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Basic Knowledge and Conditions on Knowledge

Mark McBride

Part one — Exploring basic knowledge

Overview of Part One

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1In Part One of this book, immediate justification and basic knowledge (particularly as these are conceived by the dogmatist) are exposed to a pattern of objection. One instance of the pattern is along the lines that, if perception delivers basic knowledge of a proposition such as the proposition that I have hands, then it would seem to follow that Moore’s ‘Proof’ provides an adequate response to the sceptic about the external world. At the very least, there would be no evident epistemic circularity in Moore’s ‘Proof’. This poses a problem for immediate justification and basic knowledge to the extent that Moore’s ‘Proof’ does not seem to provide an adequate response to scepticism. Other instances of the pattern of objection are presented by arguments that raise Stewart Cohen’s (2002, 2005) problem of easy knowledge.

2In the first chapter, I consider two prominent responses to the question of what (if anything) is wrong with reasoning in accordance with the (MOORE) argument — (MOORE)-reasoning. Crispin Wright (1985, 2003) says that (MOORE)-reasoning involves epistemic circularity, that epistemic warrant is not transmitted from the premise (1) to the conclusion (3), and that by engaging in (MOORE)-reasoning one could not come to have, for the first time, a warranted belief that an external world exists. A dogmatist (Pryor, 2000, 2004) maintains, in contrast, that (MOORE)-reasoning does not involve epistemic circularity, that warrant is transmitted, and that (MOORE)-reasoning can provide a first-time warrant for (3). On the face of it, Wright has a ready answer to the question what is wrong with (MOORE)-reasoning, while the dogmatist faces the problem of explaining why something seems to be wrong with (MOORE)-reasoning, even though it is not epistemically circular and does transmit warrant — the (MOORE)-transmit problem. The advantage would therefore seem to lie with Wright’s view rather than with that of the dogmatist; but I contest that assessment.

3First, Martin Davies (2004) has proposed a solution to the (MOORE)-transmit problem. Even the dogmatist can agree that, within the context of the epistemic project of settling the question whether or not an external world exists (a project governed by suppositional doubt about whether an external world exists), one cannot rationally deploy one’s perceptual justification to believe that one has hands (see Davies, 2009: 364–68).

4Second, I argue that, on Wright’s view, there is still a kind of transmission of epistemic warrant in (MOORE)-reasoning. According to Wright (1985, 2004), by engaging in (MOORE)-reasoning, one cannot come, for the first time, to have some justification or other to assume or believe the conclusion (3). But one can come, for the first time, to have at least partly perceptual and evidential justification to believe (3). Thus, (MOORE)-reasoning transmits evidential warrant and Wright faces the (MOORE)-transmit problem.

5Third, I argue — though in a provisional spirit — that the (MOORE)-transmit problem is particularly challenging for Wright because it is not clear that he can adopt Davies’s (2004) proposal. The proposition that an external world exists has, for Wright (2004; see also 1985), ‘cornerstone’ status, which may not be consistent with its being called into question or doubted, even suppositionally. The upshot is that this first exposure to the pattern of objection leaves dogmatism no worse off — and perhaps better off — than Wright’s view.

6In the second and third chapters, I turn to the problem of easy knowledge. Reasoning in accordance with the (TABLE) argument (referred to as the (EK) argument in these chapters) seems to allow us to proceed too easily from basic knowledge of a quotidian proposition (the proposition that a viewed table is red) to knowledge of a conclusion that rules out a disobliging hypothesis less general than a global sceptical hypothesis (the hypothesis that one is being misled by tricky red lighting). My focus in the second chapter is (one strand of) José Zalabardo’s (2005) response to the problem of easy knowledge and, specifically, an argument to the conclusion that there is no such problem.

7Zalabardo’s argument concerns the relationship between transmission of epistemic warrant and closure of warrant under known entailment. It is a familiar point that failure of transmission of warrant from the premises to the conclusion of a valid argument — as in the (MOORE) argument, according to Wright — is consistent with closure of warrant. On Wright’s view, we do have a warrant for the proposition that an external world exists, but it is an unearned, antecedent warrant, and not a warrant transmitted from the premises of the argument. On Zalabardo’s view, in contrast, warrant transmission itself presupposes a failure of closure. Consequently, unless the (EK) argument constitutes an exception to the closure of warrant under known entailment, (EK)-reasoning does not transmit warrant and so there is no problem of acquiring too easy knowledge by inference from basic knowledge. I reject Zalabardo’s radical solution to the problem of easy knowledge and, along the way, subject key notions — especially warrant and transmission — to close examination.

8In the third chapter, I develop my own solution to the problem of easy knowledge — a solution that is available to the dogmatist. First, Davies’s (2004) proposed solution to the (MOORE)-transmit problem extends to the problem of easy knowledge. Within the context of the epistemic project of settling the question whether or not the viewed table is white with red lights shining on it, one cannot rationally deploy one’s perceptual justification to believe that the table is red. But second, Davies’s proposal is incomplete. There are pairs of arguments that Davies has to classify together despite the fact that, intuitively, reasoning with one of the arguments is less epistemically unsatisfactory than reasoning with the other. Third, I make a proposal about the epistemic property that explains the intuitive difference. Thus, it seems, epistemic dogmatism, immediate justification, and basic knowledge can be defended despite exposure to the pattern of objection.

9I turn to a general theoretical issue in the fourth chapter. An important notion in the literature that we have been considering (beginning from Wright, 1985) is that of warrant transmission failure — conceived, in this book, as related to epistemic circularity. (Somewhat confusingly, Davies (2004, 2009) sometimes says that the limitation of (MOORE)-reasoning and (EK)-reasoning in the context of the epistemic project of settling the question — a limitation that can be acknowledged by the dogmatist — provides a second account of transmission failure.) However, there are philosophers who can be taken to claim that there are no genuine instances of transmission failure and also that the impression that there are such instances is the product of a flawed conception of evidence. There are large and difficult issues here, and scepticism about transmission failure may flow naturally from lack of enthusiasm for notions of epistemic antecedence or dependence. Nonetheless I aim at least to begin the task of showing that transmission failure is a possibility on most plausible accounts of evidence.

10The availability of the notion of transmission failure (related to epistemic circularity) does not, of course, advance the cause of dogmatism. The dogmatist needs to respond to the pattern of objection without appeal to epistemic circularity and, on the basis of the first three chapters, the prospects for such a response seem quite good. In the fifth chapter, however, I describe what seems to be a more serious puzzle confronting dogmatism. Possible responses are discussed in the Interim Review at the end of Part One.


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