Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Getting no further, 10 years later, with Charles Travis ‘A sense of occasion’

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a summary of Charles Travis’ utterly fascinating 2005 paper ‘A sense of occasion’. Although I was able to follow the bulk of the argument and, despite the passage of time, I hold by and large with my 2012 reading of it, I failed to follow the key argument in the penultimate section.

Sadly, I still cannot. I do not understand how occasion sensitivity can do for knowledge what it does for Lac Leman’s being blue. I cannot work out what my blind-spot is. It ought to be obvious.

So I’ll start where I left off ten years ago. This is where I become too stupid.

Max speaks truth in saying there might be goats. The truth he speaks is that there might be, on a certain understanding of something’s being what might be: what one ought to understand by this on this occasion. Again, if there is occasion-sensitivity, then there are not, in addition to such facts as to what might be when one understands might be in this or that way, further facts as to what might be anyway, occasion-insensitively. It is facts of the first kind, and not such supposed further facts, that bear on the truth of knowledge ascriptions, different ones on different ascriptions. Where Sid does not know, he is not to be treated as authoritative; where he does, he is. That rule applies equally in Pia’s situation and in Max’s. There is no difficulty in the idea that some people, engaging with the world in given ways, ought to treat Sid as an authority while others, engaged in other ways, ought not – even if the latter cannot recognize what the former ought to do.
Max ought not to treat Sid as an authority. For he ought to treat goats behind the barn as a way things might be. If he does so treat it, he will see what Pia said as indifferent to a possibility. But what Pia’s statement is indifferent to is what might be on a certain understanding of what might be. It need not thereby be indifferent to any way things might be, on that understanding of might be which its occasion calls for. (Nor is that more than Max, on his occasion, can recognize consistently.) So it need not be understood as crediting Sid with any status he might enjoy despite the existence of possibilities that he is wrong. It may be crediting him with a status he can only enjoy in having proof he grasps as proof. What may vary from one occasion to another (from Max’s, say, to Pia’s) is what would count as enjoying that.
What, if right, would demonstrate occasion-sensitivity is this. For us, both Pia’s occasion and Max’s may be fully in view. We can see all that would make things count one way on the one occasion, another on the other – if the relevant notions are occasion-sensitive. If there is not occasionsensitivity, then at most one of these occasions exhibits the facts as they really are. For there are then only occasion-insensitive facts as to what (really) might be, no matter what else passes for that on one occasion or the other. So either it really might be that there are goats behind the barn, or, really, that is not a way things might be, punkt. So which is it? What Austin and I think is that this question has no motivated answer. Nothing in the way things are gives the one answer any better credentials than the other as an answer to the question what (really) might be. If we are right, and if the point holds, not just for goats behind the barn, but reasonably systematically, then there can be no facts about what might be (or surely not enough) if those facts are not occasion-sensitive ones. That is always the mainspring of occasion-sensitivity. I think it is easy to confirm in the case at hand. [ibid: 308-9]

Let’s assume that both sheep and some goats bleat. Sid can recognise bleats from other noises that animals make (barks, tweets) and lives in a sheep-only environment. Thus when he hears a bleat, it is a sheep bleat and he can tell a bleat from a bark, say. Hearing bleating from the barn, does he know there are sheep in there?

Pia can see the barn and where Sid is standing, listening. As far as she is concerned, she can hear sheep bleating in the barn. She thinks she knows that there are sheep in the barn and she ascribes that knowledge to Sid. Perhaps she hears Sid say aloud: “Lo, the sound of sheep bleating from the barn.”

(One possibility mentioned by Travis is that she can acquire knowledge that there are sheep by hearing what Sid says and knowing that Sid can tell a sheep by its noise even if she cannot. She might be a consumer of his knowledge rather than having equal standing.)

As a variant, she walks round the barn simply for exercise, seeing, by chance, that there are no creatures behind it. This does not change her ascription. (Obviously, there’s a point to this, below.)

Max can see and hear everything that Pia can. Standing next to Sid he refuses to ascribe knowledge or even a true belief to Sid. But, as in the variant above, once he has walked round the barn, he thinks that what Sid says is true but, despite this, he does not ascribe *knowledge* to Sid. Although he does think that Sid *thinks* he knows that there are sheep in the barn (that Sid’s saying “Lo, the sound of sheep” is supposed to be expressive of knowledge) and although he thinks that this is true because he, Max, thinks that he, Max, knows that there are sheep in the barn (again possibly, ironically, partly because of what Sid himself says) still Sid’s true belief is merely lucky. It doesn’t amount to knowledge. Why? Well see a bit later.

