Dualism in the Epistemology of Testimony and the Ability Intuition

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  1. 1.

    I will here discuss the ‘Morris case’, as modified by Pritchard (2009, 68) (i.e. the ‘Jenny case’ as Pritchard describes it). Notice, though, that apart from the hero’s name, nothing else really changes.

  2. 2.

    In a similar vein, Faulkner (2000, 587-8) claims that “it is doxastically irresponsible to accept testimony without some background belief in the testimony's credibility or truth”, and “an audience is justified in forming a testimonial belief if and only if he is justified in accepting the speaker's testimony.” Or, consider Fricker (1994, 149-50): “the hearer should be discriminating in her attitude to the speaker, in that she should be continually evaluating him for trustworthiness throughout their exchange, in the light of the evidence, or cues, available to her.”

  3. 3.

    Lackey supports her claim through the consideration of two examples, namely ‘Nested Speaker’ and ‘Unnested Speaker’ (Lackey 2008, 148; 152).

  4. 4.

    In a similar spirit, Audi (1998, 142) claims that “gaining testimonially grounded knowledge normally requires only having no reason for doubt about the credibility of the attester.”

  5. 5.

    It is here important to introduce the two relevant types of defeaters that could affect one’s acquisition of testimonial knowledge. First, there are psychological defeaters, which are beliefs or doubts that are had by the hearer and which indicate that the hearer’s beliefs are either false or unreliably formed. Notice that psychological defeaters are not necessarily true. Second, there are normative defeaters, which are doubts or beliefs that the hearer ought to have, and which indicate that the hearer’s beliefs are either false or unreliably formed. In other words, normative defeaters are beliefs or doubts that the hearer should have (despite whether or not the hearer does actually have them), given the presence of certain available evidence.

  6. 6.

    I here say ‘seemingly’ because, as it will become apparent later on, to possess no undefeated defeaters against a testimonial report is actually a condition that requires a fairly active epistemic stance on the part of the hearer.

  7. 7.

    Lackey refers to these two examples as ‘Good-Natured’ and ‘Compulsively Paranoid’. See (Lackey 2008 160; 161).

  8. 8.

    Although the following types are originally meant for the provision of positive reasons for accepting one’s testimony, it is true that they can also be used equally well for the seemingly diametrically opposite process of coming up with undefeated defeaters for rejecting one’s testimony.

  9. 9.

    In relation to the previous footnote, see how this second case, as Lackey herself also suggests, is best explained in terms of either the possession or absence of undefeated defeaters, rather than the presence of positive reasons (2008, 181).

  10. 10.

    (Pritchard 2009, 48)

  11. 11.

    The idea that knowledge must be grounded in cognitive abilities can be traced back to the writings of such figures as Sosa (1988, 1993) and Plantinga (1993). For more recent approaches to the idea see Greco (1999, 2003, 2007) and Pritchard (2009, 2010a, b, c).

  12. 12.

    Greco calls his view ‘Agent Reliabilism’. I have here preferred this alternative name because as an anonymous reviewer has pointed out, Greco nowhere explicitly endorses such a strong formulation of the ability intuition on knowledge. Instead, Greco holds that S knows that p if and only if S’s reliable cognitive character is an important –but not necessarily the most important—necessary part of the total set of causal factors that give rise to S’s believing the truth regarding p (see Greco 1999, 287-8, 2003, 123, 2010, 12). His critics (Lackey 2007; Vaesen 2010) however, claim that in order for Greco to avoid the knowledge-undermining epistemic luck involved in Gettier problems (see Gettier 1963), he needs to endorse the strong formulation of the ability intuition as it has been cashed out above. The reason, they claim, is that in Gettier cases, one's cognitive character remains an important necessary part in the causal explanation of how one formed one's true belief, even though one clearly lacks knowledge. For instance, in the case where a person justifiably believes that there is a sheep in the field because she sees a sheep-shaped rock and it also turns out that there is a real sheep behind the rock, her cognitive character is indeed an important factor in the causal explanation of why she came up with a true belief, because it is on the basis of her cognitive abilities that she actually formed the target belief which accidentally turned out to be true, as well. Accordingly, Greco’s critics object that in order to explain why this is not an instance of knowledge acquisition Greco must object that the person’s cognitive character is not the most salient feature in the explanation of how the person acquired her true belief; instead the most important factor is luck. And they go on to provide evidence that Greco does indeed endorse such a strong understanding of the ability intuition: “S’s cognitive character is not the most salient part [in such cases]” ((Greco 2003, 131, the emphasis is added) quoted in (Lackey 2007, 348) and (Vaesen 2010, 6)). This, however, may simply be a misunderstanding because Greco seems to avoid this problem by elsewhere claiming that in Gettier cases one does not believe the truth because of one’s cognitive abilities: “In Gettier cases, S believes from an ability and S has a true belief, but the fact that S believes from an ability does not explain why S has a true belief” (Greco 2010). In Gettier cases, luck simply cancels out the salience of S’s cognitive character at arriving at truth, and so S’s cognitive character is not an important feature in the causal explanation of how one gets to the truth of the matter. Therefore, contrary to what his critics think, it seems that Greco does not need to endorse the strong version of the ability intuition on knowledge in order to avoid Gettier counterexamples.

  13. 13.

    (Pritchard 2009, 68). It is adapted from Lackey’s ‘Morris case’ (see Lackey 2007, 352)

  14. 14.

