Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

Bombscare

Somehow Kenny already has a substantial post about the conference up over at Antimeta, focusing on an interesting set of questions that came up a number of times over the weekend about how we are to determine our ontological committments. This is something I have (deeply unpopular) views about, but I don't really have anything to write on that topic just now. There were some issues that got discussed in our session on Kenny's paper about the role of linguistic evidence in epistemology which I'd like to post something on sometime soon, but I'll need to give that matter more thought. I took pictures throughout the second day of the conference, which I'll post a link to as soon as I get them up on a website.

With everything that was going on this weekend, I forgot to ask Jason Stanley what he thought of the following case, and a proper post is overdue. Recall that Stanley holds the following views; IRI about knowledge (and most other epistemic notions), plus know-how is a species of know-that. According to the first thesis, whether or not a subject's true belief counts as knowledge is partly determined by the direness of being wrong, given the subject's practical interests ('The more you care, the less you know' as Stanley is reported to have put the view). According to the latter, having know-how isn't to be analysed as having a capacity or an ability of some sort, but rather as possession of a type of propositional knowledge (albeit under a 'practical mode of presentation').

In a very recent paper, Jonathan Schaffer has argued that IRI is incompatible with a certain natural and compelling picture of the 'social role of the expert'. The basic idea is that experts 'serve as a reservoir of knowledge' of a particular field, but for experts to have this status requires a certain stability; it cannot be the case that their possession of knowledge of the relevant body of information can 'fluctuate as the stakes rise and fall'.

Now for the case I want to raise (I hope the debt to Schaffer's discussion is by now clear). A bomb-disposal expert is presumably someone who knows how to diffuse and dispose of a bomb. But bomb-disposal seems like a risky-business; the consequences of getting something wrong are surely about as dire as we can imagine, supposing (as seems likely) that such an expert doesn't want to be blown to pieces. So according to IRI, a bomb-disposal expert diffusing a bomb doesn't know how to diffuse a bomb. (One might dispute whether the stakes really are high enough to force this conclusion. But throughout the literature on these issues, we are invited to conclude that losing a bet, being late for an important meeting, or failing to have enough money in your bank-account to cover a critical bill are consequences dire enough to defeat relevant knowledge attributions; getting blown up by a bomb seems sufficiently unpleasant too).

So like Schaffer, I feel there's a case to be made that IRI about knowledge does some violence to our intuitive picture of expertise. And given Stanley's other committments, it's not even an option to say that although the bomb-disposal expert loses various items of propositional knowledge, he retains some relevant know-how. (It is still an option to say that he retains some relevant set of abilities or capacities, but I expect that others will share my intuition that this does not sufficiently mitigate the conclusion that a bomb-disposal expert diffusing a bomb doesn't know how to diffuse a bomb).

(Cross-posted at Arche. Thanks to John Bengson for discussion.)

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Comments:
One might dispute whether the stakes really are high enough to force this conclusion. But throughout the literature on these issues, we are invited to conclude that losing a bet, being late for an important meeting, or failing to have enough money in your bank-account to cover a critical bill are consequences dire enough to defeat relevant knowledge attributions; getting blown up by a bomb seems sufficiently unpleasant too.

I didn't think that there was some point such that if the stakes got that high, this would defeat all knowledge attributions. Rather, the quantifiers might work the other way - for any knowledge attribution, there is some point such that if the stakes got that high, the attribution would be defeated. If we just think that the bomb defuser has a much stronger connection to her ability than the debtor does to her bank's hours, then there's not yet a conflict here. Of course, this requires that the bomb defuser have a much much stronger connection to the ability than most of us have to our ordinary abilities, but this seems plausible.
 
Well, I've actually wondered whether the IRI-er might be committed to both. But you're right that it's the weaker claim about stakes that is usually endorsed, and I certainly don't want this case only to be potentially problematic if we saddle IRI with the stronger committment.

Unless there's some really good reason for not doing so that I'm missing, I'd prefer to ditch talk of abilities here - the relationship between abilities and possession of knowledge-how isn't straightforward (John has a nice paper on just these issues) - and I'd rather stick to the question of whether the bomb-disposal guy loses propositional knowledge of some germane sort.

We usually take the kind of evidence the subject has acquired in the cases discussed in the literature to give her true belief the right credentials to count as knowledge. So in the high stakes bank cases, the subject has been to that very bank on a saturday before, has good reasons to believe that banks are generally open on a saturday. In short, the reason her self-ascription of knowledge fails to be true is not because she's been epistemically careless. Rather, it's due to the direness of the consequences for her (given her practical interests).

So I don't see principled grounds to think that there's some special relation between the bomb-guy and his relevant body of putative-knowledge that isn't there in all the other high stakes cases (where we are meant to have the intuition that the knowledge attribution is defeated). I take it that appeal to his expertise won't obviously help here - we can't just claim that experts are people who have the sort of special 'stronger connection' to their putative knowledge that prevents VERY high stakes from acting as a defeater; that's just to make things explicity mysterious, not to provide an account of the status of experts that is IRI-friendly. So how is the charge of special pleading (on the behalf of bomb-guy) to be avoided?
 
Is such a special connection really that odd? I mean, if Hannah's job was to keep track of the schedules of various banks, then it seems that the ordinary scenarios wouldn't heighten the stakes enough to make her lose knowledge that the bank will be open tomorrow.
 
I might find it plausible if we had an account of expertise from which the required conclusion dropped out. But maybe not even then.

At the moment we have a thesis about knowledge on the table - which true beliefs count as knowledge varies with the stakes, the direness of the consequences of being wrong. As I think John put it, at the moment we're close to saying that expertise consists in bearing some other relationship to propositions; it has to be other than knowledge because our assumption is that knowledge varies with practical interests, and unless I'm misunderstanding you, the suggestion ensures that whatever epistemic relation the expert bears to the relevant propositions, it doesn't display that variance.

I just don't find that credible - it stills smacks of special-pleading.
 
Maybe expertise consists in part (certainly only in part) in how strong of an epistemic position you are in with respect to the relevant beliefs. We could say that bomb defusers are experts about bomb defusing in part because they are in such a strong epistemic position wrt to their bomb-defusing beliefs that they know them even when the practical stakes are very high.

As Kenny points out, if we're told Hannah's a bank expert, then even if it's a matter of great importance to her whether the bank is going to be open tomorrow, we aren't inclined to judge that she doesn't know it will be. That's (maybe) because being a bank expert involves being in a strong epistemic position wrt propositions about bank hours.

While the "is in a strong epistemic position" relation is a different than knowledge, it is closely related, and it doesn't seem ad hoc or mysterious to appeal to it in coming up with our account of expertise.

(If asked for an account of that relation, I might say something like this. Your epistemic position wrt p has to do with the degree to which your belief concerning p matches the fact of the matter as to whether p in nearby and maybe not-so-nearby possible worlds. The strength of your position wrt p has to do with the distance you'd have to travel out into the sphere of possibilities to find a world -- or a large enough batch of worlds -- where your belief concerning p doesn't match the fact of the matter.)
 
My apologies to Geoff for being a bad host and not responding to his comments. Other work has gotten in the way of blogging, but also I don't really feel I have any new to say in response that I haven't already said in response to Kenny (inadequate though other people may find that).
 
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