Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If authority just counts as evidence

I have an intuition that insofar as a person is fallible, what she says can only be authoritative over what I believe when what she says counts as strong or overriding evidence. Maybe what she says has sway over what I ought to do regardless (even in the case of a mistake) but she cannot influence what I ought to think unless she's an epistemic expert.

Here's a scenario that sheds some light on why my intuition might be off:
I'm on the roof of a burning building and need to get to the building across the alley. The only way to cross is by walking a narrow plank. Firefighter Jim says to me, "Go ahead, it's safe to cross." If there is a net below that I don't know about (because I refuse to look down or something), then it seems obvious that Jim is right, regardless of my skill in balancing. If there is no net, the probability that Jim is right decreases significantly. Is he an authority in both cases? The issue arises in the second case: the reason I have to cross is explained by the circumstances- the fire quickly rising in the building, threatening my life if I stay put. I don't need Jim's authority to explain why I ought to cross. But ought I to believe it's safe to cross? All the stories I can think of would just explain why what Jim says is authoritative only for pragmatic reasons. If I believe him and the statement is false, I still may have a higher chance of making it over because I walk across more confidently. But maybe Jim knows this; then it looks like there's a real reason I ought to believe him and do what he says, not just do what he says.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Aquinas against Platonism

Dr. Alfonso Gomez-Lobo today pointed out to me the problem Aquinas has with Platonism . The argument runs:

1. If Plato's divided line is true, then all principles proceed from one principle- the form of the good.
2. If two or more principles proceed from one principle, the multiple principles are ultimately commensurable.
3. The law of non-contradiction is a logical principle.
4. The law of inertia is a logical principle.
5. The law of non-contradiction is incommensurable with the law of inertia.
6. There exist two principles which are not commensurable (3, 4, 5).
7. It is not the case that for all principles, they proceed from one principle (2, 6).
8. Plato's divided line is false (1, 7).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Knowledge as Ability

I had a song stuck in my head yesterday morning, and as often happens with me, I caught myself humming along to the music in my mind. Of course, I can’t hum the whole song all at once (I’ve heard that some professional singers can sing two notes at once, but I am far from mastering any technique like that). But I would say that I know the song, and that, given an instrument with the capability to play multiple notes at once, I could replicate the song. I would have to have certain skills on this instrument. If I lacked those skills, would I still know the song? I certainly couldn’t prove it. And there are more skills that I would need to learn to play an instrument in the first place. How could I acquire any of these abilities without primitive ones?

If knowledge is, as the Sellarsians say, the ability to participate in the game of giving and asking for reasons, I don’t have knowledge. The regress of requirements for knowledge appears to me to be a vicious one. Unless we have innate abilities, Sellarsian knowledge is unattainable.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hume's Argument against Proving Miracles

1. John's testimony is a proof of a miracle.
2. A miracle is an event which violates a law of nature.
3. We ought to believe propositions which have a high(er) probability of being true.
4. Either we believe John's testimony is proof of a violation of a law of nature, or we don't.
5. If we believe John's testimony is proof, then we believe that a law of nature was violated.
6. But the probability that a law of nature is violated is lower than the probability that John's testimony is false.
7. Therefore, we ought to believe that John's testimony that a miracle occurred is false.

What if, instead of denying premise 1 as a result of the reductio, we deny premise 2? This seems to make more sense; for why would God set in place laws of nature that He would have to break in order to do what He wills? It seems plausible that the laws of nature are more flexible when a supernatural being is involved. For instance, maybe there is a law of nature that every human dies a bodily death; but does that mean that it is not possible that there is another natural law that if the spirit is then raised to life, the body is also raised to life? This would entail that eventually every human whose spirit is raised to life is also resurrected in body. That this has not yet happened is not conclusive proof that it will not happen. In fact, the Christian doctrine is that every human dies but is also raised to life at the second coming of Jesus. Can we not count this as a law of nature which, having not been experienced yet by us, appears implausible? Then a miracle, like the resurrection of Jesus, would be defined as "an event which occurs so rarely, though according to a law of nature, that it almost merits disbelief"?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Review of "Reasonably Vicious"

This morning I stumbled upon Henry Richardson's review of Candice Vogler's book, Reasonably Vicious, in which he concludes that Vogler's account of reasons is inextricably linked to Anscombe's notion of intention. Vogler puts forth a model of calculative reasoning in which sometimes actions of the set A are done as a means to actions of the set B, where actions of the set B are not done for calculated reasons at all, but simply because we feel like it or want to. For example, I go to the grocery store to get ice cream- this belongs to set A. I get ice cream to eat it, just because I want to- so this action belongs to set B. Richardson notes that either this easily invokes a regress of reasons (someone can ask, well what is your reason for wanting to eat ice cream? ad inf.) or there is some resource that justifies B actions that could also be used to justify A actions without reason. If it's really justifiable to eat ice cream just because I want to, then it is also justifiable to go to the store because I want to, even when I don't buy anything (and it's not a means).

Richardson points out that unless we see Vogler's project in light of Anscombe's, her differentiation between A type and B type actions doesn't make sense. Vogler, like Anscombe, focuses on actions already done and looks for reasons that the agent took to be a reason for action-- the de facto motivation for the act. My reasons for eating ice cream may be many-- I am hungry, my body needs a quick burst of energy and sugar will provide that, and ice cream has sugar, etc.-- but those do not have to link up to my consciousness in the same way that reasons to A in order to B do. Vogler, as Richardson says, is concerned with providing "intelligibility" to actions "by indicating an action's calculative form."

Yet this sort of theory of justification seems to be prey to the same problems of epistemological internalism. In the way that an internalist account of knowledge often fails to connect justified belief with external truth, so an internalist account of reasons may illuminate actual moral motivation in a descriptive way without capturing the external normative reasons for action that pertain to an agent, whether or not she takes them to be reasons for her to act.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why: The Questions of Philosophy

I was listening to a podcast this morning and the speaker was talking about the human heart.

"Why is it that as a culture we are fascinated with certain stories: what's the truth, what happened, what didn't happen...All of those--the sort of tabloid level, the People and US Weekly level-- those are just facts. Why do these stories sell millions of copies? Because the real questions we have are not the questions of 'what.' The real questions come from the endless question of the ages,'why does the human heart do what it does?' and that's what we're compelled by."

And I thought about the first time I read Plato's Republic and realized that this was what I was looking for all along, not the how questions that were answered in my chem lab and bio class. Philosophy asked the why questions.

But many contemporary philosophers have begun asking "how" as though it answered "why." Without a notion of telos, the function of a thing just is its purpose. They seem to think we can only make the world intelligible by arid factual explanation. The materialist philosophers of mind argue that bare brain states determine our thoughts and actions. Moral philosophers look to psychologists for explanations of what makes us happy and derive from these empirical facts notions of "virtue." Political philosophers advocate non-ideal theories based on how people actually behave, rather than how they should behave or how the state ought to run.

As a result, we write like we're content with where we are; we'd simply like to understand how we got here. Metaphysics and epistemology are booming-- because these are fields that can provide us with a clearer picture of the steps we took before our arrival. What properties impress themselves on our consciousness and cause us to have these brain states of "belief" or "knowledge"? If we can just get a hold of these facts, maybe we'll be satisfied.

I wonder if we are mistaken in characterizing our restlessness as caused by a desire for "knowledge" or awareness of the infrastructure of our world. Perhaps it's our consciousness just roping us back in to the fundamental question why.