Archive for the ‘Phenomenology’ Category

Intuitions, Knowledge, and Possible Mechanisms

December 20, 2008

For the particularist, the process of classifying which of one’s beliefs are items of knowledge starts with picking out specific cases.  Instead of starting with a method that will help us look at all beliefs and decide which are cases of knowledge and which are not, we begin by identifying what seem to be obvious instances of knowledge, and then (when it is possible) construct a method based on what these cases hold in common.

But things are not this simple, even for particularists (who consider themselves to be champions of common sense, mundane simplicity, and the Average Joe).  For even if we can identify various cases of knowledge without presupposing a defined method, there still may be general kinds of intellectual demands that are placed on us by what particular items of knowledge we claim to have.  For instance, if I conclude “I know that there is a brown carpet that I am standing on”, I should not hold beliefs that are inconsistent with this item of knowledge.  An example of such an inconsistent belief would probably be “no sensory perception accurately communicates information to the mind”.  It is probably inconsistent to hold both of these beliefs because, presumably, the way that I would come to know “I know that there is a brown carpet that I am standing on” would depend on the reliability of my sensory perception.  To hold there is a brown carpet that I am on and then deny “sensory perception communicates information to the mind” seems like a kind of epistemological suicide.

What this example shows us, I think, is this.  If we claim to have an item of knowledge, and this item of knowledge comes through some kind of process, then we must also claim that we know this process works.  Even if we cannot independently prove (apart from its connection to this specific instance of knowledge) that this mechanism works (ie. it grants knowledge), we must commit to the fact that it works if we claim to know things by means of it.  To intuit that I have as a particular case of knowledge some proposition p that is inferred from sensory data, and then go on to claim that my senses do not work as mechanisms for attaining knowledge, seems to be a mistake.  If I cannot point to even a possible knowledge-producing process by means of which I know that p, then it is invalid to claim that I know that p.  Thus, if I intuit a particular item of knowledge, I must be able to suggest a possible working mechanism by means of which I got the knowledge.

The above suggestion is not a kind of methodism about knowledge.  After all, the proposed demand on a knower that I have just made is not that he or she articulate a method for differentiating cases of knowledge from cases of non-knowledge.  Nor is the requirement that the knower give an explanation of exactly how the bit of knowledge is attained.  But what is needed, it seems, is for us to believe in the existence of some possible way we could have got an item of knowledge.  Perhaps a weaker requirement is all that is actually needed: given that we claim to know that p, our wider belief-system must not include beliefs which would entail we could not know that p.  So even if we don’t articulate a mechanism for how knowledge that p is possible, we must not have ruled all such mechanisms out.  It is this weaker thesis that I will take as a requirement for claiming that I have a particular item of knowledge.  I will call this requirement for claiming I have an item of knowledge the requirement of not having ruled out that I have an intuitive knowledge mechanism (hereafter IKM).

I have already applied the need for an IKM to the case of perception by pointing out that if I claim to know that p, where p is some fact about my relation to the external world, I cannot also deny that I have an IKM that could grant me knowledge of the external world.  In subsequent posts, I hope to apply this idea to other issues.  These include the direct/indirect realism debate about perception; the need for an IKM by which we gain moral knowledge; and the process of trying to adjudicate between conflicting intuitions.  Stay tuned.