Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arguing from Ostension

When a Skeptic claims that something (e.g. knowledge, free will) does not exist, a tempting response is to point to the world, and say, "There's some important difference between this case and that one, so I'm just talking about whatever it is that sets the former apart. You can't deny that there is such a thing." For example, there's an important difference between our ordinary actions and those performed out of compulsion -- e.g. hypnotic suggestion or mental illness. It is arguably just this difference that talk of 'free will' is supposed to track. Is this a legitimate anti-skeptical move?

It's always open to the Skeptic to argue that there isn't really any such "important difference" there. We assume there's a difference, but it may be superficial. A skeptic may argue that on closer examination we will find the various cases to be relevantly similar. That's a fine counter-response, if they can manage it. It shows that the anti-skeptical argument from ostension is never a knock down argument. But I think it may often serve an important philosophical purpose nonetheless.

Skeptical arguments often proceed in a very 'top-down' form. They start from a theoretical assumption (e.g. that knowledge requires certainty, or that free will requires ultimate sourcehood), and go on to show that nothing can meet this assumed requirement. That's fine as far as it goes, but if a requirement is impossible to meet, that should set off some alarm bells. In particular, it should make us question whether it's really such an important requirement after all. And that's where the argument from ostension comes in. It's a way to bring the Skeptic's theoretical assumptions into question. Maybe the Skeptic can meet the challenge, but it's often worth asking.

It's easy to make mistakes when one is engaging in a priori theorizing, after all. So the bottom-up (ostensive) method serves to keep us grounded, reminding us of the (apparently) important distinctions that our theorizing sought to capture in the first place. This assumes that intuitions about particular cases are generally more reliable than top-down theoretical intuitions; but that strikes me as a fairly safe assumption. (It is possible for systematic theorizing to override more particular judgments, of course; but some justification is required. Not just any old theoretical intuition will do.)


  1. Good philosophy.

    I think you should capitalize "Skeptic", though; you seem to be using the word in its philosophical sense (i.e. "They start from a theoretical assumption (e.g. that knowledge requires certainty, or that free will requires ultimate sourcehood"), rather than the modern scientific small-ess sense.

  2. Okay, done. (I wasn't aware that the philosophical label doesn't also start with a "small-ess" -- I was just relying on context to mark the distinction, but I guess a more explicit convention couldn't hurt.)

  3. I don't know that you need to go so far as to say particular case intuitions are simply more reliable than theoretical intuitions in general. I doubt that that's true. All you really need is that particular case intuitions can sometimes be sufficient to force theory revision. When they are sufficient is not easy to specify (as the endless philosophy of science discussions about the relationship between theory and evidence show), but probably better to leave it unspecified than present implausible simple rules (like "favor the particular case intuitions always", the implausible simple rule you seem to advocate here).

  4. Yeah, I guess the challenge could still be made (in an albeit weaker form) even if theoretical intuitions were the more reliable. But my stronger claim would do more to put the skeptic on the back foot, by creating a (defeasible!) presumption in favour of arguments from ostension.

    This is certainly not to say "favor the particular case intuitions always". It is more like, "favour the particular case intuitions when all else is equal". Even if particular case intuitions turn out to be correct in most instances of conflict with theoretical intuitions, there will still be plenty of exceptions to this general rule, i.e. specific cases where we have reasons to favour the theoretical intuition instead.

  5. Hello,

    You write that:
    "This assumes that intuitions about particular cases are generally more reliable than top-down theoretical intuitions; but that strikes me as a fairly safe assumption."

    I hope you check out Tamler Sommers' metaskepticism about free will:

    I believe this paper will make you less confident of your intuitions about particular cases.

    Anlam K.

  6. AnlamK,

    While the paper you linked discusses a topic of utmost importance, I think it ultimately does not provide much to Richard's original post.

    While the paper makes clear that intuitions are dubious sons of bitches, particularly cross-culturally, Richard's claim about arguments from ostentation still holds. Take the Korean example, or more generally, honor cultures. The top-down theory intuition (ok, I'm gonna preface this by saying that I have not looked into this at all, but after much thought, it makes the most sense to me, so feel free to criticize, although there is tomes that could be written about it) of those cultures probably has something to do with the idea that you are deserving of shame because everyone in the society has a responsibility to everyone else in the society, and thus, when one person screws up, everyone screws up; they didn't do enough to help avoid the screw up so (As a side-note, this gem also shows the distinct difference between western blame of action versus the perhaps more eastern blame of omission and can add a whole other dimension to the paper you linked). It is only in this way, I posit, that one can get from individual blame to societal blame, which is why you never see shame/individualistic societies or guilt/collectivist societies.

    So now we get to the honor killings of de-virginized women in certain honor cultures, and I will take the apparent difference between a case where a woman loses her virginity voluntarily and one where a women loses her virginity to rape. And to relate it back to Richard's post, the reason the paper is irrelevant is because the intuitions Richard talks about are relative (and thus, it doesn't matter if intuitions differ between cultures, what matters is that they will differ, within a culture, based on whether you take a top-down or bottom-up approach). So if you believe, intuitively, that a person can be judged based on what actions they didn't do that affected the outcome (ie. top-down), one could still arrive at the conclusion, from ostentation, that perhaps for cases of rape, it does matter (and thus perhaps the revise the theory), even though one could still believe in assigning blame to a women and her family if a women loses her virginity by choice, and thus realize an important difference between a woman who is actively defending her honor but has it taken from her, and one that is not defending her honor at all.

    In other words, the Middle East Report quote, "maintaining honor is
    deemed a woman’s responsibility, whether or not she has been educated about sex or consented
    to the act” seems to be a very top-down theory (notice that, "whether or not she has been educated about sex or consented to the act" seems to be an ad hoc attempt to justify the earlier, more general claim that it is a woman's responsibility) that seems to be less reliable than the intuitions about the particular separate cases discussed above.

    In fact, if read correctly, I'd go as far as saying that the linked article only helps to strengthen Richard's claims because both are criticizing the ease of mistake when making general claims, or at least the ease of overlooking, and thus it is important to question and bring to light these cases and the intuitions that are attached to each.

  7. Hi Roscoe, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by calling the intuitions "relative" (unless it's merely to say that not everyone always has the same intuitions). But I agree that the cross-cultural studies cast at least as much doubt on 'top-down' general theoretical intuitions as they do on particular case ones.

  8. Richard,

    What I meant is that they do not matter if intuitions differ between cultures as they are only relative to the way of arguing or theorizing (top-down vs bottom-up), regardless of what cultural intuitions one may have.

    In other words, it would be absurd to think that in western culture the top-down way of arguing is more reliable but in eastern culture bottom-up is more reliable. In all culture it seems that your argument holds, even if the intuitions themselves are radically different. The article he posted just seems irrelevant is all.


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