Monday, 21 March 2011

Is knowledge like putting?

In ‘Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge’, McDowell responds to Burge’s account of the warrant that perceptual states provide for perceptual beliefs by sketching an alternative minimal deflating account. I find myself agreeing with the thrust of the argument, which feels quite familiar, until a nagging worry, which I should have outgrown, seems to return.

Burge builds an account of perception in which the warrant which a perceptual state provides for a belief can be both external to the subject in the sense of being not fully conceptually accessible, even on reflection, to them and also defeasible: it does not guarantee the truth of a belief (even when the belief, based on the state, is veridical). His objection to the kind of Sellarsian internalist view that McDowell wishes to defend is that the internalism makes the account unrealistically intellectual because accommodating defeasible warrant makes things too complex.

McDowell’s response is not so much to criticise Burge’s account as to sketch an alternative which avoids Burge’s specific concerns. The charge of intellectualism is avoided in two ways. First, McDowell attempts to deflate the worry by suggesting that a Sellarsian account of knowledge as a standing in the space of reasons is an account of the structure of reasons not the inferential transitions actively undertaken.

5. Burge sometimes makes it look as if his objection to the Sellarsian picture depends on an implication he finds in it to the effect that perceptual knowledge in rational subjects is arrived at by taking an inferential step. One of his formulations of what he finds implausibly intellectualistic about the Sellarsian picture is that it “implies that the formation of a perceptual belief is a piece of reasoning — a transition from a reason to what it is a reason for”.
 But a believer can be self-consciously justified in a belief without having formed the belief by a transition to it from whatever she would cite in giving her justification for it. That is so even if the grounds on which the belief counts as knowledgeable are inferential. When I know that my neighbour is at home on the basis that, as I can see, his car is in his driveway, I do not need to have taken an inferential step to the belief that he is at home. It might be perfectly natural co say I can just see, straight off, that he is at home. Even so, my belief that he is at home counts as knowledgeable, if it does, because there is a good enough inference from the fact that his car is in his driveway to the conclusion that he is at home, And my knowledge that he is at home includes self-consciousness about its warrant, so that I can produce a justification, in Burge’s technical sense, for my belief that he is at home. I know not just that my neighbour is at home but that my warrant for believing that he is consists in the goodness of that inference, even if I did not arrive at the belief by inferring it from the knowledge that grounds it for me.
I think this indicates that Burge should not have suggested his objection to the Sellarsian picture is on the score of a supposed commitment, on Sellars’s part, to the idea of a rational transition in the formation of a perceptual belief. The point is not about what happens in the formation of perceptual beliefs, but about the structure that Burge thinks would have to characterize a self-consciously possessed warrant, a ,justification in his sense, for a perceptual belief. Burge thinks there is an unacceptable intellectualism in holding that for any bit of perceptual knowledge possessed by a rational subject, the subject must be in a position to attribute to herself a warrant with the structure in question. The objection does not depend on supposing that where there is such a structure in the subject’s self-consciously possessed warrant for a perceptual belief, it follows that the belief was acquired by a corresponding transition. [McDowell 2011: 25-6]

McDowell’s second response to the charge of intellectualism denies that perceptual warrant is defeasible. Had it been so, then a self-conscious subject who took herself to be warranted in a perceptually based belief would have to be versed in a vocabulary of ‘defeasible warrant, defeating conditions, considerations that warrant one in discounting the possibility that one’s perceptual warrant is defeated in the present circumstances.’

What warrants one in holding the perceptual state to be a seeing, as Burge puts it Burge’s thought is this: to argue that the perceptual state is a seeing—to argue that the warrant it provides is good enough for knowledge—one would need to argue that in the present circumstances the warranting force it has, as the perceptual state it is, is not undermined, though it is warrant of a kind that can be undermined, warrant of a sort that does not guarantee what it warrants. One would need to argue that, though the warrant provided by the perceptual state is defeasible, it is not defeated on this occasion. That would require working with some notably sophisticated concepts: defeasible warrant, defeating conditions, considerations that warrant one in discounting the possibility that one’s perceptual warrant is defeated in the present circumstances. And Burge insists—plausibly enough—that we should not credit ordinary adult human beings, who may be only minimally articulate and reflective, with the ability to deploy conceptual equipment of that level of sophistication. [ibid: 28-9]

McDowell’s positive sketch of how perceptual states warrant perceptual beliefs is so much simpler than this that it can escape the charge of intellectualism.

The key idea is to accept that perceptual capacities are fallible but to deny that this implies that, when things go well, the warrant that a perceptual state provides for a perceptual belief fails to guarantee its truth. There are two aspects to this. The first is the idea that a capacity can be fallible insofar as even when a subject is careful in its operation, still, it can misfire. But when it does not misfire, the warrant it provides is truth-guaranteeing. Success and failure is blurred in its ascription to the capacity as a whole but then apportioned disjunctively to individual circumstances. The second is that this idea is ‘unpacked’ through the idea that a perceptual capacity is a capacity to have objects presented to one.

