walto’s paper as a failed argument against Cartesian skepticism

TSZ commenter walto published a paper this year in the Journal of Philosophy entitled Epistemic Closure, Home Truths, and Easy Philosophy. Unfortunately, the paper isn’t free — if you want to read it, you’ll either need to pay for it yourself or get it via institutional access (if you’re fortunate enough to have that.)

Regarding his paper, walto made the following remark to commenter Kantian Naturalist:

I don’t know if it counts as “a refutation”–but I think keiths’ version of skepticism requires the closure of knowledge under (known) entailment [which walto refers to as ‘CLR’ in his paper.] And I think that that premise can be shown to be false.

It’s a long story and you’ll have to get my paper to see how, but the abstract is available for a nickel.

I think walto hesitated to use the word “refutation” because he couldn’t rule out the possibility of arguments for skepticism that don’t rely on CLR. Any such arguments would be unaffected by the conclusion of walto’s paper, and skepticism might therefore remain standing.  But any argument that did depend on CLR would be refuted if the conclusion of walto’s paper is correct and CLR is false.

We can (and likely will) discuss many of the technical details in the comments below, but unless I’m missing something fundamental, it appears to me to be surprisingly easy to show why walto’s paper doesn’t work as a refutation of CLR-based arguments for Cartesian skepticism.

His statement of the argument requires the following premise:

(ii) A competent reasoner sometimes knows such things as that she is sitting on a green chair.

That premise effectively amounts to a denial of Cartesian skepticism. So in order to use his argument agains Cartesian skepticism, walto first has to assume the falsehood of Cartesian skepticism just to get the argument off the ground.

The reasoning therefore ends up being circular:

1) assume that Cartesian skepticism is false;
2) using that assumption, deploy the argument laid out in the paper and conclude that CLR is false;
3) use that conclusion — that CLR is false — to negate any argument that requires CLR to be true, including arguments for skepticism.

It looks hopelessly circular to me, but walto is unlikely to take this lying down. Stay tuned for a vigorous debate.

143 thoughts on “walto’s paper as a failed argument against Cartesian skepticism

  1. It is probably a wordpress bug. Some of the replies by keiths are getting through (in this thread). And some are not.

    For the sake of continuity, I am now releasing all of his held posts for this thread. When they appear, you might want to reread the thread so that you catch them all.

  2. For the sake of continuity, I am now releasing all of his held posts for this thread. When they appear, you might want to reread the thread so that you catch them all.

    Thank you, Neil.

  3. keiths: It’s just the flip side of the argumentum ad verecundiam, or argument from authority.

    I disagree. Argument from authority isn’t necessarily a fallacy. But given that you’re an authority on these things, and I am merely a person without formal training, I’ll bow to your superior wisdom.

  4. Mung,

    Argument from authority isn’t necessarily a fallacy.

    I agree. I’m just pointing out, in response to your question, that “argument from authority” is the name of the fallacy. “Appeal to authority” is also often used.

    There’s a similar confusion with “ad hominem” — just ask Bill. “Ad hominem” is the name of the fallacy, but that doesn’t mean that every ad hominem is fallacious.

  5. keiths: I’m just pointing out, in response to your question, that “argument from authority” is the name of the fallacy. “Appeal to authority” is also often used.

    Yes, I know. I am familiar with that “fallacy” and the names for it.

    But that wasn’t the question I asked. I asked for the name of the fallacy on “the flip side” of that. Do you say it [the flip side of the argumentum ad verecundiam, or argument from authority] carries the same names, a different name, or no name at all? If it doesn’t have a name, just say so.

    Perhaps you could even name it and become famous.

  6. Mung,

    But that wasn’t the question I asked. I asked for the name of the fallacy on “the flip side” of that.

    If it has a name, I’m not aware of it.

  7. keiths: If it has a name, I’m not aware of it.

    And if we acknowledge that argument from authority isn’t necessarily a fallacy, shouldn’t we also allow that “the flip side” of that is also not necessarily a fallacy?

    It’s fallacious to conclude that the person without formal training is wrong.

    Always?

  8. Reposting since the first copy ended up in Moderation.

    keiths:

    It’s fallacious to conclude that the person without formal training is wrong.

