there is a thematic unity (i.e. all epistemic virtues produce, generate or promote true belief). This position which Goldman advances is to be contrasted with virtue pluralism as well as with any other Unitarian account that stipulates a non-veritistic thematic unity.

Goldman takes labor in his paper to defend veritism against objections from a variety of breeds of opposition, and for that reason, he has at least made the case that veritism has some excellent explanatory virtues. I think, though, that there are two problems that stand out as potentially damaging for any endorsement of veritism.

(1) The problem of “Lucky Virtue”

In section four of his paper, Goldman defends veritism against an objection that, for simplicity, I’m characterizing as:

1. If veritism is to be a Unitarian approach, then it must posit one (not two) epistemic values.
2. Veritism is committed to positing two epistemic values, true belief and error avoidance.
3. Therefore, veritism is not a Unitarian approach.

P1 is correct, and so Goldman seeks to disrepute P2 by showing how maximizing true belief and avoiding error can be blanketed under one veritic value. Goldman strategy here takes the form of his proposing a veritistic value scale. Given a proposition p, Goldman postis that the highest degree in belief in p would be 1.0 (subjective certainty), the lowest degree of belief would be 0, and .5 would represent “maximum subjective uncertainty” toward p. Goldman writes: “I propose that the highest degree of belief in a true proposition counts as the highest degree of “veritistic value” (witih respect to the question at hand, e.g., whether p or not-p is the case). In general, a higher degree of belief in a truth counts as more veritistically valuable than a lower degree of belief in that truth” (Fairweather and Zagzebski, 36).

As I see it, by positing this veritistic value scale, Goldman is essentially dodging the objection he intended to at the expense of opening the door to a separate and I think equally troubling objection. I will present this objection as “The case of Lucky Virtue”

The Case of Lucky Virtue

Lucky and Careful are investigating separate barnyards, with the goal of identifying cows. Lucky got a fortunate draw, for in the barnyard in which he is inquiring, there are five fat cows, and five giraffes, and those animals exhaust the barnyard. Lazy sits in a lawnchair, takes a quick survey and immediately develops subjective certainty (degree of belief 1) that there are five cows in the barnyard. “For surely,” he thinks, “cows have not got 30 foot necks.”
Careful, on the other hand, is investigating a barnyard with five skinny cows, five fat goats, five oxen, five black-painted fattened sheep, five tusk-free rhinos and five cow facades. Rather than to take a quick survey as Lucky had done, Careful takes out his notebook and tenaciously surveys all of the animals. His pre-barnyard-investigating knowledge of cows was equivalent to Lucky (mediocre at best), but the ecumenical obfuscation of his barnyard makes his epistemic position such that, after his three hour survey, he does not have subjective certainty in his belief that there are five cows. (His belief, though correct, is only held with .9 confidence).

Out intuition should be, I think, that Careful is more intellectually virtuous than Lucky. However, if we apply Goldman’s veritistic value scale to the situation, then Lucky will have acquired more “veritistic value” given that he has a higher degree of certainty in his true belief. Because Careful actually displayed much more intellectual virtue in his inquiring, though, the verdict Goldman would give seems counterintuitive.

I’ll move now to the second potentially problematic objection to Goldman’s verisitsic Unitarianism.

The Case of the Neighbor’s Knickers

After counting cows, Careful (now discouraged for having lost—he thinks unfairly—veritistic value competition to Lucky) sits on his front porch in disgust. Two neighbor children, Tommy and Bobby approach him. Tommy tells him that he peeked at the neighbor girl’s knickers and found that they were green. Bobby disagrees and says that the saw them and that they are yellow. Careful thinks to himself, “Well, I certainly like to produce, generate or (roughly) promote true belief, and so I’ll climb the ladder and peep into the neighbor’s bedroom to determine which is correct.” Careful climbs the latter, catches a glimpse of the neighbor’s knickers (they are red, by the way), and climbs down the ladder grinning.

