For starters, I would like to thank Franz Huber and Jonathan Weisberg for the work they’ve done to successfully develop and launch Ergo—a much needed, new, open access, online philosophy journal. Here is a description of the journal from its homepage:
Ergo is a general, open access philosophy journal accepting submissions on all philosophical topics and from all philosophical traditions. This includes, among other things: history of philosophy, work in both the analytic and continental traditions, as well as formal and empirically informed philosophy. Submission and publication are free. Authors retain the copyright of their work under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license. Papers are published as they are accepted; there is no regular publication schedule.
With Weisberg and Huber serving as managing editors and an all-star cast of section editors to assist them, Ergo is going to be an excellent new venue for publishing first rate philosophy—a venue which has the added virtue of not being locked behind a pay wall (thereby benefiting authors and readers alike)! They say more about the laudable goals of Ergo here. My fingers are crossed that the discipline will get behind Huber, Weisberg, and the rest of their team. Philosophy needs more journals like Ergo. So, we should all applaud their efforts to move our field in the right direction.
Given my views concerning the importance of open access philosophy, I was both delighted and honored when Huber and Weisberg asked me to write a commentary on one of the papers from the inaugural issue of Ergo—namely, “The Problem of ESEE Knowledge,” by our own John Turri. My assignment was to write a blog post designed both to alert readers to the publication of the first issue and to encourage readers to participate in a discussion thread about Turri’s interesting and important paper. While I am admittedly not a card carrying epistemologist—indeed, I don’t even play one on television—I nevertheless thought it would be fun to post an overview of Turri’s contribution in the hopes that others would take a look at the paper and join the discussion here on the blog. So, I happily accepted the invitation to play along. That said, let’s get started!
In his paper, Turri has several related goals: First, he sets out to replicate previous empirical work that has been done on what he calls the epistemic side effect effect (ESEE)—that is, the tendency of people’s epistemic judgments concerning side effects to be influenced by their moral (that is, non-epistemic) judgments. For instance, there is evidence that, all other things being equal, people are more likely to say that an agent knows that some side effect x will result from doing y if x is morally bad than if x is morally good. Second, Turri sets out to build upon the earlier research on this front by showing that ESEE is more widespread than previously assumed. Finally, Turri tries to develop a new technique for detecting ESEE, which, on his view, “potentially enhances its theoretical significance.”
While I admittedly don’t know the literature on ESEE as well as I should (see my earlier confession when it comes to epistemology), I do know a thing or two about the more general side effect effect (SEE) (also known as the “Knobe effect”)—which was one of the chief focuses of my dissertation and one of the issues that got me interested in experimental philosophy in the first place. So, while Knobe and I have competing explanations of the SEE findings, we are equally convinced of the philosophical and psychological relevance of the data that have been gathered during the course of the past ten years (yes, it’s been that long!). So, when epistemologists like James Bebee, Wesley Buckwalter, John Turri, and others began extending the research on SEE to the domain of epistemology, I was both delighted by the development and unsurprised by the findings. In short, the gathering data suggest that people’s moral judgments have a much more pronounced effect on their epistemic judgments than previously thought. One of the main tasks for experimental epistemologists is to understand and explain the complex (and sometimes curious) relationship between epistemic and non-epistemic judgments—which is one of Turri’s central tasks.
Since Knobe’s early experimental work on SEE, there have been two primary approaches to explaining the data (whether the phenomenon arises in the context of action theory or epistemology): On the one hand, some researchers (e.g., Knobe) claim that SEE findings reflect people’s competent usage of the underlying concepts. On this view, moral judgments both do and should influence our non-moral judgments about intentional actions, free will, knowledge, and the like. On the other hand, some researchers (e.g., me) have claimed instead that the SEE findings merely reflect people’s erroneous inferences and judgments. On this view, while moral judgments can and often do influence our non-moral judgments, these latter judgments are often (although not always) biased or mistaken. The chief difficulty is trying to decide which of these two explanations of the extant data is correct. After all, one philosopher’s core conceptual competency is another philosopher’s performance error.