    Mung:

    Always?

    Christ, Mung. Pay attention to the context.

    keiths, to Bruce:

    You were making a fallacious appeal to authority:

    …I think it is reasonable to conclude that the professionals are right and the person without formal training is wrong. I extend the same courtesy to philosophers.

    It’s fallacious to conclude that the person without formal training is wrong.

    All else equal, a person with formal training is more likely to be correct than a person without. If you had to bet, and you had no other information, it would be wise to bet on the trained person. But to conclude that the person with training must be correct, based on nothing more than the fact of the training itself, is clearly fallacious.

  9. walto,

    I previously explained my two major points, namely

    a) that your argument against CLR-reliant Cartesian skepticism is circular, because it depends on the starting assumption that CLR-reliant Cartesian skepticism is false; and

    b) that your argument against CLR fails because it depends on that same assumption, and the assumption cannot be justified.

    Now I’d like to address a third point. CLR is an intuitive idea, as you remark in your paper. You’re reluctant to accept it, however, despite its intuitiveness, because you fear that it leads to “too easy heavyweight knowledge”. That qualm motivates your entire argument against CLR.

    But note something important:

    In your argument, the only reason that CLR leads to “too easy heavyweight knowledge” [henceforth “TEHK”] is because you assume premise (ii) — that is, you assume that Cartesian skepticism is false.

    Refrain from assuming that skepticism is false, and the TEHK problem you mention in your argument goes away without requiring you to abandon CLR.

    Let’s tie everything together and look at what’s happened:

    1. You assumed that Cartesian skepticism was false, despite the fact that the arguments for it are strong and you have no refutations available.

    2. The assumption that Cartesian skepticism was false, coupled with CLR, led to the problem of Too Easy Heavyweight Knowledge.

    3. To avoid the problem, you set out to falsify CLR.

    But the problem was entirely artificial, created only by your refusal to accept Cartesian skepticism in the first place.

    Why not accept Cartesian skepticism, in which case you can retain CLR without creating TEHK problems?

  10. walto: Not according to Descartes.

    Have you read Haugeland’s Mind embodied and embedded? Very roughly, he argues there is no principled way to separate mind and world, so Cartesian skepticism cannot get off the ground. The fun part of the paper for me is that he uses arguments from systems analysis to make his case. There would be a lot for me to learn to understand the philosophical background for papers like yours, but systems analysis in right in my wheelhouse!

    I learned of Haugeland’s paper from Grush’s In Defense of Some Cartesian Assumptions Concerning the Brain and Its Operation. Grush uses representationlist approaches similar to those KN and I posted about in other threads to counter Haugeland’s arguments.

    ETA: those papers are a precursor to the arguments Hohwy and Clark have had about Predictive Processing, Markov Blankets, and Cartesian skepticism which have been discussed in other threads by KN and me (more him than me!). I can dig up links to their papers if you are interested.

  11. I’ve read some Haughland (not that) and am sympathetic to the view that cartesianism is wrong from the get go–as is kn and Neil and as was Sellars and Wittgenstein. I don’t know Grush. But the literature on all that stuff is immense. Some of the big name philosophers I discuss in my paper are dretske, thomasson, yablo, vogel, Kelly, and (Stuart) cohen.

  12. First, a note to the moderators: As you know, there are comments of mine waiting for approval in the Squawk Box thread. The last one was published yesterday (by Lizzie?), and new ones have been waiting for over 24 hours.

    Bruce:

    Have you read Haugeland’s Mind embodied and embedded? Very roughly, he argues there is no principled way to separate mind and world, so Cartesian skepticism cannot get off the ground.

    That sounds interesting. I’ll take a look.

    It won’t help in terms of walto’s paper, however. Walto accepts Cartesian skepticism as a logical possibility; he just assumes that it’s false.

  13. There’s a bit of hand-waving in walto’s discussion of this:

    First, like the vast majority of those who have ever written on epistemology, I will take as a fundamental starting point that we often easily know such home truths as what our name is, that there are cows around here, that we once attended elementary school, that Mickey Lolich once pitched for the Detroit Tigers, and that we have two hands. Thomas Kelly has reminded us of David Lewis’s endorsement of this foothold in the latter’s “Elusive Knowledge”:

    We know a lot. . . .We have all sorts of everyday knowledge, and we have it in abundance. To doubt that would be absurd. . . .It is a Moorean fact that we know a lot. It is one of those things that we know better than we know the premises of any philosophical argument to the contrary.

