Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Understanding and (the neglect of) Fictionalism

So I’m going to go a bit off of the script here, and focus on the paper that I see emerging from these readings. This means talking a bit less about fictionalism, though the class will provide many opportunities to do so.

1.   Elgin vs. Mizrahi

Last week, we saw Elgin’s argument that understanding entails neither truth nor belief, but merely “true enough” acceptance. To repeat, her master argument was as follows:

(1)  There are some phenomena p such that for some propositions x:
a.          x is acknowledged to be untrue, and
b.         x figures in scientific understanding of p.
(2)  For all propositions x, if x figures in scientific understanding of some phenomenon, then x is epistemically acceptable (120).
(3)  There are some propositions x such that x is acknowledged to be untrue and x is epistemically acceptable.

Elgin provided several examples from scientific practice to support Premise (1). The one of greatest interest for this week is the following:

(4)  There are some phenomena p, explained by some idealized law L, such that the proposition L:
a.     Is acknowledged to be untrue, and
b.     Figures in scientific understanding of p.
(5)  Thus, (1) is true.

Example: Ideal gas laws posit molecular structure and interactions that never obtains.

As we had already anticipated, there is a reply to this, which Mizrahi (2011) nicely discusses. We never need to acknowledge that the ideal gas law is untrue, for we are only ever committed to “Gas g behaves approximately like an ideal gas under conditions C” (where C specifies conditions of temperature, pressure, and the like.) Since it is true (not merely true enough) that the relevant gases behave approximately like ideal gases, this proposition (rather than the ideal gas law taken straight) need not (indeed, should not) be acknowledged as untrue. Furthermore, once we are dealing with propositions that are acknowledged to be true, the appropriate attitude to adopt is one of belief. Hence, true beliefs are still on firm ground, and understanding is still in the running as a species of knowledge.

2.   Potential theses for a paper…

Mizrahi’s paper is bad news for us—we’ve been scooped! What do we do? Here are some interesting observations from last week’s conversation that make things appear less bleak:
(1)  Mizrahi only does this with the ideal gas law, we can do the yeoman’s work of covering all of the other kinds of felicitous falsehoods that Elgin catalogues (e.g. stylized facts, curve-smoothing, etc.) By itself this is probably not a terribly exciting contribution to the literature, but not completely idle either.
(2)  We had other strategies available to us. For instance, critiquing premise (2) of Elgin’s Master Argument. This is certainly worth exploring, though there seemed to be some consensus that this would amount to little more than battling over definitions about “epistemic,” “cognitive,” and “pragmatic.”
(3)  We briefly mentioned another strategy—that of actually granting that felicitous falsehoods could figure in understanding, whilst denying that this precluded understanding from being a species of knowledge. I see two ways of arguing for this strategy.
a.     Semantic strategy. One option is to defend the idea that: If q explains p is true, then q need not be approximately true.
1.     What would be exciting about this strategy is that it would actually challenge both Elgin and Mizrahi.
a.     Pace Elgin, one could have the true belief that q explains p, but this could be a felicitous falsehood.
b.     Pace Mizrahi, this would say that understanding need not even be quasi-factive, for q could be radically false and still provide understanding via its explanatory role.
2.     Turning back to knowledge, the key bit would be the following inference would have defensible premises:
a.     If S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p.
b.     If S knows that q explains p, then q explains p is true.
c.     If q explains p is true, then q need not be approximately true.
d.     So if S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p, and q need not be approximately true.
3.     The key is defending premise 2.c.
a.     One option might be the following:
                                                                                                     i.     Our concept of explanation already tolerates “true enough” explanantia.
                                                                                                   ii.     True enough propositions that are not explanantia (or at least do not play an explanatory role of some sort) do not figure in our understanding.
                                                                                                  iii.     Hence explanatory propositions (q explains p) are true (full stop), even if their components (q and p) can be true enough.
b.     Epistemological Strategy:  Another option is to argue that it is possible that S knows that q explains p, even if S only accepts that q explains p.
                                               i.     There is a precursor to this, namely Cohen’s An essay on belief and acceptance
1.     I haven’t read this yet.
                                             ii.     This argument would run as follows:
1.     If S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p.
2.     If S knows that q explains p, then S accepts that q explains p.
3.     If S accepts that q explains p, then S need not believe that q explains p.
4.     So if S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p, and S need not believe that q explains p.
Three questions arise: What exactly is the difference between the Semantic and the Epistemological Strategy? Second, which we do adopt? And in either case, how do we defend the respective core claim?

