Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Synthese Petition

As Brian Leiter explains, there's now a petition being signed over the Synthese affair, which centers around a controversial disclaimer shrouding the print edition of the journal's recent special edition entitled "Evolution and Its Rivals."

There have been some interesting developments over the last week. Leiter posted the full response from the journal's Editors-in-Chief, which does not address the concerns about their behavior. Lots of good points are made in the comments section, especially this, by Ingo Brigandt. (There's also some rather absurd criticism of Leiter and defense of the EiC by one Darrell Rowbottom.) The guest editors formally responded to the EiC, expressing their dissatisfaction. Also, Leiter ran a poll. It looks like a strong majority agrees that foul play is afoot, while the community is split over whether or not to boycott.

The petition is a less drastic means of putting pressure on the EiC to come clean and make ammends. As of now, over 200 professionals (representing a good many schools, including a number of top philosophy departments) have signed. The demand is for more information, for an apology, and for a retraction of the disclaimer. If this doesn't work, support for the boycott may strengthen.

There's ample evidence of foul play here, and I'd sign the petition if I could. Unfortunately, I'm not qualified. I was once a grad student in Philosophy, but that was a long time ago, and I still don't have a graduate degree. I'm working my way into the Philosophy PhD program here in Szczecin, but I'm not there yet.

P.S. John Wilkins is keeping track of the situation (with links to various discussions) at Evolving Thoughts.

See update: Cryptic Letter from Synthese Editors in Chief

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Forrest Controversy

A storm is churning over Barbara Forrest's paper, "The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design: It's Implications for Public Policy," which appears in a special edition of Synthese (a highly reputable philosophy of science journal) devoted to controversies surrounding evolutionary theory, called "Evolution and Its Rivals." As a result, Brian Leiter is organizing a boycott.

Leiter's problem is not with the article, but the way the editors-in-chief handled it. Most offensively, they hung a disclaimer over the entire issue, claiming (perhaps disingenuously) that it is not up to their professional standards. This, even though they guaranteed the guest editors that they would not do so. The disclaimer makes the guest editors and all of the contributors suspect. Even if they had singled out Forrest's contribution, it would have been an insult to her and the guest editors who approved her paper. (That is, assuming her paper is not a departure from the norm. I haven't read it, and don't have easy access to it, though I'd very much like to see for myself.)

Why'd they do it? Apparently it's because there's been a widespread, vitriolic reaction to Forrest's article in the ID community. (The article had been previously published online.) There's a strong effort to dismiss her work, and this disclaimer is only going to help. Have the editors-in-chief of Synthese compromised their principles and buckled under the weight of ID politics? Or is Forrest's paper unworthy of Synthese? Again, I'd like to see for myself. Either way, the journal's handling of the situation is highly suspect, and the boycott might not be a bad idea.

See follow-up: Cryptic Letter from Synthese Editors in Chief

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Procedures and the A Priori

I want to flesh out the idea, which I expressed yesterday, that a priori knowledge is knowledge of rules which exist solely by virtue of knowledge of them, and which therefore is not justifiable in principle. The idea is a little obscure, but I think I can make it plainer. First, we have to recognize the distinction between propositional knowledge (representational knowledge, often called "knowledge that") and non-propositional knowledge (competence, often called "knowledge how"). A priori knowledge is not a matter of representational verisimilitude, but a matter of competence.

Proceduralism is the view that mathematical truths express cognitive procedures. The equation "2+2=4" does not represent a fact which could be corroborated by empirical observation, but a procedure which exists solely by virtue of the minds which carry it out. In that sense, it is a rule which is known, but which exists solely by virtue of the fact that it is known--that there are minds which can carry out the procedure.

A difficulty arises when we consider that "2+2=4" is a mathematical expression: it represents a procedure, and so we seem to have knowledge that "2+2=4" is a rule. So even if we adopt a proceduralist position, we want to recognize that we have propositional knowledge of mathematical rules. Still, there is a difference between knowing the procedure and knowing that it is a procedure. We need mathematical formulae (or other linguistic expressions) to express our knowledge that something is a rule; but what that knowledge is about--what the expression represents--is a variety of knowledge which itself is non-representational.

We cannot believe that 2+2=4 in the sense that we can believe Obama is POTUS. Knowledge of the procedure which "2+2=4" represents is not belief, but competence. Yet, we can have beliefs about the representation. We can have beliefs about what procedure "2+2=4" represents, for example, or about whether or not "2+2=4" is a well-constructed formula. Those beliefs are contingent and they are empirically justifiable. Such knowledge about mathematical rules is not a priori. But mathematical knowledge itself is a priori, because it is knowledge which constitutes those very rules; it exists only as procedures (or, rather, as dispositions to carry out procedures) in minds. This is not just the case for mathematical procedures, but all instances of a priori knowledge.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Devitt and the A Priori

I've just looked at Michael Devitt's paper, "Naturalism and the A Priori." He claims that epistemological naturalism cannot accommodate the a priori. According to epistemological naturalism, he says, all knowledge is justified by experience and nothing else. Since a priori knowledge is, by definition, knowledge which does not rely on empirical evidence for its justification (regardless of whether or not it is obtained by experience), then a priori knowledge is incompatible with epistemological naturalism. And since he is an epistemological naturalist, he claims there cannot be a priori knowledge.

I won't go through all of his arguments, which are largely critical: he is primarily concerned with criticizing various arguments for the a priori, though he does lay out two arguments against it: the first is that the notion lacks motivation; the second is that it is too obscure to be taken seriously. (This latter argument reminds of one of Mackie's argument against moral realism: that the notion of objective morality is just too bizarre to be lent any credence.)

My concern is that the way Devitt frames the debate seems questionable. His primary strategy is to focus on the issue of justification: we all know what it means to have empirical knowledge, because we know what it means to learn from experience. Experience justifies our beliefs. And, Devitt says, knowledge is justified true belief. So why claim that some justified true beliefs aren't justified by experience? What could they be justified by, if not experience?

When framed that way, his argument has a good deal of persuasive force, even if you don't agree with it. But why frame it this way? Why assume that all knowledge is justified true belief? If a priori knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that could be justified, even in principle, then Devitt's entire argumentative strategy is inappropriate. The question is, what sort of knowledge is it?

My proposal: A priori knowledge might be knowledge of a certain class of rules which can be defined as those rules whose existence depends only on their being known. The knowledge of such rules cannot be justified in principle, because the existence of what is known depends only on the fact that it is known. So, for example, "2+2=4" is knowable a priori, in the sense that it is a meaningful proposition which has meaning only in so far as it is known--which is to say that what is known is an aspect of the knowing, and not distinct from it.

This is surely an incomplete picture of a priori knowledge. But I find something compelling about it.

See follow-up: Procedures and the A Priori