Saturday, March 24, 2007

A little Davidsonian Wisdom

Nothing terribly deep, but something worth reminding ourselves of every now and then:

"Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant, to pick a few winners, recognized no lines between metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, psychology, philosophy of language, and the history of philosophy, and neither would we if our universities and colleges [and departmental workshops] didn't often compel us to think of ourselves and our colleagues as belonging in one or another field." (from "Aristotle's Action" p. 291) Read more!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Agreement, Political Authority and Procrastination

Political philosophy is not my area either, but I wanted to add a post here to keep up the momentum of this blog and since I’ve been thinking about political philosophy in relation to my teaching obligations, here are some undeveloped thoughts which I could be easily persuaded to abandon.

Despite all their differences, there appears to be a surface similarity between Hobbes’ and Socrates’ views on the nature of political obligation: both seem to hold that one’s obligation to obey the law stems from an agreement one has freely made (or would hypothetically make). For Hobbes, you contract with your fellow (future) countrymen to transfer your rights to a powerful sovereign and thereby incur an obligation to obey the law. For Socrates – according to one of the various arguments hinted at in the Crito – you agree to obey the laws of the state by choosing to live in it. Socrates could’ve moved away from Athens but didn’t and thereby incurred an obligation to obey its laws. Unlike Hobbes’ view, Socrates’ isn’t exactly a general theory about political obligation; Hobbes’ theory is mean to apply across the board whereas Socrates’ argument applies only in cases where the agent freely chose to remain in (or emigrate to) the state in question in full knowledge of the fact that doing so would put him under political obligation.

But though both views seem to ground political obligation in an agreement, the mechanism by which the agreement gives rise to obligations is very different in each case. For Hobbes, our agreement sets up a powerful sovereign who in turn makes it self-interestedly rational for each of us to obey the law. (On this reading it sounds rather odd to speak of an obligation to obey the law; the sovereign’s subjects may have decisive reason to obey the law but it sounds odd to my ears to call it an "obligation".) For Socrates, the agreement gives rise to obligation more directly; he doesn’t spell this out, but presumably the agreement works like any other sort of promise: if I promise you that I’ll do X, I have thereby incurred an obligation to do so.

Assuming the interpretations of Hobbes and Socrates I’ve just sketched are (close to) correct, I’ve come to think that neither view succeeds in grounding the obligation to obey the law (or the corresponding rights of rulers to command) in anything plausibly thought of as an agreement.

Socrates’ argument actually presupposes the notions of political authority and obligation thus does not succeed in accounting for them. Socrates imagines that the Laws of Athens tell him to either leave the city or to obey their commands. But for his choice here to be morally transformative in the way he thinks it is (i.e. if it is to yield obligations towards the Laws), the Laws must already possess political authority. If I stop you on the street and tell you to leave the city or pay me $50, I haven’t really succeeded in doing anything other than to utter some powerless words (and perhaps to puzzle or annoy you). I certainly haven’t made it the case that your staying in the city constitutes an agreement to pay me $50. What do the Laws of Athens have that I don’t such that Socrates’ choice to remain in Athens does give rise to specific obligations to obey the laws whereas your choice to remain in the city doesn’t give me a claim against you for $50? I’m inclined to say that it is political authority. Socrates’ decision to remain in the city cannot be what confers political authority on the Laws since the decision is only morally transformative in the way he supposes if the Laws already have that authority.

(I’m muddling here but I can’t quite see my way clearly. Even if we assume that the Laws have the authority to require Socrates to choose between exile and obedience, before he actually makes his choice to remain in the City there doesn’t seem to be any sense in which he has an obligation to obey the law. I’ve been speaking as if political authority and the obligation to obey the law are mirror notions but that’s probably not the case.)

Hobbes is easier since it is really rather straightforward that what does the work of generating reasons to obey the law is not our agreement with our fellow countrymen, but rather the sovereign’s power to punish lawbreaking. There is a sense in which the agreement is a necessary condition of our overriding reasons for obedience but Hobbes’ social contract is not morally transformative the way promises, agreements and freely entered contracts are normally thought to be. Read more!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

When is ‘seeming to see’ enough?

There are a lot of different cases where people claim to have an experience which amounts to simply seeing that some P is the case. Chess players ‘see’ the weakness of a pawn structure, potters ‘see’ that a certain pot will crack when fired, people having religious experiences suddenly ‘see’ that god is real and cares about them, intro math students ‘see’ that you can’t put 4 puppies into 3 boxes without putting more than one puppy into some box, and nearly all ordinary people can ‘see’ that you can’t pick a lock with a banana and, of course we can see that we have hands. This raises a some natural questions: how much justification do these experiences-as-if-of-seeing-that-p provide? And, are there natural divisions in the list of examples I just gave, or do they all have the same epistemic status?

