Referring, Knowing, and Skepticism

                                                Referring, Knowing, and Skepticism



What would it take to defeat the skeptic? What conception of knowledge is best suited to fending off the skeptical challenge? If knowledge were simply identical to reality, then presumably skepticism would be impossible, since whatever reality contains knowledge does too. How could knowledge fail to match reality if it simply is reality? How could it fall short of reality? To put it differently, if belief were identical to fact, then there would be no logical possibility of belief diverging from fact, and so skepticism could not get off the ground. But of course that is not a plausible identity statement: beliefs can be false, so cannot be facts; and facts are not beliefs. There is a duality of beliefs and facts, not an identity. Still, if the identity obtained, we would have an answer to skepticism. My question is whether we can secure this kind of answer without postulating absurd identities. That is, is there a viable conception of knowledge under which we can refute the skeptic about the external world, other minds, the past, induction, and so on?

            It is a notable fact that skepticism does not apply to reference. I take myself to refer to material objects in the external world, in conformity to common sense. Can the skeptic argue that I do not really do so because I cannot rule out the brain-in-a-vat possibility? Can he argue that I do not have a satisfactory justification for my belief that I refer to external objects and hence do not so refer? The trouble with this argument is that my ability to refer does not logically depend on my ability to defend or justify the claim that I refer. Suppose I cannot justify my claim to refer: it simply doesn’t follow that I fail to refer. My ability to refer depends on other non-epistemic factors—maybe causal or contextual or descriptive. Even if I cannot rule out the brain in a vat hypothesis, I might still be referring to material objects, if I am actually surrounded by them. You do not need to be able to prove the existence of something in order to refer to it. You can refer to something and yet have no good evidence for its existence. The relation of reference is not evidentially governed.

            It is the same with assertion: you can assert that p and yet not be able to rebut the skeptic. That is, you can predicate something of an object and not be able to justify your belief that the object exists—as when you make a statement about the shape of an object in your environment. I can make an assertion about your state of mind and not be able to justify making that assertion. The skeptic cannot undermine this achievement by arguing that other people might all be robots with no states of mind at all. I don’t need to be able to rule out that hypothesis by producing good evidence that people are sentient in order to be able to make statements about other minds. I can state facts about other minds without having good evidence that these minds exist. Of course, there need to beother minds for me to talk about them, but I don’t have to be able to prove that this is so in order to make statements about them. Similarly for other speech acts and propositional attitudes.

            Let me summarize this by saying that there are relations R such that I can stand in R to some entity E (object or fact) and yet not be able to rule out skeptical hypotheses with respect to E. Moreover, some of these relations arecognitive relations—referring to an object, stating a fact. Then the question is whether knowledge might be such a relation. Suppose that we could analyze (propositional) knowledge simply as referring to a fact. That would imply that knowledge is possible in the same way reference is possible—independently of any ability to meet the skeptic’s epistemic standards. Knowledge would be possible without ruling out skeptical hypotheses, because it would be a special case of reference. In order not to make the analysis sound too linguistic, we might rephrase it as awareness of facts. Then we could say that a person can be aware of a fact (in the external world or another’s mind) whether or not he or she can disprove skeptical possibilities. The skeptic cannot then undermine knowledge simply by pointing out that his skeptical alternatives cannot be logically excluded. This is not to say that knowledge is possible without justification. In many cases, at least, we do require some sort of justification for knowledge, but it does not follow that we need the kind of conclusive justification demanded by the skeptic. What we need is that the subject be responsible in belief formation, exercise due diligence, not engage in wishful thinking, not rush to judgment. So we could define knowledge as responsibly referring to a fact (compare “true justified belief”): this way we build in a justification component but place the emphasis on the existence of a reference relation between subject and world. That relation can obtain in the absence of any proof that it obtains, just as with reference to objects. Thus we have described a conception of knowledge that has the form to withstand the skeptical challenge. Knowing is a special case of referring, and inherits its freedom from skeptical attack. We do not need to establishthat reference obtains in order that it should obtain.

            Why is this conception of knowledge not more widely embraced? I think it‘s because we tend to think of knowledge as resulting from an inference from the inside to the outside: we use premises about what is going on inside our mind in order to infer conclusions about what is going on outside our mind. It is as if we have a barrier to overcome, a hurdle to jump. We are thought to move from facts about our inner experience to facts about something separate and distinct. But that is not how we think of reference: I do not succeed in referring to what is outside me by making an inference from what is inside me—as if I inspect the inner sense and then postulate an outer reference. Rather, I refer in virtue of non-inferential relations that hold between me and objects in the world–not in virtue of inferences I make from inner to outer. Similarly, animal knowledge is not a matter of inner-to-outer leaps but a matter of relations established by the animal’s being-in-the-world. It is odd to suppose that animal knowledge is vulnerable to skepticism because the animal is guilty of unjustified speculative leaps. The animal (typically) makes no such leaps from subjective to objective, though no doubt it is generally responsible in belief formation, i.e. responsive to evidence. Rather, the animal’s mind is trained on external facts of which it is aware—it “refers” to these facts. It does not have to project its mind onto the facts by some sort of internal inferential effort. Nor do adult humans: our situation in the world ensures (most of the time) that facts automatically come within our sights. We refer to the facts by the usual mechanisms of reference, and these do not depend upon possessing reasons that would silence the skeptic. Reference is not established by assembling reasons. The skeptic is in effect insisting that reasons should ground our acts of reference, but reference is just not the kind of relation that is grounded in reasons. It is grounded in what we might call “natural facts”, not rational argument. The natural facts can necessitate reference, while no appeal to reasons ever can (which is why the skeptic sounds persuasive). We can never supply a set of reasons from which it follows that we refer (to objects or facts), but that is quite irrelevant to the question of whether we do in fact refer. My reasons make me a responsible believer; they don’t make me a knower—that requires that I stand in the right referential relations to the world. To know I must have reasons for belief (at least in many cases) and I must stand in the right reference relation to the facts: but the former cannot constitute the latter. That is why my reasons for belief cannot in themselves defeat the skeptic. But I don’t need to defeat the skeptic that way; I can simply point out that knowing is (responsibly) referring and referring is not an epistemic relation.  [1] I can refer to facts in the external world and in other minds even when I cannot provide a proof that that is what I am doing—the lack of proof has no tendency to undermine the existence of reference, and hence knowledge. Thus we have found a conception of knowledge of the right shape to repel skepticism:  to know is to apprehend a fact (responsibly). Knowledge may not be identical to the world, but it reaches out to the world in acts of reference, and that is the next best thing.


  [1] The same point can be put in terms of acquaintance: you can be acquainted with an object or fact without being able to prove the existence of that with which you are acquainted. If you are acquainted with the fact that p, then you can be said to know that p (give a or take a bit); so you can have knowledge of a fact whose existence you cannot prove. Thus if we model propositional knowledge on acquaintance with facts, we can thwart the skeptic.

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