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Three Questions About Immunity to Error Through Misidentification

Abstract

It has been observed that, unlike other kinds of singular judgments, mental self-ascriptions are immune to error through misidentification: they may go wrong, but not as a result of mistaking someone else’s mental states for one’s own. Although recent years have witnessed increasing interest in this phenomenon, three basic questions about it remain without a satisfactory answer: what is exactly an error through misidentification? What does immunity to such errors consist in? And what does it take to explain the fact that mental self-ascriptions exhibit this sort of immunity? The aim of this paper is to bring these questions into focus, propose some tentative answers and use them to show that one prominent attempt to explain the immunity to error through misidentification of mental self-ascriptions is unsuccessful.

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Notes

  1. See Wright (2000) for a defence of this interpretation.

  2. I will hereafter reserve the term ‘mental self-ascriptions’ for the judgments themselves, rather than their linguistic expressions.

  3. Recent years have witnessed increasing interest in this topic. See, for instance, Prosser and Recanati (2012).

  4. ‘Inflationist' arguments can be found in Anscombe (1975) and McDowell (1998). Contemporary ‘deflationists' include, among others, Coliva (2006, 2012), Morgan (2012) and Wright (2000).

  5. Notice that condition (iii) is equivalent to Recanati's requirement that the author of the judgment S believe the object to have the property “(λz) (S has grounds for believing that z is F)” (Recanati 2012, 180).

  6. See Pryor (1999, 274–275).

  7. The example is reported, almost verbatim, from Pryor (1999, 281).

  8. In fact, Pryor makes the stronger point that I might not yet be in a position to hold any de re beliefs whatsoever about any of the things I'm smelling (1999, 282).

  9. For a related case, involving misidentification of location without de re misidentification, see also Pryor (1999, 297).

  10. The basic idea is that, in a case of EM, “one reaches for the right predicate, but misidentifies the object in question when applying it” (McGlynn 2016, 25; my emphasis). Against this, it might be objected that committing an EM is compatible with making errors of other sort, as in the following variation of Paul McCartney, which appears to involve both an EM and an error of mispredication:

    Paul McCartney* – A look-alike of Paul McCartney is crossing the street. He is wearing blue shorts which, in this light, look black. Seeing him, John thinks to himself that Paul McCartney is wearing black shorts.

    But the objection seems to me to overlook a subtle distinction between being and involving an EM. I agree John’s judgment involves an EM (plausibly, in judging that Paul McCartney is wearing black shorts John judged also that Paul McCartney is wearing shorts, and the latter certainly is an EM). Still, I don’t think we should say that John’s judgment is an EM, because that would suggest (falsely) that there’s a person wearing black shorts that John mistook for Paul McCartney. Arguably, the notion of a judgment being an EM (which constitutes the focus of this section) can be used to define the notion of a judgment involving an EM: roughly, a judgment J involves an EM if and only if, in forming J, one also forms a judgment J’ (possibly distinct from J) which is an EM.

  11. See Pryor (1999, 282). Pryor suggests a “small amendment” to condition (II), but the amendment does not matter too much for my present purposes. Instead of speaking of evidence that “puts the subject in a position to know” that p, Pryor speaks of grounds “offering knowledge” that p, where “certain grounds G you have ‘offer you knowledge that p' iff p is true and, in virtue of having grounds G, you satisfy all the other conditions for knowing that p, except for those conditions that require you to believe that p” (Pryor 1999, 281). I adopt the former construction because it bears an immediate connection with the more familiar notion of “being in a position to know” (discussed, among others, by Williamson (2000, 95)).

  12. Thanks to Sven Rosenkranz here.

  13. Perhaps, if certain versions of externalism about mental content are true, the observation that I possess the concept of something looking ‘oak-tree-ish’ would justify me in believing that there actually are some oak-trees. But of course the observation that something looks oak-treeish does not justify me in believing that I possess the concept of something looking oak-tree-ish. So the observation that something looks oak-tree-ish does not justify me in believing that there actually are oak-trees, even if externalism about mental content is true.

  14. Importantly, saying that the minimal evidence M supporting a judgment that p puts the subject in a position to know that q is not saying that there is a way of supplementing M with further evidence M′ such that the combination of M and M′ would no longer justify the subject in believing that p while still justifying him or her in believing that q. The minimal evidence I have for believing that Paul McCartney is crossing the street offers me knowledge that someone is crossing the street, but (for all we are allowed to assume about the case) it might also make me so confident that it is precisely Paul McCartney who is crossing the street that any additional evidence to the contrary would leave me uncertain whether anybody at all is crossing the street (this would be so if, say, the probability of my being victim of a hallucination conditional on e+ were greater than the probability of there being someone who is crossing the street conditional on e+, where e+ is the combination of my minimal evidence with the piece of information that it is not Paul McCartney who is crossing the street). Reflection on this point suggests that the conditions spelled out by Pryor (1999, 284) might not be strictly speaking necessary for a judgment to be vulnerable to misidentification.

  15. Notice that the definition I'm proposing (like the other definitions of EM examined in this section) implies that only singular de re judgments can be cases of EM. This requirement strikes me as relatively innocuous, given that what we are ultimately interested in is the immunity to EM of mental self-ascriptions and mental self-ascriptions are generally deemed to be singular first-person judgments. At any rate, it's easy to see how the definition could be modified so as to allow for cases of EM that are neither singular nor de re.

  16. The label was suggested to me, in conversation, by Aidan McGlynn.

  17. “The statement ‘I feel pain' [is immune] to error through misidentification […]: it cannot happen that I am mistaken in saying ‘I feel pain' because, although I do know of someone that feels pain, I am mistaken in thinking that person to be myself” (Shoemaker 1968, 557).

