Sunday, June 28, 2015

Internalism and the Meditations

Here's a Cartesian idea: there is special epistemic access to facts about our own subjective, internal experiences. Other knowledge we may have, like knowledge of the external world, must be derived from the more basic knowledge, which concerns the internal.

This is clearly something Descartes thinks, but is there an argument to that effect? I'd always thought he did; the Meditations offers something like this:
  1. There are possible skeptical scenarios for beliefs about the external world
  2. There are no possible skeptical scenarios for beliefs about the internal
  3. Being such that there's no possible skeptical scenario for it is the marker of the kind of epistemic fundamentality in question; so
  4. The internal, not the external, is what has the kind of epistemic fundamentality in question
Premise (3) is no doubt dubitable, but I'll decline from dubiting it at present. I want to get clearer about (1) and (2). What's it take to be a skeptical scenario with respect to some belief? It seems like maybe Descartes treats a skeptical scenario with respect to a given belief as a possible case where one is wrong about that belief, but things seem exactly the same. But if that's the working understanding of a skeptical scenario, then it looks like we're just assuming the kind of internalism I'm looking for justification for. Why should we think the key question, for whether a given scenario has skeptical implications, is whether things seem the same? It seems that one would only sign up to that criterion if one were already convinced that seemings are really epistemically important.

Note that a more neutral characterization of skeptical scenarios might have it that a skeptical scenario with respect to p is a possible case where one is wrong about p, even though one has all the same basic evidence. But putting things this way, premises (1) and (2) become much less obvious.

So I'm tempted to think there's not actually any pressure in favour of internalism in Descartes's reflections on skeptical scenarios; reflection on which kind of deception is and isn't possible might just amount to teasing out the internalist commitments one initially finds oneself with.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Factoring Views about Having Reasons

I have been thinking about Mark Schroeder’s very interesting paper, “Having Reasons”. He argues against a ‘factoring account’ of having a reason for action, and he also argues that epistemologists have been misled by assuming a parallel factoring account of evidence.

I have three reactions.

  1. Schroeder is unclear about what exactly the commitments of the factoring account are; I think he may slide between a stronger and a weaker reading of it. This isn’t disastrous for his own project, because he wants to reject both readings, but I think it’s important to keep them separate (in part because of (2) below).
  2. The stronger reading is pretty plausibly false (though maybe not just for the reasons Shroeder says) but the weaker reading is pretty plausibly true (despite his arguments).
  3. Epistemologists have not been misled by assuming (a strong form of) the factoring account.
I’ll try to defend (1) in this post.

What is the factoring account? Schroeder first introduces it via an analogy:
When someone has a ticket to the opera, that is because there is a ticket to the opera, and it is in her possession—she has it. Similarly, if one has a golf partner, this can only be because there is someone who is a golf partner, and one has him. But here, it is not like there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession. Rather, being a golf partner is simply a relational property, and the golf partner you have—your golf partner—is simply the one who stands in the golf partner of relation to you. 
A factoring account of having opera tickets is true. There is an opera ticket, and moreover, one has it. A factoring account of having golf partners, however, is to be rejected. What exactly is wrong with this view? Schroeder says it’s a commitment to the implausible claim that “there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession.” But of course, strictly speaking, there are people out there who are golf partners, and one of them is mine. I agree with Schroeder that there’s an important contrast between these cases, but I don’t think he’s quite articulated what it is. I think it has to do with grounding. What makes it the case that I have an opera ticket is the existence of this thing the opera ticket, combined with me standing in a suitable relationship to it. But the existence of the golf partner, combined with my relationship to her, doesn’t make it the case that I have a golf partner. On the contrary, it is my having her as a golf partner that makes it the case that she is a golf partner. The relationship, not the object, is relatively fundamental here; the existence of the golf partner—though genuine—is derivative.

So distinguish these claims:

  • Weak Factoring: Any time S has R as a reason, there exists a reason R, and S stands in a suitable having relation to R.
  • Strong Factoring: What it is for S to have R as a reason is for there to exist a reason R, and for S to stand in a suitable having relation to R.
As the names imply, Strong Factoring implies Weak Factoring, but not vice versa. If what I said about golf partners is correct, Weak Factoring does not get at the intuitive contrast between opera tickets and golf partners. The analogue of Weak Factoring is true of golf partners. (Contra the letter of Schroeder's text, any time one has a golf partner, there really is someone who is a a golf partner that one has.) I don’t think Schroeder is at all clear about this; he writes at times as if ‘the Factoring Account’ is just Weak Factoring. (i.e., “[T]he Factoring Account has two major commitments. In any case in which it seems that there is a reasons someone has to do something, whatever is the reason that she has must be just that: (1) a reason for her to do it, and (2) one that she has.” p. 58)

The distinction makes an important difference when it comes to thinking about the views one might have about reasons. For example, here is a possible view one might have about reasons: R=K. (A proposition is among a subject’s reasons if and only if the subject knows that proposition.) This view counts as a Weak Factoring view—any time you have knowledge, there is some knowledge, and moreover, you have it. But it is not a Strong Factoring view; the extinct of the knowledge ontologically depends on your having the knowledge. It is more like golf partners than opera tickets.

“Weak Factoring” is probably a misnomer, really—the view in question isn’t a kind of factoring at all. It’s a mere entailment claim. So when Schroeder’s argument against what he calls ‘The Factoring View’ takes the form of counterexamples to Weak Factoring, he’s really making a much more radical claim than anything we should call the rejection of a factoring treatment of having reasons. He's rejecting the mere entailment from having a reason to there being a reason.

(His counterexamples are cases where a subject acts on a reasonable but mistaken belief—like Bernard Williams’s subject who takes a sip of the liquid in his glass because he falsely believes it’s a martini. I don’t think these are counterexamples, for reasons I won’t go into right now.)