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May 08, 2006


Opinionated Layman

So let me have a crack at the Swain et al. paper.

What they report is that, if you ask somebody whether a particular scenario qualifies as knowledge ("Does John literally know x?"), then you can influence the answer they are going to give by presenting them with different scenarios first and asking the same question. If you show them a case where knowledge is clearly not present, then they will subsequently be more likely to say yes to ambiguous cases. On the other hand, if you show them a case where knowledge is clearly present, they'll subsequently be likely to say no to the ambiguous cases.

So what's going on? The authors suggest that we can infer from this study that the use of intuitions as evidence in favour of philosophical positions is unacceptable. After all, they say, here we can see that intuitions, about such matters as whether somebody knows something or not, depend on such irrelevant factors as the order in which questions are asked. Surely such shaky foundations can't be used to build a proof with the certainty needed by a philosopher.

But wait a moment; that seems a little hasty. Really what has been found is that the way in which individuals use the word "know" depends on the order in which questions are asked. Tell them that you're about to ask them a yes/no question about whether somebody "knows" something, and give them an example of the way in which you expect the word "knows" to be used in advance. So if you prepare the subject by first asking him, in a case where the answer is clearly "yes", that an individual knows something, then the subject "sets high standards" for the usage of the word "know", and will
subsequently only say "yes" if what is presented next is as good an example as the previous one.

So, the first serious objection to the paper's central claim is that the results can be explained by supposing:

i. The intuitions of the experimental subjects did not depend on the order in which the questions were asked.
ii. The subject's guess about how the experimenter intended the word "know" to be understood depended on the order in which the experimenter presented the questions.

For example:

1. X knows Y in sense 1 of the word "know" and sense 2 of the word "know".
So does X really literally know Y?

2. X knows Y in sense 1 of the word "know" but not sense 2 of the word "know".
So does X really literally know Y?

Well, if I'm an experimental subject, then it's my job to figure out what this experimenter wants me to do and then do that. After seeing case 1 and answering "Yes", now I see case 2, and I think the fact that sense 2 of "know" is not applicable must be important somehow. Probably the experimenter wants to see how I respond to the absence of sense 2 but the presence of sense 1. Well, the last case was "Yes", and this case is clearly deliberately different so I suppose it must be a "No". So my guess is that the experimenter wants me to use "know" when both sense 1 of the word "know" and sense 2 of the word "know" are applicable, but not when sense 2 is absent.

If this is what's going on in the mind of the subject when answering the survey, then it would not follow that intuitions are unreliable, only that the language which the subject uses to describe those intuitions can be influenced in advance by giving them examples of the way in which certain words (like "know") can be used.


OL: Thanks for this, but it might make sense to post it under the relevant thread of the OPC itself.

Opinionated Layman

Oh yeah; thanks. I was drunk.

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