Thursday, March 20, 2008

G.E. Moore's Hands

There seems to be one thought about Moore's proof that Landesman does not explictly articulate, but that I have always taken to be at the heart of the argument. When Moore claims, in appropriate contexts, that "here are two hands," the reason he thinks both he and the rest of us know this to be true beyond reasonable doubt is that it is an evident fact which is already more certain than than any arguments for or against it could possibly be. That is, if I needed a further argument to convince you that these are in fact two hands, or appealed to a different argument to call it into question somehow, in order to do so I would have to appeal to other matters of fact and inference which are themselves less evident, certain, and known than the fact that these are two hands. On this account Moore does not need to establish "here are two hands" to an absolute certainty, but merely to a greater degree of certainty than any competitors.

If this analysis of what Moore is doing is correct, Moore does not after all defeat the skeptic in open battle, as it were, but rather covertly. By engaging the skeptic in a conversation using a shared language in which ordinary terms for objects (such as hands) are understood, and thus are understood as having the ontological and epistemic significance that they do in ordinary discourse, he lures the skeptic into using such words in the ordinary, commonsense manner. When the skeptic demures at the ontological or epistemological conclusions Moore draws, Moore can justly cry foul, since the skeptic, in agreeing to have the conversation, had agreed to the ordinary sense of its terms. The skeptic is free to quit the conversation, but at the expense of abandoning the use of words to mean what humans ordinarily take them to mean, which would condemn the skeptic, if not to all-out solipsism, at least to an extremely lonely "existence" (scare quotes to indicate that the skeptic gives a special, non-ontological or -epistemic, meaning to this and most other words).

Such a strategy seems better calculated than Descartes' actually to defeat the skeptic. Descartes, by giving the skeptic as much leeway to doubt as possible (with the dream and evil genius arguments), seems to give away the store, since the only remedy for such radical doubt Descartes can then muster is an a priori (and modal) proof for the necessary existence of an all-good and non-deceiving god. If that argument fails, as it seems to do, Descartes is left stranded on his tiny island of certainty (the cogito), not only a confirmed skeptic about everything else, but a solipsist to boot.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

On an unrelated topic...

I recently read a good article about single-payer healthcare at, and it prompted me to imagine one reason more Americans aren't actively seeking such a system here.

In British Columbia, which the author cites from her own experience, income taxes are about 10% higher than in the U.S. to cover health care for everyone. It is not perfect, but it is a very economical, and equitable, system. Here in the U.S., 47 million people have no coverage at all, and even those who do have to argue constantly with their insurance carriers, in whose interest it is to deny coverage whenever possible. This is a highly inefficient, and inequitable, system. These facts are not really in dispute.

However, in the U.S., those of us whose employers currently pay the lion's share of our health insurance premiums would probably pay more out of pocket for health care if our income taxes went up 10% to cover it, even if our co-payments and the fraction of the premiums we now pay disappeared. In principle, of course, our employers could then pay us some of the difference (but no guarantees!), and there would be other benefits -- everyone would be covered, healthcare professionals could practice medicine instead of insurance triage, and so forth. But I suspect the general lack of enthusiasm for change in much of the comfortably employed and insured population (which includes most of those who vote) stems from a vague fear, perhaps not unfounded, that it will cost them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Criteria of knowledge and wimpy skeptics

Sextus Empiricus seems to argue that there can be no rationally defensible criterion for what counts as knowledge, since any criterion would need a demonstration of its authoritative standing as a criterion, and such a demonstration would have to presuppose another criterion as its basis of justification.

Thus he comes to the uncomfortable position of claiming, as something known, that there can be no rationally defensible criterion of knowledge. In some passages he tries to weasel out of this consequence by describing skepticism as a mere attitude of non-commitment, rather than a judgement about something known. This wimpy version of skepticism wouldn't get him very far, however, for if skepticism is nothing more than an attitude, why should anyone else care?

Other passages suggest that Sextus wants to claim something stronger, that the skeptic doubts everything that is not evident. This leaves him free to assent to knowledge of appearances (that things appear as they appear we need not doubt), and to (deductive) inferences from those evident things by means of logically evident rules (like the excluded middle). On this view of skepticsm, the argument against the criterion yields evident knowledge -- that there is no criterion for non-evident knowledge.

If this reading is right, Sextus begins to look like the image of Hume that emerged from the Enquiry -- rejecting all induction, and restricting reason to the a priori. Perhaps this clarifies what seemed mystifying about Hume's view.