Around a year ago, I wrote about a really beautiful study by Machery and colleagues on cross-cultural similarities in epistemic intuitions. The study looked at intuitions about Gettier cases in four different cultures and found that the Gettier intuition was remarkably robust across demographic differences.
But of course, I could imagine some readers seeing this as relatively poor evidence of cross-cultural robustness. "After all," they might say, "the Gettier intuition is one of the most fundamental aspects of our practice of knowledge attribution. Even if this one intuition turns out to be widely shared, the more subtle and complex aspects of our epistemic intuitions might easily turn out to vary across cultures."
Now, a year later, we have more information about this question. The unstoppable team of Minsun Kim and Yuan Yuan has just completed a new paper on the topic, and they provide evidence for a very surprising degree of cross-cultural robustness.
Kim and Yuan look at three different effects that have been obtained in studies on Western participants:
Some of you may be interested in "Belief States in Criminal Law," a forthcoming article I recently posted on SSRN. It's an updated version of the paper I presented at last year's X-Phi conference at University of Buffalo. Many thanks to those I met there and elsewhere for your insightful comments on this paper and related projects. More comments are always welcome! Here is the abstract:
Belief-state ascription—determining what someone “knew,” “believed,” was “aware of,” etc.—is central to many areas of law. In criminal law, the distinction between knowledge and recklessness, and the use of broad jury instructions concerning other belief states, presupposes a common and stable understanding of what those belief-state terms mean. But a wealth of empirical work at the intersection of philosophy and psychology—falling under the banner of “Experimental Epistemology”—reveals how laypeople’s understandings of mens rea concepts differ systematically from what scholars, courts, and perhaps legislators, have assumed.
As implemented, mens rea concepts are much more context-dependent and normatively evaluative than the conventional wisdom suggests, even assuming that jurors are following jury instructions to the letter. As a result, there is less difference between knowledge and recklessness than is typically assumed; jurors consistently “over”-ascribe knowledge to criminal defendants; and concepts like “belief,” “awareness,” and “conscious disregard” mean different things in different contexts, resulting in mens rea findings systematically responsive to aspects of the case traditionally considered irrelevant to the meaning of those terms.
This Article provides the first systematic account of the factors driving jurors’ ascriptions of the specific belief states criminal law invokes. After surveying mens rea jury instructions, introducing the Experimental Epistemology literature to the legal literature on mens rea, and examining the implications of that literature for criminal law, this Article considers ways to begin bridging the surprisingly large gap between mens rea theory and practice.
Some experimental philosophers might be interested in "Chomsky and Moral Philosophy," a new paper I recently posted on SSRN. It will appear in the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky (J. McGilvray, ed), which is due out later this year. Here is the abstract:
Every great philosopher has important things to say about moral philosophy. Chomsky is no exception. Chomsky’s remarks on this topic, however, are not systematic. Instead, they consist mainly of brief and occasional asides. Although often provocative, they tend to come across as digressions from his central focus on linguistics and related disciplines, such as epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. Perhaps as a result, moral philosophers have paid relatively little attention to Chomsky over the past sixty years.
This neglect is unfortunate. Chomsky’s insights into the nature and origin of human morality are fundamental and penetrating. They address deep philosophical problems that have shaped the aims of moral philosophy for centuries. They also reinforce many of the lessons Chomsky has taught about the nature and origins of human language. Elaborating upon these themes, this chapter begins by recounting two of Chomsky’s most extensive discussions of moral philosophy, each of which draws attention to the fact that, like linguistic knowledge, moral knowledge is an example of Plato’s problem: a complex mental competence characterized by a profound poverty of the stimulus. The chapter then places these remarks in a broader context by providing a brief discussion of mentalist, modular, and nativist theories of moral cognition from Plato to the present. Finally, the chapter responds to one prominent criticism of Chomsky’s naturalistic approach to moral philosophy, that of the late philosopher, Bernard Williams. I argue that Williams’ “Wittgensteinian” skepticism about moral rules is no more convincing than a similar skepticism about grammatical rules in the context of linguistic theory.
I think that some readers of Experimental Philosophy, especially those who work on Gettier cases, might be interested in this paper (even though it is not an experimental paper).
Abstract: In this paper, I argue that, as far as Gettier cases are concerned, appearances are deceiving. That is, Gettier cases merely appear to be cases of epistemic failure (i.e., failing to know that p) but are in fact cases of semantic failure (i.e., failing to refer to x). Gettier cases are cases of reference failure because the candidates for knowledge in these cases contain ambiguous designators. If this is correct, then we may simply be mistaking semantic facts for epistemic facts when we consider Gettier cases. This, in turn, is a good reason not to assign much, if any, evidential weight to Gettier intuitions (i.e., that S doesn’t know that p in a Gettier case).
In contemporary Anglo-American epistemology, it is almost universally assumed that knowledge must be reliably produced. On this view, knowledge must be produced by abilities (processes, faculties, powers, etc.) that “will or would yield mostly true beliefs,” as William Alston put it. Call this consensus view “knowledge reliabilism.”