[W]hen all goes well in the operation of a perceptual capacity of a sort that belongs to its possessor’s rationality, a perceiver enjoys a perceptual state in which some feature of her environment is there for her, perceptually present to her rationally self-conscious awareness. This presence is an actualization of a capacity that belongs to the subject’s reason. Reason is at work, that is, in the perceptual presence to rational subjects of features of their environment. And if a perceptual state can consist in a subject’s having a feature of her environment perceptually present to her, that gives the lie to the assumption that a perceptual stare cannot warrant a belief in a way that guarantees its truth. If a perceptual state makes a feature of the environment present to a perceiver’s rationally self-conscious awareness, there is no possibility, compatibly with someone’s being in that state, that things are not as the state would warrant her in believing that they are, in a belief that would simply register the presence of that feature of the environment. The warrant for belief that the state provides is indefeasible; it cannot be undermined. [ibid: 30-1]

So perceptual states or experiences are divided into two sorts: those where objects really are present as they appear and thus the warrant provided by the state for the corresponding perceptual belief is truth guaranteeing; and those in which the capacity misfires and things are not as they seem. When things do go well, the capacity gives the subject an indefeasible warrant in their perceptual belief.

Think of the capacity to sink eight-foot putts. Even the best golfers do not sink all their eight-foot purrs. The idea I am considering is that there cannot be capacities, acknowledged to be fallible, whose non-defective exercises put their possessors in positions in which they have conclusive warrant for beliefs. One might as well think there cannot be a capacity, of course not guaranteed success in every exercise, in whose non-defective exercises a possessor of it actually sinks eight-foot putts. [ibid: 39]

This line of thought seems attractive and a convincing alternative to Burge’s picture of perception as providing merely an external and defeasible warrant. But the analogy with putting seems odd because, I suspect, sinking the putt seems more like a capacity to get true belief or knowledge-how to get it rather than knowledge (or knowledge-that) itself and thus a familiar worry – a worry I feel I shouldn’t suffer – seems to return. The worry stems from the fact that the moral of the argument of ‘Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge’ seems to replicate the line of thought about justification from ‘Knowledge and the internal’, about criteria from ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ and the critique of Rorty and the mundus absconditus from ‘Towards rehabilitating objectivity’. The common line of thought seems to be that if one accommodates the fallibility of our justificatory powers by severing the firm connection between justification and truth (or justification and our world-grasping powers), then justification is never enough. The line of thought seems to be the same as that for disjunctivism rather than a highest common factor in perception carried over to criticise a highest common factor – which stops short of the truth – for justification in general.

The negative argument –spelled out elsewhere – seems to involve the idea that knowledge is not a matter of luck. So if the difference between justified belief which failed to be knowledge and justified belief which amounted to knowledge was a matter external to the justification, that would, impossibly, make knowledge a matter of luck. Hence instead a form of disjunctivism where the ‘good’ disjunct is sufficient for truth and thus the justification in the good disjunct does not need additional luck to underpin knowledge.

In the face of this line of argument, I can never help thinking that since the two disjuncts seem the same, the luck just enters the picture in a different place: getting oneself into the right disjunct. But in this passage, there is a response to just this worry. Here is the summary of the worry:

And now it is tempting to argue like this: even if we grant, perhaps temporarily and for the sake of argument, that a non-defective exercise of a perceptual capacity puts one in a state that consists in having some feature of one’s environment present to one, being in such a state cannot have the epistemological significance I have been claiming for it; it cannot provide one with indefeasible warrant for a belief that registers the presence of that feature. Perhaps a perceptual state would give one indefeasible warrant for a suitably related belief if one knew that the current exercise of one’s perceptual capacity was non-defective. But to accept, as we must, that the capacity is fallible is to accept that defective exercises of it can be indiscriminable, at least at the time, from non-defective exercises. And it can seem to follow that even if the current exercise is not defective, the subject cannot know that it is not defective. It can seem to follow that even on an occasion on which someone is in a perceptual state of the kind I am claiming we can describe in terms of the presence to her of a feature of her environment, her perceptual state is, for all she knows, not of that kind—her current exercise of her perceptual capacity is, for all she knows, defective. So surely she does not know whatever it is about the environment that she takes her perceptual state to enable her to know. [ibid: 40-1]

The worry is that since the two disjuncts seem the same, even if the good disjunct would amount to truthful access to the world (to put it much more roughly than McDowell does, of course), since one cannot tell which of the disjuncts applied in any case, one cannot know which disjunct applies and that in turn undermines one’s ability to have knowledge of the world.

