Ishani was just talking with me about Jennifer Lackey’s prize-winning paper and we noticed something odd about one of the core examples. Here’s the example, with the discussion after the fold.
COMPULSIVELY TRUSTING: Bill is a compulsively trusting person with respect to the testimony of his neighbor, Jill, in whom he has an obsessive romantic interest. Not only does he always trust Jill when he has very good reason to believe her, he is incapable of distrusting her when he has very good reason to not believe her. For instance, even when he has available to him overwhelming evidence for believing that she is deliberately lying or being deceitful, Bill cannot come to believe this about Jill. Indeed, Bill is such that there is no amount of evidence that would convince him to not trust Jill. Yesterday, while taking his afternoon walk, Bill ran into Jill, and she told him that she had seen an orca whale while boating earlier that day. Bill, of course, readily accepted Jillís testimony. It turns out that Jill did in fact see an orca whale on the boat trip in question, that she is very reliable with respect to her epistemic practices, both in general and in this particular instance, and that Bill has no reason to doubt the proffered testimony. Given his compulsively trusting nature with respect to Jill, however, even if he had had massive amounts of evidence available to him indicating, for instance, that Jill did not see an orca whale, that she is an unreliable epistemic agent, that she is an unreliable testifier, that orca whales do not live in this part of the country, and so on, Bill would have just as readily accepted Jillís testimony.
Lackey says that Bill does not know that Jill saw an orca. Here’s her reason for saying that he does not.
To see this, notice that because of his compulsively good nature with respect to Jillís testimony, Bill is simply incapable of being sensitive to the presence of defeaters regarding her reports. In this respect, he is no better epistemically than a subject who has been brainwashed or programmed to accept any report that is made Jill. For were Bill to be inundated with massive amounts of counterevidence, he would have accepted Jillís testimony just as readily as he did in the complete absence of such counterevidence. Indeed, Bill is such that he would have accepted Jillís testimony under any circumstances. Because of this, Billís belief that there was an orca whale in the relevant body of water is evidentially insensitive in a way that is clearly incompatible with warrant, justification, and knowledge. Therefore, while Jillís belief possesses all of the epistemic properties in question, the belief that Bill forms on the basis of her testimony possesses none of them.
I think Bill does know that Jill saw an orca. I have a positive argument for this and a criticism of the principle Lackey uses to conclude Bill does not know.
Change the example in the following four respects, all of which should be irrelevant to the question of whether Bill gets knowledge from Jill’s testimony.
- Bill is a company director of Acme Inc.
- Jill didn’t tell Bill about orcas, but that Bill’s sister had bought 10000 shares of Acme Inc.
- In Bill’s state there is a law saying that whenever a company director comes to know that a family member has bought shares in their company, they have to notify the SEC.
- Despite Bill believing Jill, he does not notify the SEC.
Well all of this comes out in court, and it doesn’t look good for Bill. Until his lawyer, Professor Lackey, stands up and says that he can’t be guilty of violating the law because he was epistemically insensitive to (merely) possible defeaters and this is incompatible with his knowing that his sister bought 10000 shares of Acme Inc. Actually, it still doesn’t look good, because the judge laughs this defence out of court and Bill goes to jail.
I think the kind of test I’m sketching here, the “Would you go to jail?” test, is quite generally valid. Real world laws do talk about obligations various people have in cases where they come to know certain kinds of things. So we don’t have to imagine far-flung possibilities to try and work out when agents would be vulnerable under those laws. And I think it’s pretty clear in Lackey’s case that Bill would indeed go to jail.
Three quick asides.
First, my gut feeling is that as long as Bill truly believes his sister bought shares in the company and doesn’t report that, he goes to jail. So this is a strongly anti-sceptical test. That doesn’t mean it isn’t correct however.
Second, contextualism is of no help here. Presumably the courtroom is a high-stakes setting if anything is. (Bill could go to jail.) If Bill knows in the courtroom setting, he knows in everyday settings.
Third, I’d be more than interested to know what the case law is on standards for knowledge when we’re interpreting these kinds of laws. Is it just truth plus subjective certainty (as my bush-lawyer’s gut tells me) or something stronger? It would be cool if it varied between jurisdictions. There is a lot of case law on the connection between causation, counterfactual dependence, and responsibiliy, so lawyers are used to dealing with tricky cases of philosophically interesting terms, and they may have useful things to say here.
Now the negative comment. The example below shows that the test Lackey uses to show Bill doesn’t know is either much too strong or leads to violations of closure. Tests that are too strong are bad, and tests that violate closure are bad, so this is bad. First, let’s state Lackey’s test.
INSENSITIVE TO DEFEAT. If X would believe p even if X possessed a defeater for believing that p, then X does not know that p.
The argument against INSENSITIVE TO DEFEAT is the following case.
Brian is a (dashing, witty, handsome) young philosopher who has become thoroughly bored with debates about external world scepticism. He thinks it is a Moorean fact that we know the external world exists. He is so bored with this debate that even if there started to be evidence that he really was in a computer simulation (e.g. buildings suddenly going missing, gaps in his visual field etc) he would totally discount it. In short, he is insensitive to external world defeaters. Fortunately, he has no such defeaters. But in all other respects he is the model of a modern epistemic agent. He is sensitive to defeaters to his other beliefs, and is careful which particular propositions about the external world he believes. For instance, if he had a defeater for his belief that the Red Sox won last year’s World Series, he would (in a slightly panicked state) stop believing they did. But with no such defeaters he can hold onto his beliefs. Moreover, he only ever believes truths, so he is perfectly reliable.
If we accept INSENSITIVE TO DEFEAT, then Brian does not know that the external world exists. Now we face a dilemma, for one of the following two propositions is true.
- Brian knows that the Red Sox won, but does not know that the external world exists, so (known, single-premise) closure fails.
- Brian does not know any proposition that entails the existence of the external world, so his boredom with a (sometimes boring) philosophical debate has cost him all of his external world knowledge.
Neither of these strikes me as being at all plausible, so I conclude INSENSITIVE TO DEFEAT is false. And with it falling the obstacle to claiming Bill knows falls too.
Despite the length of this post it really is only about a small part of the paper. And I’m sympathetic to at least Lackey’s negative point, that the Belief View of Testimony is mistaken. But I didn’t think this example helped her case.