Philosophy at St Andrews

Frontloading, Supposition, and Contraction

Wed 4th February 2015 16:15

Room 104, Edgecliffe

Bryan Pickel (Edinburgh)


"David Chalmers has recently offered an influential argument for the existence of a priori knowledge, knowledge than can be justified independently of experience. The argument begins with the observation that agents know various truths on the basis of more limited experience. For instance, my current experience may allow me to know (S) that water covers the majority of the Earth, even though the contents of my experience, which can be exhaustively described by sentence D, may not directly concern water, but only the distribution of colors, shapes, sounds, and so on. Chalmers argues that agents are able to temporally suspend their belief in their current experiences, D. After suspending their belief in D, they can reason their way from the supposition that D is true, to the conclusion that S is true. Thus, an agent can establish the truth of the claim expressed by  'if D, then S', even if she has suspended her belief in D. Chalmers concludes that the belief is a priori. The argument, if successful, has far reaching consequences, since philosophers frequently make use of thought experiments that require them to suspend their empirical beliefs. Yet many of these philosophers would claim to be good empiricists. I argue that Chalmers's argument turns on the assumption that suspending one's beliefs always returns one to a "pure" epistemic state that is uncontaminated by empirical information. I suggest that we should model belief suspension as a kind of belief contraction in which one transitions to an epistemic state the includes less information that one began with. Examining models of belief contraction reveals that it is highly controversial that contracting our belief in D returns us to an empirically uncontaminated state. Thus, even if agents can establish the truth of the conditional 'if D, then S' in suspended belief states, this does not show that they can establish the truth of these conditionals a priori."

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