Shame on Careful! But wait: should we slap his wrist or honor him as a beacon of intellectual virtue? This is a tricky question for Goldman’s account. First off, consider what process Careful is using to arrive at the true belief: “The neighbor’s knickers (contrary to opinion) are red!” Perhaps the process of careful investigation? Tenacious inquiring? Verifying testimony? No matter how the pie is cut, Careful’s disposition to investigate the color of the knickers reflects a disposition that would “promote, generate, or (roughly) produce true belief” which secures his disposition a spot on Goldman’s list which fall under the unified theme of veritistic. In section eight of his paper, in his discussion of welfare Unitarianism, Goldman makes it clear that he recognizes that problems of knicker-peeping sort will occur—i.e. situations in which what morality seems to demand will set limits on the extent to which epistemic inquiry ought to be carried. He says:

Epistemological or scientific value sometimes conflicts with moral value, and when they conflict, epistemological value must give way. There is a moral “side constraint” on scientific research, which is that the conduct of such research should not violate human rights or injure people.” (45)

This might appear to be a solution to the problem, but I think it is an overly hasty one. Ought epistemological values always yield to moral values? Those who identify intellectual virtues as a subset of the moral virtues (i.e. Zagzebski 1996) don’t seem to run into this sort of problem, but because Goldman does, I think he must also meet the task of defining clear conditions under which the exercise of veritistic virtues should yield way to the exercise of moral virtues that yield contrary courses of action. Merely offering the default position that intellectual virtues ought always yield to moral virtues seems somewhat careless (especially, for example, when the consequences are great.) For example, if it was not knickers Careful was attemping to peep into through the window, but rather, some word printed on the neighbor’s wall that, if he uttered it on the streets, a bloody war would end, it is not so clear that the intellectual virtue that would dispose him to peep should give way to the moral virtue of (say) not violating rights.
Another problem I see is that, even if Goldman were to outline careful “trumping” conditions, it seems that veritistic virtues would then be a sort of “conditional” virtues (i.e. investigate carefully only if you aren’t violating x, y, and z) that they would be quite far removed from the Aristotelian conception of virtue as being such that it leads us to act naturally in line with the virtue. Even though it is true that Goldman certainly doesn’t limit what qualifies as virtues as proper character traits, his position of veritisim nonetheless allows for them to make the list by meeting his veritistic condition. And so, I fail to see how an adequate picture of the virtues that are “deep and enduring character traits” (i.e. such as Careful’s trait of careful inquiry) could be adequately explained on his view, given that his view would require a careful conditionalizing of them—a conditionalizing to the extent that they would not longer be dispositions to act. Virtues of character, then, would be reduced to maxims which the agent must consider carefully (i.e. I’ll act intellectually virtuously only if x, y, and z) which seems to be quite a stretch from whatever we ought to call a “virtue theory.”

Monday, June 12, 2006


After reading Ch. 5 "Luck" in "Epistemic Luck", I wanted to organize a few thoughts/concerns before I forgot them...

(1) An definition of luck which gets presented, and then amended, is L1:

(L1) If an event is lucky, then it is an event that occurs in the actual world but which does not occur in a wide class of the nearest possible worlds where the relevant initial conditions for tha tevent are the same as in the actual world. (p. 128)

This definition is successful in making clear how what we call "lucky" is distinct from what we call "chance" or "accident" (even though, lucky events are usually associated with chance or accident). This is helpful because it isolates respects in which luck differs from these two related concepts, which had previously been taken by some to just "be" what luck is. Pritchard points out, though, that L1 needs some supplementing to be adequate. For one, L1 doesn't capture the "subjective significance" element of luck (and hence, an amendment (L2) is required; secondly, there need to be clear specifications about the initial conditions for events in nearby possible worlds.

There is an especially interesting section about L1 on pp. 129-130 that I think could be grounds for good discussion. Pritchard considers an objection to L1 on the grounds that someone might get a 50-50 guess right on a game show, and we'd intuitively say that person is "lucky", and yet, it isn't the case that in a wide class of the nearest possible worlds (with the relevant initial conditions) the contestant would get the answer wrong. In fact, it would be right at half of them.