In response to this, we need to emphasize the connection between reason and self-consciousness. A rational perceptual capacity is a capacity not only to know certain kinds of thing about the environment, but, on an occasion on which one knows something of the relevant kind through the exercise of the capacity in question, to know that that is how one knows it. [ibid: 41]

So the first part of the reply suggests a kind of self-consciousness or self-knowledge about the way one comes to know about the world. In the good disjunct, one can not only have knowledge of the world but also knowledge of how one has knowledge of the world. Such is the transparency of experience, perhaps. This is further explained thus:

The capacity—of course fallible—to know, on certain occasions, that one’s experience is revealing to one that things are a certain way, which is a bit of self-knowledge, is just an aspect of the capacity—of course fallible—to know through experience, on those occasions, that things are that way. It is a single capacity, self-consciously possessed and exercised. A bit of rational perceptual knowledge includes knowledge that it is through perception that one knows whatever it is that one knows about the environment. [ibid: 41]

But now McDowell needs to deal with the worry about the bad disjunct. In that case, one will surely have both mistaken views about the world and mistaken views about the source of that apparent knowledge, that false belief, in the way things (merely) appear to be. He says:

And we need to avoid that bad inference from the fallibility of the capacity, not only in connection with its guise as a capacity for knowledge about one’s environment, but also in connection with its guise as a capacity for self-knowledge. Granted, one can mistake a defective exercise of the capacity for a non-defective exercise. But it does not follow that the capacity cannot be correctly described as a capacity to know things about the environment. [ibid: 42]

That seems to go too quickly. What I would like to know is why the fact that one can mistake the bad disjunct for the good one – in the sense of taking oneself to have knowledge of the world when one does not (just an appearance) and hence, given the self-consciousness of such methods, mistake the grounds of one’s apparent knowledge (that is take the mere appearance to be reality) – does not undermine the efficacy of the good disjunct for knowledge. I’m inclined to accept the final sentence about the fallible capacity. But the worry hasn’t been discharged yet. McDowell continues:

And it is just the same point, applied to the same capacity in a different guise, to say this: it does not follow that the capacity cannot be correctly described as a capacity to get into positions in which one knows that it is through one’s perceptual state that one knows something about the environment—and so knows that one’s perceptual state conclusively warrants one in the belief in question. [ibid: 42]

Well yes: if the worry has been eased such that the good disjunct can get on and give me knowledge then also what might have been an appearance on which knowledge was based will turn out to be reality. But has the worry been eased? McDowell continues with a quotation from Rodl the second half of which goes like this:

One might object that this grants me grounds that rule out error at the price of making it impossible for me to know whether my belief is based on such grounds. For, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am fooled. So I can never know whether I am not fooled and my beliefs are based on grounds that [establish] their truth, or whether I am fooled and such grounds are unavailable to me. This objection repeats the mistake: from the fact that, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am, it does not follow that, when I am not fooled, I do not know that I am not. When I know that p as I perceive it to be the case, then I know that I perceive that p. Thus I am in a position to distinguish my situation from any possible situation in which I would be fooled, for, in any such situation, I would not perceive that p, while in the given situation I do. [ibid: 43-4]

What seems odd about this is that the train of thought: if I – perceptually – know that p then I know perceptually that p and thus I can distinguish my position from cases where I do not perceptually know that p, does not seem to address this worry. The worry is not whether someone who perceptually knows that p can know that that is how they know it. The worry isn’t about the modality, but about the knowledge in the face of the realisation that they might have taken themselves to be moving through this set of thoughts when in fact they do not know p in the first place, because, sadly, they occupy the bad disjunct.

The analogy with the capacity for putting seems misleading because there, when all goes well, the thought that it might not have gone well does not seem to call the exercise of the capacity in the successful cases into question. So there would be no need for the kind of insistence rehearsed in the passages I’ve been quoting here. But, in the case of knowledge, unlike mere true belief, those other possible cases do seem, at least, to have implications for the good cases as well: that seems to be the fault of the justification condition.

If one knows how to sink a putt then one has a general capacity. The capacity can be fallible in that not all attempts succeed. But, of a successful putt, there seems no problem in saying that it was the result of the capacity, even though it can fail in other cases. That fact does not seem to undermine the explanation of the success as an instance of the capacity. That is what seems different about knowledge. Knowledge does not seem to be practical know-how applied to true belief formation.

If the putting capacity is fallible it is possible that there are explanations for failures. Perhaps when the wind is thus and so and the grass thus and so, sinking the putt would be mere luck. If so, such a chance sinking under those circumstances does not seem to be the result of the capacity. There are some kinds of putt one does not, after all, know how to sink (even if sometimes they go in). But unless there is an important or salient pattern in this, the fact that one is lucky not to be in such a situation doesn’t seem to me to undermine the idea that sinking other putts is a result of the capacity. That’s what just doesn’t seem the same in the knowledge case. The luck in not being in the sort of case where one gets it wrong just does seem to undermine the status of the true belief as knowledge.

I know I shouldn’t still have this worry. I can, eg. persuade myself that I do know I am not dreaming when I read Michael Williams’ account in Unnatural Doubts. But the nagging worry always seems to return.

McDowell, J. (2011) Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.