Monday, March 19, 2012


Thus far, we've explored the idea that explanations guide us to the truth. To the extent that we've entertained challenges to that view, it's the explanatory skeptic's claim that explanations lack any uniform properties that could reliably underwrite inferences. However, the explanationist has three ways of sidestepping that worry.

The first is a direct attack on skepticism, as Nickel does. Similarly, even if Nickel's arguments don't work, an explanationist can start to look at more concrete skeptical views--such as my accountabilist and expressivist ideas--and find faults with them. Second, even if explanationists concede a good deal to explanatory skepticism, they can pick out a class of explanations that do underwrite inferences. Here, Lipton hones in on the most plausible candidate: causal explanation. Yet a third explanationist tactic is to claim that it is not the concept of explanation that underwrites Inference to the Best Explanation, but rather the notion of the best that guides us to truth. This invariably leads to the question, "What makes one explanation better than another?" Lipton's answer is "Loveliness," or that which provides the greatest potential understanding.

Lipton has already told us a bit about understanding--specifically it is knowledge of an explanation. (Recall his claim on p. 30: "Understanding is not some sort of super-knowledge, but simply more knowledge: knowledge of causes." Following Lipton's move in this week's chapter, we'll abstract the causal bit.) This would suggest that the best explanation is the one that would provide the greatest potential explanatory knowledge. Here "greatest" might mean "most," suggesting that we infer the explanation that would allow us: (a) to know more about it than its rivals, and (b) to know more explanations than would its rivals. However, "greatest" might also mean "best," in which case we need to have some way of judging what makes one body of explanatory knowledge better than another. Undoubtedly, (a) and (b) figure in such judgments, but others include theoretical virtues such as simplicity, conservatism, analogy, and consilience. (Arguably, consilience is exhausted by (a) and (b).)

However, this all presupposes that understanding is a species of knowledge, which brings us to squarely back to the crash course in epistemology from Week 1 (Scott Sturgeon's article). Recall the Gettier problem: one may have justified true belief, yet if one's belief easily could have been false, then a person does not know what she believes. For instance, suppose that I see an animal with white fluffy fur at Duclos Sheep Farm down the road from the College. Since I have seen sheep there quite regularly, I believe that there is a sheep in the field. Hence, my belief is justified. However, unbeknownst to me, I am seeing a shaggy dog who is perfectly occluding my view of a sheep. So although my belief is justified and true, it appears that I do not know. That is a Gettier case.

Some, most notably Jonathan Kvanvig, have argued that understanding is not a species of knowledge precisely because it is unaffected by "Gettier Luck." Kvanvig's case runs as follows: suppose that you pick up a library book at random on Comanche history. You read the book diligently, grasping how various explanations make sense of a large and well-studied body of evidence. When asked about Comanche history, you fire back a bevy of true answers. Wouldn't you say that you understand a good deal about Comanche history, including particular events in that history, e.g. why they dominated the Southern plains? Now, Kvanvig adds, suppose that the book you pulled from the library happened to be the only one on the shelf that had accurate information about Comanche history. Had you grabbed any other book on the Comanche, your beliefs would have been false. So, just like the sheep example, you don't know, because your belief could have easily been false. Yet your understanding seems unblemished by this fact.

(The analogy is sheep:shaggy dog::good Comanche book:shoddy Comanche book.)

Grimm critiques, and Morris defends, Kvanvig's stance on lucky understanding. [Where do you stand? Why?] Obviously, Grimm's view is more in line with Lipton's, but it is an interesting (and relatively unexplored) question as to how the possibility of lucky understanding affects IBE. Minimally, it would appear to lower the standards on what counts as the best explanation, as one would not need evidence that one's belief in the explanation could have easily been false. However, this presumably increases the riskiness of using IBE as a rule of inference. So if there are reasons for thinking that understanding is compatible with luck antecedent of any considerations of IBE, then perhaps the proper lesson is that IBE is not a reliable rule of inference.

