A Pro-Bono Offer To Teach Brett Stephens Some Epistemology

This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.

I’m a professor of philosophy of Brooklyn College and I’m writing to offer to teach epistemology (the study of knowledge) to Brett Stephens, your Op-Ed columnist. His last three essays (‘This Revolution Too, Will Eat It’s Children‘, ‘This I Believe About Blasey vs. Kavanaugh,’ ‘Believability is the Road to National Ruin‘) have shown an alarming ignorance of some basic principles of epistemology–the kind that we introduce to our beginner undergraduate students in elementary introductions to philosophy or in our elective epistemology class. (The study of epistemology goes back all the way to Plato and a firm grounding in its fundamentals is essential for any student, not just philosophy majors.)

To wit,  Mr. Stephens does not understand the relationship between beliefs and action. He does not understand the difference between belief and knowledge. He does not understand the difference between different epistemic standards employed in differing contexts–as such, he does not understand the difference between legal standards of belief and knowledge, and how they pertain to legal decisions, and ‘normal’ or other standards of belief and knowledge and how they apply in different contexts. These are elementary distinctions and everyone, especially every adult and every responsible citizen of a democratic republic, should be aware of them. It is entirely possible that Mr. Stephens has never taken a class in philosophy or epistemology and perhaps he has never been introduced to the notion of ‘epistemic standards’ and how these might vary across different ‘epistemic contexts.’ But that is no reason for him to remain ignorant of them.

Which is where my pro-bono offer to teach Mr. Stephens some basic epistemology comes in. I also teach philosophy of law, and would be happy to introduce Mr. Stephens to some basic jurisprudential debates about the nature of belief formation in legal contexts and how even within legal domains, there can be differing epistemic standards that generate varying epistemic contexts.

I write in the spirit of offering to perform my civic duty. Mr. Stephens has a prominent and powerful pulpit from which he can address the American people, and he is, as I am, concerned about the state of the American Republic. I believe, as I’m sure he does, that his writing would be improved if he did not trade in the sorts of elementary confusions that are on display in his writing. Mr. Stephens indicates in his pieces the need to keep an open mind; I appreciate that spirit, and in keeping with it, would like to help educate Mr. Stephens.

I do not have contact information for Mr. Stephens and would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to him. I can be reached at my work email address above. I look forward to hearing from him, given his avowed commitment to open inquiry and fair thinking.

Professor Samir Chopra
Department of Philosophy
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210


Epistemology and ‘The Leftovers’

Imagine that an extremely improbable event occurs, one for which there was no warning; your best theories of the world assigned it a near-zero probability (indeed, so low was this probability then calculating it would have been a waste of time). This event is inexplicable–no explanations for it are forthcoming, and it cannot be fitted into the explanatory frameworks employed by your current conceptual schemes. What effect would this have on your theory of knowledge, your epistemology, the beliefs you form, and the justifications you consider acceptable for them?

This question is raised with varying degrees of explicitness in HBO’s The Leftovers–which deals with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of approximately two percent of the earth’s population. ‘The Departure’ selected its ‘victims’ at random; no pattern appeared to connect the victims to each other. The ‘departures’ all happened at the same time, and they left no trace. There is no sign of them anymore; two percent of the world’s population has been vaporized. Literally.

The Leftovers is not a very good show, and I’m not sure I will watch it any more (two seasons has been enough). It did however, afford me an opportunity to engage in the philosophical reflection I note above.

One phenomena that should manifest itself in the aftermath of an event like ‘The Departure’ would be the formation of all kinds of ‘cults,’ groups united by beliefs formerly considered improbable but which now find a new lease on life because the metaphysical reasonableness of the world has taken such a beating. Critics of these cults would find that the solid foundations of their previous critiques had disappeared; if ‘The Departure’ could happen, then so could a great deal else. The Leftovers features some cults and their ‘gullible’ followers but does little of any great interest with them–lost opportunities abound in this show, perhaps an entirely unsurprising denouement given that its creators were responsible for the atrocity called Lost.

As one of the characters notes in the second season, ‘The Departure’ made the holding of ‘false beliefs’ more respectable than it had ever been. And as yet another character notes in the first season, that old knockdown maneuver, the one used to dismiss an implausible claim made by someone else, that ‘the laws of nature won’t allow that,’ is simply not available anymore.  Science used to tell us that its knowledge was defeasible, but now that that dreaded moment, when evidence of the universe’s non-uniformity, irregularity, and non-conformance with scientific laws is upon us, what are we to do? In The Leftovers a scientific effort gets underway to determine if geographical location was determinative of the victims’ susceptibility to being ‘departured,’ but it seems like this is grasping at straws, a pathetic and hopeless attempt to shoehorn ‘The Departure’ into extant scientific frameworks.

