Albritton - Skeptical Argument

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    Philosophical Issues, 21, The Epistemology of Perception, 2011

    ON A FORM OF SKEPTICAL ARGUMENT FROM POSSIBILITY1

    Rogers Albritton

    Deceased. Long at Harvard and UCLA

    I.

    I have been intermittently obsessed for years with a certain form of

    skeptical argument from possibility, as I will say. The idea of it is ancient

    and familiar. Its that anythings possible, as we say, so you never know,as we also say. Anythings possible, so you never know. More expansively:

    you can always or practically always be wrong; but if you know, you cant

    be wrong; so, you never or practically never know. Thats it, really, wrapped

    up in old newspaper and string. You may wonder what this package could

    contain that wasnt rightly thrown out long ago. J.L. Austin dealt with it in

    1946, for example, in a section of Other Minds headed If I know I cant

    be wrong, and one might suppose that he had gotten rid of it forever. But

    you will gather that I dont think he did, brilliant as that essay was and is.

    Three preliminary points: (1) That if you know, you cant be wrongmight mean only that you cant both know and be wrong. From this generally

    agreed necessity that what you know be true, no necessity follows, of course,

    that what you know be a necessary truth or anything of the kind. Nor does

    the argument from possibility turn on any such modal fallacy or confusion.

    The principle of itthat if you know, you cant be wrongis, rather, this:

    that if, clearly, you may be wrong that p, you dont know that p. If you have

    been looking into the question whether p or not, and its looking as if p, but

    some possibility remains that not-p, then you dont yet know that p. Or if

    it isnt that youve been looking into the question, but youve heard that p,or you seem to remember that p, or youve always taken it for granted that

    pnever mind how you got it into your head that pand you have to admit

    that you may be wrong (you arent certain), then you dont know that p. You

    cant say, or think, Well, of course Im not certain that p, but all the same,

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    On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 3

    a waste of time, looking here. I told you it couldnt be here. Oh, here it is.

    All right, I was wrong. That it is here proves that whoever said it might be

    was right, I think, however groundless his hunch that it might be was, and

    it also proves that whoever said it couldnt be was wrong, however obviousit seemed that he was right; but it does not prove that whoever said it might

    not be was wrong, or that whoever said it had to be was right.

    (3) Fred Dretske and, later, Robert Nozick have urged in print that the

    set of things you know not only is not closed under logical implication, as

    Nozick puts it, but also is not closed under logical implication that is evident

    to you. That you are awake logically implies that you are not dreaming, and

    that implication is no doubt evident to you. But it doesnt follow that you

    dont know youre awake unless you also know youre not dreaming. If thats

    true, as I think it may well be, it looks as if it ought to be a great help inbashing philosophical skepticism. It is, however, no help in combatting the

    argument from possibility, which does not rely on any principle of epistemic

    closure. Modal closure can come into convincing you that most things you

    thought you knew, taken one by one, may be false. (Do you know where

    you were born? Isnt it possible that your parents lied, for unknown reasons,

    in telling you you were born there? Well then, its possible that you werent

    born there after all.) Modal closure, however, unlike epistemic closure, seems

    undeniable under any kind of implication, whether evident to anyone or

    not. If given that not-q, not-p, and if perhaps not-q, then at least perhapsnot-p, or if just conceivably (epistemic just conceivably) not-q, then just

    conceivably, at least, not-p. The only role of urging that you dont know

    youre not dreaming, in an argument from possibility, is to make room for

    the allegation that you may be. It doesnt of course follow, if you dont know

    you arent dreaming, that you may be, even from your point of view, much

    less from our point of view. But if you dont know you arent dreaming, then

    you are at least deprived of that defense against the suggestion that you may

    be, and you will be hard put to come up with any other. To all this, epistemic

    closure and nonclosure are irrelevant.

    II.