    I take it that no philosopher need apologize for this opening move, since it has been made by epistemologists of nearly every stripe at least since the time of Hume.

    But as walto has acknowledged, he can’t refute the arguments in favor of Cartesian skepticism. So he’s denying skepticism not because he can find fault with it, but merely because various epistemologists have denied it.

    It’s a fallacious appeal to authority.

  14. Suppose you believe that seeing or sitting in a chair is nothing but having certain sensations. Nothing else. You might then believe that there are chairs but also insist that we cannot know that there are physical objects, perhaps because you think that we cannot know that chairs are physical objects or maybe yous simply deny that they are.

    Or maybe you believe that you know that there are chairs and that there being chairs entails that there are physical objects but hold, as many contextualists do, that one cannot know these in the same way or at the same time.

    See if you can figure out the morals of those stories.

    As indicated, you either did not read or could not understand my paper, because your confusion is discussed all over the place in it.

    There is no circle and you are confused but persistent (in your keithsian way). That’s the sum and substance of this thread so far. About what anyone would have expected.

  15. walto,

    The central branch of my local library has a hard copy of that issue of the journal. I hope take a look at it a day or so. Are you interested in answering “is this what you are saying”-type questions?

  16. keiths:

    It won’t help in terms of walto’s paper, however.Walto accepts Cartesian skepticism as a logical possibility; he just assumes that it’s false.

    As I understand it, based solely on this thread, Walt’s paper is a contribution to the philosophical debate about the knowledge closure principle.

    Haugeland’s arguments against Cartesian skepticism belong to a different philosophical approach: the one that says the whole question of Cartesian Skepticism makes no sense, because the terms of the argument are based on an untenable conception of mind.

    One thing I am not clear on is what argument you use to justify your Cartesian Skepticism — infallibility, closure, or something else. There is a nice intro to the relevant philosophy at IEP, if you are interested in relating your approach to the standard philosophical arguments.

  17. BruceS:
    walto,

    The central branch of my local library has a hard copy of that issue of the journal.I hope take a look at it a day or so.Are you interested in answering “is this what you are saying”-type questions?

    Possibly. Depends how irritated I get with keiths’ know-it-all ‘of course it’s fallacious’ posts. Patience with that sort of thing is not one of my virtues. He might have asked a question or two if he wasn’t sure about something in the article. But he has a religious personality:: He’s decided that his Cartesianism is right, so that anything that conflicts with it simply MUST be wrong. It’s a monarchy man approach to life–and to one’s own personal infallibility (notwithstanding their denials of that).

    The title of this OP was pretty indicative of what one should expect here. If you’ve announced out loud that some argument has “failed”–in the title of your post no less– what’s the chance you’re going to come around if someone points out an error in your understanding? (Now divide that probability by 8, because we’re talking about keiths here.) So, of course he’s just going to repeat his baloney–this time likely in an even more obnoxious fashion. It’s The Skeptical Zone after all, right?! Nobody should really be interested in learning anything!

    Anyhow, give it a shot. And if I’m not too crabby (or old) I’ll try to answer.

  18. Is there any cross-over between “All Cretans are liars”? If I’m certain I can’t be certain, how can I be certain?

  19. Btw Bruce, if you can explain to me what the guy is saying in the other article in that issue, I’d consider it a more than fair trade. That thing is molto complicato! I have very little idea what’s going on there–or why it should be of any philosophical interest at all.

  20. Mung:
    Hi Bruce,

    Could you link to the IEP article you referred to?

    Thanks in advance

    I thought I did. But I noticed too late to edit that I had had another link failure. So just to be safe here is the URL. It’s to contemporary skepticism.
    https://www.iep.utm.edu/skepcont/

    And here it is an in anchor tag. That worked in the preview of my post.

  21. BruceS,

    On the tag: Worked in the preview, did not work when I posted. I edited and as always for me the system added rel=”nofollow” after the url in the tag. Removing did not help; leaving it but removing quotes around the url following the href= seemed to have done the trick. Not sure what is going on. But I am getting used to that feeling.

