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Monday, October 09, 2006

Timothy Williamson's 'Neo-Tethering' Solution to the Meno problem

The Meno challenges us to figure out what makes knowledge more valuable than mere true belief. This challenge becomes particularly difficult if we are on board with Socrates in thinking that knowledge and true belief are equally practically useful.

Jon Kvanvig (2003) in “The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding” has pointed out the flaws of quite a few attempts to solve the problem. This book is rich and instructive.

One account that he rejects, however, appears more promising than others. This is the account given by Timothy Williamson (2000), which claims that knowledge is more valuable than true belief because of its relative cross-temporal permanence to true belief. That is, Williamson takes it that knowledge is less likely to be undermined by future evidence than is true belief.

Williamson’s account is a probabilistic account, and it appears to hold true in our world, even though (as Kvanvig points out) not all cases of knowledge in our world are more permanent than mere true beliefs. This is because of facts about belief fixation. Some of our beliefs are fixed pragmatically—for example—they are instinctive, and not fixed evidentially. When such beliefs are true but not known, then we have mere true belief that would appear particularly resistant to being undermined, more resistant it is likely than some of our knowledge.

From this, Kvanvig supposes that in some worlds, unlike ours, the majority of beliefs will be fixed pragmatically and non-evidentially; thus, in some worlds, knowledge is less permanent than true belief.

Does such a view undermine Williamson’s claim?

Kvanvig thinks that it does, and he reasons as follows: Because some possible worlds with a preponderance of pragmatic belief fixation would be such that knowledge would be less permanent than mere true belief, then Williamson’s claim is merely a contingent truth, which will hold only in some worlds in which knowledge is more permanent than true belief.

This is bad, he thinks, because “It is simply false that knowledge loses its value in worlds where the environment is less cooperative and where pragmatics play a more significant role in belief fixation.” (2003b p. 17)

I agree with Kvanvig that knowledge doesn’t appear, at least prima facie, like the sort of thing that would lose its value in some worlds. But are we entitled to draw the conclusion that knowledge would lose its value in some worlds from the fact that Williamson’s account would be false in some worlds? I’m not sure we are. It seems like all we can conclude is that, in such worlds (where pragmatics play a significant role in belief fixation), the value of knowledge over true belief in such worlds would not be its permanence. Of course, this would still leave open the possibility that knowledge could be valuable (and more valuable than true belief) for different reasons in such worlds. And so, it doesn't seem like we must reach the conclusion that knowledge must lose its value in such worlds (which Kvanvig seems to take as a reductio to the view).
One would, of course, dismiss my suggestion if they took it that the value conferring property of knowledge must hold across all possible worlds, but I don’t see what that would be so. (For example, in some worlds, winter coats might be eaten for sustenance and be valuable for that reason; in our world, we wear them). Is it obvious that knowledge is so relevantly dissimilar that a world-relative account of value is plausible in the former case and implausible in the latter?
One problem though, I think, for defending Williamson’s view as an response to the Meno problem is that it appears to be making a universal claim, and as Kvanvig shows (through some counterexamples), there are particular examples that undermine a universal claim about knowledge’s permanence.
If Williamson’s goal, though, is to explain why knowledge is more valuable than true belief for us, perhaps he should weaken his view and claim that “knowledge is significantly more likely to be more permanent than is true belief.” Embedding this probability claim within probability claim muddies the notion, but perhaps it is a move in the right direction. I’ll stop rambling now; I’m open for suggestions on this (if you couldn’t already tell)


Blogger JP said...

Adam, I think you misunderstand Kvanvig's objection. It goes like this:

1. If Williamson is right, then (1) is true because knowledge is more permanent than mere true belief (Williamson's thesis).

2. It is a contingent fact that knowledge is more permanent than mere true belief (as shown by Kvanvig's counterexamples).

3. So, if Williamson is right, then it is a contingent fact that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief (from 1,2).

4. But it's not a contingent fact that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief (assumption).

5. So, Williamson's not right (from 3,4).

It seems to me that Kvanvig's right about this.

12:01 AM

Blogger j. adam carter said...

Hi JP, thanks for this.

What reasons are there for granting (4) of your construal of the argument? Kvanvig supports (4) by claiming that denying (4) entails an absurdity, namely, that in some worlds (where pragmatacs play a significant role in belief fixation)knowledge would lose its value. (He gives this argument on p. 17) If denying (4) entailed that, that might well be a good reason to endorse (4); however, as I've argued, I dont' think it is clear that it does. This is because in such pragmatic-belief-fixation worlds, the value of knowledge would be something other than for the reason that it is permament. However, it still seems an open question as to whether knowledge's value is 'lost' (this notion being the force of Kvanvig's reductio against denying (4).

So what I'm wondering is why (4) is to be assumed true. What is so absurd about accepting that knowledge's value over true bleief is a contingent fact?

Perhaps I'm overlooking something obvious here. Hopefully you can help me get clear on it.

Anyway, thanks again for your comment.

Cheers, Adam

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