With this in place, I will go back to Travis’ famous example of Lac Leman being blue and assume in parallel that Pia says it is, because it looks very blue as it reflects the sky, whereas water-scientist Max says that, unlike other lakes nearby, there are no alluvial deposits shading it blue and so it is not blue on his understanding. (A bucket of it would not look blue.) In this case, it seems possible to contextualise both Pia and Max and to agree that what they both said was true in the way that they were thinking of being blue. If someone - a philosopher - were to press the question of whether it was ‘really’ blue, we might have to clarify context and perhaps adopt one use or other but in general it would seem the wrong question to ask, something of a non-sequitur. (The existing full story already shows how it is blue in one sense and not blue in another and whether one sense seems more important is a practical, not a philosophical, matter.)

(Travis suggests that a philosopher asking whether someone *really* knows is equally otiose.)

So let’s go back to the knowledge case. Can we run the same contextualising form of interpretation and arrive at a view whereby both Pia and Max are right to say, although on different understanding of what they are saying, that Sid does know (ie Pia) and that he does not (ie Max)? 

I’m struggling to do this.

Since both Pia and Max think (on the variant) - correctly - that Sid has a true belief about the sheep, the difference is in the third condition on knowledge. (I assume I can speak this way even without thinking that there is an informative sufficient analysis of knowledge. Still, putative knowledge is undermined by luck as Gettier stresses.) So let’s fill out a context for Max. 

Perhaps Max knows that goats have recently been introduced to the neighbourhood and tend to try to steal food through the rear walls of sheep barns. Since Sid has not checked behind the barn, he does not know that there are no goats - though, in the variant, Max can see that there are no goats - and so Sid does not know that the bleating is sheep bleating. It might have been that there were goats instead and that is enough to undermine an ascription of knowledge to Sid. Max does not ascribe even true belief to Sid until he has himself looked round the barn because he does not think that he himself knows there are sheep until he has done this. For Max, the variant case is necessary even to ascribe true belief to Sid (and to self-ascribe knowledge) that there are sheep in the barn.

In the natural reading of the initial set-up - before we conjured up the food-stealing goats - Pia seemed right to ascribe knowledge to Sid on the grounds that he could hear the bleating and no goats had been mentioned (and in the variant Pia could see there were none, even if Sid could not). But with the new context in play, then it seems that Max would deny Pia knowledge until she walked round the barn. In her first view of things, she neglected a real possibility. And according to Max, Sid always neglects this possibility because there might have been goats and he didn’t (timelessly: doesn’t) check this (as, in the variant, Pia does). So, according to Max, Pia was wrong to ascribe knowledge to Sid even when, after walking round the barn, she was right to self-ascribe knowledge.

Unlike the Lac Leman case, I struggle to find a context pertaining to what ‘might have been’ such that both Pia and Max were right to take their different views of Sid’s knowledge status. 

How about this? Max is sensitive to a merely recent incursion of foreign goats, upsetting the long-standing sheep-only balance of nature. That is why he thinks that there might have been goats behind the barn. Perhaps, however, whether or not the incursion had happened, the goats would never have tolerated the thin atmosphere of this high altitude barn. Knowing this further fact, Pia does not even need to walk round it to rule out goats and can thus know (even before the variant) that the bleating implies sheep and hence Sid knows that there are sheep. 

The problem with this is that it seems that it undermines Max’s view of things. Although he does think it, Max is *wrong* to think that there might have been goats behind the barn. Pia *knows* that there could not be. Thus Sid’s reliance on the sound of bleating was sufficient for Sid to know that there were sheep in the barn. This is one possibility. Pia is right about Sid and Max is wrong about Sid.

Perhaps not, however. Max may take the view that although *Pia* knows about the effects of altitude on goats and he, Max, - obviously (since he is a water-scientist in the other case) - does too, Sid hasn’t explored goat respiration with sufficient attention to count as a knower. Sid’s assumption that there are no goats, while as it happens reliable, is, in Max’s view as far as Sid goes, merely a matter of luck. Max does not think that Sid is epistemically responsible. Max thinks that the fact, and the exclusion of goat-ringers, is outside Sid’s ken. What might have been is brutely external to Sid’s thinking. Etc, etc. But, again, if Max is right, then Pia is wrong.

So this still seems different to the Lac Leman case. Imagine that Max and Pia have a conversation about the goat respiration angle. She stresses that no goat could dwell at that altitude; he says that while that seems to be the latest science, it is hot off the presses and Sid would have had no right to rely on it even had he given it any thought unless he did more than glance at the Daily Mail headlines. There does not seem to be a Bernard Williams absolute conception style representation that redeems both of their apparently opposing views. Either they will continue to disagree or one view will win out.

There does not seem to be any clear but equivalent uses here of what ‘might have been the case’ akin to the equivalent cases of what sort of ‘blue’ one meant when one said the Lake was blue. Max and Pia may rationally disagree on what, actually as it were, might have been the case. That may be enough to suggest that there is no fact of the matter and hence no fact of the matter as to knowledge status. But there does not seem room for disagreement on the use or contextual meaning of ‘what might have been the case’ here such that, from yet another perspective, both parties can be easily understood to be speaking the truth when - apparently - saying the opposite thing. (The point being: in the Lac Leman case, they are not saying the opposite thing despite using the same English sentence.)