December 02, 2006

Defeating Perceptual and Theistic Knowledge (Frances)

You see a sock in the usual excellent viewing conditions: just four feet away, in perfect light, etc. It looks, and is, blue. But it’s your colleague’s sock, and his wife is a color scientist and he insists that he is wearing some of her “trick” socks she uses in her experiments, in that although they look blue and normal, they’re actually very weird and really green. We can suppose that he’s made an innocent mistake in that the socks he is wearing are entirely normal and blue. You mistakenly think he trying to fool you even though he’s actually a pillar of honesty, so you persist in your belief that the socks are blue. Suppose his wife comes in and says ‘Well there are those trick socks! We were looking for them all morning in the lab! What are you doing with them on?’ Other people concur with her (her lab assistants and children say). She and other color theorists have created various other strange objects, strange in ways having to do with their color appearances. You are somewhat aware of these objects, involving rapidly rotating disks with special holes in them, unusual materials, and the like. So you know of the existence of such objects.

Your blue-socks belief is true and reliably produced in the entirely ordinary way, but is this belief epistemically upstanding once you’ve encountered the weird-socks story, especially given that you’ve heard and understood loads of intelligent, sincere, and honest experts saying that the socks are really green—not just his wife, but her assistants, other professors, etc.? Don’t you have to rule out, at least to some significant extent (to ask for proof seems to be asking too much) the weird-socks hypothesis to retain the upstanding status of your belief that the socks are blue? I think you would be committing some significant epistemic crimes if you retained your belief.

I just described a case that seems to have the following features: one acquires a true belief under virtually the best and most reliable circumstances possible, the belief initially amounts to knowledge, and yet the awareness of some information that is ultimately misleading but endorsed by relevant professionals and plausible given other information ruins the epistemic upstandingness of the belief (when the belief is retained after the additional information has been encountered).

I find this story interesting. First, I wonder whether it’s really the case that after encountering the ultimately misleading evidence against the blue-socks belief your blue-socks belief is epistemically blameworthy. Second, does the alleged lesson carry over to the belief that God exists? That is, assuming for the sake of argument that one can know that God exists through some kind of quasi-perceptual spiritual experiences of Him, does the presence of alternative, expertly endorsed explanations of that experience render that theistic belief blameworthy—even though the explanations are ultimately misleading?

In the theistic case I assume that one is in the position of the person in the color case: one encounters the alternative explanations and can do nothing to suggest that they’re wrong. I don’t think one can just say, “Well, the alternative explanations must be wrong, as I already know through experience that God exists”. After all, the corresponding explanation in the perceptual case doesn’t seem to work: “Well, the trick-socks explanation being offered by the color scientists must be wrong, as I already know from visual perception that the socks are blue”.


Joe said...

With respect to defeaters, I'll assume that theistic knowledge (through quasi-perceptual religious experience) should be held to the same standard as knowledge more generally. Then Bryan's argument seems to be this.

1. If s knows that P, then s is not aware of any plausible (even if misleading) defeaters to P.

After all, knowers are epistemically responsible.

2. Theistic belief (through religious experience) has plausible (but ex hypothesi) misleading defeaters.


3. as a matter of fact, nobody aware of the misleading defeating evidence has knowledge of the existence of God through religious experience.

A fortiori, even those who by reliable mechanisms see correctly that God exists are epistemically blameworthy and fail to know that God exists.

In conclusion, a defense of this sort of theistic knowledge (for defeater-aware subjects) requires an independent argument against premise 1.

Notice that that argument can be strengthened. The theist must argue that weaker forms of Premise 1 are false as well. Traditionally knowledge fails if there is true, plausible, misleading, defeating information for which the subject is unaware. (See the familiar Tom Grabit and assassinated-leader-with-false-newspaper-story examples). So, unsurprisingly, even theists who correctly see God but ignore epistemic criticism would fail to know. Moreover, it is traditionally thought that knowledge fails when there is true, misleading, defeating information that is implausible, even if the subject is unaware of it. (See infamous Barncounty example). However, it seems less appropriate to call such subjects blameworthy. Nevertheless, it would follow that theists who correctly see God but are unaware of crazy but true counterevidence, fail to know.