So, in the aftermath of ‘The Departure,’ we reside in a zone of epistemic confusion: we do not know how to assign probabilities to our beliefs anymore, for the definition of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ seems to have been radically altered. That old ‘you never know’ has taken on a far more menacing tone. Only the resumption of the ‘normal’ stream of events for a sufficiently long period of time can heal this epistemic and metaphysical rupture; it will be a while before our sense of this world’s apparent predictability will return. But even then, every argument about the plausibility or the implausibility of some epistemic claim will take place in the shadow of that catastrophic disruption of ‘reality;’ the reasonableness of this world will always appear just a tad suspect.

Robert Merton On The Importance Of Knowledge For Analyzing Social Actions

In ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” (American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904) Robert Merton writes:

The most obvious limitation to a correct anticipation of consequences of action is provided by the existing state of knowledge. The extent of this limitation may be best appreciated by assuming the simplest case where this lack of adequate knowledge is the sole barrier to a correct anticipation. Obviously, a very large number of concrete reasons for inadequate knowledge may be found, but it is also possible to summarize several classes of factors which are most important.

It is not a trivial matter that Merton begins his analysis of how a hopefully-scientific study of social actions can go wrong with an invocation of epistemic limitations; he is doing nothing less than acknowledging the centrality of our epistemic positioning for our various projects of inquiry–and the claims that they sanction. The most exalted and the most humble of them is–or should be–always indexed by an assessment of how confidently they may be asserted and under what conditions they would be retracted. The esoteric metaphysical claim that the universe is indeterministic may, on closer inspection, may turn out to only be the claim that the universe’s workings–as revealed to us–are indicative of such indeterminism; its alleged metaphysical attribute turns out to have been an indication of the limitations of our knowledge. Or consider the claim, central to Buddhism, Jainism, and even Stoicism, that while we have no control over the impressions the world directs at us, we can, and do, exercise control over our judgments. Those judgments–the inferences we draw–are crucially reliant on what we know and believe.

In Merton’s analysis, the social scientist is reminded that both the internal and external domains of his inquiry are shrouded by epistemic uncertainty, an ever-present feature of our human situation: the social subject does not have all relevant information available at hand that may be used for evaluating a course of action, while the social analyst is similarly handicapped in his external assessment of the action. Merton’s analysis thus speaks to the importance of information flows, and introduces a political wrinkle here in so doing. For we might well ask: Where and how may we acquire the knowledge needed to evaluate and plan social action and strategies and tactics? Who controls these sources of information?

Note: In the section preceding the one excerpted above, Merton had made note of how our understanding of ‘rationality’ demands an indexing by epistemic state as well:

[R]ationality and irrationality are not to be identified with the success and failure of action, respectively. For in a situation where the number of possible actions for attaining a given end is severely limited, one acts rationally by selecting the means which, on the basis of the available evidence, has the greatest probability of attaining this goal and yet the goal may actually not be attained. Contrariwise, an end may be attained by action which, on the basis of the knowledge available to the actor, is irrational (as in the case of “hunches”).

Serendipity In The Library Stacks

I like libraries. Always have. My most favored writing space these days is a library, that of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrive by subway at the 34th Street station, exit at 35th Street, enter the B. Altman Building through the lobby, buy myself a coffee, and then head upstairs to the second floor. If my favored by-the-window spot is not available I seek out others and get to work. The ceilings are high; the light is good; and scholars around me remind me I should not spend too much time dilly-dallying on social media.

But the real reason to like working in a library is that I’m surrounded by books. CUNY folks are used to griping, endlessly, about the relatively small size of our collections, but be that as it may, there are still many, many stacks of tomes here. And it’s not just the books that are immediately relevant to my writing projects that make a library a favored zone of work; it’s all of them, arranged according to a scheme whose workings I do not fully understand (and don’t want to.)

For between these stacks are passageways that must be traversed to move around within the library–those much-needed short walks to pick up a printout, a sharpened pencil for underlining and note-making, a trip to the restroom or water fountain for relief and refreshment, a short nap in the big armchairs by the windows. And as I walk among these stacks, among rows and columns of books, I encounter the serendipity of the stacks.

Here may be found entire domains of scholarship and literary and cultural accomplishment that I have not encountered and would never have had I not ventured into Stackland (and sometimes also into Returned For Reshelving Island.) Nineteenth century woman poets; obscure, marginalized ‘moments’ in art history; avant-garde novelists; dazzlingly incomprehensible mathematical monographs; presidential speeches; philosophers who never make it to graduate reading lists; Brazilian musicology; the list goes on. And on. (This exceedingly short list does no justice whatsoever to the richness of the offerings on display.)