Update on my Expressivism Paper
Our conversations from last week have prompted me to take a step back, and ask a more elementary question, "What is a pragmatic theory of explanation?" I'm also looking at the kind of argument that could provide good reasons to favor such a theory. It's turning out to be a fascinating exercise. I'll share once I'm further along. 


  1. Couple of unrelated thoughts:
    1)In general, I felt that Lipton’s article was well reasoned, barring some major assumptions. In fact, I thought his identification and explanation of the use of subjunctive questions – what is potentially the case, if true – was particularly insightful. However, I was deeply disappointed that he assumed several kinds of realism and then claimed that IBE could then be used to support other additional types of realism.

    2)Regarding Grimm’s article: In addition to Taylor’s objections and Morris’ rebuttal (mostly revolving around what Gettier means for understanding), I think that Grimm’s definition of knowledge on page 522 will end up being too strict (i.e., we will only be able to make very limited knowledge claims). Additionally, I disagree with Grimm’s likeliness of accuracy criterion for good sources of information — why not loveliness? Furthermore, I want to explore Grimm’s claim that fundamentally, “our understanding of natural phenomena seems conspicuously factive” rather than explanatory.

  2. I'll start by saying that I'm not wholly convinced by Grimm's arguments if only because his evidence for understanding being a species of knowledge seems to be entirely negative. That is, by asserting that understanding is not transparent and can be Gettiered (my new favorite verb), he seems to do nothing more than show that understanding shares some traits with knowledge. This does not seem to be a particularly strong endorsement of his titular assertion.

    On a largely unrelated note, I think it would be interesting to consider our intuitions (yes, those) about a continuation of a modified Comanche case. Suppose that Inquirer was not so lucky as to choose a good textbook. He nevertheless went on to believe that the barter system of the Comanche honed the traits that made them good conquerors. Then, later, he learned about his precarious epistemic situation. As makes sense, he goes on to conclude that he does not have knowledge of the Comanche and their territorial dominion.

    It seems to me, however, that we would still say that Inquirer still has some measure of understanding. Namely, he understands how, if the information that he read were true, how it would lead to such domination of the Southern Plains. I'm wondering whether this example clarifies at all our notion of understanding as distinct or not from knowledge. It seems that it's still compatible with understanding being a species of knowledge but that it still distinguishes it from a simple knowledge of causes.

  3. I have a question that for me has to come prior to the Grimm/Morris debate. Why is there such a large consensus that the etiology of a belief matters for whether it counts as knowledge? That does not seem obvious to me at all, and in fact is contra my intuitions.

    I haven't totally fleshed out my ideas about this, but I often feel that a lot of these disagreements about what constitutes knowledge and/or understanding have to do with disagreements/misunderstandings of the semantic content of the given (linguistically-formed) propositions.

  4. Add on to James' first point, i am not sure how the Grimm/Morris debate helps much with my understanding or knowledge of understanding/knowledge. And i think my uncertainty has to do with the overall approach of both articles. I am sure we can find examples in which knowledge and understanding overlap/differ, so why is either side of the debate so sure about the relation between knowledge and understanding (especially since Grimm makes the argument that understanding is a sub species of knowledge)?

    Also, given how much both articles appeal to various kinds of intuitions, would a discussion on belief help clarify the differences/similarities between Grimm and Morris's concepts of understanding and knowledge? Moreover, would the differences between the relationship of belief&understanding and that of belief&knowledge help us get closer to some fundamental differences between understanding and knowledge? But that could just be my intuition...

  5. I'm going to echo Josh's point here about the feeling that many disagreements about what does constitute knowledge and/or understanding is a linguistically semantic debate - especially around the term understanding (like the discourse we had about Why and How questions). What constitutes understanding? Providing a good explanation, or demonstration?

    Additionally, I would like to fully vet both sides in the Grimm v. Morris before I truly make a distinction and/or decision on which side I would take.