Thursday, 18 January 2018

Beyond Concepts

This post is by Ruth Millikan. Ruth Garrett Millikan is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut. She is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Winner of the 2017 Researcher Prize for Systematic Philosophy.



I am a retired professor of philosophy from the University of Connecticut with special interests in thought and language, the ontological structures of the world that support thought and language and the kinds of selection ---- genetic, learning, cultural ---- responsible for their evolution and development.

Beyond Concepts weaves together themes from natural ontology and from the philosophies of mind, language and information. The sprawling topic is Kant's how is knowledge possible? but viewed from a contemporary naturalist standpoint. The assumption is that we, along with the other animals, are evolved creatures that use cognition as a guide in dealing with the natural world, and that the natural world is, roughly, as natural science has tried to describe it. Very unlike Kant, then, the book begins with a discussion of what the world is like prior to cognition, only later developing theories about the nature of cognition within that world.

Central to the view of cognition is the introduction of “unicepts” and “unitrackers” which, together, serve to replace traditional concepts. They are responsible for “tracking” items perceived in different ways and at different times, for recognizing what is the same again as the same again and for storing information thus collected in a way that marks it clearly as information about the same. A novel description of the act of recognizing an identity is central. The ways that various unicept complexes may be developed from experience over time is explored, one conclusion being that the law of noncontradiction acts as a regulative principle in the fashioning of unitrackers, coherence serving as a test for correspondence. The training of unitrackers is not always successful but sometimes leaves behind redundant, equivocal or even empty unicepts or “would-be” unicepts.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

No need to know



Matthew Frise is a Lecturer at Santa Clara University. He writes on memory in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. In this post he discusses his paper "No Need to Know" published in Philosophical Studies in 2017.

Knowing isn’t always best. It’s never best, actually. Something that’s not quite knowledge can be just as great. And folks think knowledge is great. In fact, some philosophers think it’s so great that we should focus on explaining other great things in terms of it. Some even think knowledge isn’t just valuable, but uniquely valuable. Nothing else has its value. Knowledge, after all, closes inquiry. Once we get it, our investigation wraps up. Also, we seem to prefer knowing over any kind of not knowing. Doesn’t that all show knowledge is special?

Nope. Some knowledge shares its value with something that isn’t knowledge. If that’s right, knowledge isn’t so special. Its value isn’t unique to it. What shares the value of knowledge? Being in a position to know. A person in a position to know some fact already has plenty of reason to believe it, yet doesn’t believe. When you are in a position to know, you are geared up to know. All you still need to do is believe – on the reasons you’ve already got – and you’d know.

Here is why being in a position to know is as good as knowing: belief is fiddly, and memory is a rascal. Human memory works in surprising ways, partly having to do with belief. It turns out we don’t always believe what we would have thought we believe. This is because memory isn’t hanging on to the beliefs you form, or to all that believing requires. Instead it’s hanging on to a blueprint for belief. It’ll use the blueprint and crank out a belief whenever one is ordered. In the meantime, memory’s shelves are empty of beliefs.

Another surprise about memory: it likes to hang on to and even piece together information we never actually believed, but would believe, if we only gave it a moment’s thought.

Whatever we don’t believe, we don’t know. Since memory doesn’t stock beliefs, it doesn’t stock much of the knowledge we once had. Then again, memory can put us within spitting distance of new knowledge, knowledge we never thought we had. So there’s a lot we don’t know, but only thanks to bitty technicalities about how memory happens to work. Still, memory puts us in a position to know quite a bit.

And that’s great – great in the way that knowing is great. We can stop inquiring, once we’re in a position to know. We wouldn’t always find reason to trade places with someone who knows whatever we’re just in a position to know. It’s odd to suppose that, merely forming belief here – going from a position to know, to knowing – would always drive up value. Better to suppose the value doesn’t always change, to suppose something besides knowledge can have the value we thought belonged to it alone. The value of knowledge isn’t unique. Knowing is still great, but there’s no need to know. That’s surprising. But so is memory.