Thursday, 19 January 2017

Metaepistemology and Relativism



Today's post is by J. Adam Carter, lecturer in Philosophy, University of Glasgow. In this post, he introduces his new book Metaepistemology and Relativism.

The question of whether knowledge and other epistemic standings like justification are (in some interesting way) relative, is one that gets strikingly different kinds of answers, depending on who you ask. In humanities departments outside philosophy, the idea of ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ knowledge is widely taken to be, as Richard Rorty (e.g., 1980) had thought, a naïve fiction—one that a suitable appreciation of cultural diversity and historical and other contingencies should lead us to disavow. A similar kind of disdain for talk of knowledge as objective has been voiced—albeit for different reasons—by philosophers working in the sociology of scientific knowledge (e.g., Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin).

Adam Carter

And yet, within contemporary mainstream epistemology—roughly, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of human knowledge—the prevailing consensus is a strikingly different one. The term ‘epistemic relativism’ and views such as Rorty’s that have been associated this title have been, if not dismissed explicitly as fundamentally unworkable (e.g., Boghossian 2006, Ch. 6), simply brushed aside by contemporary epistemologists, who proceed in their first-order projects as if arguments for epistemic relativism can be simply bracketed, and as if the kind of answers to first-order epistemological questions they struggle with have objective answers.

In Metaepistemology and Relativism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016) I set out to question whether the kind of anti-relativistic background that underlies typical projects in mainstream epistemology can on closer inspection be vindicated.

In the first half of the book—after some initial ground clearing and a critical engagement with global relativism—I evaluate three traditional strategies for motivating epistemic relativism. These are, (i) arguments that appeal in some way to the Pyrrhonian problematic; (ii) arguments that appeal to apparently irreconcilable disagreements (e.g., Galileo versus Bellarmine); and (iii) arguments that appeal to the alleged incommensurability of epistemic systems or frameworks.

I argue over the course of several chapters that a common weakness of these more traditional argument strategies for epistemic relativism is that they fail to decisively motivate relativism over scepticism. Interestingly, though, this style of objection cannot be effectively redeployed against a more contemporary, linguistically motivated form of epistemic relativism, defended most influentially by John MacFarlane (e.g., 2014).

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Biological Function and Epistemic Normativity



Ema Sullivan-Bissett (pictured above) is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, having previously worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on project PERFECT. In this post she summarises her paper ‘Biological Function and Epistemic Normativity’, forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on False but Useful Beliefs. Alongside Lisa Bortolotti, Ema guest edited this special issue which is inspired by project PERFECT’s interests in belief.

In my paper I give a biological account of epistemic normativity. I am interested in explaining two features:


(EN1) Beliefs have truth as their standard of correctness.

(EN2) There are sui generis categorical epistemic norms.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Chandaria Lectures: Andy Clark

In this post, Sophie Stammers reports from the Chandaria Lectures, hosted by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Professor Andy Clark, of the University of Edinburgh, gave the annual lecture, where he introduced the notion of ‘predictive processing’. Over the course of the three lectures, he put forward the case for understanding many of the core information processing strategies that underlie perception, thought and action as integrated through the predictive processing framework.


On a model of perception popular with Cartesians, and undoubtedly dominant in areas of the cannon that I was acquainted with as an undergraduate, perception is something of a passive business. Perceivers employ malleable receptor systems that (aim to) faithfully imprint the world as it is, delivering a raw stream of information that is made sense of downstream in later processing. Clark dubs this the “cognitive couch potato view”. Despite its past popularity, this view seems incompatible with evidence from multiple research streams in cognitive science which indicate that perceivers are far from passive, and bring many of their own expectations to the table. Predictive processing (PP) aims to provide a story which both accounts for and unifies these findings, whilst also doing justice to the human experience in the midst of it all.  

PP systems don’t just take in sensory information from the world, they are constantly trying to actively predict the present sensory signals with use of probabilistic models. Incoming sensory signals are met by a flow of top-down prediction, and when this matches the sensory barrage, the system has unearthed the most likely set of causes that would give rise to the particular experience. “Prediction errors” (information about mismatches between current prediction and sensory information) indicate a gap in the predictive model, and that a new hypothesis should be selected to accommodate the current sensory signal.

Maybe, rich world-revealing perceptions – as of tables, chairs, conversations, lovers, etc – only arise from the otherwise indiscriminate sensory barrage when the incoming sensory signal can be matched with top down predictions.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Rational Hope


In this post Miriam McCormick (pictured above), Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law (PPEL) at the University of Richmond, summarises her paper on "Rational Hope", which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief.

History and literature are filled with examples of people in horrific, desperate situations where having hope seemed essential for their survival. And yet, holding on to “false hope” can be devastating and can also condone inaction, where hoping for a change replaces working for that change. It also can seem that finding hope in a hopeless situation must be irrational. Is the choice between rational despair and irrational hope? I don’t think so; there are times when hope is rational but it is not always so. My main aim in this paper is to specify conditions that distinguish rational, or justified, hope from irrational, or unjustified hope. I begin by giving a brief characterization of hope and then turn to offering some criteria of rational hope.