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Understanding, Integration, and Epistemic Value

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Abstract

Understanding enjoys a special kind of value, one not held by lesser epistemic states such as knowledge and true belief. I explain the value of understanding via a seemingly unrelated topic, the implausibility of veritism. Veritism holds that true belief is the sole ultimate epistemic good and all other epistemic goods derive their value from the epistemic value of true belief. Veritism entails that if you have a true belief that p, you have all the epistemic good qua p. Veritism is a plausible and widely held view; I argue that it is untenable. I argue that integration among beliefs possesses epistemic value independent from the good of true belief, and so has value veritism cannot account for. I argue further that this integration among beliefs comprises the distinctive epistemic value of understanding.

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Notes

  1. Veritism is also known as epistemic value T-monism (Pritchard 2011).

  2. For accounts of understanding see Grimm (forthcoming); Kvanvig (2003, 2009 Chapt 8); Elgin (2006, 2009); Riggs (2003, 2004).

  3. See Kvanvig (2003, 2009). Kvanvig contrasts objectual understanding with propositional understanding. The latter is understanding that, understanding when, understanding who, etc. He holds that understanding explanations reduces to understanding that. However this is a controversial view (Grimm forthcoming). An alternative view holds that understanding explanations reduces to objectual understanding, as causal structures are objects in the world that we can comprehend in a way isomorphic to our comprehension of other objects such as transport systems and political systems. Whether and how species of understandings reduce to each other is an intriguing topic, however it falls outside the focus of my paper.

  4. For more on the integration of beliefs being characteristic of understanding, see Kvanvig (2003, 2009). See also Elgin (2006, 2009); Grimm (forthcoming), Riggs (2003, 2004).

  5. Timothy Williamson, for instance, would probably endorse Knowledge-monism, the view that the value of knowledge explains all other epistemic value (Pritchard 2011; Williamson 2000).

  6. Cf. (Pritchard 2011).

  7. My account of ultimate value is largely based on Pritchard (2011). Pritchard however, does not discuss dependency relations other than instrumentality relations (Pritchard 2011).

  8. Note that this account slightly differs from other articulations of veritism in the literature, e.g. Pritchard (2011). These differences do not concern us here, and my arguments against veritism, insofar as they are successful, also oppose veritism as rendered by Pritchard, in virtue of undermining the ‘ultimate value’ aspect of his account.

  9. The Meno Problem is the problem of explaining why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief (Riggs 2009). For how veritism relates to the Meno Problem see Pritchard (2011).

  10. This example is reminiscent of Zagzebski’s coffee machine analogy (Zagzebski 1996).

  11. For discussions of the swamping hypothesis see, Kvanvig (2003 §§ 3 and 4), Pritchard (2011), Riggs (2002), and Zagzebski (1999).

  12. Anecdotally, the way I got into this project, was wondering what a case against veritism would look like, and how could we make progress on this seemingly intractable debate.

  13. For those familiar with the Temp case introduced by Greco to motivate the progression from simple reliabilism to agent reliabilism (Greco 1999), the Markus case is similar to Greco’s Temp case, except all the agent’s beliefs, not just the ones about temperature, are affected.

  14. Kvanvig also cites William James’s view that in our epistemic lives we are strongly averse to the feeling that we are being duped or are missing something (James 1987). Kvanvig offers the intriguing suggestion that grasping this structure among beliefs provides some sense of reassurance that we are not missing something. We will feel that we have grasped the whole picture (Kvanvig 2003). And again to de-pyschologise the point, grasping the structural relations is some protection from in fact missing something; in virtue of grasping the relations between facts in a body of information, rather than merely believing isolated facts, missing items will be noticed. Similarly I suspect that well integrated beliefs protect epistemic agents against being duped, because when our beliefs cohere we grasp the reasons for ourselves, making it harder to be fooled.

  15. By using data collection robots—robots whose task is up-taking and storing data—I hope to isolate the epistemic domain. The robots do not process information for practical ends or navigate the world. They merely seek to represent the world in their memory systems. Isolating the epistemic domain in this way may help us to have sharper intuitions about purely epistemic value.