One thing I’ve always been surprised by is how little explicit, direct argumentation there is for knowledge reliabilism in the literature. An old paper by Goldman contains a weak explanatory argument, which gets cited sometimes. Aside from that, the main consideration offered in support of knowledge reliabilism is that it’s just commonsense. For instance, Edward Craig claims that reliabilism “matches our everyday practice with the concept of knowledge as actually found,” that it is “a good fit to the intuitive extension of ‘know’.” And Ernest Sosa claims that reliabilism is the theoretical “correlate” of “commonsense” epistemology. Call this “the proto-reliabilist hypothesis” about folk epistemology.
The proto-reliabilist hypothesis makes at least a couple straightforward predictions. First, people will tend to deny knowledge in cases of unreliably formed belief. Second, clear and explicit differences in reliability should produce large differences in people’s willingness to attribute knowledge. These predictions can be tested with some very simple experiments. Below I briefly describe one I ran.
Several experimental philosophers have found that philosophical intuitions of both professionals and laypeople are sensitive to the order in which the thought experiments they come from are presented. A nice summary of the latest results about this by Schwitzgebel & Cushman can be found here.
Abstract: In the first experiment, I exhibit unreliable judgment about the primeness or divisibility of four-digit numbers, in contrast to a seeming Excel program. In the second experiment, I exhibit an imperfect memory for arbitrary-seeming three-digit number and letter combinations, in contrast to my seeming collaborator with seemingly hidden notes. In the third experiment, I seem to suffer repeated defeats at chess. In all three experiments, the most straightforward interpretation of the experiential evidence is that something exists in the universe that is superior in the relevant respects – theoretical reasoning (about primes), memorial retention (for digits and letters), or practical reasoning (at chess) – to my own solipsistically-conceived self.
Thanks to X-Phi Blog readers and others for comments on versions of the three experiments, posted here!
Within the more metaphilosophically-oriented literature on experimental philosophy, there has been a great deal of discussion of the philosophical implications of cross-cultural differences in intuitions about Gettier cases. This work has been extremely impressive from a purely philosophical perspective, but at times, I worry that it has not been sufficiently closely connected to the actual empirical work in this area. In particular, much of it starts off from the assumption that people of different cultures differ in their intuitions about Gettier cases, but it turns out that the majority of the empirical studies actually find that Gettier intuitions do not depend on culture in this way (see here, here and here). So it sometimes seems that people are investigating the philosophical implications of an effect that doesn't actually exist.
Happily, Noûs has just published a truly amazing study on this topic by a team of experimental philosophers (Machery, Stich, Rose, Chatterjee, Karasawa, Struchiner, Sirker, Usui & Hashimoto), and I think this new study gives us a much better understanding of the relevant empirical facts. The researchers presented two different Gettier cases to participants in the United States, Brazil, India and Japan, yielding a total sample size of 521 participants. The study is extraordinarily impressive from a methodological perspective and very much worth reading in full, but the basic result can be expressed pretty simply in the following figure:
Overall, the study finds a robust tendency, found across all four cultures, to conclude that people do not have knowledge in Gettier cases.
Of course, this finding does not mean that philosophers were mistaken to think that there was something of deep metaphilosophical importance about looking at Gettier intuitions in different cultures. On the contrary, the result obtained here is a truly fascinating one, which surely has rich metaphilosophical implications. The key point is just that the metaphilosophical question we need to be asking is the opposite one from the one people have been discussing thus far. The question worth asking is not 'What are the metaphilosophical implications of cross-cultural differences in Gettier intuitions?' but rather 'What are the metaphilosophical implications of the extraordinary cross-cultural similarity in Gettier intuitions?' This latter question has not yet been sufficiently explored, but it opens up a whole new range of exciting issues that I hope philosophers will begin exploring over these next few years.
[The full paper is available to subscribers at Noûs, but please do feel free to write in with comments even if you have not yet read the paper itself.]
Many philosophers endorse a truth-insensitivity hypothesis: certain core, philosophically important evaluative properties of a belief are insensitive to whether it is true. For example, if two possible agents believe the same proposition for the same reason, then either both are justified or neither is. This does not change if it turns out that only one of the two agents has a true belief. Epitomizing this line of thought are thought experiments about radically deceived “brains in vats.”
Proponents claim that the truth-insensitivity hypothesis is extremely intuitive and appealing pre-theoretically — we have an “overpowering inclination” to think that it’s true (Richard Fumerton). To deny the truth-insensitivity hypothesis has been labelled “extraordinary” and “dissident” (Earl Conee). However, other philosophers claim that exactly the opposite is true: the truth-insensitivity hypothesis itself is counterintuitive and violates commonsense. The appeal of truth-insensitive epistemology, they claim, is limited to narrow circles within “the professional philosophical community” (Jonathan Sutton).
In a paper forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, I investigated which side of this debate is correct. Proponents of the truth-insensitivity hypothesis illustrate their view’s plausibility with pairs of thought experiments. These pairs include mundane cases and fanciful “brain-in-a-vat” scenarios. I tested both sorts of cases.
Across three experiments (N = 1262), the results were absolutely clear: