Thursday, April 30, 2009

Epistemology joke

This is probably an old joke, but it does get to the heart of many kinds of debates in perception and (alleged) knowledge by induction.
An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking together through the hills of Scotland. They reached a hilltop. Looking over to the next hilltop, they saw a black sheep.

In delight, the engineer cried, “What do you know? The sheep in Scotland are black!”

“Well, some of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replied the experimental physicist.

The theoretical physicist considered this a minute, then said, “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.”

The philosopher thought for a second, then responded, “Well, it’s black on one side, anyway.”
The allusion here is to a well-known 1976 article by Alvin Goldman, which among other things warns against us allowing lucky circumstances into our concept of knowledge. One part of that article is well-summarized in an entry titled "Defeaters in Epistemology" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Suppose Henry is driving through a Wisconsin town, admiring the scenery. He sees a barn and believes “there’s a barn.” Unbeknownst to Henry, this Wisconsin town is full of papier-mâché barn facsimiles, which look like real barns when viewed from the road. However, the structure Henry happens to look at is a genuine barn. He just happens to glance in the direction where one of the few real barns is located. His belief is true since he’s looking at a genuine barn. He also appears justified in holding this belief. Henry believes what seems to him to be the case. He has no reason to believe that anything is suspicious about his perceptions, much less that he’s in a town mostly populated with fake barns. He also knows that barns are fairly common in this part of the state. Nonetheless, it seems that, however justified Henry may be in holding this belief, he doesn’t know that there is a barn present. He is of course lucky to believe what is true in this circumstance, but it’s precisely this feature of the situation that raises doubt about whether he knows there is a barn before him. Had he looked at any other time, his eyes would have landed on a fake barn and his resultant belief would have been false. Knowledge would seem to require that it not be a matter of epistemic serendipity that one’s belief is true.

Ah, such is the life of philosophy, that even its jokes require analysis. But that's a good thing!



[image] Slow Leadership Website (Accessed 4/30/2009)

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At 10:53 PM, Blogger woofmutt said...

It is a good joke. But what I liked better was the bit about paper mache barns. Where is this town?

But seriously folks...

[Long situational example deleted because even I was bored]...So I now feel justified.

Unfortunately this same friend will pert near only accept the introduction of information originally printed in the NY Times, Consumer Reports, and various scientific journals (and only if he has read the text with his own eyes) so mentioning the paper mache barn illustration will get me nowhere. But at least the arguments are fun.


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