  16. To pre-empt an objection at this stage: The reader may argue that I am allowing Beta to have more truths than Alpha, because Beta is storing ‘extra’ truths such as the relations between facts. In response, however, for any such relation that Beta has (e.g. “Fact 2 is an instance of the general law expressed in Fact 1”) we should allow that Alpha stores that same fact in its list. If Beta holds a connection, Alpha can write about the connection on its list. Alpha may even have more propositions as a result. I shall later argue that in spite of holding these true beliefs about the relations, Alpha’s list fails to store the relations in the valuable way that Beta does.

  17. This response is similar to Goldman’s explanation of why we do not judge a reliable clairvoyant to know the results of her reliably clairvoyanced beliefs. This case is problematic for Goldman because according to his account of knowledge a clairvoyant knows, yet we typically intuit that she doesn’t know. He holds that it is a failure of our imaginative capacities (Goldman 1993).

  18. My preliminary investigations with cognitive scientists are a cause for optimism. They like the comparison between the two robots, and think it illustrates something important about cognition and computing. A future project is to model Alpha and Beta using the tools of cognitive science, to better understand how the kinds of integration Beta stores map onto human cognitive resources and processes. Call this a promissory note for future research!

  19. Following Stroud I altered the modality of the conditionals. In Carroll’s original paper the conditional C is ‘If A and B are true Z must be true’ (Stroud 1979).

  20. Thomson calls an argument ‘strengthened’ when it includes all the original premises, and a supplementary premise which states that the conjunction of the original premises imply the conclusion (Stroud 1979).

  21. When Stroud talks about the grasping of relations among beliefs being constitutive of understanding, the paradigmatic kind of understanding he has in mind is linguistic understanding—what it means to understand a sentence (Stroud 1979). He does not restrict himself to linguistic understanding, however, and it may be that focusing on these structural relations forges a connection between linguistic understanding and epistemic understanding (the latter being the kind that epistemologists study). The suggestion would be that linguistic understanding of a proposition requires the ability to make at least some connections and inferences from the proposition (and if an agent cannot do this we may say she doesn’t linguistically understand the sentence and so cannot even believe it, let alone epistemically understand it), but epistemic understanding requires seeing more of these connections, and situating the proposition into a wider web so it coheres with other things you believe. We may say that we (linguistically) understand that “hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water” once we can grasp at least some inferences entailed by it, such as “this water contains some oxygen.” But we have epistemic understanding only once we are positioned to make many more connections between this truth and other facts, such as the workings of the Periodic table, the principles of chemistry, and the behaviour of water. It may be that both linguistic understanding and epistemic understanding come in degrees, depending on how many such connections you can make, and that at their boundaries they shade into each other. A really good linguistic understanding of a sentence allows you to see so many connections to other facts that it is akin to epistemic understanding of the subject matter.

  22. For a useful summary of these regress arguments see Armstrong (1978: esp. §§ 7 and 10.)

  23. Plato’s Third Man Argument, unlike the regress arguments discussed here, require the principles of self-predication and one-over-many.

  24. Bradley describes these particulars as having a basic substrate, on which the properties can be ‘bound’. The instantiation relation may also be known as ‘participation’; the table being red can be expressed as ‘the object (table) participates in the universal (redness)’.

  25. In fact I suspect that the cognitive integration characteristic of understanding is the sole property that explains the special epistemic value of understanding over and above other epistemic standings such as knowledge and true belief, but this claim lies outside the arguments in this paper.

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Thanks

Thanks to Campbell Brown, Andy Egan, Scott Friedman, Jon Garthoff, Emma Gordon, David Henderson, Jon Kvanvig, Peter Milne, Duncan Pritchard, and Barry Stroud for comments on earlier drafts of this work and useful suggestions. Thanks also to audiences at the University of Edinburgh, Northwestern University and at the ‘Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom Conference’, Bled, Slovenia for helpful questions.

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Correspondence to Georgi Gardiner.

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Gardiner, G. Understanding, Integration, and Epistemic Value. Acta Anal 27, 163–181 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-012-0152-6

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