Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility 002: Reductionism and Non-Reductionism

I should start off with a few words about a major distinction in epistemology - a distinction between reductionism and non-reductionism.

The original champion of reductionism is David Hume. Generally, I speak favorably of Hume, though in this matter his account might have a few problems.

Reductionism holds that justifiably believing what other people say can be reduced to other forms of justification such as induction or perception (or some combination of basic forms of learning). In deciding whether you can trust what I say, you must start by having some idea of whether I am a trustworthy sayer (sayerist?) - whether or not I take care to make sure that what I report is true. You need to determine if I have any idea of what I am talking about because, even if I am honest, if I honestly assert things that are not true, then you would be wise not to believe me.

Non-reductionism holds that justifiably believing what other people say is a basic form of knowledge acquisition that cannot be reduced to other types. Thomas Reid is the historical champion of this view. The favorite model for this view is the learning of children. When you were five years old, were you sitting there assessing whether or not your parents were reliable reporters of the truth or have a habit of generally knowing what they were talking about? Of course not. You assumed this. You were not accepting their testimony on the basis of complex inferences and deductions. Their word was, for you, a basic, fundamental source of information against which other sources could be tested.

The first article in the anthology I am covering is:

Audi, Robert (2006), "Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity", in Lackey, Jennifer, and Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Audi presents a view that follows closely the views of Thomas Reid - the archtypical non-reductionist. And, after providing all sorts of arguments showing that Reid has the best theory, he pulls the rug out from under him and declares his allegiance with the reductionists.

Just to be clear, in talking about testimony, I say something, and you believe what I said because I said it. For example, I say something like, "Audi presents a view that follows closely the views of Thomas Reid." Or, better yet, my claim that this blog posting is based on Audi's article that appears in Lackey's and Sosa's anthology. I suspect that you are going to take my word for this - and assign this belief a high degree of credence, even though your only evidence for this proposition is the fact that I said it.

That's not to say that you trust me completely as if this is some type of religious scripture. That type of trust would have certain advantages (for me), but I don't think it will (should) happen. I am simply saying that you will assign the claim a statement of "true" if asked on a test, and expect to get credit for putting down the correct answer.

Audi also states:

It would be a mistake to think that some conscious activity of interpretation is generally required for testimony-based knowledge. Typically, we simply understand stand what is said and believe it.

This is a statement that I have some questions about.

When you take my statement and decide to agree or disagree with it, you have to understand what it says, right? If I had written the same sentence in a foreign language (e.g., Egyptian hieroglyphs), you would neither agree nor disagree. In order to interpret the squiggles that I put on your screen (or, if you printed this, your paper; or, if you are listening to this, the sounds emitted from your text to speech program), you have to have some sort of system built up for converting those squiggles and sounds into something having propositional content.

Understanding testimony is a whole lot different from opening your eyes, seeing a tree, and believing that there is a tree. Interpreting a sentence takes a level of mental activity that most animals - animals who can see trees and jump from branch to branch - cannot even begin to deal with.

As I see it, the set of skills involved in interpreting provide a great deal of room for moral evaluation that mere perception does not have. People can do this job of interpreting well or poorly - and some do it very poorly indeed. In fact, there seems to be a cultural tradition of assigning the worst possible interpretation of what others say so that one can deliver blistering and denigrating comments to them in the comments section of social media. This "moral quality of interpretation" is going to come up again . . . and again . . . and again . . . in this series.

Yet, we can ask whether this gives us a reason to deny Audi's claim. As you read this posting, I am assuming that you will have little trouble interpreting the words. Some trouble . . . particularly where I cut and paste and edit and leave sentence fragments behind. But you will process most sentences without conscious decision making. Indeed, the quality of my writing can be measured by my effectiveness at producing statements you don't have to ponder about overly long.

If you go back to the original definitions of "reductionism" versus "non-reductionism", the question is whether this task of interpretation means that testimony can be reduced to being inferential, or remains non-inferential.

Audi says, "No.".

Actually, he says:

Even where one must think about what is said and laboriously interpret it, as with a complex message or an utterance by certain non-fluent non-native speakers, ers, it does not follow that one's belief finally arising from accepting the message one discerns is inferential.

In the words of the dread pirate Barbarossa, "That means no."

(Yes, I know that I am mixing up my pirate movies. It's my blog.)

However, I am not seeing much of an argument in defense of this position. Perhaps later.

One thing we can say is that "testimonial knowledge is not inferential" and "testimonial knowledge is skill-based leaving room for moral credit and blame" are not, necessarily, incompatible. We will have to look at this later.

For my purposes, this interpretation provides a place for moral assessment. You can't blame a person for opening his eyes, seeing a tree, and believing that he sees a tree. You can blame a person for poorly interpreting a statement. This means that individuals have a moral obligation to (a good person would develop his skills so as to be able to) interpret statements well.

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