Sunday, September 1, 2013

Truth, knowledge, skepticism, and stuff…

A standard philosophical definition of knowledge goes as follows:

(I know A) <=> (I have a justified belief that A) and (A is true)

As I write this essay, I’m in the middle of reading Robert Nozick’s discussion of knowledge and skepticism in Philosophical Explanations.  Nozick uses a very specific concept of “truth tracking” which leads to some very interesting results, but is essentially (it seems to me) just a particular approach to defining justification, one that leads to a coherent (I think), but sometimes quite peculiar conception of knowledge.  I find myself working around a rather different rejection of philosophical skepticism.  What follow are musings, not intended to represent a complete expression of a developed idea.

If some particular skeptical scenario (SK: SK => not-A) were true, then A would be false, and I would not know A.  However, A, so not-SK, and I do know A.  The skeptic’s objection fails, because SK is not true.

Truth is outside my direct experience.  It is not something I have direct access to.  To use Dewey’s language from Experience and Nature, it is not something I “have directly”.  All that I have directly is justification (evidence, inference rules, trusted sources, etc.)  There is no way to operationalize truth; I can only operationalize justification.  One reason that theories of knowledge remain so problematic is that knowledge, vs. justification and belief, has exactly zero influence on our behavior at time t = now().  We try to justify our beliefs, and to act on justified beliefs.  Later, we may come to believe that our prior beliefs were not (properly) justified, i.e., were false.  But at any given moment (outside of certain contexts of philosophical inquiry) the question, “Are my beliefs true, or merely justified?” is never a useful one.  The question, “Is this belief justified?”, however, is (always?) an important one.  Operationally, the question of “truth” always devolves to:  from perspective B (perhaps a later one), do the beliefs held to be justified from perspective A still appear justified?

There is no way to operationalize (general, philosophical) skepticism at all.  Skepticism places all logical possibilities on an equal footing.  All available evidence is discounted, and there is no way to distinguish one possibility from another, to prefer one over the other.  Skepticism cannot give any positive plan of action.

Philosophical skepticism of the sort I am referring to (what Hume referred to as Pyrrhonism) must not be confused with a critical evaluation of our methods of justification.  Critical evaluation of our methods of justification is completely operational and is critical to ensuring that they track truth as closely as possible.

P.S.  Nozick, I think, expresses an insight similar to mine above about truth and experience when he says (p. 232 in my paperback copy) “We have said that knowledge is a real connection of belief to the world, [which we call] tracking, and… this view is external to the viewpoint of the knower, as compared to traditional treatments, [though] it does treat the method he uses [to track truth] from the inside, to the extent it is guided by internal cues and appearances.”

P.P.S.  Anticipating certain gleeful but misguided reactions to my rejection of “skepticism”, I want to point out a deviation between a common vernacular use of the word “skeptical” and philosophical skepticism, to wit, the phrase: “Skeptical about God.”  Disbelief in God (or even just doubt) is usually based on a belief that you can trust the evidence to lead you to true conclusions about the world.  Doubt about God stems from observing the lack of positive evidence, and disbelief from observing that the available evidence is incompatible with the God hypothesis.  These methods of justifying belief are exactly antithetical to philosophical skepticism, which holds that no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to justify a belief.  Theists, in fact, often (mis-)apply a skeptical argument when they claim that “You can’t prove a negative result,” not realizing that, if true, this argument merely puts their God on exactly the same footing as being a brain in a vat manipulated by alien scientists in the Alpha Centauri system.

P.P.P.S.  (9/7/2013)  I need to correct my statement that Nozick's concept of "tracking" is just a special case of justification.  (He is at pains to distinguish them on p. 267, by which time I was in a position to realize what he meant.)  Tracking, like truth, is external:  our methods really do track truth.  Justification is internal: we believe our methods track truth, and are therefore reliable or justified.