There seem to be two options for the possibility of theistic knowledge. Argue against the lore about defeaters, or argue that quasi-perceptual religious knowledge is sui generis.

Bryan Frances said...

Thanks for the comment, Joe.

Part of what I find interesting about the trick socks story is that the initial knowledge is about as good as knowledge ever gets. Of course, some people say that no socks are any color. But I'm setting that issue aside here.

Philosophers sometimes say that spiritual experience or perception has VERY good epistemic credentials. So, contrary evidence doesn't diminish the warrant had by the theistic belief enough so that the theistic belief counts as blameworthy. A rough model: my spiritual experience or perception of God provides my belief that God exists with 2000 warrant units. Considerations regarding the problem of evil or hiddenness of God, for instance, will provide "negative" warrant units. The number will depend on the arguments/evidence, my appreciation of them, etc. But, it might be thought, they'll only produce around 500 negative warrant units. Since I need just 1000 warrant units for an epistemically non-blameworthy belief (say), I'm still epistemically okay in retaining my theistic belief even when in full awareness of alternative intelligent, well-thought out, etc. explanations of the spiritual experiences.

Of course, we can make the point without the model!

But the trick socks story suggests, at least a bit, that defense of theistic belief is too optimistic.

Trent_Dougherty said...

Bryan, you say that in the set up "one encounters the alternative explanations and can do nothing to suggest that they’re wrong."

I'm not sure what kinds of doings you have in mind here, but it doesn't seem to me that one needs to "do" anything to maintain epistemically upstanding belief so long as one has justifiedly adopted a sufficiently low prior probability to such crazy scenarios (and I think it plausible that such justified attitudes are not too hard to come by). In general, it just seems to be a matter of one's credences taking the path of least resistance. Which seems more credible to one: the perceptual experience and its track record, say, or the crazy-sounding story (or in the God case, the quasi-perceptual experience, or the force of, say, the problem of evil (this would be related to the first horn of Joe's dilemma)).

Also, you say you don't like the response that "Well, the trick-socks explanation being offered by the color scientists must be wrong, as I already know from visual perception that the socks are blue." That sounds like the Problem of Easy Knowledge to me and I think that's a separate issue, but I do think a broadly Moorean response is plausible to this and other such skeptical scenarios: I'm more confident that I know things by direct perceptual experience than I am that such special (alleged) defeaters take away my knowledge. Again, it seems a matter of "doxastic flow".

Now I don't mean to suggest that all subjective probabilities are created equal, I'm not an orthodox bayesian personalist, but I think in both the cases you give, there's room for reasonable disagreement (not in the sense that there are two attitudes which fit the same evidence, but rather that properly functioning cognitive agents can be subject to different epistemic seeming states under the same circumstances and so have different evidence to begin with).

I think, unsurprisingly, some of these issues are effectively addressed in Conee 1999, "Heeding Misleading Evidence." (indeed, Bryan's sock story is structurally similar to Earl's rain-maker story). The key move which I make use of above is that basic evidence consists in non-doxastic states, seeming states in particular (see also his "First things First" in the Evidentialism book).

Bryan Frances said...

Hi Trent,

I'm not sure what you're saying. It appears to me that you're saying that in the trick socks story the person is not epistemically blameworthy in continuing to hold that the socks are blue even though the scientists say that although of course they look blue and totally normal, they are really green because of such-and-such scientific reasons.

Is that accurate? If so, then I think you're mistaken. The case is designed in such a way that the "alternative" explanation (the socks are really green, etc.) is not at all "crazy". The example derives its entire force from that feature!

Suppose there were not one but two alternative explanations offered: the scientific one I described and a brain-in-a-vat one. A nutcase says that your blue socks belief is false because you have no socks on at all, as you're a brain in a vat. I'm assuming that you're not blameworthy in continuing with your blue socks belief even after digesting the nutcase's alternative explanation.

But matters are otherwise with the alternative scientific explanation. It's also importantly different from Conee's rain-machine story, at least how Conee develops it. In the latter, professor Jones tries to fool his colleague Smith into thinking it's not raining: really, Jones says, the water falling outside the window is due to a rain machine being used in a movie. In order to make the cases analogous, we need to assume that both professors know that lots of films have been shot lately on that part of campus, Jones is a director (say) in many of those films, they have used rain machines before on that very campus, Jones gets someone else to back up the rain machine story, etc. Now the socks and rain cases are analogous: in both cases legitimate experts are telling you your belief is wrong, and they are drawing on their legitimate expert knowledge in doing so.

