A presumably minor gripe about experimental philosophy

by Dave Maier

My grad school colleague M.B. once told me about an exchange he had had with one of our professors. His area was personal identity, and his dissertation advanced a view about same which our professor found counter-intuitive – or at least worried about whether most people would do so. His response, he told me, was this: “Why should I worry about what most people think about this issue? Who is more likely to be right about it – someone who has spent five years becoming an expert on this very topic, considering the arguments for and against it in minute detail? or someone who knows virtually nothing about it, but simply asserts his immediate intuitive reaction as fact?”

I thought this was very well said, but I still wasn't sure. One of the tradeoffs of highly technical philosophy is that the more comprehensive and ironclad a theory is, the more likely it is to stretch our ordinary concepts to the breaking point. Whether or not this is a bad thing will depend on how you feel about comprehensive, ironclad philosophical theories, as opposed to speaking normally with one's friends and neighbors (should they not be professional philosophers).

Burning armchair2As the “experimental philosophy” movement is typically construed, it joins this battle of philosophical intuitions firmly on the side of the folk. It's not, as critics sometimes charge, that x-phi wants to put philosophical theories to a vote – after all, my colleague had plenty of arguments to go along with his intuitions – but to the extent that it is indeed a battle of intuitions, x-phi is determined not to let traditional philosophers get away with simply saying “it seems to me that in such a case we would say that _______”.

3QD readers know all about x-phi, naturally, as our Top Philosophy Quark for 2012 was Wesley Buckwalter's most interesting post on an x-phi consideration of non-factive conceptions of knowledge. I say “an” x-phi consideration because x-phi is no one monolithic, um, monolith, but an umbrella term for a wide variety of related approaches (for more on this see here, and the links therein). That is, it doesn't have to take the form of surveys of intuitions; but sometimes it does, and in this post I wonder aloud about what we should really make of the results of such surveys.


First, let's review. The image of the “burning armchair” suggests the following caricature of the x-phi project in this narrow sense. Traditional philosophers see themselves as discovering non-empirical, abstract truths about the world. Consequently, philosophical method consists of the construction of rigorous a priori arguments (thus the “armchair”) for the truth of philosophical theories. They must show that their theory provides the correct necessary and sufficient conditions for, say, something's being knowledge or an ethical action or a person or whatever their theory is about. This requires that they consider all kinds of proposed counterexamples to their theories, of which the philosophical literature is full to bursting.

292px-Thomas_and_William_RikerTo do this, however, they must rely on their own intuitions about what “we” would, or should, say when. If Commander Riker is split into two by an unfortunate transporter malfunction, is he now one person or two? Or maybe the question is: is this one the “real” Commander Riker, or that one, or both? The proponent of a particular theory of personal identity must show that his theory captures “our” intuitions here. This is where the x-phi-er steps in. Who says what “we” would say? Let's not sit in our armchairs and pontificate – let's go find out!

This intervention can be made to sound quite compelling. However – and this is what we lose when we think of it as a battle between the Old Guard vs. the Young Turks of X-Phi – you don't have to be an “experimental philosopher” to object to this “traditional” conception of philosophy and its appropriate method. The rest of us wonder whether x-phi (again, construed narrowly as this sort of criticism of dogmatic “intuition”, to be rectified with surveys of the folk), is really scratching where it itches.

Let's look at Wesley's post to see why, or at least how. As he points out, most philosophers of knowledge simply assume that knowledge must be true. Why? Well, if we consider whether I can know that, say, 2 + 2 = 5, “we would say” (says our philosopher) that that isn't knowledge, but instead false belief. But this non-explanation raises the famiiar red flag for x-phi: and when we investigate, we find that indeed, many people do indeed say that knowledge, as Wesley puts it, can be “non-factive”. People say, for example, that the ancients knew that the earth was flat, or that scientists knew that ulcers were caused by stress – even while they acknowledge that the beliefs in question are false.

When we consider the x-phi challenge, we are encouraged to ask: who is right? Can knowledge really be non-factive? Or is the near-universal intuition of professional philosophers correct? X-phi's emphasis on the empirical nature of its inquiry, as symbolized by the burning armchair, leaves in place the idea that our concern with intuitions is whether they – and the philosophical theories they support – are true or false: i.e., a dogmatic conception of philosophical method.

[I won't say much here about the problems with philosophical dogmatism, but for now consider the slide from “once we've decided what we mean by knowledge or an ethical action or a person, then it's an objective matter whether they apply to any particular thing: things are the way they are independent of what we may happen to believe” – which is ordinary common sense – to “given that knowledge and people, like everything else, are really out there independent of us, our task as philosophers is to characterize them accurately, with a correct philosophical theory” – which I take to express a tendentious philosophical platonism.]

If we accept that non-factive uses of “know” [NFK] are perfectly cromulent – which is all that the experiment in question can show – it seems that we have two options about what to say:

1) Wow, that means that philosophical theories of knowledge that require a truth condition are false!

2) Okay, so there's another use of “know” than the usual one. How about that.

In fact I said this very thing (2) in a comment on Wesley's post at the time. Now it may be a good thing to have learned, if we are to get people to understand what we say when we speak philosophically about knowledge (i.e. of the truth), that if we just plunk down the truth condition as “intuitively obvious” [= true dogma] then people will take NFK to be a counterexample, and thus a potential refutation. So if I want to say something about knowledge considered as a variety of true belief, I need to translate it into the popular idiom. But again, this seems to mean that what I say can't simply be “I have discovered through philosophical reflection and rigorous analysis that knowledge = (some kind of) true belief, so there's that problem solved.”

