A forum for VE lucubration

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Intuition Check: Is There Room for Wisdom in the Demon World?

I’ve been thinking lately about epistemic value pluralism (as Riggs defends it), and particularly, what the prospects are for defending some non-alethic epistemic values relative to which some disposition could qualify as an epistemic virtue by promoting that value. The recognition of a non-alethic epistemic value has at least one obvious advantage: it allows us to avoid the dilemma of either: (i) denying an intuitive platitude, namely, that (not-clearly) alethic dispositions such as insight and openmindedness qualify as intellectual virtues; or (ii) maintaining that they are, but being burdened with the task of showing how these dispositions qualify as virtues relative to an alethic epistemic value (or values). Because it is not at all clear that insight and openmindedness aim at, or reliably produce, any alethic end (such as knowledge or truth), the dilemma of selecting between (i) or (ii) seems rather unpromising. To be clear, (i) entails denying the intuitive, and (ii) requires a defense of a position that is wide open to counterexample.

Epistemic value pluralism, then, appears to be a promising alternative given that the identification of some non-alethic epistemic value (of course, along side some alethic epistemic values) relative to which a disposition could qualify as an epistemic virtue circumvents the problem of having to select between (i) and (ii). Riggs thinks that “intelligibility” is a proper epistemic value, and so, his position allows for not-clearly-alethic dispositions to qualify as epistemic virtues.

I am quite sympathetic to Riggs’ position. This is because I am more prepared to abandon the idea that all epistemic values must be alethic than I am to reject that (for example) insight and openmindedness are intellectual virtues. And, to add, I see no way that either could qualify as an intellectual virtue so long as the epistemic value relative to which they would qualify is alethic.

I don’t, however, think that Riggs’ succeeds in defending (at least) insight as an intellectual virtue by linking it to the epistemic value of intelligibility. (I’m currently working on a paper that argues just this). My sympathy, though, to the prospect of recognizing a non-alethic epistemic value has led me to wonder what might qualify.

Against this background, I want to (tentatively) toss wisdom into the hat of examination. Wisdom certainly falls hand-in-hand with whatever we should call the epistemic good life, and as such, appears to be a candidate epistemic values relative to which dispositions could be said to be epistemic virtues for their promotion of it.

Intuition check: is wisdom alethic? Put more broadly, is there a necessary relation between promoting wisdom, and promoting “a coming to grips” with how things are?

I had always just granted this without much consideration; upon reflection, though, I think that I might have been too hasty.

One thought experiment (actually, a litmus test) I thought of in trying to determine whether an epistemic value is alethic is to ask: could it be reliably promoted in the demon world? (i.e. a radical demon world, in which we deceived in such a way that all our beliefs are false).

Alethic epistemic values such as knowledge and truth and understanding are such that no disposition could promote them in the demon world. Non-alethic values (such as intelligibility) could be promoted in the demon world.

What about wisdom, then? Before rushing to an answer, consider this clarification. I am not asking whether one could be wise in the demon world (although this is a fascinating question in its own right! I’ll return to this.) That’s not the question, though, because such a question would pertain to wisdom as a disposition and not an epistemic value. Because I’m interested in the prospects of wisdom as an epistemic value, the question must pertain to whether it could be reliably promoted by some disposition or dispositions in such a world.

At this point, I am going to crawl so far out on a limb that I can feel it breaking.

I propose (obviously tentatively) the following:

If there is an x such that x is both a disposition and an epistemic value, then if the disposition x can be achieved in the demon world, then the epistemic value x can be promoted in the demon world.

The above conditional seems at least somewhat plausible to me. Of course, it relies on the somewhat controversial assumption that there must be some reliability condition associated with the possession of a disposition. Montmarquet (and I think Fairweather) reject reliability conditions and so would reject my conditional.

If we suppose, for the heck of it, that it holds, then the next interesting question is to ask: can one attain wisdom in the demon world? If the answer to that question is yes, then granting my conditional, the epistemic value of wisdom could be promoted in the demon world. If it could be promoted in the demon world, then (if my litmus test is right) it is a non-alethic epistemic value.

And so, to the question: can wisdom be achieved in the demon world?

There are several ways to think about this. One way is to ask: Can Bob hold all false beliefs and be wise? To this, most would probably say “no.” But the question can be put another way: “If Jonas is wise in our world, then isn’t his demon-world counterpart wise?” I think we might be a bit hesitant to say “no.” Perhaps this is because we think of wisdom as something for which one is responsible. And as such, it might strike us odd to strip this from Jonas’ counterpart for something for which he is not responsible (i.e. that he is, unluckily, being systematically deceived). If we tread this (probably dangerous) road much farther, we can see what comes next: the stripping of a reliability condition from the disposition of wisdom, the stripping of which would run counter to our initial intuition that “Bob can’t hold all false beliefs and be wise.”
I’m not sure where to go from here, as both sides look about the same when you’re sitting on the fence. Suggestions welcome!


Anonymous nenad_miscevic said...

It is important that people usually bear in mind the effect of the relevant disposition or capacity in NORMAL circumstance, even if the circumstance under considerations are NOT normal. So, we might find Socrates in the demon world wise, because his traits, beliefs and so on would be very much viruous in our home world.

9:30 AM

Blogger j. adam carter said...

Greetings Nenad, thanks for your helpful comments!

In this particular comment, you appear to offer up a condition that goes something like this:

If someone is an a world X, then she is wise in X if her disposition is such that, if manifest in our own world, the disposition would be wisdom.

I'm not sure that this suggestion would work. Consider a case in which (to continue with your example) Socrates finds himself in a world in which he learns that inquiring in the fashion that he inquired in our world would lead him to myriad false beliefs. Suppose he, nonetheless, continues to inquire through his old method, and (suppose) hence fails to adapt some new method of inquiry that he learns would lead him to true beliefs in the new world. Intuitively, it doesn't seem that we should say Socrates is wise in this new world. However, if the condition you suggest is correct, then he would be wise simply by virtue of his manifesting traits that would be virtuous in our home world.

Perhaps, though, you aren't offering up that condition to be read as strongly as I took it... I look forward to your thoughts on this... -- Adam

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