At present I am torn between two opinions about the epistemic status of these ‘seeming to see’ experiences. The simple view would be to say that any such experience where it feels like you are sensing that P provides prima facie warrant for believing that P. The case of religious experience gives me some qualms though, and one can cook up even more implausible cases. Some people claim that they can feel via a sense of forboding in their heart that their twin or loved one is in trouble. Or, imagine looking northwards at the clouds in the direction of Canada and ‘feeling a great disturbance in the force’ as it were, which seems to let you feel that something terrible is happening in a certain small town in Canada.

Now I hesitate to say, given this kind of example, that seeming to see that P provides prima facie justification. It’s pretty clear that in these circumstances a rational person should not immediately believe what their strange experience seems to show them but check (say, by making the appropriate phone calls) whether this experience really does reliably track how their twin is doing or what is going on in Canada. And a supporter of the ‘prima facie warrant’ idea can agree with this. But what about cases where there is no practical possibility of checking – suppose you have these experiences when you are out in the woods, or suppose God tells you as part of your religious experience that you will only get normal empirical evidence for his existence after he is dead [ed: after YOU are dead :)]? Here I am inclined to think that you shouldn’t believe what you seem to see at all, until you have checked the reliability of your experiences as if of seeing – and that once you do this the amount of evidence which your seeming to see provides is proportional to the evidence that you have now accumulated that your experiences of seeming to see are reliable.

But what about the case of sense perception? You can’t check the reliability of your senses against something else, but surely seeming to see that there’s a table in front of you does give you reason to believe it. This leads to the second more complicated theory of the epistemic status of seeming-to-see-that-P.

On this (slightly Peacockian theory) most such experiences give one no reason to believe anything on their own. You are only justified in believing what such experiences seem to tell you if you are also frequently exposed to evidence that confirms the reliability of this supposed perception. So the chess player who ‘seems to see’ that his queenside pawns are weak only has as much reason to believe that the pawns *are* weak as he has evidence that these experiences of his are reliable (so e.g. if he is a chess master he will have strong reason to believe it while if he is infamously bad at chess like myself he will have very little reason to believe this).

BUT (here’s the Peacockian part) in some cases the experience of seeming to see that P is central to, or indeed nearly all there is to our practice of saying that P. In these cases the facts about when we ‘seem to see that P’ largely determine what we mean by P and hence what it would take for P to be true. Specifically, these facts determine the meaning of P in such a way that if we say P whenever we feel like we can ‘see that P’ we are quite likely to be right. So, for example if what tends to give us the experience of ‘seeming to see that there’s a table’ is tables then ‘there’s a table’ means there’s a table, if it is vat state T then ‘there’s a table’ means the vat is in state T and so on a la Putnam on the BIV. Thus, in these very special cases believing that P when you have the experience of seeming to see that P will be a reliable, and maybe even justified method of forming belief.

This proposal has the advantage of giving a motivated way of separating up the list of ‘seeming to see’ experiences I started with in a motivated way. We have other practices which give us an independent grip on what it would be for your twin sister to be in trouble or disaster to be striking in Canada. Thus your feeling of conviction that P remains just that until you have evidence that this sixth sense of yours is reliable. But, on the other hand, in the perceptual case we don’t have this kind of independent grip on the stuff which our five senses seem to show us. Thus your experience of seeming-to-see that there is a table plays a role in determining *what it would mean for there to be* a table there which ensures that you are justified.

So how does this sound? Any takers on the simple proposal or the split (not to say…shudder…disjunctive ;) ) proposal? New proposals? Obvious points in the philosophy of perception which I am missing?

Read more!

Conflicting conceptions of what it takes to have knowledge vs. what it takes to have *mathematical* knowledge?

Suppose someone is doing a bunch of really long sums e.g. adding 12 digit numbers, with a blunt pencil and in a hurry. Under these circumstances they are quite likely to make at least one mistake during the course of each of the sums, so (as they learn when they check over their answers) overall they get only about one sum in ten correct. Now after doing this for a while, suppose they do one more sum and, being the confident person they are, they believe that the answer to it is in fact 1789200056911 as their calculations suggest. And suppose that this is, in fact the right answer, and in this case they have been lucky enough not to make any mistakes along the way. Then do you think that they know that whatever + whatever = 1789200056911 or not?/ Is their belief justified?

On the one hand, it seems like they know since they have gone through and been convinced by a correct process of reasoning which entails that this is the right answer. On the other hand, it seems like they don’t know that the answer is that because they usually make so many mistakes that the mere fact of their computing a certain result is very little evidence that that result is correct.

My impulse would be to say that this shows that we two different standards – for mathematical knowledge and for knowledge in general which are clashing in this case. Maybe one can also get a conflict between these standards for knowledge in the opposite direction: setting computers to check the first few billion cases of goldbach’s conjecture (that every number greater than two can be written as the sum of two primes) could eventually give you very strong justification for believing it (and hence perhaps knowledge in the ordinary sense) but it would be strange to say that you know the conjecture was true if you didn’t have a proof.

Also this case seems similar to the familiar lottery example 'do you know that you won't win the lottery, when you have evidence that that your chances of loosing are overwhealmingly good?' so maybe the lottery example is further evidence that our conception of knowledge is fragmented/highly context dependent. Read more!