Epistemic Closure Essay

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Epistemic Closure Essay

?In this essay I am going to analyze the principle of epistemic closure and then I will look at the counterexamples, proposed by by Fred Dretsky and Jonathan Vogel. I will analyse and come to a conclusion whether their arguments are convincing and what responces there are to their counterexamples. In general epistemology is a «branch of philosophy that is directed towards theories of sources, nature and limits of knowledge»1. Rene Descartes’ famous treatise «Meditations on First Philosophy» will also be discussed in relation to the Cartesian Method of Doubt, which is largely based on the closure principle.

Rene Descartes’ main aim was to make people start doubting the things which they initially saw as granted. He wanted to lead people to start basing their knowledge That’s why in the First Meditation this he turned to global scepticism, and claimed «I am going to follow my method, then, I shall have to suspend judgement about everything I used to believe2». This path of thinking leads Descartes to the conclusion that he can be sure only about the existence of himself (the famous «cogito ergo sum» comes here), and also he can be sure about the existence of God, therefore, then the material world exists, as God is not deceiving a priori.

As we can see Descartes made use of the closure principle, the simple form of which says that if Person A knows “x”, and “x” entails “y”, and S knows that “x” entails “y”, then Person S knows y. In case of Descartes, he claims that he knows that God exists, and the existence of God implies the existence of material world (as God is not a liar to deceive us), he knows that God is not a liar and will not deceive us, therefore he knows that the material world exists.

This proposition is more often called ASA (anti-skeptical argument). Another example of this is given by Tim Black3, he proposed the following logical proposition: (1) If I know that I have hands, and if I know that my having hands entails that I am not a brain-in-a-vat, then I know that I am not a brain-in-a-vat. (2) I know that my having hands entails that I am not a brain-in-a-vat. (3) I know that I have hands. Therefore, (4) I know that I‘m not a brain-in-a-vat.

However, here the skeptical puzzle begins, as it is impossible to know whether “I am not a brain in a vat”. So the first 3 premises are independently plausible, but they support the conclusion (4), which is not plausible. Keith DeRose4 offers us to consider the so-called Abominable Conjunction: given closure the first premise is plausible, however it is abominable, as I know that I have hands while not knowing that I am not a brain in a vat. Some would accept the ASA, e. g. according to Tim Black, G. E. Moore would have probably accepted it.

“Moore would probably accept (1), (2) and (3), and then claim that it follows from that (4) is true, that is he knows that he is not a brain in a vat5”. However, there were many who denied the closure principle. First I will consider the counter-examples put forward by Fred Dretske. Dretske tries to illustrate the failure of the closure principle by giving the example of a Zebra in a Zoo. In the infamous example Dretske makes two claims: (1) You know there’s a zebra in front of you. (2) You don’t know that it isn’t a cleverly disguised mule.

Dretske then explains: «You have some general uniformities on which you rely, regularities to which you give expression by such remarks as, «That isn’t very likely» or «Why should the zoo authorities do that? » … But the question here is now whether the alternative is plausible, not whether it is more or less plausible than that there are real zebras in the pen, but whether you know that this alternative hypothesis is false. I don’t think you do”6 What Dretske tries to explain is that knowledge is an evidential state in which all relevant alternatives are eliminated.

Then he asserts the closure principle fails if the knowledge P requires to exclude not all, but only all relevant alternatives to P. However Vogel finds the description of the situation implausible. “Given what Dretske has said in laying out the example, I think it is more reasonable to conclude that if you know (1) you know (2) as well, and closure is preserved after all”7 He keeps explaining his position, in which he claims that if a belief is more plausible than its denial, a person should be justified in accepting that belief.

The reason you know that an animal in the pen is not a disguised mule (if you do know it’s a zebra) is that you have a true belief to that effect backed up by good evidence. That evidence includes background information about the nature and function of zoos. You know that zoos generally exhibit genuine specimens, and that it would be a great deal of trouble to disguise a mule and to substitute it for a zebra… If you did feel there was a chance that a switch had been made, you would have reason to doubt that the animal you see is a zebra.

You would not know that it is a zebra. Vogel further explains the flaws of Dretske’s Zoo case, by introducing the Car Theft case, which I will analyze now. Car Theft case also is widely counted as a counter-example to closure principle Because you at the same time know a proposition about where you car is, but you fail to know another proposition which is a clear logical consequence of the first. You know the proposition (p) “My car is now parked on Avenue A.

You also know that the proposition entails (q) “My car has not been stolen and driven away from where it was parked” Yet it seems you do now know q, despite the fact that it is for you a clear logical consequence of p, which you do know. As you apparently fail to know a clear logical consequence of a proposition you do know, the closure principle is apparently violated. Vogel claims that the car theft case is identical to a lottery. “Having your car stolen is an unfortunate counterpart to winning the lottery … Believing that your car won’t be stolen is like believing you won’t win the lottery8”.

Vogel claims that this example is much stronger (it has a statistical basis in it rather than the Zebra case. He claims that Zebra case lacks the lottery element, so it is not clear why you do not know that the striped animal before you isn’t a disguised mule. Using this as a basis, Vogel explains that the Car Theft Case itself also does not lead to any conclusion regarding the closure principle. To illustrate this, let’s return to the initial premises.

As we can see there is no lottery element connected to “being a brain in a vat”. Its not a matter of probability, as we cannot know if anyone is a brain in a vat, or whether anyone can be a brain in a vat at all. So the Car Theft counterexample fails as well. In conclusion, we can see that the closure principle, on which Rene Descartes “Meditations” are based is argued to be wrong, however the counterexamples which first seem convincing, such as the Car Theft Case and Zoo Zebra case are doomed to fail.

Biblography DeRose, Keith, and Ted A. Warfield. Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print. “Epistemology (redirected from Epistomology). ” TheFreeDictionary. com. N. p. , n. d. Web. 19 Jan. 2013. . Francks, Richard. Descartes’ Meditations: A Reader’s Guide. London: Continuum, 2008. Print. Jonathan Vogel. “Are There Counterexamples to the Closure Principle? ” N. p. , n. d. Web. 19 Jan. 2013. . Tim Black. “What We Can Learn From The Skeptical Puzzle. ” N. p. , n. d. Web. 19 Jan. 2013. .


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 November 2016

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