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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Perceptual-Recognitional Abilities, Barn Facades and the problem of Individuating Environments

One line of thought in the literature on perceptual knowledge makes important use of the idea of perceptual-recognitional abilities. Such an ability would be, for example, the ability to recognize by looking whether or not it is an azalea that sits on a hill in front of you. (If you couldn't tell an azalea from a daffodill, or if the hill is salted with silk-made fraud azaleas, then you wouldn't have such an ability).

In his forthcoming paper "Perceptual Recognitional Abilities and Perceptual Knowledge", Alan Millar advances the idea that the exercising of perceptual-recogntional abilities is required for perceptual knowledge. Given that, even to the most seasoned horticulturalist, a hill of fake (and perceptually indistinguishable from real) azaleas would create a situation in which our horticultiralist no longer has the ability to recognize an azalea, Millar points out that 'whether' one has such an ability will depend, in part, on facts about the environment within which one is inquiring.

I confess that I don't have a clear idea how ‘environments’ are supposed to be individuated. Suppose, for example, that we take on one hand Goldman’s valley salted with barn facades and determine that that valley constitutes an environment. Suppose, further, that you are lost while driving in the general area. You come to a fork in the road; one road leads down Goldman’s barn façade valley, the other road leads down a valley of all genuine barns. You flip a coin and happen to take the road that leads down the road with all genuine barns. It is unclear to me whether this road constitutes a ‘good’ environment simply by virtue of the fact that there are no barn facades in the valley to potentially deceive you. Or, should we say that it is part of a ‘bad’ environment (i.e. one in which you do not have barn-recognizing perceptual recognitional abilities) by virtue of the fact that you so easily could have driven down Goldman lane. Alan Millar, in conversation, has suggested to me that—at least on his view—it will be inevitable that there will be some indeterminate cases in which the issue of whether one has exercised perceptual-recognitional abilities in a certain environment will not be clear given that the delineation of the environment relative to which one would have such abilities is obfuscated.

Some quesitons for discussion:

1. Is the project of indexing perceptual-recognitional abilities to environments undermined by the fact that some cases will be indeterminate?
2. Is the project doomed to concede that, within its framework, we can never 'know' that we know? It seems to me that this would have to be conceded because, even in cases in which the environments are such that, if we were to learn all the facts about them, they would be 'clear cut' cases, it's not the case that during the time in which we make perceptual judgments we have all the facts about the particular environments in which we make these judgments. Put another way, to know that we know, we must know that we are in an environment apposite to our exercising our perceptual-recognitional abilities--a tough antecedent order, indeed! Thoughts/comments welcome.


Blogger AVERY ARCHER said...

I think your fork in the road example raises some interesting questions. From what little I remember from Millar's discussions of perceptual recognitional abilities (henceforth, PRA) the exercise of such abilities could be thought of along the following lines:

Imagine an Olympic athlete, S, who has the ability to jump over six feet. Now S's ability to jump over six feet is indexed to a certain environment—i.e., to environments with gravitation less than or identical to that of earth. If S were transported to Jupiter (let's ignore the problem of it being just a ball of gas), which has a much greater mass and therefore stronger gravitational force, then he would not be able to jump over six feet. In short, S's ability to jump over six feet is simply not indexed to planets with the mass and gravity of Jupiter. Likewise, we would say that a subject’s ability to identify barns is not indexed to environments with fake barns. This conception of the indexing of PRA seems to suggest a definite answer to your fork in the road case—namely, that your subject does exercise the PRA in question and therefore counts as seeing the barn.

Let me explain why I think so. First, I am assuming that the entire purpose of the fork in the road is to suggest that the two environments are independent of each other. That is, they are not heuristically equivalent to two parts of a single “macro” environment. If that were the case, then the fork in the road example would simply collapse back into the traditional Goldman fake barn country (albeit with a greater and more localised number of real barns mixed in). Assuming that the entire purpose of the fork in the road is to introduce two different potential environments, then when your subject decides to enter the environment with only real barns, she is essentially deciding to enter an environment to which her PRA is indexed. Of course she is not aware of any of this. But (to draw an analogy from certain externalists theories of knowledge) the presence, or in this case the absence, of a relevant alternative need not be something the subject is aware of. The simple fact is, she is in an environment in which there are no possible undermining relevant alternatives present and therefore she counts as exercising the relevant PRA.

Admittedly, there is an element of luck involved in her finding herself in an environment to which her PRA is indexed. And it is an interesting question whether this type of luck is sufficient to undermine the relevant knowledge claim. However, this epistemic question (as interesting as it is in its own right) should not be conflated with the perceptual question regarding the exercise of the relevant PRA. (Notice, I've only said that she “sees the barn”, I have not suggested that she is 'justified' in believing or 'knows' that she is seeing a barn.) Moreover, I suspect that it may be cheating to simply tweak the conditions for the exercise of a perceptual ability just to get the particular epistemic answer you want.

In sum, as far as the perceptual question is concerned, so long as your subject finds herself in an environment to which her PRA is indexed, she counts as exercising said ability. Whether this gives rise to unfavourable epistemic consequences or not, and whether this is the kind of answer the PRA analysis ought to give is another matter.

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