Devitt on the A Priori

So I have been reading Devitt’s paper “No Place for the A Priori” where he lays out his case against a prori knowledge. His claim is that there is only one way of knowing, and that is the empirical way. His strategy in the paper is to first argue that the kinds of knowledge that people usually claim to be examples of the a priori (i.e. math, logic, and philosophy) can all be explained on the emprical model. This means that there are two options for how we come to have knowledge of (say) the logical truths and so we would then need to see if each option is equally viable. This lead him to the second part of his strategy, which is to argue that the notion of a priori knowledge is so mysterious and obscure that the relatively well worked out empirical model is to be preferred. He even goes so far as to suggest that if he is right, “it is not rational to believe in the a priori.” Oh irony of ironies!

What then is the empirical model? He says,

An answer starts from the metaphysical assumption that the worldly fact that p would make the belief that p true. The empirical justification of the belief is then to be found in its relationship to experiences that the worldly fact would cause. Justified beliefs are produced and/or sustained by experiences in a way that is appropriately sensitive to the way the world is. This is very brief and we shall return to the question later. Still it is hard to say much more.

So the empirical model looks like it boils down to the correspondance theory of truth. There is though a lot more to say. For instance ‘worldly fact that p’ is ambiguous as between (in Armstrong’s sense) a world of states of affairs (or, in Russell’s older terms ‘facts’), and a world of things. But we can leave that aside. His main claim is that even this sketchy characterization of the empirical model is more worked out than any account of a priori knowledge and can also account for our knowledge that seems to us a priori (math, logic, etc).  

Now I am generally sympathetic to this claim, being a naturalist myself, but the way that he puts it certainly seems acceptable to some ‘a-prioraphiles’. Might not it be the case that the ‘worldly fact’ that modus ponens is a valid logical form play the kind of role that p does in the characterization above? Rational intuition is often characterized as a kind of ‘grasping’ with the mind. It is an intellectual kind of experience where one sees or appreciates some necessary fact about reality. Thus my beliefs about modus ponens would be ‘appropriately sensitive to the way the world is’. Of course, one couldn’t be a physicalist (like I am), again in Armstrong’s sense, but one could still be a naturalist…Or is that the a-priorafile can’t allow that modus ponens is a non-physical natural phenomena (i.e. a worldly phenomena that exists in space and time)?

CUNY Update

Well, as everyone knows, the new academic year has started…The Graduate Center is really happening this year! I am auditing a class on meaning with Devitt and Neale (newly arrived from Rutgers…) that promises to be very interesting, as well as Kripke’s seminar on the semantics of fictional names…it looks to be basically a re-visiting of his John Locke lectures, which I am looking forward to. He has also said that he might discuss the claim that the ‘de re implies the de dicto’, which I take to mean the Barcan formula, and that is especially interesting to me…. 

There is other faculty news at The Graduate Center…I have heard rumors that Strawson is indeed leaving, and so we will have to replace him. They have had trouble filling this position (when I first came it was held by Martin Davies, who went to Oxford). I doubt that they will find anyone before I leave (fingers crossed ;^))…I get the feeling that something is in the works, but I am out of the loop on this one. I also hear rumors that, on a new line, we hired Graham Priest (& didn’t hire him :)) Finally there is the Kripke Institute, which they hired Alan Berger to run. I am really looking forward to seeing what is going to happen with that…one thing that I have been thinking about is a conference on the intersection of Kripke’s work and consciousness studies…a man can dream can’t he?

For anyone who is in the New York area (or plans to be) The Graduate Center has its Fall colloquium schedule up, which looks fantastic! The colloquiums are Wednesday afternoon 4:15-6:15 and all are welcome (wine/cheese/dinner afterwards).

There is also the CUNY Cognitive Science Symposium and Discussion Group which runs Fridays from 1-3 which also looks good (drinks afterwards). David (Rosenthal) is on sabbatical this academic year, but he says he will be around as much as he can…again, all are welcome.

Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

Suppose that there is some theory of ethics that, though not the correct theory, nonetheless results in the people who follow it sincerely performing actions that, as it happens, are the ones that the correct moral theory prescribe.

To give an example. Suoppose that Kant is right that an action performed for any reason beside the conscious recognition of ones’ duty is not a morally praiseworthy action. Now suppose that there is this other theory (Mill thought it was utilitarianism, but it may be any other theory that you like besides Kant’s…say a virtue theory, or a Divine Command theory, or a Rawlsian theory….doesn’t matter…) that in each case makes the same prediction as the Categorical Imperative.  Suppose further that someone who follows this theory, though acting for some reason other than duty, nonetheless in each case does the action that is perfectly consistent with duty (in Kant’s terms).

Is it the case that this person performs no morally praiseworthy actions? I am inclined to say that these actions are morally good and so, in some cases, Kant can’t be right that the only critereon for an actions rightness is whether it is motivated by duty.

Now, an interesting question (to me) is whether or not I can consitently will this kind of world; that is whether or not the maxim that explicitly mention that the actor is not acting from duty pass the test of teh Categorical Imperative. It seems to me, prima facie, that I can consistently will the kind of world I described above…but I can see where there might be objections.

First, one might object that given Kan’ts view about rationality and acting freely that the people in the world I described would not be acting freely and so can’t be acting morally. But in the most general sense these people do seem to be acting in a Kantian kind of way. Their will’s are determined by a law of their own choosing. But even if one can’y stand this way of putting it, their are other notions of freedom of the will underwhich these people are acting free, and, lest we forget, there are those inspired by Frankfurnt (I am not one of them) who think that being free doesn’t have very much to do with being morally blameworthy/praiseworthy.

Second, one might object that these poeple don’t know the correct moral theory and so don’t know that they are acting morally. Since they don’t know that they are acting morally it isn’t possible that they are. If this is right then perhaps the world I described is a kind of moral Gettier case…that might be interesting….but what is it that is supposed to be controdictory about doing the right thing without knowing that you are?