This is not a distinction without a difference. As Turri points out:
Epistemologists have taken it for granted that patterns in ordinary usage should, or at least can, constrain substantive theorizing about the nature of knowledge or the (abstract) concept of knowledge or the meaning of “knows” (Austin 1956; Cohen 1999; Rysiew 2001; DeRose 2009; Hawthorne 2004; Stanley 2005; Fantl and McGrath 2009). Of course, not just any pattern is ripe for guiding theory. But it is widely assumed that theorists should respect patterns of competent and literal knowledge ascription. There will always be some interplay between one’s theory and what one is willing to consider a pattern of competent and literal knowledge ascription (e.g. Davis 2007; Bach 2008; Turri 2014). But it is not “anything goes.” And a theory which implies that much of our ordinary practice of knowledge ascription is either incompetent or non-literal has, as they say, “some explaining to do.”
It is partly for this reason that Turri thinks that the findings on ESEE are especially germane. If the gathering data suggest that “whether a belief counts as knowledge can depend on the moral status of actions based on it,” then this might have a “fairly direct or metaphysical upshot.” For instance, theories of knowledge that are incompatible with the findings on ESEE would become less prima facie plausible. However, one of the primary hurdles is figuring out how to determine whether the participants whose conceptual usage is being measured are using the concepts competently in the first place. If they are, then epistemologists who favor theories that conflict with the ESEE findings do indeed have “some explaining to do.” If they are not, then there is nothing needing to be explained away, so the experimental findings can be collectively dismissed as psychologically interesting yet largely philosophically irrelevant performance errors.
This is a dialectical stalemate that is difficult to empirically break. For even if, as Turri suggests, “we are attracted to the idea that our ordinary practice of ascribing knowledge should at least broadly constrain theorizing about knowledge itself,” it doesn’t follow that the ESEE findings that have been collected thus far count as adequate evidence concerning either our ordinary practices or our conceptual competencies. On the one hand, responding to philosophical thought experiments is not usually part of our ordinary linguistic practices. On the other hand, it’s unclear that we should assume that the people who participate in experimental philosophy surveys have the kind of reflective judgments traditional philosophers claim to be interested in exploring. So, even if everyone agrees that the ESEE findings show that people’s non-epistemic judgments can influence their epistemic judgments under certain experimental conditions, the conceptual competency vs. performance error issue persists. And unless and until we reach agreement on that issue, the philosophical relevance of the ESEE findings will remain up in the air (or so the traditional story goes).
To get a sense for how difficult this problem is to address, consider the following four traditional epistemological views highlighted by Turri during the course of his investigation:
- Only epistemic factors are relevant for determining whether someone has knowledge—that is, factors other than truth, belief, evidence, and reliability are epistemically irrelevant.
- Agents in Gettier cases don’t have knowledge—that is, knowledge requires more than justified true belief.
- Knowledge is factive—that is, it is not possible to know false things.
- Knowledge requires belief—that is, if an agent doesn’t believe that p, an agent can’t know that p.
As Turri points out, recent findings from the x-phi literature (including the results from several new studies Turri discusses in his latest paper) put pressure on each of these conventional views—that is, (a) there is evidence that moral judgments sometimes drive epistemic judgments (so-called ESEE findings), (b) there is evidence that people sometimes think agents in Gettier cases have knowledge (so-called GESEE findings), (c) there is evidence that people sometimes don’t think knowledge is factive (so-called CHESEE findings), and (d) there is evidence that people sometimes don’t think knowledge requires belief (so-called BRESEE findings). While Turri thinks that the ESEE and GESEE findings can be squared with the conceptual competency approach to the SEE findings, he suggests that CHESEE and BRESEE findings create more problems given how entrenched the underlying epistemic dogmas are. On this view, if folk ascriptions of knowledge require neither truth nor belief, then it’s not clear why epistemologists ought to care about the folk concept of knowledge in the first place. In exploring the possible semantic and metaphysical upshot of CHESEE and BRESEE findings, Turri makes the following observations:
I think that it would make a conceptual-competence explanation of the observed effect much less likely. It would seem more likely that participants are incompetently applying their concept of knowledge, or competently but falsely applying it for pragmatic reasons, or competently applying some other concept in response to a “knowledge” question. Over thousands of years and across many different cultures, careful reflection has led people repeatedly to the view that knowledge requires truth and belief (or something very similar). This is overwhelmingly reflected in the most influential historical and contemporary theories of knowledge (Matilal 1986; Steup 1996; Lehrer 2000; Feldman 2003; Fumerton 2006; BonJour 2009; Phillips 2011). And if a conceptual-competence explanation is unlikely, then we need to be much more cautious when determining whether the ESEE data support various substantive proposals about the nature of knowledge itself. Of course, none of that would go to show that the effect is unreal. On the contrary, the point is that the effect is, ironically, too real for it to guide a theory of knowledge. By contrast, if knowledge ascriptions cannot be made CHESEE or BRESEE in that same way, it eliminates two barriers to a conceptual-competence account. Of course, it would not entail that a conceptual-competence account is true. But it would eliminate potential worries about the effect not ruled out by previous studies.