3.   Semantic vs. Epistemological Strategy       

Looking at the relevant foils to these strategies best illustrates the difference between them. One foil is what we might call the “vanilla version” of an account of explanatory knowledge. That view would hold:
(1)  If S knows that q explains p, then q explains p is true.
(2)  If q explains p is true, then q and p are true.
(3)  If S knows that q explains p, then S believes that q explains p.
Elgin’s reasoning seems to be as follows. She grants the preceding three assumptions, then adds:
(4)  One can understand without having a true belief that q explains p.
From this, she infers:
(5)  So understanding is not a species of knowledge.
Let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, that if one understands then one has some sort of attitude about an explanatory proposition q explains p. Now, our endgame is to deny (5), but granting that this argument is valid, this means that we must deny one of the premises (1)-(4). The Epistemological Strategy denies (1) and (3), but is squarely committed to (4). By contrast, the Semantic Strategy denies (2), but can remain agnostic, if not tilted towards opposition, about (4). That’s the difference.

4.   Which Strategy?

            But which strategy should we pursue? There is a temptation to pursue both, but I think this is a mistake that many young researchers make. Since either would be interesting on its own, it would be far better to develop one really solidly, and then save the other for your next project. This is partly strategic: that’s two lines on your vita rather than one! But it’s also good for generating the best paper possible: given finite resources, it’s better to have one well developed position rather than two worse developed positions.
            OK, so which one? Well, part of this is just wherever your gut takes you—where do you see the stronger argument? With which literature are you more comfortable? But that’s not the whole story. There is also a question about the logical interrelations between (1)-(4). Specifically, Elgin’s critique of the vanilla version shares many assumptions with its target—namely (1)-(3)—but Elgin clearly privileges (2):
(6)  There are understanding-providing explanations of the form q explains p where either q or p is false.
(7)  By (2) and (6), q explains p is false.
(8)  By  (1) and (7), S does not know that q explains p.

(9)  If q explains p is false, then the appropriate attitude to it when it provides understanding is not belief.
(10)        By (7) and (9), the appropriate attitude to understanding-providing explanations is not belief.
(11)        So by (3) and (10), S does not know that q explains p.

So, (2) and (6) are the most basic premises in Elgin’s argument. Note that rebutting (6) is just to retrace Mizrahi’s steps, so rebutting (2) is really the way to shed new light on this conversation. This means that we should pursue the Semantic Strategy.

5.   How to defend the Semantic Strategy?

            What’s cool about this is that we can answer the last of our three questions. We can use Elgin’s same arguments to defend our challenge to (2)—but draw a very different and indeed more modest conclusion. On this view, we agree with her that false propositions figure in explanations (and other chunks of discourse/bodies of information), but this does not preclude understanding from being a species of knowledge. Thus, we can know that q explains p even if we don’t know that q (because, e.g. q is false).
            Next, we need to motivate this position. Here is at least one suggestive strategy: what if antirealism is correct? Then understanding is surely not factive. Hence if Elgin is right, it would seem that antirealism precludes understanding from being a species of knowledge (Elgin actually makes this argument elsewhere). Moreover, everything Mizrahi says indicates that he agrees with Elgin on this point. So, if it is possible to be an antirealist and maintain that understanding is a species of knowledge, then both Elgin and Mizrahi are incorrect. It is possible to be an antirealist and maintain that understanding is a species of knowledge (namely in those possible worlds where the Semantic Strategy succeeds). So both Elgin and Mizrahi are incorrect.
            So, there’s an outline of a paper somewhere in this. It goes something like this:

What is the thesis? Because true explanations can have false explanantia, understanding can be a species of knowledge.

What is the argument?
I.               If Elgin’s argument is sound, then understanding is not a species of knowledge.
II.             Elgin’s argument is not sound.
a.     Defend the idea that q explains p does not entail q.
III.           If Mizrahi’s argument is sound, then understanding is a species of knowledge.
IV.           Mizrahi’s argument is not sound.
a.     Defend the idea that antirealists are not opposed to understanding.
V.             Present a sound argument that understanding is a species of knowledge.
a.     If S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p.
b.     If S knows that q explains p, then q explains p is true.
c.     If q explains p is true, then q need not be approximately true.
d.     So if S understands why p, then there is some q such that S knows that q explains p, and q need not be approximately true.


