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Extended cognition and epistemic luck

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When extended cognition is extended into mainstream epistemology, an awkward tension arises when considering cases of environmental epistemic luck. Surprisingly, it is not at all clear how the mainstream verdict that agents lack knowledge in cases of environmental luck can be reconciled with principles central to extended cognition.

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  1. I am using this term to refer to processes claimed to extend, at least in part, outside the skin and skull. I am not making a distinction here between extracranial and what some writers have called transcranial processes. See here, for example, Adams and Aizawa (2008).

  2. For simplicity’s sake, I am framing epistemic bioprejudice in terms of knowledge: one betrays her epistemic bioprejudice when withholding knowledge in a case where the process employed is in part extracranial and, were the process employed the intracranial analogue of the process actually employed, knowledge would have been ascribed. There are of course other ways to betray epistemic bioprejudice, insofar as cases of extended cognition stand subject to our ascriptions of (for example) justification, understanding, rationality or intellectual virtue.

  3. Such a verdict would betray epistemic, rather than metaphysical, bioprejudice because the stance welcomes extracranial processes as cognitive processes; the bioprejudice is epistemic because it takes the distinction to be an epistemic difference maker, even if not a difference maker from the perspective of assessing what qualifies as a cognitive process.

  4. If two cases are epistemically symmetrical, then (for instance) a theory of epistemic justification or knowledge must treat them the same.

  5. For two cases, A and A*, where A* is the extracranial analogue case of A, non-epistemically relevant features of A* can differ from A so long as the epistemically relevant features of the case–viz., the features that matter for assessing whether the case is a case of knowledge—remain symmetrical. Because E-parity is a principle aimed at preventing prejudice about what counts as knowledge, it is appropriate to frame E-parity in terms of analogue cases that require just that the relevant epistemic features are held fixed (rather than in terms of the more narrow category of intercranial–extracranial counterpart cases, according to which even the non-epistemically relevant features across cases are held fixed.)

  6. See here especially Hetherington (2012) gradualist proposal, according to which, with reference to extended cognition, knowledge might be attributed to different extents.

  7. For a sample of some explicit statements on this point, see for example Swain (1978), Lewis (1996), Kvanvig (2003, 2004), Pritchard (2003), (2004), (2005), (2007), (2012), Steup (2008), Luper (2010), Madison (2011), Kelp (2012a), Jarvis (2012), Carter (2010); Carter (2011) and Carter et al. (2012a, b). This list is far from exhaustive. There is some dissent, however—especially from experimental philosophy—which I consider in §4.

  8. Consider that, while one who endorses extended cognition will, by reference to the parity principle, count the notebook employed in the actual world as part of the cognitive process, the same is not true for the barn facades. Note that a condition for satisfying the parity principle (which circumscribes which processes are counted as cognitive processes, by proponents of extended cognition), involves Clark and Chalmers’s (1998) notion of coupling. While Otto counts as coupled to his notebook, Jimmy does not qualify as coupled to the genuine barn. See also §5 for additional discussion here. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  9. As Pritchard (2007) puts it: “...we evaluate theories of knowledge in terms of whether they are able to accommodate this claim. If they can’t—that is, if they allow lucky knowledge—then this is taken to be a decisive ground for rejecting the view.”

  10. I borrow this example from Peterson (2009, p. 4).

  11. For a recent challenge to this position, see Hetherington (2011), Ch. 3); here Hetherington defends what he calls combinatorial luck as better-suited than veritic luck at capturing the luck that is incompatible with knowing. Hetherington (forthcoming) also challenges Pritchard on this point; compare here with Pritchard’s (forthcoming) reply, in the same volume.

  12. Consider, for example, Gettier’s (1963) original case involving Smith, who believes, (with justification), that the man who gets the job has 10 coins in his pocket. Smith’s belief is true, but true because a different man (himself) happened to get the job, and Smith also happened to have 10 coins in his pocket. Cf. §4.2, Case 5.

  13. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that, often, bad epistemic environments are presented as ones that are also unfamiliar to the agent. It should be stressed that unfamiliarity is (though common) not an essential feature of a bad epistemic environment. See here Zagzebski’s (1996), pp. 285–286) environmental-luck style challenge to Plantinga’s (1993).

  14. See Pritchard (2007) for further discussion on this point.

  15. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  16. Cf. Kvanvig (2008), in his critique of Pritchard (2005), for some observations on the difficulty of getting the framing problem right. See also Pritchard (2010).

  17. Accordingly, proponents of extended cognition who are metaphysically committed to allowing more of the world to feature in a description of a cognitive process will hold more fixed under the description of the cognitive process employed in the actual world, than those without such commitments.

  18. The same results follows if we think of safety as a property of methods fundamentally, and beliefs derivatively. The extended memorial method employed by Otto in the actual world is a method of consulting his notebook, as it is in the actual world. This method is safe in nearby worlds, as the notebook contains the correct entry. Thanks to Chris Kelp for discussion on this point.

  19. Indeed, if we hold fixed that Otto consults a notebook with the correct time of his doctor’s appointment, the nearest worlds where he gets the time wrong are far-off worlds—worlds where (for instance) something unusual (say, bizarre ambient light) prevents him from apprehending the time of his appointment when he consults a notebook in which it is clearly written.

