Skip to content

Knowledge, Practical Reasoning and Swiss Army Knives

June 18, 2010

Knowledge, Practical Reasoning and Swiss Army Knives

Matt Weiner in his article ‘Does Knowledge Matter?’ introduces an interesting way of viewing knowledge and its connection with practical reasoning. This way of viewing knowledge, and practical reasoning can open up a new level of understanding and could being to solve part of the rift between contextualism and interest-relative invariantism or subject sensitive invariantism. This essay will attempt to answer Weiner’s question to us, does knowledge matter?
Weiner beings his article by discussing what he means when he asks ‘does knowledge matter?’, which for him has to do with one of the primary questions of epistemology. Weiner says “Think of epistemology as studying our beliefs and the process of inquiry by which we arrive at them. There will be many ways of sorting our beliefs, in themselves or with reference to the inquiry that led to them.”(1) For Weiner, a big question is should beliefs count as knowledge? Weiner is concerned with how our beliefs correspond to knowledge. Weiner brings up Mark Kaplan, who made the argument that if someone has a Gettiered  belief then you cannot use that to criticize someone’s methods of inquiry. (2) This point will be addressed in more detail later with the example of the diamond thief. Weiner is very interested in what Kaplan has to say, in regards to his own project on knowledge. Weiner says that “Kaplan’s conclusion is that the concept of knowledge does not provide a useful goal for our inquiries.” (3)

Next, Weiner turns his attention to John Hawthorne, and his work Knowledge and Lotteries. For Hawthorne,  knowledge is important due to its importance for practical reasoning. Hawthorne says that “the question of whether someone knows p seems directly relevant to (I) whether that person ought to assert p, (ii) whether there is a chance for that person  that not-p, and (iii) whether that person  ought to use p as a premise in practical deliberation.” (4) Weiner says that Hawthorne’s question  is the question of whether  the belief amount to knowledge. Weiner believes differently that there are several different stand points from which to consider which premises are acceptable. There can include any of these, which Weiner says is   “important that a belief be true if it is to be used as a practical premise; from another standpoint it is important that it be well justified; from another standpoint it may be important that it be non-Gettiered in a certain way.” (5) This means that there is not one single thing to check for to determine whether a belief should be used as a premise in a practical deliberation.

It is at this point in which Weiner introduces his idea of knowledge as a Swiss army knife concept. Weiner does this by introducing a made up concept of  “Colorado-Rally-Worthy.”(6) The basic idea is that the concept of Colorado-Rally-Worthy stands for a number of requirements that a vehicle would have to meet in order to be able to complete the Colorado rally.  If there are many different rallies, then the question of is it Colorado-Rally-Worthy can stand in for a number of different questions about the specifications of the car, for instance “must drive a certain number of miles without refuelling, carrying a certain payload, going up mountainsides that require a certain horsepower, and over roads that will destroy your undercarriage if you don’t have a certain clearance.”(7) When you ask if it is worthy you are implicitly asking all of these questions at one time. For Weiner Colorado-Rally-Worthiness is a Swiss army knife concept.  What this means is that there is no task that needs a Swiss army knife to complete, any of the tools making up the knife will suffice, and while some tasks may need more then one of the Swiss army knife’s tools, it does not have to be in the form of a Swiss army knife.(8) The reason we carry Swiss Army Knives around is that it is much easier to carry one then each of the tools it compromises.  As Weiner says “The Swiss Army Concept is a concept that is not
important in itself, but that provides an economical way of summing up several other
concepts that are important in themselves.”(9)

Weiner’s claim is that knowledge is a Swiss Army Concept, at least with respect to practical reasoning.(10) This is because the number of questions asked when you ask someone if they know something is similar to the way someone asks if the car if rally worthy. Weiner has formulated the claim in a different way which is “If, for some concept C, a belief is (in some way) a good premise iff it is C, then C is important in itself for practical reasoning.”(11)

