Some thoughts about Epistemic Hiding

I’m teaching Theory of Knowledge this semester, and last week we discussed Nathan Ballantyne’s “Epistemic Trespassing.” The title refers to when an expert makes claims outside their field of expertise. Ballantyne gives the example of the chemist Linus Pauling making strong claims about the value of Vitamin C. Pauling’s claims were influential even though he was making false claims well outside his speciality.

A student pointed out that trespassing is a matter of overconfidence, so there may be a counterpart problem resulting from insufficient confidence. That is, an expert might decline to make claims within their field of expertise because of an excess of epistemic modesty. In our conversation, I called this the problem of Hiding in Your Epistemic Attic. For the sake of brevity, call this Epistemic Hiding.1

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Inflate and explode, analyze or explicate

Over at The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel identifies what he calls the inflate-and-explode maneuver. Abstractly, the move is this: “Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.”

Schwitzgebel is especially interested in the case of consciousness. On many accounts, one is supposed to have infallible access to the contents of one’s consciousness. However, one doesn’t have infallible access to anything. Having thus inflated consciousness with the pompous swell of infallibility, one blows it up— there is no such thing as consciousness!

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Theory of knowledge done and gone

Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.

I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.

From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.

Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”

Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”

And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”

As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.

I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.

I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?

There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.

Only tenuously related to the post: The Salmon of Knowledge (Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing on my mind

I’ve been thinking more about nihilism.

Consider a schematic case in which your total evidence is E and you are trying to determine whether you should believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgment. Uniqueness is the view that exactly one of these choices would be rational. Permissivism is the view that more than one of these choices would be rational. Nihilism is the view that none of these options is rational.1

That’s how I posed it in an earlier post, anyway. Then I stumbled across a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Jackson & Margaret Greta Turnbull. Nodding to Feldman, they define Uniqueness as “the thesis that there is at most one rational doxastic attitude toward a proposition.” In my terms, this is the disjunction of Uniqueness and Nihilism. Ugh.

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Why evidentialism is tantamount to scepticism

Over on Facebook, Carl Sachs offers a send-up of evidentialist reasoning. In the comments, I boil the argument down to this:

  1. Only believe on the basis of univocally sufficient evidence.
  2. Evidence is never univocally sufficient.
  3. Therefore, don’t believe!

It’s valid, but are the premises true?

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Rationality nihilism

I’ve been teaching epistemology this semester, and we’ve recently been talking about permissivism. The setup is this: Let E be the total evidence, and let P be some claim. One might believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgement; call these doxastic attitudes towards P.

With that formalism in place, we can define Uniqueness: Given E, there is exactly one doxastic attitude that one may rationally adopt toward P.

In the article I’d assigned for class, Permissivism is defined as the negation of Uniqueness. The idea is that there are at least some situations in which, given E, one might rationally adopt different doxastic attitudes.1 For example, it might be rational to find the evidence convincing (and believe P) but also rational to be unconvinced (and suspend judgement).

Students found the readings less than clear, and I was trying to concisely formulate the opposition on the whiteboard. I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that I couldn’t just define Permissivism as the negation of Uniqueness. There’s a third possibility!

Call this Nihilism: Given E, there is no rationally permitted doxastic attitude that one may adopt.

I don’t know of an epistemologist who explicitly formulates Nihilism, nonetheless one who advocates it. I have a perverse impulse to write something arguing for it, just because it is a logically possible position, but that way lies madness.2

Picture: Some logic books.

A further comment about payoffs in will to believe cases

It occurs to me that there is a mistake in my previous post, but it can be patched up.

To review: Considerations of inductive or ampliative risk can make the difference between it being appropriate to believe something and it being inappropriate. If the stakes are high, then you might demand more evidence than if the stakes are low.

Schematically, what’s relevant are conditional values: the benefit of believing P if it is true, the cost of believing P if it is false, the cost of not believing P if it is true, and the benefit of not believing P if it is false.

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Payoffs in will to believe cases

In thinking about James’ Will to Believe (in a blog post and a draft paper) I distinguish two kinds of cases.

In cases of ampliative risk, the evidence does not overwhelmingly speak for or against. So the determination to believe or not depends in part on the stakes involved. I’ve typically put this in terms of conditional values: the benefit of believing P if it is true, the cost of believing P if it is false, the cost of not believing P if it is true, and the benefit of not believing if it is false. Heather Douglas calls this values playing an indirect role.

Implicit in this is that believing P if it is false is a cost. And so on. Ending up with accurate beliefs is generally good, and ending up with inaccurate beliefs is bad. What’s at issue is not the general valence of certain outcomes but instead their intensity.

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