I move quickly and briskly between the stacks, purposefully striding on toward my eventual destination. But the corners of my eyes are drawn towards the titles whizzing by. They pull me back toward them; they slow my steps. They bid me pick them up and inspect the spine, the cover, the table of contents. I am intrigued; I am awed by the labor of love so clearly visible. I am humbled; I am overwhelmed. I will never be able to produce scholarship this acute, this sustained. I am reminded, relentlessly, of how little I know. And how the vast edifice of human knowledge is built up by these constituents, arrayed here in their marvelous variety.

These walks are little expeditions of a kind; sorties and forays into uncharted territory. Who knows what I may find on the next one? I will never read all the books I glimpse here, but they do serve as reminders to keep reading. And writing.

Jed Perl On The Supposed Necessity Of Doubt For Art

In the course of a ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ style review of a retrospective of Jeff Koons‘ work–staged at the Whitney Museum last year–Jed Perl writes:

Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art. And it reaches a first tragic climax in Chardin’s statements about the uselessness of artistic training as a preparation for the real challenges of art and his haunting confession that painting was an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.

There is not a shred of doubt in Jeff Koons. And where there is no doubt there is no art. [links added]

I’m willing to grant Perls that there is ‘a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art’–he is the art critic and historian, not me. And it certainly is the case that much magnificent art has issued from artistic doubt–understood here as that species of psychic unease which spurs creators on to exploration of the world and their place in it through their art. But I do not think it follows that ‘where there is no doubt there is no art.’

Art can issue from certitude. The firm conviction that an artistic statement–of a particular kind, couched in a particular form–needs to be made can be sufficient motivation to bring an artwork into being. Most prominently, the rich history and tradition of religious art is often underwritten by a kind of deep and abiding faith, one not infected by doubt about the existence and attributes of the objects of its desire and longing. It is this faith, this fixity of belief, that often gives this species of art its distinctive emotional and intellectual appeal. (Other examples, drawn from other genres, can, I think, be readily supplied.)

Perhaps Perls’ confusion lies in thinking that only doubt may spur us on to meaningful, directed, and purposive action–there must be an irritant that impels us to move away from it, to find relief in  investigation and action.  (In the case of art, through expression in visual, verbal, and musical media.) But knowledge may provide a clarity that is similarly compelling, for after all, the counterpart of inquiry sparked by doubt–and art is a kind of inquiry–is paralysis, a zone of stagnation and fear. Firmly fixed belief may provide a speedier passage through this domain.

All of which is to say that it is unlikely that something quite as contentiously defined and demarcated as art–and thus interesting!–will find its groundings expressed by means of a formula as reductive as the one that Perl attempts to provide.

The Fallacious Knowing-How, Knowing-That Distinction

Over at the Stone, Jason Stanley offers some thoughtful remarks on the fallacious distinction between the practical and the theoretical, or rather, between practical and theoretical knowledge. Stanley examines the case to be made for the dichotomy between reflection–‘guided by our knowledge of truths about the world’–and action–‘guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions’:

If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.

Stanley dismisses this distinction by way of considering and rejecting different ways in which a ‘bright line’ could be drawn between practical and theoretical knowledge (for instance ‘talking’) and concludes with:

The plumber’s or electrician’s activities are a manifestation of the same kind of intelligence as the scientist’s or historian’s latest articles — knowledge of truths….The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.

I find Stanley’s analysis congenial, though I would collapse the distinction from the other direction. That is, I consider ascriptions of knowledge to be recognitions of practical abilities: to know a ‘truth’ is to bear a particular practical relation to the world, of being capable of interacting with the world in particular ways; of making some kinds of judgments and not others; knowing-that is a species of knowing-how.  To ascribe knowledge is not to recognize a special mental state, distinguished by some peculiar, yet-to-be-specified relationship with a proposition. Knowers are doers first and foremost. To know something is to be either doing or to be capable of doing (like making certain utterances and not others, for instance). A knower is distinguished from a non-knower by his actions, by his placement within a nexus of active relationships.

There are some advantages to thinking of knowledge in these terms. It makes more continuous the relationship between humans, animals, and other entities in the world such as sophisticated machines; animals can ‘know’ too, even if they cannot be understood as knowing propositions. To confine ourselves to propositional accounts of knowledge is to make human knowledge a singularity in the natural world; it means we cannot meaningfully make claims like ‘My cat knows the mouse is behind the door’ (or at least when we do it is by making a distinction between ‘animal’ and ‘reflective’ knowledge); it fails to acknowledge the cat’s particular interactions with its environment. It prompts meaningless questions like  ‘Who does the knowing?’ when it comes to ascribing knowledge to sophisticated systems such as robotic currency traders.

