Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Epistemic Oddity: "I know, but I might be wrong."

Let p be the proposition, "I will see a sparrow tomorrow." Suppose someone in Seattle, Mr. S, were to say, "I know p, but I might be wrong." This sounds very strange!

If S were to say "I believe p, but I might be wrong," then there would be little contention. Maybe S would see a sparrow, maybe not. Both states of affairs have occurred in the past with some regularity: sometimes S saw sparrows on some days, and sometimes S didn't see sparrows on some days. There is no contradiction on the one hand in believing something will occur, but on the other hand in being wrong about that occurrence. (This is how bets are won or lost.)

Consider Mr. S saying, "I am a bachelor, but I might be married." This too sounds strange, but the reason is quickly identifiable. All bachelors are unmarried by definition of the term 'bachelor' in the same way that all triangles are three-sided by definition of the word 'triangle'. However, consider carefully how these definition types subtly vary.

This pair, < bachelor, triangle >, is not quite related to this pair, < unmarried, three-sided >, by an identical relationship. The < unmarried, three-sided >, pair contains in its first position a negative attribute, what a term excludes in meaning; while the second position contains a positive attribute, what a term includes in meaning.

This pairwise difference indicates that one might have to be vigilant in deciding whether to define knowledge with positive or negative attributes. Take a uninstantiated definitional schema pair for 'know':

s1: < know, X > < wrong, Y >

If (s1) is a negative type definitional schema, then X will be defined by at least one concept it excludes--namely, Y. And If (s1) is a positive type definitional schema, then X will be defined by at least one concept it includes--again, Y.

If we substitute 'triangle' for 'X' and 'three-sided' for Y, then part of what defines the concept of 'know' is in terms of what it includes. What, therefore, does 'wrong' include? It might be that S (allegedly) know something, but it includes what's false. Alas, here's a contradiction, and why S's utterance seems so strange. It would be irrational on the one hand to claim that I'm wrong about p, that it's false; but on the other hand to claim I know p. This is not how the word 'know' is used in natural language in common contexts. (Compare: suppose I decide to hold a person's feet to the fire to obtain terrorist information. You say I should not torture. I say that this action isn't torture. Question: Who has the precedent here for how the word 'torture' is used? Answer: how the word is used by the statistically significant community of discourse. One might be tempted to worry that a dictionary decides the issue. But if you or the interrogator buy a company that prints dictionaries with your own definitions, this hardly resolves the issue.)

But there is another way to read the definition of knowledge which does not make S's utterance a contradiction, and which doesn't make it seem so strange.

If we substitute 'bachelor' for 'X' and 'unmarried' for Y, then part of what defines the concept of knowledge is in terms of what it excludes. What, therefore, does 'wrong' exclude? It might be that S knows something, but S excludes his justification being guaranteed adequate. So there is no contradiction in this interpretation of S's utterance. S still knows something, but it's possible S knows it for reasons unrelated to what S takes to be it's grounding. Of course, p must still be true, and S must still believe p. It's just that S is willing to make no claims to infallibility for his justification. Here it looks like in making a claim to knowledge, one prioritizes the truth of a claim over its justification. This seems right, since the practical affairs of choosing among reasons are what guide actors. (Question: Is being factually correct about where a predictor is in nature more important to survival and reproduction than having justification? Answer: for the individual, yes. For the social group with teaching/learning outcomes that affect group survival? Maybe not.)


[image] Kingston Field Naturalists (Accessed Jan 27, 2009).

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