June 22, 2004

Knowing in Advance

Muscling in on our territory, Noam Schieber writes:

All vice presidential speculation at this point faces a basic epistemological problem: It's highly likely John Kerry hasn't made up his own mind yet. If that's true, then it's literally impossible to know who he's going to pick at this point--even if you had perfect insight into his thought process.

Sez you!

The impossibility claim doesn't follow if you think that Kerry's thought process might be deterministic--say, as part of a deterministic universe. Then, on just any theory, even before (well before) Kerry makes his choice, it is in principle possible to know what his choice will be--at least, if it is in principle possible to know the present state of the world and the laws of the universe. You might be skeptical about either of those, but the futurity of Kerry's choice doesn't create a special problem.

Of course, nobody is likely to gain knowledge of Kerry's choice that way. But even if we think the outcome of Kerry's thought process is not yet determined, there are still theories on which it is possible at this point to know who he's going to pick. If I were familiar with Kerry's thought processes, I realized that the reasons to which he most characteristically responded militated in favor of choosing Yooden Vranx as his VP candidate, and he did choose Vranx, then it's arguable that I did know (all along) that Kerry would choose Vranx. This would means that knowledge doesn't supervene on intrinsic states of the knower (since I would be in the same intrinsic state even if Kerry went on to choose someone else), but most people will accept that. It also means that knowledge doesn't even supervene on the entire state of the universe up to the point at which the knowledge takes place, and that'll be more controversial, but still not obviously insane.

If you don't accept this sort of knowledge, you may have trouble sustaining the assertion view of knowledge (unless you accept determinism). For we quite frequently do make predictions concerning people's future choices; "They won't accept that paper," "So-and-so will bring up contextualism if you present that view," "X-and-Y will never wear that shirt," "N.N. won't go to the Kenny G concert." If future choices are unknowable, then these predictions should not be made.

We may be able to say, with Timothy Williamson, that these predictions are only made in contexts in which the rules of assertion are laxly enforced--but the lax enforcement line has never been very satisfying to me. (The other norm on assertion, that all assertions should be prefaced with the statement "All hail Matt Weiner, emperor of the universe," is VERY laxly enforced. I am working on that.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 22, 2004 01:27 PM