Thursday, October 30, 2008

Socratic ignorance

Okay, I’m going out on a limb here...

I’m not an Ancient Philosophy scholar, nor do I claim to have any special insight on Socrates/Plato.

But I can’t resist musing about Socrates on this fine, unseasonably warm Fall evening in late October, especially inspired by some thought-provoking conversations with my colleague Eric Snider (our local ancient philosophy aficionado).

Socratic Duplicity

Socrates is famous for claiming that he does not posses knowledge. Does he mean what he says?

Most say that Socrates is not being sincere. He is being duplicitous with good intentions. By feigning ignorance, he is trying to inspire his conversation partners to pursue after the truth with all that much ardor. In order to get them to pursue the truth, however, Socrates must knock out their false foundations of confidence.

I’ve heard (through the philosophy grapevine) that there are pretty unambiguous texts in Plato that suggest this interpretation is not right.

Merely True Belief

The other main interpretation is to deny that Socrates is playing ignorant. This would mean that Socrates is being sincere when he claims that he lacks knowledge. What he has, however, is still pretty good. He possesses true belief. This falls short of knowledge, but it’s better than nothing.

This would require that we view the pursuit of Socrates as a search for true beliefs but not knowledge. This doesn’t sound quite right either. One thing that I think is true of Socrates is that he equated virtue with knowledge. If Socrates must be taken to have given up on the project of knowledge, then he must also be said to have given up on the project of virtue and happiness. For a guy like Socrates, this is tantamount to saying that he has given up on the hope of becoming good (which for him was the task of philosophy). That sounds distinctly un-Socratic.

The Problem

On the one hand, Socrates’ claim of ignorance is sincere. He is not pretending when he claims that he lacks knowledge. On the other hand, Socrates claims that he pursues after knowledge. He is not satisfied with true belief. Socrates is not only dissatisfied with true belief, but he actually takes himself to possess knowledge.

Socrates the contextualist?

It’s possible that claims to knowledge might mean different things in different contexts for Socrates. Does this help illuminate what’s going on with the alleged Socratic duplicity? Maybe... but I’m just musing out loud (or whatever the equivalent is when applied to free-flow typing).

Think about the way we ordinarily use language, especially the word “know.” I drove my car to campus today. If someone asks me about the location of my car, there’s a perfectly natural context in which I would say, “I know my car is parked outside.” [In more precise jargon, the appropriate contrast-class of defeaters that needs to be eliminated is set by the appropriate features of the context.]

Suppose, however, that some annoying philosophy student fresh out of an introductory level epistemology class and drunk on his newfound insights, presses me by asking, “Do you really know that your car is parked outside?” (Or perhaps he just shouts “Cartesian Demon!”) This alters the context of inquiry. The conditions for confidence are now higher and more demanding. Maybe I might answer, “Well, ask Rita the Meter Maid; she’s outside standing next to where my car ought to be parked. She knows, and perhaps I don’t know after all.” [Philosophical aside: I think it’s fascinating that “knows” doesn’t appear to admit of degrees under analysis. For instance, strictly speaking, I don’t say “she knows better than I do” as a way of describing a degree of knowing, but rather to express that she’s in a better position to know simpliciter. Does this compete with contextualism? I don’t think it does.]

My saying this, however, does not thereby imply that my earlier claim to knowledge was inappropriate when I uttered, “I know my car is parked outside.” It is perverse to think that what I ought to have said in that context is, “I have a merely true belief that my car is parked outside.” Why? Arguably, the context of inquiry, while not wholly determinative of the conditions for justification, contributes something to those conditions. So, my original claim is appropriate in one context and less appropriate in another. One is less strict and the other stricter.

What this illustrates is that there is an acceptable practice of claiming knowledge in different contexts. [Philosophical aside: I know this is controversial, and I have colleagues who think this is just nuts.] The different contexts fix the rules for when a knowledge claim is legitimate and when it is less legitimate.

Something like this flip-flopping between a strict versus looser contexts of knowledge claims might be going on with Socrates.

I don’t think this is any brilliant insight. I’m sure there’s some Plato scholar who has mapped this territory already.

Did Plato Have a “theory” of Knowledge?

Here’s the standard view of Plato: A condition for a claim to count as knowledge is that the claim must be infallible and therefore certain. This sounds like such a strong condition—infallible certainty! Can it really be what Plato wishes as the distinction between, say, opinion and knowledge? A moment’s reflection indicates that it does. If Plato were to soften the infallibility criterion to something like a simple truth condition—viz., that one of the conditions on knowledge is that a claim must be true—he loses the distinction between opinion and knowledge, since there are such things as true opinions.

That’s the pipe dream of epistemology, and it has lured great minds into it for as long as recorded history. This is no less than the Cartesian project. Descartes had his own reasons for pursuing this, but for those of you who have familiarity with the continental rationalists, you will see the obvious connections to the ancient fascination with infallible certainty.

Satisfaction of this condition would enable one to say of a knowledge claim that one knows it, but also that one knows that one knows it. To claim that one knows that-K requires that one knows-that-one-knows-K (the so-called “K-K thesis”). Let’s call this gussied-up knowledge.