Now you tell me: if Smith sticks with his 'It is real rain out there' belief, is he epistemically blameworthy in doing so? For my money, Smith is blameworthy. It seems to me that the Moorean move is hopeless here, and there is no reason I know of for thinking Moore would disagree! After all, the alternative explanation being offered isn't based on anything like a purely philosophical argument.

Now you might agree with my charge of blameworthiness for the socks case but object that the theistic case is different. But let's move one step at a time.

Trent_Dougherty said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Trent_Dougherty said...

Right, I don't think the trick-socks story is crazy, but it's pretty odd and I think someone could be well within their epistemic rights to assign it a low enough prior probability that one on balance trusts one's perceptual evidence.

I think the only function of the trait of being "philosophy crap" for Moore is that it's one of many reasons for assigning a low prior to the skeptical hypothesis. In the socks case it's a different reason, but they end up probabilistically structurally similar enough.

The trick-socks story is less outlandish than the BIV story and no doubt we can march down a series of cases where it becomes unclear whether one could be within one's epistemic rights to continue on one's doxastic course (on the other side of which there will be clear cases of defeated belief), but "hard cases make bad law".

(sorry about deleting the previous, but I made a terrible spelling error (I hope there are no more))

Bryan Frances said...


Really? In the envisioned scenario you think the person could just say 'I think you guys are all wrong or trying to fool me. I'm sticking with my belief that these socks are blue'?

I can see the person being perfectly upstanding in refusing to go along with the color scientist and her husband. That is, we need not believe that the socks are trick socks and are really green. I think it is epistemically permissible to believe them, but there is nothing blameworthy in not agreeing with them.

But to stick to one's belief that the socks are blue strikes me as a classic case of pigheadedness. One should, I submit, withhold belief.

Keep in mind that the person in question knows about fancy color illusions, materials, and the like. And he knows that the woman really is a color scientist, as are her assistants, etc. And they don't fool around, lie, deceive, etc.

I can see objecting to the socks-spirituality premise, but I thought the socks premise was pretty solid!

Micah said...

I have two quite independent objections. First, my color intuitions are very strongly internalistic. So if color physicalism doesn't hold any truck with me, and a color scientist tells me that some socks that cause me to be appeared to bluely are "really green," I most likely should simply not understand her. If the gizmos and whatsits on the socks are making the socks blue, then they are blue, period, I would hold. If they were green before the trick apparatus was in operation, I should say they just turned blue once it was in operation.

Second, a crucial disanalogy with the case of theistic belief. Brain scientists are not experts on spirituality, unless you assume from the outset an eliminativist outlook that holds that brain scientists are by definition the experts on all phenomena brain and mind. If I don't grant that, though—which I certainly won't if I do in fact think that spiritual experiences are or can be veridical theistic experiences—then I won't think a brain scientist can as such recognize a veridical theistic experience, so I won't be surprised or perturbed in the least if I'm told that I'm having such and such an experience because of some brain function that the scientist can characterize.

Bryan Frances said...


I don't know how either of your comments have relevance to the argument. Brain scientists have no part in the story, so I don't see how they matter. And suppose someone didn't share your theory of color?

Micah said...

The relevance of my, or any one else's, view on color is that it seems to me that agreeing that there is something questionable about my color experience (in normal conditions, that has proved to be reliable and consistent in the past, etc.) would require already accepting color physicalism, and so a person who agrees that there's something hinky about what I'm perceiving because the expert says so would already agree with the principle—that color-experts have the final say on what color something "is"—beforehand, and not because they've been presented with a "weird socks" example.

I chose brain scientists so as to grant the analogy as much parallel as possible. Change to psychologists, or whathaveyou, and the situation is basically the same: unless one grants the eliminativist methodology of the "expert" at the getgo, there's nothing there to trouble the theist. In this connection, I'm reminded of some things Plantinga presses in WCB.

So actually, I should have said that there is an analogy between the two cases, but it's that they're similarly question-begging.