Epistemic Value

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Challenging the Swamping Premise

The ‘swamping’ argument against reliabilism has been advanced on several occasions (i.e. Kvanvig 2003, Swinburne 1999, Zagzebski 2004, W. Jones 1997, and others), and is, at least prima facie, quite persuasive.

The crucial premise in the argument is, as Kristoffer Ahlstrom (whose formalization I am using) calls it, the swamping premise.

(1) V (SB R,T that p) = V (SBT that p).

The swamping premise has been defended a variety of ways. Zagzebski (2004), for example, defends (1) with her ‘espresso analogy.’ She argues that good espresso from an unreliable espresso machine is just as valuable as good espresso from a reliable espresso machine. Analogously, she thinks, for beliefs. Being produced from a reliable process doesn’t add value to a true belief. And, thus, (1).

Kvanvig (2003) defends the premise with his ‘two lists’ argument; if you want to know where you can get chocolate, and you are given a list telling you where chocolate is sold, and another list telling you where chocolate is ‘likely’ to be sold, then a conjunction of the two lists is no more valuable than the first list. The value of the second list is ‘swamped’ by the value of the first. So to, he thinks, for beliefs. If a reliably produced belief is valuable because it is ‘likely to be true’, then adding this property to a belief already stipulated as true does not increase its value.

The next premise is:

(2) V (SK that p) > V(SBT that P)

But because reliabilists just define knowledge as (SB R,T that p), we derive:

(3) V (SK that p) > V (SB R,T that p). Therefore:

(4) SK that p  df. SB R,T that p

(Note: the move from (3) to (4) relies on an implicit premise that: a difference in value between x and y entails that x (does not equal) y. This assumption, as a side note, lurks in the background as Meno is reasoning to his conclusion that knowledge just is true belief).

If the ‘swamping premise’ (i.e. P1) can be adequately defended, it is not difficult to show how further premises will lead to a conclusion that process reliabilism is a false theory of knowledge.

There exist some recent attempts to vitiate the swamping argument. I am interested to know whether any succeeds.

First attempt: Kristoffer Ahlstrom and the diachronic goal.

Ahlstrom argues that the swamping premise is true only if our cognitive coal is conceived of synchronically; that is, only if the value relative to which other epistemic states are valuable by virtue of promoting that value, is having true beliefs now. He argues in favour of a reconstrual of our cognitive goal as diachronic—as having true beliefs not only now, but also later. Under such a framework, he thinks, a reliably formed belief is more valuable than a mere true belief. Here’s Ahlstrom:

To be (or have been) reliably formed is such a component since being (or having been) reliably formed implies something about the etiology of the belief in question—an etiology that, if repeatedly instantiated, will promote our diachronic goal to attain and maintain true beliefs through tracking the truth. To believe truly, however, is no such diachronic component since it carries no promise to the effect that the belief was formed in response to the way the world is rather than as a result of mere luck. This is why the presence of truth cannot make the epistemic value of believing reliably otiose”. (Ahlstrom, “An Argument Concerning Swamping”)

I agree with Ahlstrom that a ‘synchronic’ conception of our cognitive goal is unhelpfully narrow, however I am not convinced that stipulating a ‘diachronic’ goal gets us the result he wants. My worry is this: the property of a belief that best promotes a diachronic goal is ‘permanence’ of a belief (i.e. see Williamson’s cross-temporal explanation of the value of knowledge in his 2000b), however, permanence attaches to a belief not by virtue of its etiology, but by virtue of the extent to which we hold conviction with regard to the belief. Maybe I’m missing something here.

Second try: Goldman and Olsson No. 1

Goldman and Olsson in “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge” bring up an interesting case which, they admit, is not at the crux of their argument, but is nonetheless worth mentioning here. They suggest that in at least some deployments of the word ‘know’, we mean nothing other than ‘truly believes.’ Therefore, in at least some cases, it is no more valuable to know than to truly believe. The example they cite is one from Hawthorne (2004) who imagines that a classroom is asked ‘Who knows the capital of Austria?” The idea here is that: whomever says ‘Vienna’ is credited as knowing, and ipso facto, knowledge in such cases just is true belief.
Two problems here. Firstly, I think that it is more likely that in the classroom case, we just ‘misuse’ the word know (in the same way that we might use ‘deny’ sloppily rather than ‘refute’). But that aside, even if the case were legitimate, and we infer from that that some cases of knowing aren’t more valuable than their true-belief counterparts, it wouldn’t establish anything that we haven’t already learned from Sosa’s sand on the beach case. There are some propositions such that knowing them isn’t more valuable than truly believing them.

Third try: Goldman and Olsson No. 2

This case is the interesting case. It is an attack of Kvanvig’s two lists’ argument. Goldman and Olsson think that Kvanvig’s two lists argument relies on allegedly spurious thesis of ‘property parasitism’:

Property Parasitism: If the value of property P* is parasitic on the value of property P, then the value of P and P* together does not exceed the value of P. (Goldman and Olsson, p. 10)

Goldman and Olsson think property parasitism is false by way of counterexample: Suppose, they argue, that you have a ticket worth $1000 and another ticket that has a 10% chance of winning $1000. Clearly you would want both the $1000 and the ticket more than you would want merely the $1000. But, they think, if property parasitism is true, then the $1000 ‘swamps’ the value of the ticket, and thus, you should not prefer the conjunction of the two over the $1000.

This is quite clever. I’m afraid, though, that there is a subtle disanalogy between what Kvanvig is trying to do with the two lists argument (about wanting chocolate) and with the money case. In Kvanvig’s case, you goal is a true belief. You can’t get ‘truer than true’ and so once you have a true belief, then adding the property that it is ‘likely to be true’ doesn’t add to the value. On the Goldman/Olson case, though, it remains possible that your conjunction (i.e. of the $1000 and the ticket) could amount to something ‘more valuable than $1000), and for that reason, it seems to be relevantly disanalogous to what takes place when we adopt truth as a goal.

There are other ways to go about saving reliabilism form the swamp (i.e. Pritchard’s ‘final value’ discussion of reliable processes, as well as Greco’s ‘intrinsic value of success through ability’ defense of virtue reliabilism), but I’ll stop the discussion here and see if anyone thinks that any of the first three examples are legitimate reasons to deny the swamping premise.


  • At 6:11 AM, Anonymous Matthew said…

    Great post! I've found something like Williamson's position very compelling, so I wonder if you could spell out your worry a bit more. For what it's worth here is a first pass at your worry. It seems open for someone to argue that you've confused the order of things. That is, what gives beliefs their permanence is their etiology. The conviction that one might feel is simply a byproduct of the reliable process that generate true belief. Further, conviction doesn't seem like a necessary condition for a belief to have permanence. Conviction seems something like a belief about a belief, which would be nice, but doesn't seem like something we'd want to require. But maybe you have something else in mind by conviction.

  • At 6:11 PM, Blogger Ariel Fitzwater said…

    Great Post Adam!!!


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