Friday, September 21, 2012

Very Crazy Beliefs and JPK

Following up on yesterday's post, here is another kind of case that Jessica pressed me about last summer. Again, I'm defending:
JPK: S’s belief is justified iff S has a possible counterpart, alike to S in all relevant intrinsic respects, whose corresponding belief is knowledge.
Sometimes the counterpart belief has a different content. As in the kind of case I discussed yesterday, Jessica is worried that this flexibility about content makes the view too liberal. We can put the worry this way: maybe my view has the implication that very crazy beliefs might end up justified, because they might be realized by intrinsic states that are consistent with knowledge in very different social environments. By a ‘very crazy’ belief, I mean a belief that is so implausible, it would usually be better to attribute to a subject who seemed to express it a deviant meaning. To take Burge’s famous example:
If a generally competent and reasonable speaker thinks that ‘orangutan’ applies to a fruit drink, we would be reluctant, and it would unquestionably be misleading, to take his words as revealing that he thinks he has been drinking orangutans for breakfast for the last few weeks. Such total misunderstanding often seems to block literalistic mental content attribution, at least in cases where we are not directly characterizing his mistake.

The reason it is usually preferable to attribute linguistic confusion instead of very crazy beliefs is that to attribute the very crazy belief would be to attribute a radically unjustified one. So it might be a problem if my view ended up saying that such beliefs are justified.

Suppose that Emily is at the breakfast table, drinking orange juice, and expressing what appears to be the very crazy belief that she is drinking orangutans. For example, she says, in a tone of voice not at all suggestive of joking, “I try to drink orangutans every morning, because they are high in vitamin C.” Does JPK have the implication that her very crazy belief is justified? Here is a line of reasoning that suggests that it does -- thanks again to Jessica for articulating it to me last summer. There is nothing intrinsic to Emily that guarantees that her linguistic community does not use ‘orangutan’ to refer to orange juice. Consider her intrinsic duplicate, Emily*, in a world where everybody else treats the word ‘orangutan’ as referring to orange juice. Emily* speaks and believes truly, expressing the belief that she is drinking orange juice. If Emily*’s belief constitutes knowledge, then JPK has it that Emily’s is justified.

Notice that for a JPK theorist to avoid this implication, it is not enough to point to a possible version of the case in which Emily*’s belief falls short of knowledge—this would be easy. According to JPK, Emily’s belief is justified if any one of her possible intrinsic duplicates has knowledge. So to avoid the conclusion that very crazy beliefs like Emily’s are justified, the JPK theorist must argue that all of Emily’s possible intrinsic duplicates fail to know.

Let us consider further what Emily and Emily* must be like; further details of the case will be relevant. Part of what makes Emily’s belief so very crazy is that she is so out of touch with her linguistic community. On the most natural way of filling out the case, Emily sometimes encounters uses of the word ‘orangutan’ that strike her as very strange. Since she thinks that orangutans are a kind of fruit juice, she doesn’t really know what to make of the plaque that says ‘orangutans’ at the zoo, next some Asian primates. That sign seems to Emily to suggest that these apes are orange juice! Perhaps she thinks it is an error, or a prank. Or maybe it’s a sign not for the exhibit, but for some unseen orange juice nearby. On this most natural way of understanding the case, Emily has lots of evidence that her way of understanding ‘orangutan’ is wrong. This evidence impacts her internal state; all of her intrinsic duplicates also have evidence suggesting that ‘orangutan’ doesn’t mean what she thinks it does. There is, I suggest, every reason to consider this evidence to be a defeater to those duplicates’ knowledge. Even though Emily* expresses a truth when she says to herself, “orangutans are a kind of fruit juice,” she has lots of evidence that this is false. That evidence prevents Emily* from knowing; so JPK need not say that Emily’s very crazy belief is justified.

However, the analysis of the previous paragraph relied on a particular interpretation of the case. Although it is, I maintain, the most natural one, it is not the only possible one. What if we suppose that Emily has no internal evidence against the correctness of her bizarre use of ‘orangutan’? In this case, Emily* will have no defeater; might she therefore have knowledge? It depends, I think, on how each came to have their way of using the term. Suppose that, although ‘orangutan’ functions as it actually does in Emily’s linguistic community, she has never been taught this term. She spontaneously decided, for no particular reason, to use the term to refer to orange juice, and it’s just a coincidence that it happens to be the same word as that used in the wider community for orangutans. We can suppose that she’s encountered the word from time to time, but in impoverished contexts which provide no reason to suspect that her usage is incorrect. For example, she sometimes overhears people saying “I like orangutans”, without the additional context that would cue her into supposing this to be anything other than an expression of esteem for orange juice. (We include this limited contact to make it plausible that she really is using the public term.) In this case, Emily has formed beliefs about the meaning of a public term rather irresponsibly; this fact will be reflected in her intrinsic state. So Emily*, too, will have come irresponsibly to believe that “orangutan” means orange juice; even though her belief is true, it is not knowledge. So on this version of the case, too, the JPK theorist can avoid attributing justified belief to Emily.

What if, instead, we suppose that Emily thinks that orangutans are orange juice because of misleading evidence to the effect that ‘orangutan’ means orange juice? Her older brother, perhaps, decided it’d be funny to teach her that as a gullible child, and she’s never encountered evidence to the contrary. Now Emily’s belief looks like it might well have been formed responsibly. So there is no obvious obstacle to suggesting that Emily* has knowledge. For in this case, it looks like JPK will suggest that Emily’s belief, very crazy though its content is, is justified after all. This strikes me as the correct result; it is a familiar instance of a false belief that is justified on the proper basis of misleading evidence.

So it seems to me that JPK does not have problematically liberal implications about the justification of very crazy beliefs. For many of the most plausible version of very crazy beliefs, they will come along with intrinsic features that are inconsistent with knowledge; for those that do not, it is intuitively plausible to attribute justified belief.

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