Thursday, July 13, 2006

No Escape for Epistemicism

Some more on the argument of my previous post ...

After my paper, Daniel Elstein encouraged me to think about how epistemicists would respond to the argument. At the time, I was inclined to think they could block it, but now I'm not convinced.

Epistemicists think that (what appear to be) borderline cases for (predicate or property) F exist only due to our necessary ignorance as to where the sharp cut-off for F-ness lies. A defender of the claim that it's vague whether there are any Fs, by these lights, is committed to its being unknowable whether there are any Fs (since according to her, we can't tell where the cut-off is within a certain range, and the actual situation is somewhere within that range). But that, surely, means she lacks commitment to Fs (since in particular, she is committed to its being unknowable for her whether there are any Fs). And hence, via the Quinean criterion, we can conclude that there are no Fs in the range of her quantifiers, so the argument is up and running.


Daniel Elstein said...

I think the epistemicist should say that we're (necessarily) ignorant about what we're committed to, and (necessarily) ignorant about what falls under the range of our quantifiers. I take it you think that this is incoherent, presumably because you take commitment to be epistemically constrained. I guess it's the necessity which you're worried about, because it seems pretty common for people to be ignorant about what they're committed to - when two philosophers disagree about their ontological commitments, they accept that there's a fact of the matter about what they're both committed to. Now there might be a good argument to show that it can't be unknowable what we're committed to (rather than merely unknown), but you'll have to give it, because I think epistemicists will assume that this might well be unknowable.

This relates to an unusual feature of your argument's use of the Quinean criterion. Usually we try to find out what we're committed to by examining what our best theory quantifies over. You're going in the other direction (at least at one point). But there's a worry that this assumes that it's somehow transparent to us what we're committed to, when this is just the kind of thing which epistemicists think isn't transparent. And I guess Quine didn't think it was transparent either.

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Daniel,

The only direction of the biconditional I thought I was using is right-to-left: i.e., if you quantify over Fs you're committed to Fs. (As you say, this is the one that's usually interesting to Quine and Quineans.) That's what gets you (by contraposition or MTT) from non-commitment to 'no Fs in range of quantifiers'. Do I need the other direction for anything?

I think a (possible) epistemicist position exists which denies that we are necessarily ignorant about what our commitments are. Anyone with that view needs to say something about my argument.

It would be interesting if the best way to defend epistemicism-in-general against the argt was by defending necessary ignorance about one's commitments. Myself, I doubt that's the most palatable way for the epistemicist to go, but then actual epistemicists clearly aren't that bothered about what is or is not palatable, so who knows what they might decide to do!

Daniel (and Brian) said...

I take the point that you're contraposing on the right-to-left direction, but you're still taking an alleged fact about commitment and inferring something about what we're quantifying over (the move from 3 to 4). You're taking the facts about commitment to be epistemically more fundamental than the facts about quantification, and that seems un-Quinean.

[This is Brian talking now.]

I didn't hear your talk (which I lament) but I've been talking to Daniel about it. We both agree that the inference to 4 from 1 and 3 is perfectly valid (and I am in no way tempted to muck around with Logic to block your argument) but it seems to me that the inference from 2 to 3 is the really dodgy one. I have no intuitions about what thinking that it's vague as to whether there are any Fs means with regard to my ontological commitments EXCEPT by examining my quantifiers. That is, I don't see any way of inferring 3 from 2 without making some kind of appeal to 1 -- but then you'll require 4 before you can get to 3, which stops your argument going through.

[Daniel and Brian in unison]

The Quinean thinks that the only epistemic access to our ontological commitments that we have is via the range of the quantifiers of our best theories.

Carrie Jenkins said...

To the Elstein-King gestalt entity:

Thanks, that's interesting. I guess I was thinking that even a hardcore Quinean would have some idea of what people are committed to other than via her biconditional (how else could she hope to argue for the truth of the biconditional itself?), but if you guys want to be even more hardcore than that, that does open up different line on the argument.

Brian said...

Is it hard-core Quineanism? Remember that I am a Quine refugee -- I'm only going by what I remember from my time under the yoke of the Heresiarch of Empiricism.

But it seems to me that to be Quinean one has to be that hard-core: I always took 1 to be a philosophical analysis of ontological commitment (LHS) in terms of quantification (RHS). But, as I say, ex-pat apostates aren't the best expounders.