In order to shed light on these and related issues, Turri ran three preliminary experiments based on Knobe’s famous CEO cases—the results of which he describes in the following way:
Experiments 1–3 show that participants are consistently more willing to agree that the CEO knows that the environmental side effect will occur when it is harmful rather than helpful. This is true whether the CEO has a normal justified true belief, a Gettiered belief, a false belief, no belief, and even when the CEO has no belief and the proposition in question is false. Moreover, participant agreement with the knowledge ascription was very high in the case of a false belief. Participants in Harm conditions were neutral on whether false non-beliefs were knowledge, on whether unjustified true non-beliefs were knowledge, and even on whether unjustified false non-beliefs were knowledge.
In the wake of these findings, Turri claims that:
If we take these results at face value, then there is virtually nothing we can do to make participants disagree that the CEO knows that the harmful side effect will occur. This poses a serious challenge to the conceptual-competence account of epistemic side-effect effects, for reasons noted at the beginning of section 4. It seems unlikely that participants in these studies are competently and literally applying the concept of knowledge. A more likely explanation is that a seriously negative reaction to the CEO is causing performance errors, or that at least many participants are agreeing to a statement other than the one explicitly featured in the test question, perhaps along the lines of, “The CEO is a world-class jerk.” It also seems unlikely that participants are competently and literally applying the concept of confidently held belief, since they persist in agreeing that the CEO knows even when participants explicitly acknowledge that the CEO rejects the claim.
Dissatisfied with this outcome, Turri sets out to see whether he could devise a better way of probing the salient epistemic intuitions. Otherwise, not only will the performance error explanation of SEE carry the day, but the view that one’s theorizing about knowledge ought to be minimally constrained by ordinary usage will be cast into doubt by the extant findings concerning ESEE, GESEE, CHESEE, and BRESEE. In describing his motivation, Turri makes the following remarks:
I am interested in trying a different approach to detecting epistemic side-effect effects. It would be good to detect an effect in such a way that it stands a fighting chance of revealing something about our conceptual competence in ascribing knowledge, and perhaps, in turn, about knowledge itself. This requires not only detecting an effect, but an appropriately circumscribed effect. For this to work, participants must also be willing to deny knowledge in a certain range of control cases when probed in the same way that produces ESEE. For example, they must be willing to deny that false beliefs are knowledge. More generally, it would help — though it is not necessarily required — if we detected ESEE in an overall pattern of knowledge attribution that broadly agrees with mainstream theorizing about knowledge. The agreement does not have to be perfect. But if the two are totally at odds, then many epistemologists will suspect that the observed effect is not due to conceptual competence but rather to performance error or more pressing practical concerns, such as blaming the CEO or expressing disapproval.
Because I have already gone on for too long, I won’t examine his new approach here. My goal in writing this post was merely to highlight what I take to be the importance of Turri’s project and to encourage readers of the blog to read his paper and join a discussion about it here on Experimental Philosophy. I have my own two cents to contribute about his new approach, which I will add to the thread as it unfolds.
For now, I wanted to provide enough of an overview to interest readers in Turri’s project. If Turri’s new approach is successful, then he will have taken some important steps towards breaking the dialectical stalemate between the two opposing camps in the SEE literature. If not, then we all have more work to do. Either way, Turri’s paper in the inaugural issue of Ergo is a “must read.” So, please give it a look and post your feedback here. Turri has agreed to participate in the comment thread—which ought to be a good time for all. In the meantime, thanks again to Franz Huber and Jonathan Weisberg for launching Ergo and for inviting me to help spread the word!