Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Basic Overview of Reliabilism

Alvin Goldman is more or less the inventor of reliabilism (if such a thing can be invented). So what does he say about it? This:

  • "What kinds of causal processes or mechanisms must be responsible for a belief if that belief is to count as knowledge? They must be mechanisms that are, in an appropriate senses, ‘reliable’. Roughly, a cognitive mechanism or process is reliable if it not only produces true beliefs in actual situations, but would produce true beliefs, or at least inhibit false beliefs, in counterfactual situations.." (87)

This theory could just as easily be called the causal theory of knowledge (or of true belief). This has indeed been stressed by many of its adherents and commentators. It's precisely its stress on causation which perhaps makes this account of knowledge scientific in its credentials. That is, there's no reference to "intuition", the "a priori" or even to "justification" in this account. 

The obvious question is this. What 

"kinds of casual processes or mechanism must be responsible for a belief if that belief is to count as knowledge" (87)? 

This is like the theory of direct reference as applied to knowledge (i.e., rather than as applied to names and referential acts). 

The obvious answer to the question above is perception. Perception is, after all, a causal phenomenon in that objects and events cause us to have the perceptions that we have. (Whether or not they correctly represent the objects and events is, of course, another issue.)

Goldman clearly sees the problem with the vague and unreliable word "reliable". What does "reliable" actually mean? That it can be trusted? That it has worked in the past? That it does what we want it to do? 

It can be seen that all these accounts of reliable processes (or mechanisms) involve an appeal to inductive justification. Thus, in that limited sense, reliabilism not only relies on induction: it also relies on induction as a form of justification. The inductive reliability of this or that process (or mechanism) justifies our use it from an epistemic point of view.

In addition, how reliable must a process (or mechanism) be? 100% reliable? 50% reliable? 1% reliable? Clearly, the phrase "1% reliable" is almost a contradiction in terms in that something that is that reliable is not, well, reliable. What about 50% reliable? That's harder to decide. In fact it's reliable 1 out of every 2 times; which is not that bad. Or is it? 70% reliable sounds a lot better. And clearly 100% reliable is actually more than reliable – it is, as it were, foolproof. 

Is anything 100% reliable? Not even my light switch is 100% reliable in that, say, six months ago it failed. Thus our measurements of reliable should bring aspects of time-length and probability ratios. That is, reliable over which time period? A month? A day? One minute?

Anyway, whatever the answers to these questions are, what a reliable process or mechanism must do is "produce true beliefs" (87). Yes; though every time? Most of the time? Half of the time? Or just some of the time? The earlier problems are coming up again.

How would we know that they are "true beliefs"? Can we rely on reliabilist processes or mechanisms to decide when something is a true belief? Indeed can we rely on reliable processes or mechanisms to justify reliable processes or mechanisms in a meta-epistemological sense? What justified our use of what we take to be reliable processes or mechanisms? 

Thus we don’t seem to have escaped from justification even if reliable processes or mechanisms justify reliable processes or mechanisms. Justification is still embedded in the process or reliabilism. 

What about the problem of the meta-epistemological issue of vicious circularity just mentioned? Unless it's a virtuous circularity (as with inductive justifications of induction).

Chappell gives a simple and mundane perceptual example of a reliable process or mechanism:

"I believe that I’m looking at zebras because I’ve gone to the zoo to see zebras, and here I am in front of the pen marked ‘Zebras’; why, I can see the beasts, and they certainly look like zebras to me. And that, says the reliabilist, is all I need for knowledge." (87)

Chappell seems to be saying that he has no reason not to believe that he's looking at zebras. Every bit of evidence you would expect to rely upon in these situations, he does rely on. Therefore he has no reason to suspect his own judgement. 

The above sounds like basic common sense. Perhaps that’s the point of reliabilism. 

For example, Chappell doesn’t even raise the issue as to whether or not he’s a brain in a vat or that an evil demon might have caused him to hallucinate zebras, the word "Zebras" and all the rest. Again, there's no reason for him to think about the possibility that he's a brain in a vat of that the zoo was created five minutes ago replete with fake zebras, fake zoo keepers and the rest.

Chappell then goes on to analyse his judgements about the zebras in specific terms of reliable processes or mechanisms:

"My belief that ‘These are zebras’ is (let’s suppose) true; the mechanisms or methods by which I got that belief – commonsense inference and the use of perception – are reliable ones. That’s it; I need nothing more to be able to claim to know ‘These are zebras’. In particular, says the reliabilist, I don’t need to eliminate every conceivable alternative hypothesis, no matter how crazy, before I can make this claim." (87)

"Commonsense inference" and "the use of perception" may not be glamorous epistemic principles; though they're nevertheless good ones. They work. (Or do they?) Of course, according to the hard-core sceptic, everything Chappell says is up for grabs. 