Loosey-Goosey Condition

Let’s recall that knowledge might function differently in different contexts from the perspective of ordinary linguistic practice. Is there a loosey-goosey context that might be appropriate for Plato, a context in which he would be amenable to having Socrates claim that he knows even if he does not know that he knows?

This is hard to say. It is worthwhile to ask if we today have a conception of knowledge that does not require infallible certainty. Indeed we do. We think we have made philosophical progress over a few millennia, and we by and large think it perverse to require infallible certainty for knowledge claims.

We take it to be consistent that we are both fallible and knowledgeable. Here’s how it works. [Philosophical aside: This is why we can also claim to be epistemic foundationalists about the structure of epistemic justification without having to be embarrassed by the crazier forms of foundationalism that tie themselves to further criteria about the nature of the foundations.]

Consider again my belief that my car is parked outside. Call that p. I have evidence for p. My evidence is my memorial belief that I parked my car outside, my memorial belief that I glanced at my car about five minutes ago, my belief based on testimonials from friends who told me that they saw my car parked outside, etc. Call that conjunction of evidence q.

I believe p on the basis of q.
p is true.
q counts as “good enough” evidence for p.
q, however, does not entail p.

Do I know that my car is parked outside? Sure I do. So long as all the conditions are satisfied, then I can be said to know that my car is parked outside. Do I know that I know that my car is parked outside. Clearly not. But the failure to satisfy the very strong condition for a second-order knowledge claim does not by itself show that my first-order knowledge claim is in jeopardy.

From here, epistemology gets very contentious; so I think it is good enough to leave it at that for our purposes.

Okay... the question is whether Plato has available something like this looser-goosier conception of knowledge.

I think the answer is “yes.” Call it Socratic elenchus.

Recall that the main obsession for Plato (and hence of Socrates) is knowledge in the domain of ethics, of “the Good.” On what basis does he and could he claim to know? In actual practice, it is usually through the dialectic of question and answer.

Could something like the model I used to analyze my knowledge that my car is parked outside be adapted to explain Plato’s knowledge by elenchus?

The essence of a fallibilist epistemology is that there is always a strictly logical gap between P and Q, where P is the object of an alleged knowledge claim and Q is the evidence.

When Socrates claims (dialectically) to know P, he must base it on Q.

Maybe Q is the evidence garnered from Socratic badgering, where no contradiction is uncovered after a lengthy, exhaustive inquiry and cross-examination.

So, in essence, it’s a negative condition: We did not uncover any contradictions.

If that’s true, then maybe Socrates is satisfied to claim that he knows (dialectically). To be sure, this is a looser-goosier claim than a claim about infallible certainty. It falls short of infallible certainty. After all, Socrates via the elenchus never claims to have perceived The Forms. Only the gods of Olympus get that honor.

Hence it is not the same as gussied-up knowledge. It’s just plain old “loosey-goosey knowledge.”

Socrates is saying that there is a kind of wisdom or knowledge that is appropriate only for the gods, because they have gussied-up minds. Human minds are loosey-goosey and so can contain only loosey-goosey content. He very clearly owns his human wisdom, but he denies that he has godly wisdom.

What Socrates is rewarded for as well as cursed with is his humble acceptance of the human condition. It is ultimately a religious, pietistic epistemology which disciplines human pretension. It is as if Socrates is saying, “I am not a god, and neither are any of you.”

At the end of it all, when Socrates denies that he has knowledge, he is denying that he has the mind of a god. He is denying any access to gussied-up knowledge.

When he claims that he possesses knowledge, he is claiming merely human wisdom which comes from the humble exercise of the elenchus which delivers loosey-goosey knowledge.

Socrates turns out to be a contextualist, which for him is an ethical epistemology.

Compared to gussied-up knowledge, loosey-goosey knowledge is a pauper. But what do you expect? We do not number among the children of the Titans.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

musing on "disagreement"

A brief musing about the concept of “disagreement”...

There is an obvious difference between the confidence we have (both psychologically and epistemically) when we assert that “2 and 2 makes 4” versus when we assert that “it is wrong to lie no matter what” (assuming we think it is).

It’s hard to disagree with the first assertion, but it’s not that hard to disagree with the second (personal note: I disagree with the second statement). In fact, one might make the stronger claim that the kinds of disagreements that attach to the latter kind of statement (and in fact to that very particular statement itself) are perennial.

I’ve seen this asymmetry in disagreement deployed to argue that the best explanation is that there is a fact of the matter about the first kinds of judgment (e.g., “2 and 2 makes 4”) but likely not one about the latter kinds of judgment (e.g., moral).

I have two queries...

First, it is interesting to note that the asymmetry is deployed against moral judgments. I wonder why this kind of asymmetry is not also deployed against other kinds of judgments that appear to elicit perennial disagreements. I have in mind the various theses that one finds in metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political philosophy, history, cotemporary physics, psychology, etc. In short, nearly every domain of inquiry... Isn’t this just the specter of logical positivism making another appearance?

