Friday, October 26, 2007

fun with Pyrrho and Chisholm

Sextus Empiricus makes a clear distinction between (a) affirmations concerning how things appear and (b) affirmations concerning real existence. (a) is supposed to be neither an overly technical notion nor a philosophical term of art. It's just supposed to be a common sense report of how things seem, how the phenomena strike a perceiver. (a), for example, is NOT supposed to connote sense data, ideas qua tertium quid, or anything of that ontic nature. (b) is supposed to be a judgment, whereby in the very judgment one is affirming that reality corresponds to the judgment.

In modern terminology, (b) is a belief (where belief implies a commitment to the truth of the propositional content of the belief).

Sextus' advice to us is to "live by the appearances," to "live without beliefs."

In my seminar on skepticism, we've been wresting with what this could mean. We've had a lot of fun discussing what the distinction between "appearance" and "belief" amounts to, whether there is a relationship to doxastic voluntarism in the mix, what relation Sextus' distinction may have to ancient models of active/passive intellect, and (assuming the distinction is stable) whether such a comportment in life is feasible.

For Sextus, it is clear that he doubts that the epistemic gap between (a) and (b) can be bridged. Or, at any rate, it *appears to him* that the gap has not thus far been bridged, and it *appears to him* that he cannot conceive how that gap could be bridged... all the while withholding judgment about whether it is likely or possible. Fair enough...

Why think, however, that the epistemic gap between an appearance (i.e., a mere report of one's sense contents) and a judgment concerning real existence (i.e., a belief about the world, independent of one's mind) must be bridged in one fell swoop, by something that secures, maybe even entails, the truth of one's representation? This standard is incredibly high, perhaps too high. Assuming deontological conceptions of epistemic justification apply (which is debatable), hankering after this standard is an instance of massively supererogatory epistemic action... WAY beyond the call of epistemic duty.

At least that, among many other things, is what seems to be the import of Roderick Chisholm's classic essay, "The Problem of the Criterion." There are so many things in Chisholm's classic essay that deserve patient, careful commentary. For now, I focus only on the following: I think it's mighty fine how he, in effect, turns Sextus on his head. Earlier, I mentioned the epistemic gap between appearance and judgment about the nature of real existence. Chisholm denies that the epistemic enterprise of procedural rationality requires a justificatory rationale or account (logos) that entails the truth of the content of the appearance or belief. Something much more modest is proposed—viz., the analog of "getting one's epistemic foot in the door." What Sextus refers to as "mere appearances" is what Chisholm marshals into at least a prima facie justification, insofar as an appearance results ceteris paribus in an agent epistemically preferring the belief that real existence corresponds to the appearance.

Does this secure or entail the truth of the appearance or belief? Of course not! But... that's okay. All that is secured is the epistemic preference for the affirmation rather than suspension. In other words, there is an epistemic foot in the door. There is merely at this point a mild, eminently defeasible prima facie justification that admittedly may fall (far) short of knowledge (assuming an internalist conception of justification). But the point is that this is a start, a modest start to be sure, but definitely epistemic progress.

I think that one value of Chisholm's argument is that it blows the whistle on a kind of blind spot in Pyrrhonian epistemology, which is recapitulated by a lot of Early Modern epistemology—viz., the all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to what sort of evidence bears epistemic currency. Instead, why not start with a little bit of justification, admittedly short of what is needed to convert a representation into knowledge, and build on that little bit in a stepwise fashion? That seems to be a pretty dandy way of de-fanging the more implausible aspects of Pyrrhonian pessimism.

But I'm sure many of my students, especially the ones who (sincerely) think that something like Pyrrhonian pessimism *is* the commonsense position, will accuse me of begging really important questions (though sometimes I have a hard time really understanding what they are).

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