March 24, 2007

Epistemic Standards in the Wild

Josh Marshall provides an interesting example of explicit standards for "know," of the sort that Peter Ludlow discusses in "Contextualism and the New Linguistic Turn in Epistemology" [pdf]:

Now we know with crystal clear proof what we really already knew a week ago: that Alberto Gonzales was lying about his role in the US Attorney Purge.

The "crystal clear proof" is basically a smoking gun. An e-mail documents that Gonzales personally discussed firing the attorneys, contradicting his previous statements that he had not seen any memos or been involved in any discussions. So Marshall is essentially saying that before the e-mail was released our evidence was good enough for knowledge, but now it meets a higher standard, knowledge "with crystal clear proof."

A couple of possibly interesting things about this: "Really" isn't being used as a degree modifier here; it's applied to the weaker degree of knowledge. "Actually" could have been used instead. I'm not sure exactly how to explain this use of "really"/"actually," but it seems as though it expresses an implicit contrast: "You might have thought that without this crystal clear proof we didn't know that Gonzales lied, but he did."

Another question is what the significance of the e-mail is to our epistemic state, if we knew beforehand that Gonzales was lying. The least Marshall-friendly interpretation is that before the e-mail came out we couldn't quite be certain, but now we can.

I think Marshall would say something different, though; that before the e-mail came out we could still be certain that Gonzales was involved in the attorney firings. It was just common sense that the Attorney General would've been involved somehow in such a major and unprecedented operation within the DoJ.)

But e-mail improves our epistemic standing in two ways. First of all, previously reporters couldn't have just said that Gonzales had to have been involved in the firings based on common sense. (Though I wish they would more often write things like, "DoJ spokesbot did not say anything about why Gonzales would have had no participation in an unprecedented mass firing of US Attorneys that had been appointed by the sitting administration.") Now, reporters can mention the e-mail that contradicts Gonzales's previous statement.

Second, there's a potential dialectical issue here. Even if people on the left were perfectly certain that Gonzales knew even before the e-mail came out, those who disagreed with us might well have been unsatisfied with the claim. You can imagine arguing with someone who would demand some specific reason to believe that Gonzales was involved in the purges. Now those who think that have something specific to say: We know that Gonzales was involved in the purges because this e-mail says he was. So even if we knew before, the new evidence places us in a better position to support the claim dialectically. [Now, trained professionals may still be capable of denying that the evidence indicates that Gonzales was lying, but it's a bit of a stretch.]

It may be an interesting question whether new evidence can strengthen our dialectical position with respect to p without giving us a stronger reason to believe p, and if so what that means about degrees of knowledge or such. Those (like my colleague Allan Hazlett) who think that knowledge is closely tied to dialectics might be particularly interested in such questions.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:12 AM | Comments (1)

March 13, 2007


I'm very pleased to announce that I've accepted an offer from the University of Vermont for the fall. I've enjoyed my time at Texas Tech, and especially will miss all my colleagues in the philosophy department, but I'm very excited to be joining the UVM department.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:11 AM | Comments (44)

March 03, 2007

Zodiac and Breach

I saw Zodiac last night, and it reminded me of Breach in a different genre, the serial-killer thriller rather than the spy movie. Both movies are based on actual cases, and it seems as though both deliberately deglamorize them. In Breach the spy has been uncovered long before the beginning of the movie, and what we see is just the conclusion of the case; in Zodiac the killer isn't the clever fiend of Seven and a bunch of other movies I haven't seen; he taunts the authorities, but his ciphers aren't that hard to solve and don't always signify that much, it's not a procession through the Deadly Sins or the signs of the zodiac. Due process and procedural issues are prominent in both films.

And both movies seemed to, or seemed to aspire to, be liberated by being forced to follow an actual case. The facts of the cases didn't fit into the conventions of the genre -- so the movies had to do something else than follow those conventions. Now those conventions exist for a reason, and the movies might have thus lost satisfying resolutions and the Aristotelian unities; but they were also forced to try to do something else. Contrast The Good Shepherd, which was loosely based on facts but which also had a conventional find-the-leak plot as an important element -- see here for a spoilery critique, which is harsher than my own view. If the movies want to say something about how being a spy/detective/obsessed journalist affects your personal life, it may be sometimes more effective when it's not being hung on a genre plot. (Or not, I'm sure there are counterexamples.) Zodiac was more effective than Breach in this way, because there were more and more interesting personal lives.

Both movies also generated some effective suspense, which felt a little more earned for being less contrived (though that just means: a more effective contrivance). There's one particularly funny suspense scene in Zodiac that benefits from this effect; it's a hoary old trope of this kind of movie, but given that the story actually has to follow the facts you don't know what's going to happen in the movie. (Except I'll bet that even if there was an incident somewhat like the one I'm thinking of, it didn't happen nearly the way it was described.)

At the movie theater there were incredibly long lines to see Wild Hogs.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:36 PM | Comments (1)

March 01, 2007

"A Screw-Up That Staggers the Mind"

The quick summary of this is: We thought that there was no good reason for the Bush Administration to bungle its North Korea policy, leading to North Korea building a lot of nuclear weapons. It turns out that there was no [censored] reason at all.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:30 AM | Comments (3)