Norris’ Epistemology, Ch.4, III

Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”

Chapter 4: Response-Dependence: What’s in it for the Realist? –

Section III.

This is where the rubber meets the road, to Norris, in light of the 2000 election:

Epistemological issue: (1) “What constitutes truth? best opinion or the way things stand in physical reality?”
Moral and socio-political issue: (2) “What is constitutionally just? a Supreme Court verdict or those standards of right conduct that properly apply in matters of collective human concern?”

Enter Euthyphro and Socrates and the set-piece exercise.

According to Norris, the RD (Crispin Wright) reading of the Dialogue with Euthyphro goes like this: Euthyphro (“best opinion” anti-realist) says the gods are optimally qualified to determine the good (the standard), whereas Socrates (“the realist”) says the gods are optimally qualified (or “cognitively responsive”) to recognize the good when they see it; they don’t determine the standard.

[ Aside: The Euthyphro dilemma is actually solved by God being the standard, by willing in accordance with his good nature. That he is the good, is not its justification (that would commit the is-ought fallacy) but if he is not the good, to claim there is a real good, a fulfilled standard, would commit the fallacy of reification. ]

The Dummettian anti-realist will appeal to accepted rules, and the Kripkensteinian skeptic will respond with the skeptical solution to the rule-following paradox (last section). The RD theorist attempts to avoid the skeptical dilemma by mediating between Euthyphro and Socrates with the duly provisoed biconditional (last section). The best opinion (Euthyphro) is cognitively responsive (Socrates).

This dilemma brings into sharp focus the question of “just how far…best opinion must be taken as constitutive of truth, or truth-claims subject to qualification through the various kinds of RD proviso that assert their dependence on normalized human (rather than godlike) perceptual capacities,” (etc.). So, it turns “on the realist’s claim that truth is in principle recognition-transcendent, as against the anti-realist’s claim that it cannot make sense to conceive of truth in this way since we should then be incapable of acquiring or manifesting any kind of knowledge.”

As mentioned in the last section, RD theory’s emphasis is on what comes after “if and only if,” to “privilege issues of perceptual response or judgements arrived under normal (suitably provisoed) epistemic conditions.” This has “the result that more predicates can be treated as requiring specification in terms of normalized (or optimized) human response.”

For example, Peter Railton and Ralph Wedgwood criticize the tendency for an RD approach to ethical issues to “maximize the role of those distinctively human responses to the point where any argument concerning, say, the wrongness of … will be thought of as primarily a matter of our normal inclination to judge such actions wrong … which precludes the possibility that certain kinds of action are intrinsically and objectively wrong whatever the deliverance of best human judgement or the state of (maybe community-wide) consensus opinion.” They see this as running dangerously close to Hamlet’s “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” and to the highest constitutional authority determining what constitutes “valid judgement in matters of moral, judicial and socio-political concern,” (a reference back to the 2000 election).

The Euthyphronist would counter that someone with “best judgment” will arrive infallibly at the same class of pious acts as the objectivist about moral values. However, Norris points out that humans are not infallible. To reply that “‘best moral judgement just is what comes out right by all the morally relevant criteria’…reduces to something very like a straightforward tautology,” and so the RD theorist can take a stronger Euthyphronic line and assert that moral attributes or predicates are response-dependent in a way that involves substantively specified human dispositions, priorities, concepts of social good, political justice, human or animal welfare, etc.,” but realists then object that truth is recognition-transcendent.

When the RD-approach goes beyond areas like color-perception, where it seems to work best (but see what Mark Johnston has to say, below), thinkers like Benacerraf and Putnam are persuaded that “nothing works in philosophy of mathematics since we can either have the notion of objective truth (without the possibility of knowledge) or else the possibility of knowledge (without any notion of objective truth).” “The advocates of response-dependence seem to have little time…for any version of realism that would give due weight to the left-hand side of the quantified biconditional,” (for example, Wright will not adopt an alternative approach like Gödelian Platonism), “For by doing so they would place sharp limits on the scope and relevance of an RD approach.”
As mentioned in the last section, the Lockean account of secondary qualities may be wrong. Mark Johnston points out that “to say that something is red is not just to say that ‘x is red iff…x is disposed to look red to standard subjects in normal or optimal ambient conditions’, no matter how detailed the range of provisos that are specified in that regard. Rather, what it means is something more like: x is disposed to look red to standard subjects in standard conditions because x is red’, where it is the redness of x—its actually being that color—which explains why any subject with a properly functioning visual-cortical apparatus should see it that way in the absence of abnormal lighting or other such factors that would tend to distort or mislead their perceptual judgement.” The object actually being that color, is a “missing explanation” according to Johnston.

Alex Miller disagrees with Johnston that we must either claim an object’s redness is response-dependent, or that response is shaped by the object’s ‘actual’ redness. Miller maintains “that the quantified biconditional provides an adequate response-dispositional account of such judgments and that those judgements may be counted correct because object x has the property concerned.”

But, in order for this to be so, Johnston feels the need to rework the quantified biconditional in a way “that would still give sufficient weight to the right-hand (RD-specified) list of provisos while taking more account of those left-hand properties (e.g., the redness of x itself which normally evoke the appropriate response under suitable ambient conditions.” Amended formula: “Subjects are able to sense a family of qualities had by a range of objects only if this empirical generalization holds: each of the subjects has a disposition which in standard conditions issues in the appearing of an object having some of its qualities (i) just when the object in fact has these qualities and (ii) partly because the object has these qualities.”

This ‘seems’ to go against the RD or Lockean account of secondary qualities and toward a realist account, except for the terms “empirical generalization” and “appearing of an object”. “So it is that Miller can work his way via a series of slightly reformulated biconditionals to the point where Johnston’s ‘missing explanation’ argument turns out to entail no conflict with the RD thesis in something very like its original form.”

Miller’s answer to Johnston’s ‘missing explanation’ argument, in his own words: “the fact that standard subjects under standard conditions can sense or perceive the redness of things provides no reason for thinking that our concept of redness is not a response-dependent concept”. This “is the kind of explanation that must properly be specified in RD-compatible terms rather than (say) the kind of explanation that might result from applying our best current knowledge of optics, neurophysiology or even the phenomenology of perception as described in far greater depth and detail by philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty.”

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