In responding to this, Pritchard first offers that he suspects our intuitions would shift to a "non-lucky" assessment if the game-show example were altered so that the contestant gets the answer right, but that rather than having two choices, one right and one wrong, she had four choices, three right and one wrong. Here's Pritchard: "If the contestant guessed correctly in this case then I think it would be unlikely that we would put this down to luck since the odds were squarely in her favour." (130). He adds: "This suggests that the correct reading of "wide class" in L1 is at least approaching half of the relevant nearby possible worlds, and that typically events which are *clearly* lucky will be events which do not obtain in most nearby possible worlds." (130).

My initial response to this suggestion is to think that:

* the guess in the 3-out-of-4-right case is *lucky*
* the guess in the 1-out-of-two case is *luckier*
* both guesses are *clearly* lucky.

It seems intuitive to me, actually, to think that if a man were to play Russian Roulette with a gun with a 99999 blank chambers, and only one loaded chamber, and shot at his head, and got the blank, that he would clearly be lucky, even though with the same initial conditions, the same result occurs in almost all nearby possible worlds. According to (L1) the event of the agent's shooting a blank and not killing herself would not be lucky, and according to the later discussion of the gameshow objection, we could infer that the Russian Roulette case would not be clearly lucky because the worlds in which the chap gets the loaded chamber don't even come close to approaching half. Yet, it just seems wrong to say that "the fact that you didn't kill yourself wasn't a matter of luck."

This line of reasoning led me to think that L1 didn't quite capture the fact that some events are clearly lucky even if they obtain in almost all nearby possible worlds, and that the only thing that changes relative to the number of nearby worlds the events do not obtain in is the "degree" to which we'd say they are lucky. And hence, my thinking was that whilst the Russian Roulette case (and the 3-of-4-case) are both clearly cases of luck, neither is lucky to a very significant degree.

But then... (as happens frequently)... I thought of a different case which makes me think that my initial problem with L1 might be vitiated. What I thought of was a case that is structurally similar to the Russian Roulette case, but which I am not prepared to say is clearly lucky.

Golf case:

Golf legend Ben Hogan was reported to have once gone an entire summer, of playing every day, without missing a single putt inside of six feet. This is quite remarkable, and probably amounted to 500 or so consecutive putts without a miss; let us suppose (justafiedly!) that during that summer, Ben Hogan's putting was exceptionally skillful from that particular range. Now consider the event of Hogan's having successfully holed one of those 500 (or so) putts that he made consecutively that summer. Do we want to say that he was lucky? The intuitive response is... well of course not.

This is probably because, in such a conversation, we would be contrasting luck with skill, and because Hogan was skilled and well-practiced, his having made that particular putt (say, the 350th of 500 putts) doesn't seem to admit of being a matter of luck.

What's odd, though, is that Hogan's chances of missing are much greater than 1 in 100,000 (the chances of getting the loaded chamber in Russian Roulette), and yet we (or at least I) might feel more inclined to attribute the Russian Roulette player's having shot a blank at his head a matter more lucky than Hogan making his 300th of 500 consecutive putts.

And so what should be made of all of this? Perhaps two things:

(1) Granting that the Russian Roulette blank-shooter was lucky might lead us away from accepting L1 insofar as L1 would disqualify as lucky events that take place in almost all nearby possible worlds.
(2) My own initial assessment of the Russian Roulette case must be flawed; this is because I suspected that the degree of luckiness would correspond proportionally to the number of nearby worlds in which the event failed to occur.

I'll end this already-longwinded post by offering two suggestions. They appear like they could be auspicious only with regard to the spefic problem I have of trying to understand how it is that I arrived at the strange intuition that Hogan's event of making one of those 500 putts is not lucky, whereas catching a blank is... (even though it's much more likely that a blank will be caught than that Hogan will make.)

