The Problem of the Infinite Spiral

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“And it is surely just silly to tell us, when we are trying to discover what knowledge is, that it is correct judgment accompanied by knowledge…”

— Plato, Theaetetus


This is my third post as a guest-blogger here at the TPB.  The usual spiel about me:  My name is Roger Eichorn.  I’m a friend of Scott’s, an aspiring fantasy novelist, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

So I’ve spent the entirety of the past week laid up with the flu—a real beast, knocked me out cold (so to speak).  Whilst languishing in a medicated fog, unable to do any real philosophical work—I’m supposed to be (re-)reading both Hegel’s Phenomenology and Kant’s first Critique… let’s pause a moment to ponder that bit of insanity—I’ve been dwelling on my usual philosophical hang-ups: knowledge, justification, and truth.

Skepticism, in other words.

Through the fog, a number of nagging thoughts have come into focus for me.  For one, there’s the tension between these two facts: (1) philosophy students are always told that ‘knowledge’ (at least, properly reflective, respectable, philosophical knowledge) is ‘justified true belief.’  That is, the difference between merely believing something and knowing it is that, in the case of knowing, one possesses a justification that bridges the gap between ‘thought’ (belief) and ‘truth’ (the world); (2) Stewart Cohen’s observation that “[t]he acceptance of fallibilism in epistemology is virtually universal.”

Fallibilism is the view that, since we’re fallible beings, any of our beliefs might be wrong.  Fallibilists will maintain, then, that knowledge does not entail truth.  We can possess knowledge of x even if x is (turns out to be) false.  It does seem that fallibilism is widely accepted.  Why is it widely accepted?  Because it’s thought that ‘infallibilism’ cannot avoid skepticism.  One often hears that the ‘quest for certainty’ is outmoded, based as it is on an artificially inflated epistemic standard.  Knowledge does not require certainty; it deals rather with probabilities.

Why, then, are philosophy students still told that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’?  And why does the ‘justified true belief’ formulation still pop up so often in epistemological discussions?  For a fallibilist, knowledge is merely justified belief; it needn’t be true.

The answer to these questions, of course, is that philosophers don’t agree even on what they’re talking about when they talk about knowledge.  Now, I think—along with contextualists and Wittgensteinians—that it’s foolish to think that ‘knowledge’ is a univocal concept.  If we look at how the word is used, it’s easy enough to see that there are times that, when we attribute ‘knowledge’ to someone, we’re attributing to her merely justified belief.  For example:

– “You know what the weather’s gonna be like tomorrow?” – “Yeah.  It’s gonna rain.”

Knowledge about tomorrow’s weather might derive, say, from consulting  Might it turn out that it doesn’t rain tomorrow?  Of course.  What we mean when we ask someone, in this sort of context, if they know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, is something like: “Have you checked”  A fallibilist would say that consulting (or whatever) is not only a local standard by which we judge whether someone has knowledge about tomorrow’s weather; they would also say that consulting some such source makes it significantly more probable that their belief about tomorrow’s weather will turn out to be true. is (ceteris paribus) generally agreed to be reliable.

It’s different in other cases, though.  Take a much-discussed example: a lottery ticket.  The chances of any given lottery ticket turning out to be a winning ticket are miniscule.  Vanishingly small.  Yet, prior to the drawing, would we want to say, “I know this ticket won’t win”?  Well, I can imagine some circumstance in which we’d say something like that; what we’d mean is, “I find it impossible to believe that this ticket will win.”  The person who says that they know a lottery ticket won’t win is still likely to keep the ticket—because, after all, it just might be a winner!

The chances of being wrong are far higher than the chances of any given lottery ticket being a winner.  So appeals to probability aren’t sufficient to account for our knowledge-attribution practices.  Rather, I think we should simply accept that, in the one case, we treat ‘knowledge’ as ‘justified belief,’ while in the other, we treat it as ‘justified true belief.’

Now, I want to suggest that either conception of knowledge (fallibilist or infallibilist) falls prey to one of the fundamental challenges posed by Pyrrhonian skepticism (which I discussed in my previous two posts).  Let’s focus on fallibilist knowledge, since it’s the weaker of the two.

Knowledge, according to the fallibilist, is justified belief.  This means that one knows x just in case (i) one believes x, and (ii) x is justified.  But how are we to construe (ii)?  I want to suggest that there are three main ways to do so:

  • Non-epistemically = “I believe that x is justified.”
  • Externalistically = “X is justified” (without the subject knowing or believing that it is)
  • Epistemically = “I know that x is justified.”

The non-epistemic option is surely insufficient for knowledge.  It cannot be enough simply to believe that one’s belief is justified; it must be the case that one’s belief actually be justified.

The externalist view (which I discussed earlier) itself comes in two forms.

  • Uninformative = “X is justified, but no one knows how or why.”
  • Informative = “X is justified (though the subject is unaware of this fact) on the basis of y.”

Now, the uninformative response is, well, uninformative.  It comes down to the claim that x might be justified in some way.  The informative response, though, turns ‘externalism’ into a kind of third-personal internalism: “Beatrice isn’t aware that her belief x is justified, but I can see that in fact it is.”  But now this informative ‘externalist’ response must itself be interpreted either non-epistemically or epistemically.  The non-epistemic interpretation—“I (merely) believe that Beatrice’s belief x is justified on the basis of y”—is surely not enough for knowledge.