For example: 

How do I know that commonsense inference works? 

How do I know that this is commonsense inference? 

How do I know that you have validly inferred y from x

How can I trust perception? 

How do I know that this was an act/process of perception?

How do I know what the word "perception" means? 

How do I know what "means" means? 

How do I know I know anything

And so on.

Isn’t that the very point of epistemology? That is, to counteract (or even refute) these sceptical possibilities? Aren’t these sceptical scenarios at the very heart of epistemology and therefore the meat of our knowledge-claims? 

If we ignore these sceptical possibilities, then we effectively stop doing epistemology and start doing the descriptive science of, say, belief-acquisition (as the naturalisers of epistemology do). 

Of course in one sense the reliabilist is correct. It's literally impossible "to eliminate every conceivable alternative hypothesis, no matter how crazy" (87). Does that mean that we should ignore each conceivable hypothesis - even one that's a genuine threat to knowledge? Especially since the reliabilist is supposed to be an epistemologist of sorts! Isn’t the reliabilist taking the sceptical attitude towards scepticism which the layperson takes? Either that, or he is simply adopting the approach of a descriptive and empirical science (a la Quine and the rest)?

Not Knowing that One Knows P

That last point about reliabilism’s anti-epistemological (not just anti-sceptical) epistemology is brought into clearer view when we consider its approach to knowing, or not knowing, that we know something:

"Reliabilism interestingly implies that I can know things without knowing that I know them. Indeed, according to reliabilism I can know things without knowing very much else at all." (87)

This too goes against epistemology itself. How can you know something without knowing that you know this something? This would mean that one hasn’t consciously attempted to acquire knowledge by using the correct epistemic principles, no matter how unclear these principles may be to you. One must simply know p without knowing that one knows p. How is that even possible? If knowledge literally requires little, or even no effort, then how can knowing that p be distinguished from believing that p? Isn’t that effort, whether a justification or whatever, part of the knowledge process and thus part of the constitution of p as a piece of knowledge? Chappell gives a concrete example of what the reliabilist actually means by what he claims by using his zoo example again:

"In the zoo case, for instance, I might have no idea that commonsense inference and the use of perception are reliable methods of acquiring knowledge, and I might have grave doubts about whether these beasts are in fact zebras at all. Provided I still manage to form the true belief that ‘These are zebras’ on the basis of those reliable methods, I still count as knowing ‘These are zebras’." (87/8)

If one didn’t know that "commonsense inference and the use of perception are reliable methods for acquiring knowledge" (87), why would one use them at all? Of course one may not be able to formulate such methods in a language that would satisfy the professional epistemologist; though that shouldn’t matter much – the metaphysician may have a problem with epistemological language. That is, the layperson will not even use the phrase ‘commonsense inference’ or even ‘perception’ in these or any contexts. We can call it implicit or tacit knowledge of epistemic principles or even of reliable methods. The layperson, nevertheless, is still acquiring knowledge. Indeed he is still using ‘reliable methods’. Not only that: he knows that he is using reliable methods and he would even know what those reliable methods are if asked about them. Again, he may not, or would not, use the language of the epistemologist to explain what it is he does when he acquires knowledge. But he has acquired knowledge. For example, the next day at a pub quiz he may now be able to answer a question correctly about zebras. He wouldn’t answer the question at all if he didn’t trust his implicit or tacit epistemic principles.

However, what is important, to the reliabilist, is that this person uses reliable methods to acquire knowledge. It doesn’t matter what else he thinks about his cognitive processes or anything else for that matter. It doesn’t even matter that he’s now sure that ‘"these beasts are in fact zebras at all" (87). If he has used commonsense inference and perception, then that’s all that matters. Indeed if he has used these methods then, basically, they must be zebras and not, say, horses.

What about his knowledge that they are in fact reliable methods? Does he know that commonsense inference and perception are reliable methods for acquiring knowledge? If they are, perhaps one can use commonsense inference and perception to make judgements about one’s methods of commonsense inference and perception. Would this by circular reasoning? Would it be vicious or virtuous?

So there are indeed certain things which I must know that I know. I must know that I know, in these examples, that commonsense inference and perception are indeed reliable methods for acquiring knowledge. In that case, the reliabilist or layperson is a partly self-conscious epistemic agent after all.

