Teaching: August 2005 Archives

Reliabilism

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This is the the tenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

Reliabilism responds to skepticism by challenging one of Descartes' key methodological assumptions. He claims that you can't know anything unless you have absolute certainty of that thing, not just having a subjective sense of feeling certain but an absolute, objective understanding of why that thing must be true. No one, of course, has such certainty about most things we believe. Reliabilists just argue that we don't need to. Knowledge just doesn't involve that kind of certainty. Reliabilists simply deny the premise that everyone else seems to assume, that knowledge requires this idea of absolute certainty. Reliabilists consider such a notion ridiculous.

We know all sorts of things without being able to prove them to ourselves and without being able to rule out all the alternatives. How do we ordinarily use the word 'know'? We say we know all sorts of things. How do we find out what words generally mean? We see how people use them. In this case, people use the word 'know' when they don't have certainty.

Many of my students don't bother to use spell-checker, and it shows. Occasionally, I can tell that someone did use it, because some word they obviously didn't intend appears and was probably its suggestion for a word they spelled wrong but simply the wrong suggestion. In an exam I'm grading at the moment, a student says the following about Augustine's view of what takes place with the disordered state of our emotions at conversion:

"Conversion involves a reordering that starts in this life and explains how people become more vitreous."

This was from one of my best students, someone at the top of a class composed entirely of above-average students. She got a perfect score on this essay question, as it happens, and that's not easy in my classes. She just wasn't paying enough attention when her spell-checker suggested this for however she misspelled 'virtuous'. It's never good not to use spell-checker, but you have to be careful. Things like this happen, and misspellings that are real words never show up.

This is the the seventh post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

How perception works is relevant to skepticism about knowledge through the senses, so it might be nice to get a little background on theories of perception. There are three general views in the history of philosophy on the nature of perception. I'm going to be talking in terms of three prominent philosophers in the earlier modern period who held the three diffferent views. How you interpret some of the responses to skepticism will depend in some cases on which view of perception you have (and one of them, as we saw in the last post, is itself a sort of response to skepticism).

[Note: I'm less confident with this post than with some others that I'm representing the historical figures as carefully as I'd like to represent them. In some ways these figures are standing for the overall view, and I'll sometimes refer to a contemporary response as if it's what the historical figure would say. I'm not really pretending to be accurate to the historical figure when I do this. I'm more trying to explore the view. I do think most of what I say is close enough to what they say, but I don't want to look as if I'm doing history of philosophy. This post is just to get a sense of what these views can look like.]

One way to understand the three views is to consider the following inconsistent triad of claims:

1. We perceive ordinary objects.
2. What we perceive are ideas (something internal to our minds).
3. Ordinary objects exist outside of us -- external to our minds.

Any view will have to deny at least one of these claims. If 1 and 2 are true, 3 comes out false. If 1 and 3 are correct, 2 must be false. If 2 and 3 are right, then 1 must be wrong. This is how the three views we are considering will work. These three claims are inconsistent because they can't all be true.

Berkeley's Idealism

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This is the the fifth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

(Note: My presentation of these issues is somewhat influenced by Peter van Inwagen's chapter on idealism in his Metaphysics. I agree with his statement that the view Berkeley develops might better be thought of as ideaism, but he's also right that since there is a traditional label for the view, it's probably best to stick with it.)

George Berkeley gives what I consider to be the most creative response to Cartesian skepticism. He argues that we do know of the ordinary objects we believe exist, because those objects are just ideas in our minds. We certainly know of those ideas. I'll save the arguments for and against his view for the next post. In this post I just want to explain what the view amounts to.

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