Monday, October 20, 2014

High School Popularity: A Modest Proposal

One of the difficult things about high school is figuring out which people to be friends with. After all, it can make a big difference in your life! Being friends with popular kids is a good way to become more more popular yourself. Plus, your teachers might treat you better, you'll get more cool stuff (from being friends with the popular kids, who are also often the richer ones), etc. In the status quo, however, freshmen often enter high school without a very clear idea of who the popular kids are, so they're aiming their friendship aspirations pretty haphazardly.
But here's an idea for an enterprising popular kid to provide an invaluable service to everybody. He gets a group of his friends together, and they rate everybody in the school (or at least everyone they think is at least minimally popular) for popularity. Then he can make the results known to the whole school, free of charge! Now everyone worth thinking about trying to be friends with comes along with a numerical popularity rating. Sure, everybody's going to try to be friends with that one girl who was already a 4.8, and she doesn't have the time or energy to be friends with everyone, but since she's the most popular, it makes sense for her to be able to be the most selective about choosing her friends. And aren't the best candidates for friends the ones who deserve to have access to the most popular kid's friendship?
Now I'm the first to admit this system won't be perfect. The popular kids are likely to get ever more popular, since everyone will know that they're the people to try to be friends with. And of course everyone will have some incentive to be friends with that one kid who started the rating system, and with the raters that make up his circle of friends. (The latter can be mitigated somewhat if that first kid occasionally makes changes to the roster of kids who do the ratings.) So yeah, maybe there are better possible systems. But in the status quo, people are just trying to guess who's most popular by asking a couple of people or -- even more unfairly -- by judging by superficial cues like race and attractiveness and athletic ability. How is that fair.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Introspective and Reflective Distinguishability

Mooreans, including neo-Mooreans, think that we know lots of ordinary stuff, and that we also—maybe on this basis—know the denials of extraordinary skeptical scenarios. Duncan Pritchard defends a particular disjunctivist brand of neo-Mooreanism, according to which, in cases of successful perception, one has reflective access to factive reasons of the form I see that p, and perceptual knowledge based on such reasons. So for instance, when one looks at red wall under ordinary circumstances:

  • One sees that the wall is red.
  • One has reflective access to the fact that one sees that the wall is red.
  • One knows that the wall is red on the basis of the fact that one sees that the wall is red.
Since Duncan also accepts a closure principle on knowledge, he accepts:
  • One knows that the wall isn't a white wall illuminated by red light.
Like all forms of Mooreanism, Duncan's view is in tension with certain skeptical intuitions. For example, it is in tension with this intuition:
(S) One can't tell by introspection that one is faced with a red wall rather than a white wall with red light.
As Duncan puts it,
If, in the non-deceived case, one has reflective access to the relevant factive reason as epistemological disjunctivism maintains, then why doesn't it follow that one can introspectively distinguish between the non-deceived and deceived cases after all, contrary to intuition? ... In short, the problem is that it is difficult to see how epistemological disjunctivism can square its claim that the reflectively accessible reasons in support of one's perceptual knowledge can nonetheless be factive with the undeniable truth that there can be pairs of cases like that just described [ordinary perceptual cases and corresponding deceptions] which are introspectively indistinguishable. (21)
(Duncan defines 'introspective indistinguishability' as the inability to know by introspection alone that the cases are distinct. (p. 53))

If I wanted to be a neo-Moorean of broadly Duncan's style (something I might well want to do), I'd just deny S, along with the many other skeptical intuitions that come out false on this view. But Duncan doesn't want to go that way; as this passage indicates, he considers S and claims like it to be 'undeniable truths'. (On p. 92 he even says that disjunctivists in particular are "unavoidably committed to denying that agents can introspectively distinguish" between the relevant cases.) I confess I don't see why it's so important to hold on to this particular skeptical intuition while happily rejecting others, such as the intuition that an ordinary person at the zoo doesn't know that she isn't looking at a cleverly disguised mule.

How does Duncan go about resolving the tension between his disjunctivism and S? By leaning on the 'by introspection' qualifier. He does think that, if one in the good case, one can reason thus, resulting in knowledge of the conclusion: "I have factive reason R. Only in the good case would I have factive reason R. Therefore, I'm in the good case." But, he says, this is consistent with intuitions like S, which are about introspective abilities. And while one may be able to tell by introspection what reasons one has, one cannot tell by introspection that factive reasons obtain only in the good cases. This is something one can come to know by a priori reflection, but not by introspection. (And maybe the same goes for the epistemic standing of the inference from the two premises to the conclusion.)

This is ultimately a much milder concession to skeptical intuitions than at first it appeared. Although he preserves the letter of his interpretation of the claim that we can't introspectively distinguish the good cases from the bad cases, he does so by pointing out that "introspectively" is a stronger qualifier than one might have realised. He does think (p. 95) that one can reflectively distinguish between good and bad cases, where reflective distinguishability is the ability to know distinct base on a combination of introspection and a priori reasoning.

So two thoughts. First the smaller one: is it really right to exclude a priori reasoning from the considerations that establish 'introspective distinguishability'? It's very hard for me to even make sense of just what that constraint is. (In The Rules of Thought, Ben and I argue that we can't divorce any kind of thought from a priori reasoning.) Consider these two cases: (1) I am presented in ordinary circumstances with a blue ball. (2) I am presented in ordinary circumstances with a black ball. Given the way my perceptual faculties work, we should consider these cases to be distinguishable in the relevant sense if any are. But is it clear that I can know them to be distinct without using a priori reasoning? It's not like the proposition that they're distinct is made available to me directly via introspection. Instead, I have introspective access to how one case looks, and to how another case looks, and I observe that they're different. From this I infer, using something like Leibniz's law, that they're distinct.

Second, supposing Duncan is right about introspective distinguishability: maybe this just shows that the worry wasn't properly articulated in the first place. I submit that someone motivated by the kinds of skeptical pressures that would drive someone to say that you can't tell good cases and bad cases apart by introspection, isn't going to feel better if you allow a priori reasoning along with introspection. The key skeptical intuition in the first place was just that it shouldn't be that easy to tell the good cases and the bad cases apart. And there's no getting around it: that's just an intuition that disjunctivists need to deny. Once we come to appreciate this fact, I'm not sure how important it is to conform to the letter of certain idiosyncratic statements of the intuition.