  18. An obvious reply is that that it shouldn't be assumed without argument that my judgment could have had completely different features than the ones it actually has. But, even so, the point remains that questions of de re modality seem completely off topic in this context. One could be an haecceitist (i.e. embrace the view that any entity can possess radically different properties in different possible worlds) and yet recognize a sense in which my judgment that I'm thirsty is immune to EM. Symmetrically, one can be an essentialist (i.e. embrace the view that every feature of any entity is essential to it) and yet recognize that certain judgments which do not happen to be cases of EM are nonetheless not immune to EM.

  19. To make it more rigorous, we would have to be explicit about the resources one can draw on when one works out one piece of knowledge from another—can one appeal to some very general pieces of background empirical knowledge? Or is it only one's conceptual competence that one can rely upon?

  20. The case of KNOWLEDGE raises another difficulty: philosophers who think that if one knows that p then one knows that one knows that p will say that KNOWLEDGE satisfies both Impossibility and Assurance. There are, I think, three ways of reacting to this. One possibility is to say that the philosophers in question are wrong—knowing that p does not entail knowing that one knows that p—and this explains why KNOWLEDGE is not a species of IEM. A second possibility is that, intuitions to the contrary notwithstanding, KNOWLEDGE should be regarded a species of IEM (or, at least, should be regarded as a species of IEM by philosophers who think that knowing that p is sufficient for knowing that one knows that p). The third possibility would be to say that, since we are interested in a notion of IEM on which a judgment can enjoy IEM and yet be false, whatever kind satisfies Impossibility and Assurance should not be defined in such a way as to exclude false judgments. Note that, since at least some ERROR-FREE judgments are false, this last move would not undercut the need to supplement Impossibility with Assurance.

  21. Arguably, there is also a third requirement, namely that the claim be genuinely explanatory, in particular that it be informative and non-circular: if someone were to specify Φ as “whatever kind the judgments in question belong to that satisfies Impossibility and Assurance”, the resulting claim would hardly constitute a satisfactory account of IEM.

  22. The assumption that “beliefs and judgments are immune to error through misidentification in virtue of the grounds on which they are based” (Bermudez 1998, 6) is widespread. It is implicit in the characterization of IEM offered by Pryor (1999, 485) and McGlynn (2016, 50) and explicit in the discussion of Wright (2000, 19), Coliva (2006, 415), Smith (2006, 274–275) and many others (see the contributions in Prosser and Recanati (2012)).

  23. Content-based accounts of IEM typically claim that mental self-ascriptions have subjectless content (see, for instance, Recanati 2012). Campbell (1999) offers a method-based account appealing to ‘dedicated ways' of finding out about oneself. One standard argument against these accounts is that IEM is common to mental self-ascriptions and, e.g., some perceptual demonstrative judgments that are neither subjectless in content nor formed through the same method as mental self-ascriptions. However, once it is appreciated that there can be as many species of IEM as are the kinds satisfying Impossibility and Assurance, the argument loses its force—independent evidence is called for that exactly the same kind of IEM displayed by mental self-ascriptions is also displayed by, e.g., some perceptual demonstrative judgments.

  24. The distinction between evidence and background presuppositions of a judgment is explicitly drawn by Coliva (2006), although (as she points out) hints of it can be found already in Pryor (2000) and Wright (2002).

  25. The same move can be found in Garcia-Carpintero (2013).

  26. In order to sidestep these worries, one could take the background presupposition to be that this animal (I can now see) is an animal (in my garden) which is actually responsible for this odor I can smell. The general idea would be to relax the notion of an identification so as to include not only propositions of the form ‘x is the y that is so-and-so', but also any proposition of the form ‘x is a y that is so-and-so'. At that point, however, it would no longer be clear that mental self-ascriptions (or, for that matter, any other singular judgments) would still be classifiable as belonging to BASIC. Arguably, the proposition that I am an individual who has a headache is a background presupposition of my judgment that I have a headache, at least in the sense that it would be rational for me to withdraw my judgment were I told from a reliable source that I am not an individual who has a headache. Morgan (manuscript) makes a closely related point in his discussion of the notion of a background presupposition.

  27. Could the relevant feature be, quite simply, that the judgment is IEM? But for a judgment to be IEM is for it to belong to some kind that satisfies Impossibility and Assurance, and for judgments of a certain kind to satisfy Assurance is for them to possess some feature that is both incompatible with their being cases of EM and epistemically accessible to their authors. So to suggest the subject is epistemically assured against EM by knowing that her judgment is IEM is (roughly) to say that she is epistemically assured against EM by virtue of knowing that something she knows about her judgments is incompatible with its being an EM. It's hard not to think that this suggestion requires an answer to the prior question of what that 'something' is. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Manuel Garcia-Carpintero, John Hawthorne, Guy Longworth, Aidan McGlynn, Daniel Morgan, François Recanati, Sven Rosenkranz, Assaf Weksler and Crispin Wright for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to the participants of the LOGOS Colloquium in Barcelona, the second HUJI Graduate Conference in Jerusalem and the 2013 NIP / Institut Jean-Nicod Workshop “Thinking of Oneself” in Paris. The research leading to this paper has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007–2013 under grant agreement no. FP7-238128, and from the Swiss National Science Foundation Sinergia Project ‘Grounding – Metaphysics, Science, and Logic’ (Project 147685).

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Merlo, G. Three Questions About Immunity to Error Through Misidentification. Erkenn 82, 603–623 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-016-9834-6

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Keywords

  • Simple Explanation
  • False Identification
  • Minimal Evidence
  • Epistemic Assurance
  • Singular Proposition