To be sure, I am aware of the various context-sensitivities that are part and parcel of moral judgment. I’m keenly open to forms of non-Absolutism (which should not be conflated with anti-objectivity). However, I’m curious as to why those who deploy the aforementioned asymmetry aim only or most prominently at moral judgment. Why not level the playing field en toto. At least the Pyrrhonian skeptics were consistent in their adoption of skepticism across the board with their disagreement criteria.

Second, as I look at some of the world-crushing events of only the past century, I think of World War II. I think that persons deeply involved in the Nazi and anti-Nazi war campaigns vigorously disagreed about the moral status of Jewish persons. I don’t think this stands as some kind of special evidence that there isn’t a fact of the matter about the moral value of Jewish persons.

Multiply instances of moral disagreement on the contemporary political and moral landscape, just in the United States, and I think we see a dazzling array of disagreement over all sorts of critical issues, none of which obviously can be said to be populated by participants who think the issues do not trade in cognitively contentful statements with truth value.

In fact, one might even say that the very existence of disagreement, more often than not, solidifies our belief that there are facts about which we disagree (where values are numbered among these facts that describe a situation). The old fact-value dichotomy that has been exploded numerous times over is still a kind of specter that just doesn’t get the hint that it’s been effectively exorcised in theory and definitely in practice!

So, I guess at the end of it all, I don’t get what’s supposed to be so significant about the phenomena of disagreement.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

a brief meditation about open-theism

A quick and easy route to open-theism or something near enough...

A few years ago, Hilary Bok wrote a really fun book titled Freedom and Responsibility. Essentially, she articulates a compatibilism that is deeply Kantian in spirit. The book is definitely worth reading.

In her book, she uses a marvelously fictive device called “the pocket oracle.” The pocket oracle is a perfect predictor of your own future actions (where your choices number among your actions).

Well, what would happen if one consulted such an oracle?

Consultation of such an oracle, I think, would almost completely, if not completely, rob one of ignorance. If one takes ignorance (or some degree of ignorance) to be a crucial ingredient of genuine deliberation, and if one takes deliberation to be a crucial ingredient of intentional action, and if one takes the intentional component of action to be a crucial ingredient of anything that deserves the name “action,” then anyone who knows his/her own future cannot be a genuine actor.

This little chain of inferences is totally general with respect to the nature of the agent. The agent could be human or divine. It doesn’t appear to change the dynamic of the inferences one bit.

So, take these notions and apply them to God. I think it becomes really clear why one would be motivated towards something like an open-theism. If one would like to preserve the view of God as a genuine agent, a divine personage who is creatively active in the space-time world, then it makes perfect sense to deny that future contingent propositions have a truth-value (which implies that even an omniscient being could not know them).

Notice that this doesn’t really have any direct tie with the kinds of considerations that normally move persons to adopt open theism—viz., worries about God having an alibi for the problem of evil. Instead, the present considerations have to do with the metaphysics and psychology of agency, not with any worries about theodicy.

The options are pretty clear for the theist: (a) affirm something like open-theism, (b) deny that the little chain of inferences is true, (c) middle way: grant that the chain is true for human agents but deny that it is true for divine agents (why the asymmetry?), or (d) punt the whole discussion to one of “mystery” yet continue discussion as an interesting and philosophically fruitful intellectual exercise.

I’m sure I’m missing some other options (e.g., Classical inclusions of premises about time and timelessness... which would actually be a way of articulating option (c)), but these are the ones that are most obvious to me.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

understanding others

Some philosophers (maybe Quine; Fodor seems to accuse him of this) hold that in order to understand what another is saying, you need to understand all the other's beliefs and concepts. For to understand what another is saying or believing, you need to understand what they mean, what their whole set of concepts and beliefs are, so you can accurately place their currently expressed belief in the whole package of beliefs and thus adequately understand it. This is a full or maybe even extreme holism. It seems a holism adapted to an overly idealized enlightenment conception (or misconception) of certainty.

I wonder if a moderate holism might allow that in order to understand another, understand reasonably well enough, you need to understand some of the other's closely related beliefs, but not the entire package of the other's beliefs (an impossible standard to achieve, thus leading to skepticism about ever understanding another). Example: if you say "I have a lot of reading to do for tomorrow, before class" I can assume we share similar beliefs about reading (what it involves, even if we disagree to some extent upon the level of comprehension needed to actually judge it as reading as opposed to simply skimming words) and the notion of a lot (even if there are relatively minor agreements about details) and the notion of class (I would be assuming, depending on who told me this, it would be a college class). But I do not need to assume beliefs about your theory of planetary or celestial motion (for the concept of "tomorrow"), or your beliefs about mental processes (for the concept of reading), or your beliefs about person identity (for the concept of I) in order to engage in sensible communication with you.

I worry that if you need to understand the entire package of another's beliefs in order to understand anything whatsoever that another asserts, understanding would be impossible. I also wonder if Derrida affirms the antecedent of my previous sentence, and so affirms also the consequent.