Saturday, May 09, 2009

Being true vs. Judging true

[O]n the view that there is no generally privileged position from which to judge whether someone’s beliefs are true, there is no clear general distinction between beliefs and knowledge.

-- Russell Hardin, How Do You Know?: The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge

I'll have to remember this fallacy for the next time I'm teaching intro philosophy students the Metaphysics-Epistemology distinction.

But what do you think is the best way to explain and clear up this misunderstanding? (I might say: "All that follows from our fallibility in judging whether someone's beliefs are true, is that we may be similarly fallible in judging whether their beliefs constitute knowledge. But that's entirely compatible with there being a clear general distinction here, as revealed by the fact that we can perfectly well understand what the underlying difference between the two possibilities would be. It's just to say that we may not be in a position to uncontroversially recognize which of the two we're actually dealing with in any given case." Does that seem clear enough?)


  1. It seems to me that there's a Wittgensteinian way of reading what he said, that makes a deep point about the nature of our concepts. Due to the late hour I'm leaving it as an exercise to the reader.

  2. There may be no privileged position, but that doesn't mean I can't privilege the method. I'm in no way being unreasonable if I prefer beliefs which are transparently argued over beliefs that arrive out of some kind of black box and crucially, even if beliefs that arrive out of a black box are more often correct than beliefs that are transparent.

  3. KG - what's reasonable to believe is a separate question, not really relevant to the question whether there's a principled distinction between (even reasonable) belief and knowledge.

    [Though, for the record, I'd say that if you know (or have sufficient evidence that) the black box gives reliable info then you rationally ought to believe its verdicts, even if you don't understand how it works. Most of our intuitive judgments or "gut instincts" are the result of such opaque sub-conscious processes, after all. It would be irrational to discard all such judgments. See: Skepticism, Rationality and Default Trust.]

  4. I think the only difference between knowledge as a concept and recognizing this concept rests in the generative system making the statement.

    The only way that we can address the concept of knowledge is through an extrinsic view of the world, requiring a certain level of objectivity. Yet, our minds produce statements that are subjective, that could or could not be knowledge, but there is no way to know if our subjectivity conforms with the standard of objectivity required for it to be knowledge. The statement will behave the same way, whether it is belief or knowledge.

  5. Koganei - I have no idea what your first sentence means.

    Your second paragraph appears to simply be noting that whether a belief constitutes knowledge doesn't change how it seems "from the inside" (so to speak). That's true enough, but I'm not sure of the relevance.

    P.S. In general, it's helpful to (i) state your point as simply and clearly as you can, and (ii) make clear how it is relevant to the discussion at hand. [See my comments policy for more detail.]

  6. What you say looks reasonable, but I'm worried about how it relates to the quote. This is mostly because the more I think about it, the less I have any clear idea of what Hardin is trying to say.

    What is a "generally privileged position from which to judge whether someone’s beliefs are true"? One from which we can inerrantly sort beliefs into a "true" pile and a "false" pile? One from which we can reliably sort beliefs into a "true" pile and a "false" pile? One from which we give reasons for putting some beliefs into the "true" pile and others into the "false" pile?

    And I know what a distinction is, but what does it take for a distinction to be both "clear" and "general"? Must it be the case that for anything we are presented with, we can easily figure out which side of the distinction to put it on? Must it simply be the case that we understand the distinction? Are there non-general distinctions in the vicinity?

    Despite my confusion about that sentence, the book looks pretty interesting over all. Have you read it, and if so, would you recommend it?

  7. Sorry, haven't read the book -- just the offending quote.

    I was assuming that a "clear" distinction is one we can (easily) understand, and a "general" one has broad theoretical applicability. So the distinction between being believed-by-Richard-today vs. known-by-Richard-today might be a candidate distinction that's clear but non-general.

    But I agree that talk of "generally privileged positions" is very mysterious. I just interpreted it as concerning (in)fallibility, since that seems most charitable, but you're right that this is less than obvious. There are weaker senses you identify according to which many of us surely do have a 'privileged position'. And I can think of a stronger interpretation according to which a 'generally privileged position' is one that anyone else can see is epistemically superior to theirs. (But note that one could be an infallible judge without being 'generally privileged' in this sense!)

  8. I have never understood why so many authors like to conflate knowledge and belief. It seems I am expected to know, by reading, the statement quoted at the top of your post and then opine about its' credibility. After a quick scan through the book you refer to the notion of knowledge presented seems to be something like the knowledge we gain by study. I am not sceptical of the idea that my knowledge of mathematics or that my knowledge of geography is reducible to individual propositions which may or may not be the object of individual belief; No I am not sceptical, I am more inclined to flatly deny it. The excuse, if you need one, for confusing knowledge and belief is that a sentence such as 'It is raining.' can be used as an expression of belief or by someone who actually knows the state of the weather at the time they make the statement, and in any case be true or not true. The point to my mind is that the last bit, 'true or not true', is not dependent on either the beliefs or knowledge of the person making the statement or expressing their beliefs. Unless you are in a submarine, an orbiting spaceship or on the moon, then it is either raining or not raining and it ain't going to go away if you ignore it or refuse to believe it, and neither is the difference between knowledge and truth.

  9. On the distinction in questio I'm going to call a pass: stumped.

    Richard, I do want to say that you obviously spotted the target of my black box comment and I'm going to say that it still holds: What is a thought experiment but an effort to make intuitions transparent?

  10. Or maybe not so stumped:

    I agree with RichardE that there's something really simple about the idea of truth, so much so that I suspect when there's a problem, and truth is involved, chances are we're actually talking about something that's not truth.

  11. Richard, your reading of "clear general distinction" sounds sensible.

    I generally think charitable readings are ones on which the speaker doesn't come out as saying something silly, and Hardin sounds a lot less silly if you read "generally privileged position" weakly. If we could give absolutely no good reason for saying that some beliefs were true and other beliefs were false, then the distinction between truth and falsity would look like it was in a bit of trouble. What good is a distinction that you can never, ever apply?

    Of course, that makes it look like Hardin is talking about some goofy position that nobody in their right mind holds. (And Wittgenstein may not have been in his right mind, but I don't think you can pin that one on him either.)

    Maybe it would be worth unpacking the quote with your students. (I'm a big fan of the Socratic "unpack and disambiguate" dance in discussion section, but your style may vary.)


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