  22. BruceS,

    The link seems to work for me.

    As far as I know, you can ignore that rel=nofollow. It doesn’t really do anything. As far as I know, it is just a hint to search engines.

  23. I always create my links manually.

    <a href=”enter url here between quotes”>enter text here</a>

    Hope that helps.

  24. BruceS: Haugeland’s arguments against Cartesian skepticism belong to a different philosophical approach: the one that says the whole question of Cartesian Skepticism makes no sense, because the terms of the argument are based on an untenable conception of mind.

    I love that Haugeland paper and it had a huge impact on philosophy of cognitive science. Haugeland is drawing on some phenomenology (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) and some robotics work (e.g. Rodney Brooks) to argue against a Cartesian picture of mind — and the attendant possibility of skepticism. I tried raising this point in conversation with keiths last year but he just wouldn’t have it.

  25. ok, I don’t find “CLR” in either article on skepticism.

    What does CLR stand for and do these articles refer to it under another name? Is it the same as closure principle?

    Thanks guys

  26. Mung:
    ok, I don’t find “CLR” in either article on skepticism.

    What does CLR stand for and do these articles refer to it under another name? Is it the same as closure principle?

    Thanks guys

    Yes, closure principle for knowledge. More detail on arguments about it at SEP, but IEP has better intro, I think.

    ETA: I have seen the paper so that is why I say that is what clr means.

  27. Mung:
    I always create my links manually.

    <a href=”enter url here between quotes”>enter text here</a>

    Hope that helps.

    Yes, that what I do, except I am careless about the quotes around the blankless url’s after href. Bad habit picked up from command lines which is obviously the wrong model for html. I thought I tried it with and without but I’ll pay attention from now on.

    Curious that it works consistently in preview of my post that appears as you type (I mean that I ctrl-click on the link in the preview and the target shows in the new tab)

  28. Neil Rickert:
    BruceS,

    The link seems to work for me.

    As far as I know, you can ignore that rel=nofollow.It doesn’t really do anything.As far as I know, it is just a hint to search engines.

    I did spend several iterations of edits until it worked; maybe that is what you are seeing.

  29. BruceS: Bad habit picked up from command lines which is obviously the wrong model for html.

    Hehe. It may help to always create the skeleton first and then insert any text/url into it.

    <a href=””></a>

  30. You know, it strikes me that I kind of prefer the “Congratulations, Bill…” OP title to this “failed argument” thing.

    Not sure why.

  31. walto: Not sure why.

    It just sucks for you that your “argument” ever managed to see the light of day.

    Next time ask for better reviewers. Instead of crowing over the fact that your paper was published, send your paper back and ask for a do-over. A little humility please.

  32. Mung:
    This looks very interesting:

    Rethinking the History of Skepticism

    Along related lines:
    The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle

    Those books are concerned with an infinitely more sophisticated and powerful version of Skepticism than what we call “Cartesian skepticism”.

    Cartesian skepticism is usually bandied about as “can you trust your senses?” But that’s child’s play. The really interesting questions begin to open up when the question is posed: can you trust your reason? And if not, then what happens to arguments that tell you shouldn’t trust your reason? Or to arguments that tell you that the senses are not reliable?

  33. Kantian Naturalist: Cartesian skepticism is usually bandied about as “can you trust your senses?” But that’s child’s play. The really interesting questions begin to open up when the question is posed: can you trust your reason?

    I agree. And I really appreciate every time you go into the history of an idea in philosophy. The other stuff is usually too technical for me. 🙂

    I like to know what the original positions were, how they were addressed, and how they were modified to address the objections. How did we get to where we are today. Have we forgotten the past. Were original objections simply glossed over.

    It seems to me that almost every philosopher was responding to something, and unless we can decipher what position or positions they were responding to we have little hope of understanding them.

    ETA: Context is everything. Especially in philosophy.

  34. walto:
    Btw Bruce, if you can explain to me what the guy is saying in the other article in that issue,

    I understand it to be a contribution to philosophy of science, specifically to the subfield concerned with what scientists do given their beliefs. According to the author, this is unlike most of philosophy of science, which is said to be concerned with the relation of evidence to belief for scientists.

