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Basic Knowledge and Conditions on Knowledge

Mark McBride


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1We have explored the viability of allowing immediate justification and basic knowledge. While the existence of such a category of knowledge/justification strikes many as plausible, we observed (in Part One of the book) that to allow it is to face several problems. Good responses can be offered to most of these problems, but the objection discussed in Chapter Five was strong. In the Interim Review, I suggested several genuinely promising ways to respond to the objection. While I attempted to develop them, I concluded that, at this stage, I cannot take myself to have fully vindicated them. This led me to the following conditional verdict: If it really is the case that the justification to believe the quotidian proposition depends epistemically (constitutively) on the antecedent justification to believe that the source K is reliable, then (as I said in the Introduction) it is at best unclear whether this is even Cohenian basic knowledge. On the other hand, if there is not the constitutive epistemic dependence then we should say that it is Pryorian (and thus Cohenian) basic knowledge, and that the challenge to dogmatism is not compelling. While it would be optimal to enter a categorical — and not provisional — verdict, I still hope to have made some progress by my elaboration and scrutiny of several possible responses to Chapter Five’s objection (in addition to the proposals I made in Chapters One to Four).

2We then considered (in Part Two of the book) certain conditions which some philosophers have claimed are necessary for knowledge — viz. conclusive reasons, sensitivity and safety. While not decisively defending the (conclusive reasons or) sensitivity condition as a necessary condition on knowledge, several principled modifications thereto emerged as we concluded that two recent forceful arguments in favour of a plausible knowledge-closure principle were not knock-down successes. This conclusion with respect to knowledge-closure, we noted, was of relevance to the prospects for basic knowledge: rejection of knowledge-closure, and perhaps also of justification-closure, may provide a means of defending such a category of knowledge from the argument(s) in Chapter Five. Finally, we noted that a modified safety condition may well be a necessary condition on knowledge (and proceeded to attempt to advance discussion of the safety condition in philosophy of law).

3Many avenues for further research open up. (Clearly, the most pressing challenge is to attempt to convert the provisional verdict entered on the viability of basic knowledge into something more categorical.) Let me mention just two from each part of the book, and then one more tying together Parts One and Two (though there are, of course, many more such avenues in practice).

4Focusing on dogmatism about justification, according to which one can have immediate justification, Pryor (2000: 539) limits his dogmatism to “propositions we seem to perceive to be so, but not in virtue of seeming to perceive that other propositions are so, [which he calls] perceptually basic propositions, or propositions that our experiences basically represent.” In this book I did not consider the scope of perceptually basic propositions (such that there be); and Pryor himself has yet to fully commit on this subject. This large and important issue — the issue of the possible contents of perceptual representation (see Siegel 2005/2010) — is one which I’d like to consider further.

5For our second avenue for further research from Part One, recall that in the Interim Review we considered the possibility of some kind of putative default justification against sceptical hypotheses. It would seem that different philosophers will want to say very different things about such default justification. It would be a useful project to gain a deeper understanding of the different substantive things philosophers have said about such default justification — in particular, determining to what extent the different substantive notions of default justification are compatible with one another (see, for example Burge 1993, 2003, Wright 2004, and Davies 2004).

6Next, taking Part Two, in Chapter Seven we made several principled modifications to a sensitivity condition (and, in Chapter Six, to a conclusive reasons condition). It would be an interesting project — our first avenue from this part — to consider whether further work could result in a sensitivity condition bulletproof to counterexample as a necessary condition on knowledge across the board. A corollary of any such project would involve an extension of the scope of application of any such condition beyond the principal scope of application of our project in Chapter Six, viz. atomic propositions, conjunctions, disjunctions, and (some) negations. Indeed — and relevantly to a defense of dogmatism — such a project might be extended to investigate whether justification to believe might itself be characterised by a sensitivity condition

7Also — our second avenue from this part — Chapters Eight and Nine looked at the safety condition, with Chapter Nine in particular considering an application of epistemological work to a practical domain — law. An increasing number of theorists are considering possible applications of some of the conditions considered in Part Two for law (see, for an example involving sensitivity, Enoch, Spectre and Fisher (2012)). Such projects deserve serious consideration — in particular, questions must be asked whether domains such as law raise especial problems for engaging in applied epistemology.

8To close, let me detail a research challenge firmly tying Part Two (specifically Chapter Eight — and Nine) back to Part One. It is a pretty stern challenge, particularly as the two bodies of literature on Parts One and Two of the book typically operate independently from one another. The rewards of successfully completing such a challenge, however, have the potential to be great: to provide a unified account of basic knowledge would be no small philosophical achievement.

9Martin Smith (2009) has (in effect) intriguingly attempted to connect issues from Part One of the book — in particular, transmission failure — with issues from Part Two of the book — in particular, safety. (It will be seen that the notion of antecedence — whether temporal or epistemic — does not feature in Smith’s account of transmission failure.) Insofar as Smith’s arguments go through (cf. Tucker (2013b) for criticism of Smith) — and I do not commit on this here — my tentative defense of safety as a necessary condition on knowledge could be put to work in providing an analysis of transmission failure.