  20. Although I think that safe, true beliefs also happen to often satisfy the conditions for knowledge, I am not committing to safety as a sufficient condition for knowledge. Thanks to a reviewer for pointing out that, in any of the cases discussed here, there are features other than safety which could potentially be referenced in accounting for why an agent does not know. What’s relevant to my discussion on this point is just that, given M-Parity, the salient explanation for why Otto fails to know—namely, that is belief is unsafe—is off the table.

  21. Thanks to Benjamin Jarvis, Chris Kelp and Wybo Houkes for helpful correspondence on this point. We can think of the role of the jokester in this analogue as one’s neurological makeup, the latter of which determines that some, but not other, memories are obscured.

  22. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that one might object to the analogy by arguing as follows: that there is a factual defeater present in Case 1 (namely, that the jokester tampered with the other dates in the notebook) but not in Case 2. However, on closer inspection, the same kind of factual defeater either is or is not present in both cases. Consider that in Case 2, one could have forgotten the target proposition (by the same mechanisms that led to Otto* forgetting the other appointments). Deny that this fact is a factual defeater, and it’s hard to see how to motivate the line that there is a factual defeater in Case 1 consisting in the fact that the date could have easily been changed by the jokester, even though it wasn’t. I should add that, as an aside, I don’t want to take a stance on the epistemic status of factual defeaters, or the conditions for factual defeat. The point is only that the cases are more similar with respect to apparent factual defeat than it might seem on first blush.

  23. Hetherington (1998, forthcoming) has suggested that cases like Case 2 count against the anti-luck platitude, as they constitute a kind of lucky knowledge. He goes even further to conclude that knowledge is present in Gettier cases. For a recent criticism of Hetherington on these points, see Madison (2011). It is worth pointing out that anti-luck epistemologists can agree with Hetherington that Case 2 is a case of lucky knowledge while denying that the case is lucky in a way that is, by reference to veritic luck, incompatible with knowledge. Put differently, the sense in which we recognise Case 2 as “lucky knowledge” does not show knowledge to be compatible with veritic luck anymore than recognising “fool’s gold” commits one to the view that there is a kind of gold coextensive with iron pyrite.

  24. After all, the nearest worlds in which he gets it wrong despite retrieving a correct memory on the point are worlds where there is some anomalous, neural breakdown that occurs after the retrieval of the correct memory, blocking the formation of a correct belief.

  25. Compare this assessment with Plantinga’s (1993) point that Gettier cases depend on JTB’s allowing its justification condition to be satisfiable entirely by an internalistic justification condition. Thanks to an anonymous referee for drawing attention to this comparison.

  26. Why not simply say that Jimmy has a veridical perceptual experience in the barn facade case, and leave it at that? This is the broadly McDowell (1994) line. And since Jimmy satisfies McDowell’s further condition of not believing irresponsibly, Jimmy knows, on McDowell’s view. I concede this point, though I note that the cost of the McDowellian line is an (apparent) inability to handle cases where environmental epistemic luck is widely thought to undermine knowledge. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for noting the availability of this line of reply.

  27. Cf. Kelp (2012b) for a related discussion on this point.

  28. On Sosa’s view, animal knowledge is apt belief–belief that is accurate because adroit. Reflective knowledge is meta-apt belief, which is apt belief, aptly noted. Unlike animal knowledge, reflective knowledge requires that the agent exhibit a kind of meta-competence, whereby she recognises (or takes for granted) that her first-order belief as aptly formed.

  29. See Knobe and Nichols (2008) for a sample of papers supporting and criticising the experimental approach.

  30. As Clark and Chalmers (1998), p. 8) note, cases of extended cognition occur when the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction that creates a coupled system. While it’s apparent how coupling takes place with the notebook, it’s not clear how it could be argued to apply mutatis mutandis to the jokester.

  31. See here Spaulding (2012) for a recent presentation of this worry.

  32. This is Pritchard’s pet example, which he uses in numerous papers to illustrate Gettier-style (intervening) epistemic luck. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that this case owes originally to Chisholm (1966/1977/1989), not Pritchard.

  33. This difference is especially important in Pritchard’s recent work, according to which he (e.g. 2012) has argued that intervening epistemic luck, but not environmental epistemic luck, is incompatible with cognitive achievement, where cognitive achievement is understand as a cognitive success that is primarily creditable to the exercise of an agent’s cognitive ability. This point has important ramifications for proponents of robust virtue epistemology (e.g. Greco 2010, Sosa 2007, 2009), who take knowledge to be, essentially, a cognitive achievement).

  34. See, for instance, Adams and Aizawa (2001, 2008) and (Rupert 2004, 2010).

  35. For a recent survey of arguments on this point, see Spaulding (2012).


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I would like to express appreciation to Emma C. Gordon, Joel Katzav, Christoph Kelp, Wybo Houkes, Benjamin Jarvis, Philip Nickel, Martin Peterson, Auke Pols, Duncan Pritchard, Krist Vaesen and two anonymous reviewers at Synthese.

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Correspondence to J. Adam Carter.

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Carter, J.A. Extended cognition and epistemic luck. Synthese 190, 4201–4214 (2013).

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