On Philosophy

September 7, 2006

Essay: Knowledge and Stasis

Filed under: Epistemology,Essays — Peter @ 12:12 am

As Jaegwon Kim first detailed, one of the criteria that a successful epistemological theory must meet is to leave most of our intuitions concerning knowledge unchanged. According to Kim, if a theory claimed that most of the knowledge was, in fact, mere belief we would be justified in discarding it [1]. Although Bishop and Trout don’t provide Kim’s specific reasons for making this claim we might guess Kim reasoned that any theory we construct is itself justified by the knowledge that we have, and thus to deny that what we think of as knowledge really would be to undermine the theory itself.

It is just this stasis requirement that gives the Gettier cases, and similar “counter examples” to the traditional approach to epistemology their methodological pull. The existence of such cases reveals that many interpretations of the traditional approach to knowledge, as true justified belief, do not leave our pre-analytic intuitions about knowledge unchanged. In fact the sheer number of cases, plus of course possible variations, indicates that such interpretations may fail in a fair percentage of cases, enough that we might consider rejecting them as a theory of knowledge by the stasis requirement. Thus, because the stasis requirement is accepted, standard analytic epistemology often proceeds by “counterexample philosophy”, in which we attempt to modify existing theories until we find a variation that no counterexample can touch [2].

Bishop and Trout see this stasis requirement as a hindrance to making real progress in epistemology, even though it, and the Gettier cases, cast doubt on some of the traditional epistemological accounts that they oppose. They argue that most advances violate our intuitions about how things work, and thus, if we applied the stasis requirement to other areas of inquiry progress, would grind to a halt. Of course neither do they recommend abandoning some degree of conservatism, simply that we should never be so conservative that we rule out the possibility of progress [3].

But does the stasis requirement really rule out progress? And is it restricted to epistemology or do we use it successfully in other investigations? We can form a more general expression of the stasis requirement as follows: when investigating a concept X our conclusion as to what is and is not X should agree with at least a majority of our pre-analytic judgments about X-ness. Now let’s see how such a requirement could be used into completely different kind of investigation, an investigation into the nature of gold. First, our investigator would accumulate many rocks that he or she thinks of as gold. They would then examine those samples closely for common properties. It is likely that most of them do share a few common features, and those that do not share those features are discarded as being not gold, but something that is simply very similar to gold. Eventually he or she comes up with an explanation of why they all have those properties; because they are made up of the same element, a conclusion that leaves most of their judgments about their initial samples unchanged. Now imagine what could have happened if our investigator wasn’t working with some version of the stasis requirement; they could very well have picked the small amount of pyrite (fool’s gold) in their initial collection of samples as “real gold”, and then defined gold in terms of the properties of what we call pyrite, violating the majority of the researcher’s intuitions as to what gold is. Without something like the stasis requirement there is no reason to claim that pyrite is less qualified to be “gold” than the substance that we currently identify as gold.

This then is the function of the stasis requirement; when beginning with a concept already in use the stasis requirement makes sure that a natural kind we decide to connect with it is the best fit for the meaning of the word as commonly understood [4]. And sometimes this process reveals that there really is nothing that our pre-analytic concept corresponds to, for example when investigations into jade showed it to be really two different kind of minerals, jadeite and nephrite. So, if this process works for investigating many of our concepts, why not knowledge? Ideally we would investigate the common features of the cases we intuitively label as knowledge, discover a natural kind based on some set common features, and then use that natural kind as our definition of knowledge. So, if we adhere to the stasis requirement, we could discover a natural kind that fits the majority of our intuitive judgments, possibly discarding some of the beliefs previously thought to be knowledge, and this certainly is something to recommend it. Of course we may claim not to be interested in connecting the subject of our investigation in any way to our use of “knowledge”, but in that case why call whatever we are investigating “knowledge”?

Even if we accept that the stasis requirement really does have a role to play in investigations into knowledge we aren’t compelled to throw out the work of Bishop and Trout. Certainly their claims about statistical prediction rules would be considered knowledge, especially considering the amount of supporting evidence. And since we accept that statistical prediction rules, properly constructed, are very reliable we should then conclude that a conclusion supported by a reliable SPR is justified by that SPR, and thus may be knowledge. And even if we accept this, SPRs in no way do away with the traditional account of justification, since at the very least we must rely on “traditional” methods to identify which factors are positively correlated with what we are trying to predict, and to identify when situations make a linear SPR impossible [5]. However, accepting SPRs as a kind justification that can meet the standards required for knowledge does not subsume all of the claims made by Bishop and Trout into the standard framework. They also claim that robustness, significance, and the cost-benefits ratio are important when considering whether a reasoning strategy is recommendable. Let us assume that there is good reason to accept their claims about the value of different strategies; even so this doesn’t invalidate the standard analytic approach to knowledge. We can defend the more traditional approach by arguing that the idea of strategies of different positive value is not part of the concept of knowledge that we are trying to capture; knowledge is simply recommendable, and thus strategies that have positive value, but not equal value, both count equally as the justification required to have knowledge. This is not to say that we should ignore the possibility that some strategies are better than others, simply that it is best described as fitting into some more advanced conception, that goes beyond the simpler idea of knowledge that the standard analytic account is attempting to capture.


1. “…it is expected to turn out that according to the criteria of justified belief we come to accept, we know, or are justified in believing pretty much what we reflectively think we know or are entitled to believe.” Kim, Jaegwon, “What is ‘Naturalized Epistemology’?”

2. “For proponents of SAE, the Gettier examples are important because they show that the JTB account can’t be right on the grounds that it does not ‘leave or epistemic situation largely unchanged.’” Bishop, Michael A and Trout J. D., Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, page10

3. “But while conservatism is fine for excellent theories, it is poison in domains where progress awaits deep and durable changes in method and outlook.” Bishop, Michael A and Trout J. D., Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, page11

4. The examples, except for one, that Bishop and Trout use as “evidence” that the stasis requirement would hinder progress are all instances where new concepts are being introduced, which is certainly not the case with knowledge. The odd example out is “simultaneity”. Physicists discovered that there was no “natural kind” corresponding to our naïve conception of simultaneity, so they decided to re-use the word to describe another natural kind of temporal relation which has some of the properties that we naïvely think of as simultaneous.

5. For example, if you are attempting to predict the emergence of a certain color when performing a titration there may be no chemical compound among those that you are mixing that correlates positively with the desired color, assuming that the desired color only appears when the chemicals are in a certain ratio. It is true that there is some formula, k*a – j*b, a and b being the amount of the two chemicals, such that the color appears where the result is close to zero, but this isn’t a valid SPR because the color does not appear for every, or even most, values less than, or greater than, zero. Certainly we could form a simple prediction rule for the appearance of the color, but this wouldn’t be one of the very linear SPRs discussed by Bishop and Trout. Additionally, it requires justification that can’t be captured by a linear SPR to determine when a linear SPR can be applied.


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