    It should be here clarified that although the ‘Jenny case’ (initially put forward by Lackey as the ‘Morris case’ (2007, 352)) was one of the main reasons for revising the strong version of virtue reliabilism (and consequently coming up with COGAweak), Lackey’s dualism in testimonial knowledge and Pritchard’s COGAweak have been separately elaborated. Obviously, Lackey’s account is only meant to account for testimonial knowledge, while COGAweak is meant to apply to any kind of knowledge. There is, then, no suspicion that COGAweak is ad hoc and it should be thought of as a quite encouraging point if it, indeed, turned out to be in accordance with Lackey’s detailed account of testimonial knowledge.

  15. 15.

    Notice that the appropriate integration of information acquired by external sources within one’s cognitive character is itself a belief-forming process, which is reducible to more basic inductively and memory based belief-forming processes. Nevertheless, the said kind of belief-forming process seems to be critical even though it is usually a transparent one.

  16. 16.

    A subtle difference between the two proposals, however, is that while Greco presents knowledge as true belief which is ‘of credit’, Pritchard insists on thinking about knowledge merely as ‘creditable’ true belief. These two notions are not the same. “For example, one’s cognitive success could be creditable to one’s cognitive agency without being at all of credit to one (perhaps the cognitive success is the result of an inquiry that one ought not to be pursuing, because, say, there are epistemically more desirable inquiries that one should be focusing instead” (Pritchard 2010a, en. 26). While this distinction is not important to the present discussion, it is of great significance with respect to the debate on the value of knowledge. If, as Greco claims, knowledge is true belief, which is ‘of credit’, this is because knowledge is an achievement. Since achievements are finally valuable, knowledge turns out to be finally valuable, as well. However, considering cases such as the one mentioned above, or mundane instances of knowledge such as perceptual beliefs, Pritchard claims that knowledge is not always an achievement and so not finally valuable either. For further discussion on this issue, see (Pritchard 2010b, §2.4).

  17. 17.

    In relation to footnote 12, however, notice that Greco’s ‘Agent Reliabilism’ appears to be closer to COGAweak than to the strong version of virtue reliabilism with which COGAweak is here juxtaposed.

  18. 18.

    In fact, Pritchard recognizes the problem posited by the knowledge undermining luck to be a central one. Accordingly, he elsewhere formulates a complete account of knowledge by combining COGAweak with an anti-luck condition on knowledge, namely the safety principle. Consider for example Anti-Luck Virtue Epistemology: S knows that p if and only if S’s safe belief that p is the product of her relevant cognitive abilities (such that her safe cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to her cognitive agency (Pritchard, manuscript, 20). And again, in (Pritchard 2010a, 76) we can read: “ knowledge is safe belief that arises out of the reliable cognitive traits that make up one’s cognitive character, such that one’s cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to one’s cognitive character”.

  19. 19.

    In relation to the previous footnote, however, Lackey (2008, ch. 5, fn. 30) suggests that one could rule out the lucky acquisition of true belief in inappropriate environments in alternative ways such as with the inclusion of a metareliability condition. Although there might be some other alternatives as well (for instance Greco’s (2008) ‘subject-sensitive, interest-dependent contextualism’) their exposition is far beyond the scope of the present paper.

  20. 20.

    Notice that, as Lackey herself admits, this list is not meant to be exhaustive as there could be further inductively based ways to distinguish between the reliability and unreliability of testimonial reports (2008, 181). Nevertheless, the identification of reliable reports should not be thought of as being exclusively based on inductive reasons, as it may often be the outcome of reasons that have to do with the agent’s memory; consider, for example, an agent assessing the coherence of information provided by a proffered report with the rest of his/her doxastic system.

  21. 21.

    One of the examples that motivate Lackey’s view is the following:

    “For instance, one of the reasons it doesn't make sense to impose a “no-lying condition” on a chair is because chairs cannot lie. To say that a chair has satisfied such a condition merely because it hasn't lied, without taking into account whether the chair has the capacity to lie, trivializes what satisfaction of such a condition means. Of course, considerations of this sort apply to persons as well.” (Lackey 2008, 197)

  22. 22.

    Remember that, in cases of testimonial knowledge, the belief-forming processes found in the formulation of COGAweak stand for the inductively and memory based positive and negative reasons that one may have for rationally, or at least not irrationally, accepting, or rejecting a speaker’s testimony (i.e. for appropriately integrating, or not, the speaker’s reports within the rest of one’s cognitive character).

  23. 23.

    A similar point may as well be made with respect to conditions D5 and D6. Sometimes, the inductively based positive and negative reasons that Lackey grants to hearers for accepting or rejecting a speaker’s report may be implicit and not reflectively accessible to the hearer–at least not at the moment of implementation.

  24. 24.

    Arguably, Greco’s ‘Agent Reliabilism’ may generate similar results (see also ft. 12 and 17).

  25. 25.

    I am particularly grateful to Duncan Pritchard for helpful discussions on the topic and feedback to several previous drafts. I am also thankful to J. Adam Carter, Georgi Gardiner and Emma Gordon for stimulating conversations during an epistemology reading group held in the first semester of the academic year 2009-10. Finally, I am indebted to an anonymous referee for providing me with several constructive comments.


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Correspondence to Spyridon Orestis Palermos.

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Palermos, S.O. Dualism in the Epistemology of Testimony and the Ability Intuition. Philosophia 39, 597–613 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-010-9291-4

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