    Now for Austin. He says in Other Minds:

    When you know you cant be wrong is perfectly good sense. You are prohibited

    from saying I know it is so, but I may be wrong, just as you are prohibited

    from saying I promise I will, but I may fail. If you are aware that you may be

    mistaken, you ought not to say you know, just as, if you are aware you may break

    your word, you have no business to promise. But of course, being aware that you

    may be mistaken doesnt mean merely being aware that you are a fallible human

    being: it means that you have some concrete reason to suppose that you may be

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    4 Rogers Albritton

    mistaken in this case. Just as but I may fail does not mean merely but I am

    a weak human being (in which case it would be no more exciting than adding

    D.V.): it means that there is some concrete reason for me to suppose that I shall

    break my word. It is naturally always possible (humanly possible) that I maybe mistaken or may break my word, but that by itself is no bar against using the

    expressions I know and I promise as we do in fact use them. (1946: 170)

    Thus Austin.

    You are prohibited, you ought not, you have no business, he

    says, as if the trouble with I know it is so, but I may be wrong or

    I promise I will, but I may fail were a species of naughtiness. But it

    isnt, as I suppose he might agree. Its a species of what could quite naturally

    be called contradiction even in the case of I promise I will, but I mayfail, which, as he taught us, isnt as propositional as it looks. I promise I

    will in its promising use (which isnt, of course, its only use) doesnt say

    anything true or false, as Ill put it for short. I know it is so, on the other

    hand, has every appearance of doing just that: saying a true or false thing,

    like Daddy knows best, and not just saying that whatever is in question is

    so, either. Even It is so, I know, with I know parenthetical, in Urmsons

    term for such clauses, seems not to say only that it is so. I know it is so, at

    any rate, makes a strongly propositional impression; and I know it is so, but

    I may be wrong might, therefore, be a contradiction narrowly so called, forall Austin has told us to the contrary. Of course, propositional appearances

    can be false, or so we nervously think now, and one might well wonder if I

    may be wrong is as propositional as it looks, even if I know it is so is.

    But all the same, it seems fair to say that both I know it is so, but I may

    be wrong and I promise I will, but I may fail are cut out, absurdly, for

    a kind of self-contradiction. I cant quite honestly promise that I will keep

    our rendezvous if I think I may die on the way there, and thats logic, as it

    were, not morals. I promise to be there, but I may be unable to get there

    cancels itself, however useful it might rhetorically be for some purpose. Andthe same goes for I know it is so, but I may be wrong, which cancels itself

    as smartly as I know it is so, but I dont or I know it is so, but for all I

    know it isnt. Or so it seems to me.

    Austin doesnt actually deny anything Ive said thus far, to be sure, and

    perhaps he wouldnt. Instead he rather breezily writes as if it werent the

    point, or didnt matter. But why doesnt it, if it doesnt? To be sure, one

    feels dimly that it cant matter, that contradiction or no contradiction one

    just does know all sorts of things even though one may be wrong as to

    practically any of them. Thinking practically anything is risky, and thinkingyou know it is riskier; life is risk, and nevertheless we know a lot. Dont

    we? Even if you cant say that while you may be wrong and it may be that

    France is not in Europe, nevertheless you know that it is: isnt that exactly

    the position, whether you can say so or not? It is naturally always possible,

    Austin says with the parenthetical gloss humanly possible, that I may be

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    On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 5

    mistaken. Earlier on the same page he is a little more cautious: we seem

    always, or practically always, liable to be mistaken (my emphasis). How

    true, one thinks. We are practically always liable to be mistaken, maybe

    even always. Its our condition. But weve known that for centuries, haventwe? And yet we go right on saying we know it, and a lot else. So, we do.

    After all, the sun does rise and set, since we continue to say so even now that

    we know (as we suppose) the astronomical facts of the matter. The meaning

    of what we say conforms itself to what we know. How could it not? So even

    though you may be wrong, you know, often enough; unless perhaps you may

    well be wrong, which might be a bit much. But even knowing in the teeth of a

    strong pos