Weiner turns next to Hawthorne’s account of the lottery problem. Weiner basically describes the lottery problem in the following way, “We are generally unwilling to ascribe advance knowledge that a particular ticket in a fair lottery will not win, but we may be willing to ascribe knowledge of propositions that entail that this ticket will not win.”(12) The lottery problem can stand in for other problems dealing with an uncertain future or present. Weiner introduces the idea brought forward by Vogel, that you may say you know where your car is, how do you know you were not one of the few people who’s car is stolen? Hawthorne believes that these examples can be addressed by “defining
knowledge in terms of suitability for practical reasoning..”(13) Hawthorne sets up a bi-conditional premise to remedy this. Weiner formulates Hawthorne’s argument as “Define knowledge so that a belief that p does not amount to knowledge in a certain practical environment iff it is not acceptable to use the belief as a premise for practical reasoning in that environment.”(14) This attempt to correct the argument ends with Hawthorne claiming that our intuitive judgements line up well when the premise is acceptable for practical reasoning. But Weiner asks, what is it for a premise to be acceptable?

One possible answer to the question is that we care about whether practical reasoning will work out well for us. Weiner says that “So formally acceptable practical reasoning from acceptable premises should turn out well for the reasoner. But in the practical environment in which you have been offered the lottery ticket, the reasoning that will in fact turn out the best for you is the reasoning that leads you to decline the ticket.”(15) Practical reason can guide us to not necessarily pick the best outcome for us. For Weiner, what we must do is clear. He says that “We should say that when we ask whether practical reasoning is acceptable, we are not asking about the practical reasoning that will in fact lead to the best outcome.”(16) This means that practical reasoning is not perfect, and that Weiner goes on to say “From this standpoint, we view acceptable practical reasoning as reasoning that is not vulnerable to criticism, that is not feckless or rash or overcautious.”(17)

Weiner also wishes for us to look at another part of practical reasoning, that which occurs over time. If we care about the subject’s reasoning leads to the best outcome, we must see if the  premises are true. We need to see whether the premises were justified enough given the practical reasoning. For Weiner the only real way to do this is by looking at the situation over time. Weiner says that “To accomplish anything we need to be able to make a plan and carry it out over an extended period. In such a case success requires more than just having a true belief at any one point.”(18) This shows that when looking at practical reason over time things other then truth, or justification become more and more important.  A perfect example is the one introduced by Williamson, which concerns a burglar  trying to steal a diamond. Weiner adds this to the initial description, saying “He knows that there is a diamond in the house, so he continues to look all night even when he fails to find it. If, on the other hand, he had a Gettiered belief
that there was a diamond in the house, he might not continue to look all night.”(19) The example of a Gettiered belief  the burglar might have is if he was told the diamond was one place, like under the bed when really it was in the dresser.  If this case the burglar may stop looking after checking the bed.  Weiner presents this argument showing the reasoning of the burglar “[Argument D] (7) There is a diamond somewhere in this house. (8) If I burgle the house, I’ll get the diamond.  (9) So I’ll burgle the house.”(20) To look more deeply at this argument, Weiner introduces a second burglar to the mix. If both believe the initial argument (D), that does not mean they will end up with the diamond. As Weiner says, “The successful burglar must preserve his belief in (7) until he actually finds the diamond. So if Moriarity gives up his belief in (7) once he has looked under the bed, and Raffles will preserve his belief in (7) until he finds the diamond, the Raffles will find the diamond and Moriarity will not”(21) This is because truth is not the only important factor, stability of belief must also play a big role. If Raffles is stable in his belief of D, then he will find the diamond, even if he is unjustified in maintaining his beliefs.  There could be a variety of reason for why he refuses to let his belief go, “It will not matter from this standpoint. So long as Raffles’ belief is true and persistent, his plan will actually succeed.”(22)

The second issue is whether we can criticize the burglars’ reasoning.  For Weiner, we have to ask whether their reasoning yields a plan which can be completed without exposing them to criticism. Weiner says that “an acceptable premise is one that is justifiably believed and that is likely to stay justifiable as new evidence is overturned. This rules out some Gettier cases, as in the burglar who has been told that there is a diamond and it is definitely under the bed.”(23) If there was no diamond in the house and the Raffles, then his belief in D would remain justified until he searched the entire house., because his premise will be beyond criticism until he completes the search.(24) Weiner goes on to say “but from this standpoint an acceptable premise is not necessarily one that will lead to a successful plan. This standpoint on practical reasoning shows stable justification to be important in itself, not knowledge.”(25) This helps show that what we really take to be knowledge is actually many other questions.