One result of this exclusive concern with reliable methods, processes and mechanism and not with our knowledge of our knowledge is that John McDowell points out that

"in the purest form of this approach, it is a matter of superficial idiom that we do not attribute knowledge to thermometers." (88)

After all, thermometers are reliable and they do give us accurate information about the temperature. What more would the reliabilist want? He certainly wouldn’t require that the thermometer knows why it knows that temperature is hot or cold. Then again, the reliabilist doesn’t require this of persons either – not even, perhaps, of epistemologists!

Another often-used example of these cases of knowledge without knowledge of knowledge is reported by Chappell about chicken-sexers:

"Apparently, as Linda Zagzebski reports, there are professional chicken-sexers ‘who can determine the sex of baby chicks without knowing how they do it or even if they do it correctly… Philosophers with strong externalist intuitions about knowledge have no hesitation in saying that such people know the sex of the chick." (88)

Again, this is another case in which knowledge, if it is a case of knowledge, simply doesn't require any cognitive effort. These chicken-sexers simply know what sex the chicken is. That’s it. They do not know how they know, why they know or ‘even if they do it correctly’ (88). It this just a case of some kind of tacit or implicit knowledge? After all, there must be some reason why or how they know what sex the chick is. Surely we are not saying that it is a case of a priori or even supernatural knowledge. This would be a strange thing to have either a priori or supernatural knowledge about! What other alternative is there?

Chappell mentions ‘philosophers with strong externalist intuitions’. These philosophers, to put it simply, simply don't care about what goes on in the minds of chicken-sexers. The only things that matter to them are the things that go on in the external world. And what goes on in the external world appears to be, or is, reliable. These sexers do get the sex of chicks correct it most cases. So who cares what goes on in the minds of sexers if they are getting reliable results. Why should we want more from even an epistemic point of view?

One definition of ‘certain’ or ‘being certain’ would be in the case that we have refuted or eliminated every case of not-p against our p. That, however, is impossible. So we either have to redefine what ‘certainty’ means to make it less strict or simply say that we do not need certainty outside, say, logic and mathematics (perhaps not even in these cases). The other alternative is to accept that we have knowledge even if we don’t have certainty or certainty that we have a case of knowledge.

Of course the sceptic can simply ask the reliabilist the following questions: How do you know that these processes or procedures are reliable? How do you know that they have worked in the past? In other words, all the standard sceptical questions can be asked here. The reliabilist either simply ignores the sceptical scenarios or ‘begs the question against scepticism’ (89).

Not Knowing that One Knows

Again how can we know without knowing that we know? Surely knowing entails knowing that we know. How can we just know without knowing that we know – without cognitive effort? Or, as Chappell puts it, without ‘epistemic feedback’? –

"It seems to be corollary of this that it is important not only to know, but also to know that you know. The reason is that you need epistemic feedback. If you know something but don’t know that you know it, you can’t use the fact that you know it to help you to modify your epistemic behaviour in the direction of greater accuracy than before." (89)

Knowing that you know is not just ‘important’, it is necessary for knowledge. Knowledge requires epistemic effort, surely. However, I know that there have been many arguments in epistemology against this (e.g., David Lewis’s arguments). Perhaps if you don’t know that you know something, what you really have is truth; though not knowledge. That is, you can know that p is true without knowing why it is true. It may still, however, be true. It may be true that it is 9 O’ clock but you don’t go through any process in order to recognise this truth. You just know that ‘It’s 9 O'clock’ is a true statement. In the past you may have acquired the knowledge required to be able to tell the time correctly; though now this past knowledge is no longer needed. However, perhaps, as with Lewis, past knowledge does not need to be re-justified or learnt or whatever. I can simply rely on the fact that I once did acquire knowledge as to how to tell the time correctly. Now I just can tell the time without cognitive or epistemic effort.

Chappell finishes off his critique of reliabilism with a rather predictable conclusion:.

"So it looks like knowledge is not ‘true belief acquired by a reliable method’. If so, reliabilism is not the right analysis of knowledge." (91)

Why assume that an ‘analysis of knowledge’ will determinate at all? Why presuppose a definite and determinate answer to the question, What is knowledge? Indeed perhaps there is nothing that pre-dates our analyses and stipulations. Perhaps there is no such kind or thing that is knowledge until we decide what it is, or what it should be. Why be an epistemological ‘realist’ in the Michael Williams sense of that term? Why assume the mind-independent existence of the true theory or true concept of knowledge? Why assume the same about knowledge itself?.


No comments:

Post a Comment