    The paper examines two situations: (1) how scientists divide their time between leisure and science and (2) how scientists decide which of several projects to work on. The paper uses analysis of utility functions for scientists in two situations: working alone and in a society involving other scientists. However, the paper does not assume scientists make purely rational decisions based on their assessment contribution of science to society. Instead, the paper recognizes scientists are human and will seek to obtain recognition and credit for their work.

    In particular, the paper examines how such “selfish” motives can still lead to an overall result where science provides more for society than would be provided by purely rational, truth-seeking scientists. The paper says this is similar to Smith’s invisible hand where markets produce a beneficial allocation of work and goods for society despite/because of the selfish motives of participants.

    Use of utility theory seems to be a well-recognized component of philosophizing. Kitcher uses it in the relevant chapter (the last one) of his book The Advancement of Science, a book that the paper cites.

  35. walto:
    Anyhow, give it a shot. And if I’m not too crabby (or old) I’ll try to answer.

    As fast as I could so you did not get much older:
    I am going to split my thoughts into four posts:
    1. Basic assumptions. I just want to make sure I understand them and their role in your argument.
    2. The Categorial Principle
    3. The argument itself.
    4. Keith’s concerns and your responses. (I won’t post this until after you’ve given feedback on previous posts).

    Strictly speaking, only 4 (Keith’s concerns) is on-topic for the thread. But I think that before criticizing a complex argument, one should summarize one’s understanding of it. That can help others assess whether and perhaps why one is arguing against what they consider a strawman.

    The rest of this post is about the basic assumptions of the paper (pp 34-44), which I see as:
    1. The CLR can be formulated in several different ways without affecting the argument (pp. 34-6)

    2. There is no need to explicate the concept of knowledge; stick with constraints in the common use of the term. Two constraints in particular are important to your argument:

    2a. We easily know all sorts of everyday knowledge. This is accepted by almost all philosophers regardless of their epistemological approaches, although some may limit how we make such claims. (As I said, I will address Keith’s concerns with easy knowledge in a separate post). Example: We know our names. (pp 37-8)

    2b. Deep philosophical claims are not known easily. They are harder won. Again, almost all philosophers accept this distinction between easy, everyday knowledge and harder-won knowledge of deep philosophical propositions. I’m ignoring your discussion of issues with reliability and how they could relate to the question of why harder-won knowledge exists. (pp 39-41). Also ignored is the discussion of Thomasson’s ontology and its relation to this separation of easy/hard knowledge. (pp 42-3)

    At the top of p. 42, you discuss why these assumptions do not imply anything about the truth of CLR. I’ll return to that in post on Keith’s concerns.

    In the middle of 44, you point out that although these assumptions eliminate some possibilities, we are still left with positions which are consistent with both the truth and falsity of CLR. You then introduce categorialism as the new contribution of the paper aimed at making a decision on the truth of CLR.

  36. This post is about my understanding of the categorial principle (pp 45-7).

    If CLR is true, then categorialism allows one to go from the easy knowledge of some everyday thing to easy knowledge that physical objects exist (p 46). Categorialism itself is a heavyweight philosophical concept: this is important because the truth of categorialism is not what your argument needs, rather it is the fact that it is a heavyweight philosophical concept that the argument turns on.

    Accepting that definition of the concept and its heavyweight nature is what is needed for the main argument of the paper. But rather than just accept it and proceed to that, I want to summarize how you get to that understanding of categorialism since it seems to me important to understanding one of the original ideas in the paper.

    Categorialism is at a thesis about consequences of subjects ascribing properties to something. It says that when subjects ascribe certain subcategorial properties to something, they must at the same time and in all contexts ascribe some categorial property to that thing. It is at root a psychological thesis, since ascribing is here defined to necessarily including representing that property. It results from the fact that some properties are inseparable from others (which makes it a conceptual “infusion” principle).

    To avoid discussions of what categories are and to which categorialism is applicable, you limit the application of infusion to one basic category: that of external physical object. The example is being-a-chair; if a subject ascribes being a chair to some object, then necessarily the subject ascribes being-an-external-physical-object to that thing.