  1. I agree with Professor Khalifa that pursuing the semantic route is the way to go, if only because denying (1) is scary (in order to go the epistemological route, it would seem that we have to deny that knowledge is factive).

    I take it that the word semantic is used in the somewhat derogatory sense here (as opposed to meaning "meaning"), but intuitively it makes a good deal of sense. We can hash out the details in class, but doesn't it feel right to say that we can use a felicitous falsehood, like a model, to truly explain a real phenomena? I am totally comfortable with the proposition "If q explains p is true, then q is not necessarily true."

  2. I generally enjoyed both the Elgin and Fine essays, particularly Elgin’s extended account and further explication of exemplification and models. So, I want to reserve the rest of this comment to what I see as perhaps the fundamental question (and I mean the most basal) presented by Mizrahi, or the question of whether “scientific understanding involves some relationship between a model and the domain in nature it is supposed to be a model of” (Sec. 4). In particular, I’m not sure how Mizrahi can claim that if scientific understanding is to be had, the gas laws (or any idealization) must be true. This seems, to me, to be begging the question. That is, he appears – and this may just be an error in my quick read through of the material – to say that SU is quasi-factive because it accesses true theories which obtain in the world. But we know that our theories obtain in the world through scientific understanding.
    Even if this is truly not begging the question, I do not see why the fact that our models and theories have feedback mechanisms, through interaction and experimentation, necessarily means they are factive or necessarily are in the external world. I feel that I am missing something in Mizrahi's argument, can someone help me out?

  3. Andrew: I think what Mizrahi is trying to do is rescue things like the Ideal Gas Law from being dubbed mere "fictions", even felicitous ones, as Elgin suggests. Just because there are no "ideal gasses" - i.e. gasses whose behavior is always predicted by the IGL - doesn't make the "law" non-factive, because the point of the law is not to fully describe some real gas. Rather, gasses under various circumstances behave more or less "ideally" -the law IS aiming to give us facts about the forces operating on gasses, though it is incomplete and we may often in practical circumstances have to add compensatory terms (especially for gasses under high pressure, etc.).

    Now, because there are these limiting factors, Mizrahi does want to call the law "quasi"-factive - it's not an exact description of reality. But it is POINTING at true facts. It's not just a useful fiction. If the facts it is pointing out weren't really true (the ways pressure and volume relate and so forth) it wouldn't be useful. (The analogy to the Copernican model of heliocentrism is illuminating and I'm pretty sympathetic to Mizrahi's challenge to Elgin on that score). More and more refined models are desirable, but a model doesn't stay a fiction until it's perfect. If it's based on facts - albeit a non-comprehensive body of facts - Mizrahi dubs it "quasi"-factive. And that's how scientific models work, he claims.

  4. Firstly, I'd wonder if I could get some help clarifying a passage on page 87 of the Elgin article regarding various sorts of models (a passage, I'll admit, somewhat tangential to the point). The passage describes various forms of models and how each interacts with facts. She writes:

    "It is commonplace that scientists rarely if ever test theoretical models of phenomenological models against raw data... Only data models are apt to be tested against raw data. A theoretical model might take as its target a phenomenological model or a less abstract theoretical model... There may be a multiplicity of intervening levels of representation between the model and the facts it answers to."

    Is this saying nothing more that theories model curves, and curves model data? How rampant is this nesting of models actually? Does nesting of representations have any impact on the truth value of the models?

    In a related vein, I'm still resistant (as you might all expect) to the notion of models as fictions. It seems that, for a good model, it should describe a true outcome in a situation where its assumed starting conditions held. A claim not immune to contention. Then, insofar as real conditions are similar to the theoretical conditions, the outcomes seem as if they should resemble the outcomes predicted by the theory. Need this relationship be by analogy? Is this just a restatement of Mizrahi? Is it just nonsense?

  5. One of my questions deals with Elgin's dicussions on exemplification. More precisely, one of the weaknesses of Elgin's article is that she fails to provide a concrete analysis on how to define key properties. By key properties, i mean the kind of properties that are essential to the construction of an effective exemplification.This definition of key propertities is especially important since Elgin herself makes a distinction between exemplification and resemblance. Elgin only goes as far as arguing that exemplification should be selective because its primary function/object is to "bring out particular features" given the context that we are interested in. But one difficulty in tackling the problem is that without knowing the key roles that certain elements play in a phenomenon, how can we decide what properties should be selected in our chosen exemplification?

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