The long, protracted disputes in epistemology bear adequate testimony to the futility of trying to think of knowledge in excessively mentalistic and semantic terms. Thinking of knowledge as a species of interaction, a description of an agent enmeshed in his world and distinguished from others that don’t know what it does by its actions, clears up many of the puzzles created by traditional epistemology. This understanding of knowledge has its own distinguished pedigree in the history of philosophy, of course, most notably in Wittgenstein, Dewey and Nietzsche. Hopefully, I’ll be able to spin those views out a bit more here in future posts.

Artificial Agents and Knowledge as Tractably Accessible, Usable Information

In commenting on my post on teaching philosophy by reading out loud in class, David Auerbach quotes Georges DreyfusThe Sound of Two Hands Clapping on the process of the education of a Tibetan monk, which includes the memorization of scriptures, supplemented by active, repeated vocalization. Dreyfus’ quote–please read Auerbach’s comment for the full quote–concludes with:

This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available. That is, scholars must have an active command of the texts that structure the curriculum, not simply the ability to retrieve information from them. Knowing where bits of information are stored is not enough: the texts must inform one’s thinking and become integrated into one’s way of looking at the world.

I find interesting resonances between this analysis of knowledge and one offered in my recent A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents. There, in attempting to make coherent the notion of attributing knowledge to an artificial agent, we began with an intuition captured in the following example (originally due to Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs):

As I walk down the street, I am asked by a passer-by, “Excuse me, do you know the time?” I answer, “Yes,” as I reach for my cell-phone to check what time it is. The plausibility of this exchange suggests we readily attribute knowledge to ourselves and others when the relevant information is easily accessible and usable….This example is extensible to those cases when we are asked if we know a friend’s telephone number stored in our cellphone’s memory card. Or imagine someone who knows I am carrying a cellphone pointing to me and suggesting I should be asked the time: “He knows what time it is.”

The crucial bit, with respect to the Dreyfus quote above is usable. Later, building on this example, and others, to bolster our claim that “Knowledge claims speak to a bundle of capacities, functional abilities, and dispositions; their usage is intimately connected to a pragmatic semantics” we offer an analysis for artificial agents as follows:

An artificial agent X is attributed knowledge of a proposition p if and only if:
1. p is true;
2. X has ready access to the informational content of p;
3. X can make use of the informational content of p to fulfill its functional role; and,
4. X acquired access to this informational content using a reliable cognitive process.

An extended explication of this analysis is in the book; for present purposes, I’ll throw in an edited version here.

The first condition retains the intuition propositions must be true to be known. The second condition suggests an artificial agent required to conduct intractable searches of its disk or other storage, or engage in other computationally expensive procedures before being able to locate or derive a particular item, would be pushing the limit of the plausibility of such ascriptions. Moreover, there are at least two dimensions along which the ready access or what we might call the “readiness to hand” of a particular item of information can vary: the physical and the logical or computational. What is considered knowledge can therefore vary according to the strictness of the criteria to be applied along each of these dimensions.

The third condition requires the agent to be able to use the information content of p to display functional competence; an artificial agent reveals its knowledge of p through the ready availability of the proposition in facilitating the agent’s functionality; it demonstrates its knowledge by its functions.

The fourth condition requires knowledge attributed to an agent to have been acquired non-accidentally, not just dropped into its memory store by mistake or by fluke. This condition is identical to traditional reliabilist conditions.

We are thus able to conclude:

When we say, “Amazon.com knows my shipping address is X,” our analysis implies several facts about Amazon’s website agent. Firstly, the shipping address is correct. Secondly, it is readily accessible to the agent through its databases: Amazon would not be said to know my address if it was only accessible after the execution of a computationally intractable procedure. Thirdly, the shopping agent is able to make use of the informational content of the address to fulfill its functions: it is able successfully to send books to me. Fourthly, the shopping agent acquired this relevant information in the “right way,” i.e., by means of reliable cognitive processes: its form-processing code was reasonably bug-free, carried out appropriate integrity checks on data without corrupting it, and transferred it to the back-end database scripts that populate its databases. This last condition ensures the shipping address was not stored in the agent’s data stores accidentally.

Update: On February 14-16, the Concurring Opinions blog will be conducting an online symposium on my book. I expect this analysis to be discussed there.