    To move from a psychological thesis about ascription to an epistemic one about knowledge, in the middle of p. 46 you add two implications to the definition. From these implications and the truth of categorialism, combined with CLR, one can claim easy knowledge of external physical objects from the easy knowledge that eg one is sitting.

    On p. 47, you say categorialism is heavyweight because of its implications for many heavyweight philosophical topics. That may open up the objection that categorialism hence may not be known, but you say that only its truth and heavyweight nature matter to the argument, not whether anyone knows it.

    There is also a some detailed reasoning on that page about categorialism and heavyweight knowledge versus heavyweight ascription. I do not understand the purpose and details of that discussion. Can you elaborate briefly on what the distinction is and why some may see it as important?

  37. This post is about the core argument of the paper, which Keith has reproduced here. I did not work through the formal version of the argument on p. 49.

    I think the argument is straightforward given the description of categorialism, In essence, I understand it to say that if both categorialism and CLR are correct, one could obtain easy knowledge that there are external physical objects. That is impossible, so we must reject either CLR or categorialism. If we accept CLR, then one could easily obtain the heavyweight knowledge that categorialism has false, which is again philosophically prohibited. So CLR is false.

    One could argue that CLR is heavyweight, so how can its rejection over categorialism be justified if we do not allow easy knowledge to drive rejection of heavyweight propositions? To counter that possibility, on the bottom of p. 49 and top of 50, you argue CLR is not a heavyweight proposition.

    The paper concludes by considering an argument that easy knowledge allows one to immediately reject CLR, which I will return to in the post about Keith’s concerns.

  38. BruceS: There is also a some detailed reasoning on that page about categorialism and heavyweight knowledge versus heavyweight ascription. I do not understand the purpose and details of that discussion. Can you elaborate breifly on what the distinction is and why some may see it as important?

    The idea there is to use a concept of Categorialism in the argument that is not so strong that it does away with the need for CLR. It has to be able to provide knowledge that there are external physical objects only if CLR is true. So it has to slide right in between–it can’t JUST be psychological (which is why I quote Thomasson’s remark once or twice that it can give knowledge to rational people), but it can’t be so strong an epistemic proposition that it can do much on its own.) I THINK that may be possible (and seem to have convinced the referee on it), but, of course, that’s key to the success of the argument; if there’s no way to prevent Categorialism from smashing into either Scylla or Charybdis, the argument against CLR fails.

    BTW, very nice summary. You can write my abstracts from now on!

    And thanks again for the precis of that other article. I was half-kidding about the trade. I did know that it was about something that seemed to me like a really uninteresting and unimportant thesis, and it’s so long and filled with so many symbols! I hope it wasn’t too much of a slog.

  39. Mung: I agree. And I really appreciate every time you go into the history of an idea in philosophy. T

    I agree that history is important to philosophy and to philosophers. This is unlike science, where scientists need not be concerned with history of their field.

    However, philosophers and others are concerned with the history of science, in particular those that work in History, Sociology, and Philosophy of Science.

  40. walto: The idea there is to use a concept of Categorialism in the argument that is not so strong that it does away with the need for CLR.

    Thanks, very helpful.

    And thanks again for the precis of that other article. I was half-kidding about the trade. I did know that it was about something that seemed to me like a really uninteresting and unimportant thesis, and it’s so long and filled with so many symbols! I hope it wasn’t too much of a slog.

    No problem, that one was more in my wheelhouse and so a reasonably easy read for me (but I did not work through the math in detail). Frankly, your paper was more of a slog for me, but I enjoyed the challenge of working through it.

    But I’ll pass on the Merleau-Ponty and especially Heidegger stuff that KN brought to his understanding of the Haugeland paper. The robotics stuff in that paper was fine, and its use of bandwidth to establish boundaries between subsystems brought back fond memories of my early career work applying coupling/cohension ideas in very old approaches to systems analysis.

  41. BruceS: However, philosophers and others are concerned with the history of science, in particular those that work in History, Sociology, and Philosophy of Science.

    For personal reasons, I hope you’re including political scientists in that bunch.

  42. Mung: Hehe. It may help to always create the skeleton first and then insert any text/url into it.

    <a href=””></a>

    Looks like you were right; the links I used today with quotes have worked first time and continued to work after editing.

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