The first avenue of investigation here might be to consider Gricean conversational implicature as an explanation. When we talk of decisively sporting achievements, "luck" seems to be contrasted with "skill" rather than "likelihood of occurring", whereas in the context of a roulette discussion, skill is inherently out of the picture, and so luck would be understood in terms of strictly probability. And so, since it is incontroversial that Hogan is extremely skilled, we might find in a discussion of his feats ourselves inclined to deny luck, even if we would admit of a miniscule chance that his making the putt wouldn't take place (i.e. we might say he was not lucky whilst admitting that there is a 1 in 10,000 chance that he would have a seizure in mid-stroke and whiff the ball completely).

Another avenue here might be to look to Hawthorne's "Knowledge and Lotteries", when he discusses how "parity reasoning" (p. 14) with regard to the likelihood of an proposition's being the case leads the reasoner to feel less sure of a proposition than would be the case if she did not arrive at hear belief that the proposition will be the case through non-parity reasoning.


Welcome! My intention is that this site be a forum for dicussion that focuses on issues that concern virtue epistemology - so if this suits you, then by all means, give your thoughts!

In the next few weeks, I'll get things going by tossing out some thoughts I've been having while trying (simultaneously... maybe a bad decision?) to give a careful parsing to (1) Zagzebski and Fairweather's "Virtue Epistemology, (2) Pritchard and Brady's "Moral and Epistemic Virtues" and (3) Pritchard's "Epistemic Luck."

My first post of content will (if I can manage to be adequately high-tech) include a link to a protopaper I've been hashing out on Simon Blackburn's essay "Reason, Virtue and Knowledge."

Also, on deck (and I suspect will be finished in the next week or so) is a very rough paper I've tentatively titled "Lorraine Code and a 'Prisoner's Dilemma' of Epistemic Responsibility."

Until then, though, I should mention something that has been bothering me lately, and that is this: Virtue Reliabilists and Virtue Responsibilists make some incompatible claims about what sorts of excellences should qualify as proper epistemic virtues. What is at particular issue here seems to be that virtue reliabilists (Sosa, in particular) have argued that an Aristotelian account of intellectual virtue allows for such faculties as good eyesight and good memory to "count" as virtues. Folks on the virtue-responsibilist side of the line (i.e. Zagzebski) flat-out deny this.

Because each side is making claims which appear contradictory (i.e. x counts as an intellectual virtue for Aristotle; x does not count as an intellectual virtue for Aristotle), my suspicion is that a careful read of Aristotle should be able to resolve the matter. Unfortunately, two afternoons in a row, and a few pots of coffee into it, I didn't find myself much more clear on the matter. The only conclusion I've drawn is that appealing to Aristotle as the textual arbitor doesn't promise to make the outcome of the reliabilist-responsibilist dispute immediately obvious. (i.e. Yes, Zagzebski is right, Aristotle describes virtues as character traits... which are "hexis" or states of the soul. This seems fundamentally different from a reliable faculty such as eyesight. However... yes, reliabilists are right in pointing out that Aristotle mentions excellences as virtues, and reliable, non-character-based faculties appear to be excellences; reliabilists can also point out that it isn't clear (at least to me!) on Aristotle's view that intellectual virtues are a subset of the moral virtues.. (even though Z (1996) makes a strong case for it).

I hope, as the summer progresses (as well as my understanding of moral and epistemic virtues) to determining which warring tribe stands on Aristotle's side of the line on this score... I am about 5-pages into a paper that I unwarrantedly thought I could finish in 10 or 15, which would shed some light on the issue.. but given my frustration thus far, my feeling is that that early attempt needs to go back to the drawing board until the smoke around the matter clears up. (Maybe this blog will engender some fog clearing on that score??)

Also, as an aside: I'll be posting some chapter summaries I've been writing on Pritchard's "Epistemic Luck" which I hope will be of some use (either to you, or to me, if I've gotten some of it wrong). And... yes, epistemic luck doesn't obviously appear to be related (at least fundamentally) to virtue epistemology to an extent that would justify its inclusion on a blog of the latter's namesake... It's too late (Missouri time) for a lengthy defense of this.. but I'll say that I think that virtue epistemology offers interesting (even if maybe futile) attempts to resolve Gettier problems, to which an analysis of epistemic luck is central. Anyhow, time for bed. I'll look to post a bit more tomorrow.