So we’re left, at one level or another, with the epistemic interpretation of justification: “I know that x is justified.”  But now we’ve begged the question, for the question was: “What is knowledge?”  It is, as Plato pointed out long ago, silly to say that knowledge is belief plus knowledge.  For not only is this circular, it also opens onto an infinite regress, for our knowledge that x is justified would itself require a justification, as would that justification, and so on.  Circularity plus infinite regress yields what I’ve christened “the infinite spiral.”

Even fallibilist accounts of knowledge, then, fall prey to the Pyrrhonian skeptical dialectic.  In order to know something, you must already know something.

This is where the coherentist—or the Hegelian, for that matter—would step in with a complex account of how the hanging-together of our beliefs serves to justify them.  I suggested earlier that coherence theories cannot be theories of truth, since they serve, at best, merely to make beliefs more probable.  But if fallibilism is right, then knowledge simply is a matter of probabilities, in which case coherence may work as an account of fallibilistic knowledge.

Even if that’s right, it seems to me that such accounts are merely concessions to, rather than refutations of, skepticism.  To quote Stewart Cohen again:

The acceptance of fallibilism derives from the widely held view that what we seek in constructing a theory of knowledge is an account that squares with our strong intuition that we know many things…  [W]hile the entailment principle [i.e., the principle that knowledge entails truth] may look attractive in the abstract, it does not command the kind of assent sufficient to withstand the overwhelming case against it provided by our everyday intuitions concerning what we know.  Any residual worry associated with denying the principle is far outweighed by our common sense rejection of its skeptical consequences.

In other words, fallibilism begins by presupposing that skepticism must be wrong.  Since maintaining that knowledge is justified true belief seems to lead inexorably to skepticism, we must mean something else by ‘knowledge.’  To the extent that it is more than an acknowledgement that we sometimes use the word ‘knowledge’ to mean (merely) justified belief, fallibilism represents retreat and retrenchment, not the vanquishing of the dread enemy.  Furthermore, it utterly fails to account for the stronger sense of ‘knowledge’ that we also make use of and which is best captured by means of the entailment principle.

The larger worry here is that, by putting philosophy in the business of confirming our ‘commonsense intuitions,’ we risk reducing it to the role of sociocultural apologetics.  In science, hypotheses can be proven wrong.  But can our commonsense intuitions be proven wrong?  No, not qua commonsense intuitions.  And where do our commonsense intuitions come from?  An ounce of sensitivity to the historical or anthropological record is enough to make highly plausible the claim that they are, at least in a great many cases, cultural artifacts.

Yes, human beings think they ‘know’ all sorts of things.  But do we?  Well, as we’ve seen, that depends on what we mean by ‘know.’  Did the ancient slave-owning Greek know that he is inherently superior to his slaves?  In the fallibilist sense, yes, he did.  Just as we say that someone ‘knows’ what tomorrow’s weather is going to be like because she’s consulted, so the Greek slave-owner had a culturally sanctioned and accepted standard with reference to which his belief that he is inherently superior to his slaves was justified.

Of course, we’re going to want to say that these cases differ because actually is reliable regarding tomorrow’s weather, whereas myths or oracles (or whatever) are epistemically unreliable.  I agree, of course.  But notice that this response turns on an appeal to truth.  When we’re talking about knowledge, it is foolhardy to bracket out the question of what is and is not true–which is precisely what, at the end of the day, the fallibilist wants to do.

Moreover, the more general point is that philosophy should not be in the business of simply accepting our commonsense intuitions, of using them as an unmoving foundation.  In other words, philosophy should not be in the business of ‘rationally reconstructing’ our commonsense intuitions.  Why not?  Because  no doubt many such intuitions are wrong!  ‘Rational reconstruction’ becomes mere rationalization.

Such is the case, I want to argue, when it comes to our commonsense intuitions regarding what (or how much) we know.  Yes, we sometimes attribute knowledge to someone in a loose, or weak, sense.  But we also have a strong conception of knowledge, one we deploy—usually without being aware of it—all the time.  This strong conception is brought out by adding into the fallibilist conception of knowledge the standard account of belief (an account, by the way, that I think captures a ‘natural attitude,’ but which is not properly speaking an analysis of belief), namely, that to believe x is to believe that x is true.  This reintroduces ‘truth’ into the fallibilist picture, yielding the following.

A person knows x just in case (i) she believes that x is true, and (ii) x is justified.

The worry, in other words, is that people are naturally inclined to equate what they believe with what is true.  Fallibilism wants to introduce modesty into the picture by eschewing the ‘entailment principle,’ but the fact remains that without a thoroughgoing course of skeptical therapy, all belief is going to entail a belief in the truth of the belief.  If philosophy is rendered unable to illuminate for us how far we fall from our epistemic ideals, then it robs itself of what I take to be the source of its greatest potential benefit to human beings and the world.  It is precisely by being cured of the reflex to think our beliefs true—which often means: to be cured of the reflex to think in terms of knowing—in which lies the great transformative potential of a philosophical education.