In other words, if that's what we thought we were doing – coming up with the true (uniquely accurate) theory of knowledge – then the existence of popular disagreement on the matter would force us either to a) condemn the popular view as mistaken; b) give up our claims as insufficiently grounded in intuition; or c) acknowledge that the philosophical theory, while not refuted, refers not to knowledge after all, but to some narrow technical concept, one which may be of only academic interest, and, again, is not what it was billed as: a non-empirical truth about knowledge, established by rigorous philosophical argument.

As Wesley puts it:”[C]ould it really be that the folk concept of knowledge is truly a non-factive concept? After all, if true, it seems this would have a series of important epistemic and methodological implications about the connection between the ordinary concept and the (decidedly factive) concept of knowledge philosophers have historically been interested in analyzing.” However, as you may remember, he continues by challenging this experiment, albeit on its own terms: “another possible explanatory hypothesis of these linguistic data (like the ulcer case) is that ordinary uses of ‘knows’ are highly sensitive to something called ‘protagonist projection’”, which he attempts to establish with an experiment of his own (see his post for details).

I still think that (2) is better than (1), but here I would like to give the matter a further twist. Even (2) seems to imply (as “linguistic philosophers” are supposed to do) that in rejecting dogmatism, we turn instead to matters of meaning as opposed to fact – thus inviting familiar charges of “linguistic idealism” or worse. But when I judge “what it would be natural to say”, I am doing two things, not one: I am making a cognitive judgment about how things are (that it is wrong to kill a man to harvest his organs, or that we cannot know that P if P is false), and I am giving my sense as an English speaker of how the words in question are properly used (so, “what it would be natural to say” in this sense: how we would express in English the fact in question, assuming that it is a fact).

In other words, as we Davidsonians say, the concepts of belief and meaning are interconstitutive, and whenever we speak we do both of these things: we manifest both our doxastic and semantic commitments simultaneously (as well as our existential commitments, but that's another story). That's why, as I like to put it, inquiry is interpretive, and interpretation is … well, “inquiry-ish” isn't a word, so I have to say that in order to make judgments about meaning, or to mean anything ourselves for that matter, we must make factual judgments as well (that is, about how things are).

But wait: what is my own attitude toward these assertions? Is mine not a philosophical theory, a typically philosophical attempt to establish a non-empirical truth about the world? After all, it seems that if what I say is false – and I have given no argument for its truth, but instead simply plunked it down, just as if preceded by “we would surely say here that …” – then surely it is worthless, a failed dogma to be tossed on the junkheap of history, to rot there with alchemy, logical positivism, and the phlogiston theory. And indeed, like any assertions, they purport to express my beliefs on the matter.

But what are they? What do I mean by these assertions? As they themselves say – and as I believe – their point is not that you can rip them out of their philosophical context and hold them up as an accurate picture of reality in the dogmatist manner. Instead, it is that in grappling with their significance, and the arguments for their truth, we uncover and diagnose the conceptual tangles underlying the traditional dogmatic conception of philosophy, at all levels. Talking this way, I believe, allows us to bypass most of the traditionally intractable problems and cast them in a new light. Something like this dissolution is what led Richard Rorty to declare the “end of philosophy”, but the reality is not nearly so apocalyptic. And in fact experimental philosophy, more broadly construed, may have much to contribute once we show the old traditional formulations of our problems out the door.

In any case, Wesley agrees with me about the acceptability of factive knowledge … but for experimental reasons; which suggests that you can defend almost anything if you designed the experiment the right way. Is this a bad thing, as this wording suggests? As I have already mentioned, I think we should be prepared to say that words have different senses, and that philosophers might have perfectly good reasons, given the context of what they are doing, for using terms in the way they do, even when there are other uses as well (which is all that the original experiment shows, the one to which Wesley is responding with his own counter-experiment).

So the issue is not whether NFK or FK is the correct conception of “knowledge.” After all, here's another use still. Sometimes people use “know” (and “believe”) in such a way as to acknowledge their lack of objective evidence for a belief to which they are nevertheless committed, thus:

(3) “I believe P, but I don't know it.”

For example, maybe P is a religious conviction (as I recall, Dinesh D'Souza uttered [3] in his debate with Daniel Dennett, where P was something like “there's a God”). In such cases the speaker seems to assert that a) the objective evidence available to him fails to rule out the possible falsity of P, and that yet b) further inquiry is unnecessary or even futile, as his belief is already fully established. We might say this whenever we “take something on faith,” whether a religious conviction or not; and indeed it seems that some beliefs are like this.

Now I can perfectly well acknowledge this phenomenon, and even concede the rationality of this attitude, without granting that this refutes the idea that (as I would rather say, for philosophical purposes) that if one believes something, one generally takes oneself to know it. For all we have here is a different use of “know”, used to make precisely this point about certain beliefs “taken on faith.” And naturally if you insist on making the point in this way, I can't stop you, nor – as the relevant experiments would surely suggest – do I have a right to complain. But saying this doesn't show my conception of knowledge and belief to be false.

Because that conception is not a philosophical theory. Speaking the way I do allows us to capture succinctly the ideas I use for philosophical ends – e.g. fighting the pernicious dualisms characteristic of modern and pre-modern philosophy (so in this sense I suppose I count as a “post-“”modernist”). If you insist on speaking “with the folk” in saying either [3] or NFK when defining knowledge, again, I can't stop you; but if you do it will take much, much longer for me to explain what I think we should do in philosophy: I'll have to invent new words, for example, and scrupulously address in tedious detail all the inevitable misunderstandings which will arise from shoehorning all of our uses of “know” and “believe” into one correct definition. And why would you want that?

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