A priori knowledge: yes or no? An intuitive response

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (PhilPapers.org)

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question One

The Question:

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
Accept or lean toward: yes 662 / 931 (71.1%)
Accept or lean toward: no 171 / 931 (18.3%)
Other 98 / 931 (10.5%)

My Intuitive Answer and Whether I’m Confident in My Answer: Yes (8)

Well, the survey doesn’t start with an easy one, like “Does truth exist?” Part of what is interesting about this essay is that the questions are short and the terms are not defined for us. So a lot of the answer has to do with what we mean by knowledge and what we mean by a priori. Philosophers use these terms in different, albeit often related, ways. So with my intuitive answer comes my intuitive and unrefined definitions (we’ll see if I keep them over time). By knowledge, I mean a 1) belief that is 2) justified in such a way that the justification leads to my understanding that the belief more likely true than not true, and 3) the belief is true. As I am somewhat aware of the Gettier Problem, I attempted a qualification in 2 to make justification more explicitly a relational attitude between my having assented to the belief and the likelihood that the belief is in fact true. I have no idea if this is adequate… suggestions? As for a priori, I take this to be a kind of judgment made without reference to anything empirical.

So, my intuitive answer is yes. I think there is at least one “justified true belief” that is non-empirical. My intuitive examples would come from the laws of logic, like the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle. These laws are not known empirically, but are preconditions for empirical things to be empirically known. How so? Any justification of some proposition P requires that 1) P ≡ P and 2) P v ~P. Otherwise,the justification could not lead us to understand P is true and ~P is false. To say the laws of logic require a posteriori justification would result in a fallacious begging of the question. So, if there is knowledge at all, then there must be a priori knowledge. Further, we can affirm that there is knowledge, since the denial of the proposition “There is no knowledge” could not be a knowledge claim. This alone may not be problematic, but then one would know that the proposition “There is no knowledge” could not be a knowledge claim. Thus, I think there is at least one thing which would count as knowledge and that if there is at lease one thing that would count as knowledge, then there must be a priori knowledge.

I am fairly confident in my intuitive answer and the “on the fly” argument that I provided to justify my belief that it is true. I would rate my confidence on a 1-10 scale (1 being very little confidence and 10 being 100% certain) at about a 8, since I am not positive that my definitions are free of problems (especially considering the Gettier Problems mentioned earlier).

As this is one of my first posts, I want to take a moment to give you an idea of how my future investigations will proceed. I will monitor the comment thread on this post to see if any good points and challenges are made. If so, I will update and revise as necessary.

Each question on this survey will receive an initial “Intuitions” post. I will then follow up over the weeks with posts under the following headings:

Good arguments for counter-positions

Reassessment of my intuitions in light of counter-arguments

Challenging the counter-arguments

Challenges to my own arguments

Concluding Remarks and “Final” Answer

How This Answer Effects Other Answers I Have Given So Far (i.e. if I finally conclude that there is a priori knowledge, and then later conclude that I accept “scientific anti-realism” I might consider whether the two beliefs conflict).

As this blog develops, I hope contributions from my readers will continue to spur updates, revisions, and reassessments. There are 30 or so questions on the survey and I anticipate that some of them will have to be treated in multiple parts. Should this blog gain momentum (and this was not just a fleeting idea I had yesterday night after reading a post on “Common Sense Atheism”) and I manage to get through all of the questions, I will try to come up with more to ask, or I will rely on my readership, if I gain any. I suspect that I could spend a life-time on just one or two of the survey questions if I really wanted to, so I am not worried about the short length of the survey itself. But, I also don’t want to limit this blog to just the PhilPaper Survey. It’s just a tool that I am using to start investigating my own world-view. Because, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Right?



Posted on March 27, 2011, in PhilPaper Survey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I should add that I admit my scale (1-10) is completely subjective. I am not sure how useful it will be, but I thought I would keep track of my confidence levels regarding these issues as I explore them — some rough way to monitor whether exploring the issue shakes my confidence or bolsters it. I doubt I will have too many instances of 10 on the scale… but who knows?

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