10Smith (2009) applies several novel distinctions in developing his account of transmission failure in terms of safety. It is best to put the nub of Smith’s contention on display up front — laden with heretofore unexplained Smith-terminology — and then to explain Smith’s contention by explaining Smith’s terminology. Smith’s terminology is best explained with the aid of an example — the ‘zebra’ case (considered, en passant, previously in this book). Here is the heart of Smith’s claim:

Suppose one safely believes that P is true, notices that Q is a deductive consequence of P and proceeds to infer that Q is true too. If one’s belief that Q is safe purely in virtue of its content, then presumably it cannot be said to be safe in virtue of the inference from P. One’s belief that Q would have been safe irrespective of whether one inferred Q from P — it would have been safe even if it were held as an article of faith. Safety, we might say, is not always transmitted by deductive inference. When knowledge is not transmitted, this may be due to the safety condition […] All that I am claiming here is that a failure to transmit safety is a sufficient condition for a failure to transmit knowledge. Even if an inference transmits safety, it may yet fail to transmit knowledge because of a failure to transmit some other necessary precondition. (Internal footnote omitted) (Smith 2009: 171–72)

11(Smith appears to assume, without argument, that safety is a necessary condition on knowledge.) Let ‘P’ be ‘the animals are zebras’ and let ‘Q’ be ‘the animals are not disguised mules’. (Moreover, suppose one believes P on the basis, B, ‘the animals are black and white, striped and equine’.) Suppose one infers Q from P in this case. In such a case Smith contends that one’s belief that Q is safe purely in virtue of its content. What does this come to? In essence, it comes to one’s belief that Q being safe purely in virtue of the modal profile of Q. In essence, here, the point is that one’s belief that the animals are not disguised mules is true purely in virtue of the fact that worlds in which the animals are disguised mules are very remote. It follows that if this belief is safe purely in virtue of its content, then it is not safe in virtue of the inference. (Plausibly if P is safe, that which is deductively inferred from P — Q — is also safe. Smith endorses this, and he would put this as safety always being preserved — if not always being transmitted — by deductive inference. His point is that in the ‘zebra’ case the inference, as contrasted with content, is playing no explanatory role — the in virtue of relation — in the safety of that which is inferred. As Smith puts it, the belief that Q in this case “would have been safe even if it were held as an article of faith”.) In this last respect, Smith would contrast his diagnosis of the ‘zebra’ case — transmission failure — from many quotidian inferences — no transmission failure. And Smith notes that:

A belief may be safe purely in virtue of its content even though it was deductively inferred from a belief that is safe in virtue of its basis. The zebra inference, of course, provides one example of this phenomenon. (My emphasis) (2009: 171)

12(A belief safe in virtue of its basis is one safe in virtue of the modal relationship between the basis and the believed proposition.) In sum, for Smith, failure of an inference to transmit safety — failure of an inferred belief to be safe in virtue of the inference — is a sufficient condition for an inference to fail to transmit knowledge; a sufficient condition, that is, for transmission failure. (Since safety is preserved by deductive inference, this promises an account of transmission failure that is consistent with the preservation of knowledge by deductive inference.)

13Now Smith’s account of transmission failure in terms of safety has been boiled down here to its bare essentials. Nonetheless, I hope its broad outline is now apparent, and, moreover, that it is at least initially plausible. To repeat, insofar as it can be fully vindicated (something on which I don’t presently commit), we would have an explanation of a phenomenon considered in Part One of the book — transmission failure — in terms of a phenomenon considered in Part Two of the book — safety.

14Indeed, we can draw an analogy between Smith’s position and Wright’s position. When we have transmission failure on Wright’s account, it is because of epistemic circularity. The inferred proposition is in good order epistemically, but not in virtue of the inference. Rather, the inferred proposition is in good order epistemically because of justification by default. So there will always be preservation (of justification) despite the failure of transmission of justification. Safety purely in virtue of content is the analogue of justification by default.

15(The analogy will be tighter, and Smith’s account of transmission failure of knowledge can carry over to transmission failure of justification, insofar as safety is accorded a justificatory role. Smith rejects according safety such a role on the basis that safe beliefs must be true, while justified beliefs need not be; and he accordingly prefers to explain transmission failure of justification in terms of his own non-factive notion of reliability. Even insofar as safe beliefs must be true (cf. Chapter Seven, n. 2), something on which I believe I can remain neutral, I think that this is compatible with safety being accorded a justificatory role. To carve out space for such a role we can appeal to our previously introduced distinction between prima- and ultima-facie justification. The view would be that prima facie justified (dogmatist) beliefs need not be safe, and so need not be true; but ultima facie justified (dogmatist) beliefs must be safe, and therefore true.)

16As a result of the analogy with Wright, we can predict that the problem of easy knowledge would be solved by appeal to transmission failure. It seems that looking at a red table and doing some simple inference is too easy to be a way of coming to know that there is no tricky red lighting. But ‘there is no tricky red lighting’ is safe purely in virtue of content: it would be safe if it were believed as an article of faith.


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