For Weiner, what is important for practical reasoning is “is that one’s premises have various properties: truth, justification, persistence of belief, stability of justification, safety. There is no single standpoint from which it is important that one’s premises be known.”(26) These are the various things which make up the Swiss Army Knife we call knowledge. We carry around Swiss army knives because we do not know which tools we may have to use, for Weiner this is similar to our approach to practical reasoning. Weiner says that “when evaluating someone’s epistemic situation you may not want to know which standpoint you will eventually want to take on their practical reasoning.”# When you say that someone knows p, you are saying that that person was truth, justification, persistence of belief, and safety  for their premises.

Weiner’s closing argument is very interesting. He says that over time we will come to appreciate the Swiss army knife, for what it is, a collection of different tools into one.  Knowledge can be the same way. When we describe it as a unified concept, you miss out on the finer details which make it a Swiss army concept. Weiner says that “Even if knowledge is important primarily because of the importance of truth and justification, it seems as though what is important is that the truth and justification be combined in the right way.”(28)

When I think of this idea, and of the debate between contextualism and interest-relative invariantism, it seems to me that they could be missing the forest for the trees. If you take true account of the Swiss army knife concept, then I do not think it is too hard to include both contextualism and IRI as tools. One can include not only the list of things Weiner provided as constituting knowledge, but we would be remise to not include the context  of the remarks, and the stakes for the knower at the putative time of knowing. The problems that both philosophies have on their own can be reconciled in this way because it is not the only factor in play. In some cases a mostly contextualist reading of a situation may be the best call, but it may not be appropriate in every case. Jason Stanley, in the sixth chapter of his book, discusses how contextualism does not fair better then IRI in most cases. Stanley says:

“strength-of-evidence versions of contextualism face the same problems addressing skepticism as strength-of-evidence forms of IRI raises the suspicion that it is not the contextualist aspect of contextualist proposals that does the work in addressing skepticism but rather features that are common between contextualism and IRI.”(29)

This shows that there is many things that contextualism and IRI have in common, and the differences they have a superficial. Together, they can be used to describe a lot of the behaviour which causes concern, particularly the lottery problem. On their own, contextualism(30) and IRI both have problems. Martijn Blaauw, has recently pointed out a flaw in IRI, with regards to memory which leads to the rejection of IRI.(31) I think that when we take our revised view of knowledge, the lottery problem is not so big. Since the issue has to do with knowledge ascription, we can break it down to its parts and see which ‘tools’ of knowledge is being used in this case. It is important for both context and the person’s personal stakes to be considered for practical reasoning, as that is when the tools are in direct use. By choosing one over the other is to privilege one tool at the expense of others.

If this idea of knowledge as a Swiss Army Knife takes off further, then study would have to be done to see how the tools interact with each other. As far as contextualism and IRI go, study could be done to see how they work in combination, or with other variables that Weiner suggests, like truth, justification, persistence of belief, stability of justification, safety.

The Swiss army knife concept is the idea that one concept can practically be used to answer several different questions. A Swiss army knife is never itself required, but the tools which make the knife can be. For practical reasoning, knowledge plays with role by being the easiest way to ask about the justification and stability of certain beliefs, which we wish to use in practical reasoning. There is no obvious reason that the contextualist and invariantist ideas cannot be brought together into one package, as on their own they suffer from problems which together they can avoid through using other options.

Notes
1. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 1
2. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 1
3. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 2
4.  Hawthorne, John. Knowledge and Lotteries. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. 30-31
5. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 2
6. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 3
7. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 4
8. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 4
9. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 4
10. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 5
11. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 5
12. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 5
13. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 5
14. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 6
15. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 8
16. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 9
17. Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 9
18.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 11
19.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 11
20.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 12
21.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 13
22.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 13
23.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 14
24.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 14
25.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 14
26.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 19
27.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 20
28.  Weiner, Matt. “Does Knowledge Matter?.” Texas Tech University, November 2005. Pp. 21
29.  Stanley, Jason. Knowledge and Practical Interests. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 129
30.  Stanley, Jason. Knowledge and Practical Interests. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Chapter 6
31.  Blaauw, Martijn. “SUBJECT SENSITIVE INVARIANTISM: IN MEMORIAM”, The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 231, pp. 8

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: