Saturday, December 25, 2010

Three Arguments for A Priori Knowledge of (Very) Contingent Facts

Can we have a priori knowledge of contingent facts? For example, consider the proposition below. Can we know truths like the following a priori? NOT PEA SOUP: 'It is not the case that everything outside of a 5 foot radius around me is made of pea soup, which stealthily forms up into suitable objects as I walk by' Here are three positive arguments (in ascending order of strength IMO) for the conclusion that we can know NOT PEA SOUP a priori.

1. Argument from Crude Reliablism

The belief-forming method of assuming that you aren't in a pea soup world is reliable. And even if we make things a little less crude by saying that good belief formation is belief formation that works via a chain of methods which are *individuated in a psychologically natural way* and are reliable, we will probably still get the same conclusion. For plausibly the most natural relevant psychological mechanism involved in generating that belief would be something like, 'believe not P when P is sufficiently gerrymandered'.

2. Argument from Probability and Conditionalization-Based Models of Good Inference

If you think that good reasoning is well modeled by the idea of assigning a certain probability measure to the space of possible worlds, and then ruling out worlds based on your observation, and asserting that P if and only if a sufficient fraction of the remaining probability is assigned to worlds in which P. There will be some propositions P that low enough prior probability to warrant asserting ~P before you have made any observations - and plausibly the pea soup hypothesis is one of them. Presumably in such cases your justification does not depend on experience. [I think Williamson has something like this in mind in one of his papers on skepticism, but his argument was more complicated]

3. Argument from Current Knowledge plus Inability to Cite Experiential Justification. The claim that NOT PEA SOUP is a priori follows from a claim about knowledge that only a skeptic would deny, plus a somewhat intuitive claim about the relationship between a priority and justification. The intuitive claim I have in mind is that if someone can count as knowing that P, without being able to point to any relevant experience (or memory of experience, or reason to believe that they had experience etc) as justification then they know that P a priori so P is a priori (i.e. a priori knowable). Everyone but the skeptic agrees that people know that they aren't in the pea-soup world. These people who know cannot point to any experience as justification. Hence, 'not-pea soup' must be knowable without appeal to experience for justification. You might try to defend the a posteriority of NOT PEA SOUP by saying that even if the man on the street can't make any argument from experience to NOT PEA SOUP, our intuition that people know that NOT PEA SOUP is based on the assumption that there exists some good argument from something about experience to NOT PEA SOUP, and philosophers just need to discover it. In this way, experience really is necessary to justify the belief that NOT PEA SOUP so the proposition is a posteriori.

However, this response threatens to generate the unattractive conclusion that people today do not know NOT PEA SOUP. For, in general, the mere existence of a good argument for some proposition that I believe does not suffice to make me justified in believing that proposition now, if I cannot (now) give that argument. If I believe some mathematical theorem T on a hunch or on the basis of tea leaf reading, the mere fact that there is a good argument for T on the basis of things that I accept, doesn't suffice to allow me to count as knowing that T. So even if there is some cunning philosophical argument yet to be discovered which justifies NOT PEA SOUP on the basis of experience, it would seem that this argument cannot suffice to justifies people now accepting that NOT PEA SOUP. If people now are justified that NOT PEA SOUP, and can give no argument from experience for this claim, it must be that the claim can be justifiably believed without appeal to experience.

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