Do ignorant assessors cases pose a challenge to relativism about epistemic modals?
Keywords: relativism; contextualism; epistemic modals; ignorant assessor; semantics; pragmatics
Our ordinary conversations are filled with talk about what could or must be. For instance, in an iconic scene from On the Waterfront, the protagonist Terry bemoans his ruined boxing career. "I could have been a contender," he says, "instead of a bum, which is what I am." (1) Terry's regret is tied not only to the way things are but also to the way things might have been. As it was, Terry lost his chance at the title. However, had he not thrown a big fight, things might have turned out quite differently for him. "Could" and "might," along with their duals, "should" and "must," are modal terms: we use them to talk about what is possible and what is necessary. Terry's statement has to do with what is metaphysically possible. Although certain things are essential to Terry's nature, presumably being a bum is not. There are other kinds of possibility besides metaphysical possibility. For instance, when a parent tells a child "You must not lie," she is reminding the child of what is morally necessary--that is, what is not possible given the constraints of morality.
One particularly interesting type of modality is epistemic modality, which concerns what is possible given a body of knowledge or evidence. For instance, consider Luke and Max's conversation in (1).
(1) Luke: What did you catch out on the lake? Max: I'm no expert, but it might be a rainbow trout. Luke: It can't be a rainbow trout. It is missing the pink streak down its side. Max: Oh, then I guess I was wrong.
Cases involving epistemic modals, such as (1), present an interesting semantic challenge. In order to give a semantic treatment of epistemic modals, we must explain how informational states figure in the semantic representation of these terms. Recently, there have been several proposals for a semantic theory of epistemic modals. (2) One major view--relativism--holds that claims involving epistemic modals are only true or false relative to epistemic agents or informational states. On this view, epistemic modals are quantifiers over epistemic possibilities, and the range of possibilities quantified over changes depending on whose knowledge is relevant. For now, we can think of epistemic possibilities as represented by epistemically possible worlds--worlds compatible with what is known. (3) Formally, utterances containing epistemic modals express propositions (which we can think of as either sets of worlds or functions from worlds to truth values) that are evaluated for truth relative to a circumstance of evaluation (or index). The circumstance of evaluation includes a parameter i that represents an informational state that determines the range of the quantifier.
Because informational states vary from person to person, an important question for the relativist to answer is "whose knowledge is relevant?" According to a basic version of relativism--call it speaker relativism--the truth of an epistemic modal claim depends upon what the speaker knows at the time of utterance. It is true just in case what the speaker knows at the time she utters the claim does not rule out the possibility in question. Relativist John MacFarlane claims that speaker relativism is inadequate. He argues that examples like (1) show that it cannot be the speaker's information that is relevant. If the speaker's evidence alone is relevant, then it would hardly be appropriate for Luke to contradict Max's claim, or for Max to retract it. After all, for all Max knew at the time he uttered the claim, the fish was a rainbow trout. Instead, MacFarlane suggests that the truth of epistemic modal claims depends on the informational state of the person assessing the claim. According to MacFarlane's view--call it assessor relativism--epistemic modal claims are assessment-sensitive in that their truth depends on what is known by the assessor at the time he or she assesses the claim. Hence, truth for epistemic modal claims varies with what MacFarlane calls the context of assessment. (4)
Examples such as (1) seem especially suited to support assessor relativism because, in this case, the assessor knows more than the speaker. When the assessor is better informed than the speaker, it seems natural for the assessor to correct the speaker, and for the speaker to issue a retraction. (5) Assessor relativism predicts these corrections and retractions, and so appears to give us the right results. However, Anthony Gillies and Kai von Fintel claim that assessment relativism gives the wrong result in cases where the assessor knows less than the speaker. (6) It has been argued that these so-called "ignorant assessor cases" pose a serious problem for assessment relativism. Even John MacFarlane, arguably the staunchest assessment relativist, goes so far as to complicate his semantic theory in order to accommodate these cases.
In my view, assessor relativism faces some serious difficulties. However, rather than articulating these challenges my goal is to show that ignorant assessor cases are not among them. I will consider two kinds of cases: one by Gillies and von Fintel, and one by John MacFarlane. I will argue that these cases do not uncover a flaw in the assessment relativist's semantics. The apparent problems only seem to arise because the authors have not given adequate attention to the epistemic details of the cases. In making my argument, I present a larger methodological point about the role of epistemic data in semantic theory construction. I claim that, it is often difficult to distinguish the boundary between semantics and epistemology when discussing epistemic modals. As a result, linguists and philosophers of language sometimes fail distinguish between epistemic intuitions that are directly relevant to the semantics and those that are indirectly relevant. In the end, I conclude that we do not have to complicate the semantics of epistemic modals in order to accommodate epistemic data such as intuitions about epistemic warrant.
This result is significant because the semantic debate regarding epistemic modals often revolves around intuitions similar to those elicited by ignorant assessor cases. Similarly, the greater debate, regarding the semantics of so-called "perspectival expressions" including predicates of personal taste, knowledge attributions, and future contingents, often focuses on how to semantically accommodate felicity judgments regarding linguistic examples. (7) For each of these expressions, it is an open question how intuitive data ought to be reflected in the semantics. (8) In that case, the conclusions of this paper, which concern the relevance of intuitive data to semantic theory, may have wider application within semantic theorizing regarding epistemic modals and perspectival expressions in general.
2. Relativist Semantics
2.1 Speaker relativism
Before I present the ignorant-assessor objections to assessor relativism, it will be helpful to review some of the technical details of relativism. (9) Relativists use the semantic framework of Kaplan and Lewis as a basis for constructing their semantics. (10) On such a view, truth values for sentences are assigned relative to a context of utterance, a circumstance of evaluation, and an assignment function. The context of utterance is employed to handle context-sensitive items, such as indexicals. The circumstance of evaluation is used to accommodate intentional sentential operators. The assignment function is brought in to help provide a compositional account of quantifiers. As a baseline, the circumstance of evaluation includes only a possible world and perhaps a time. However, it is possible to include additional parameters. Relativism adds a parameter i to the circumstance of evaluation, which represents an informational state--a set of worlds compatible with what is known. Formally, for any sentence [PHI] we can represent "It might be that [PHI]" as follows where C is a context, i is a set of possible worlds representing an information state (the worlds left open by a particular state of information), w is a possible world, and a is an assignment of objects from the domain relevant at C to the variables. (11)
[Might: [PHI]] is true at <C, w, i, a> iff for some w' in i, [PHI] is true at <C, w', i, a>
As a default, the world and time parameters are usually set by the context of utterance such that the world and time of evaluation are the world and time of utterance. The context of utterance is itself a technical term that can be defined as follows:
* Context of Utterance: the setting for an actual or possible use of a sentence (or proposition) in a speech act or mental act. (12)
Speaker relativism also takes i to be set by the context of utterance such that the relevant informational state is always that of the speaker at the time of utterance. (13)
2.2 Assessor relativism
Like speaker relativism, assessor relativism adds a parameter i to the circumstance of evaluation, which represents an informational state. However, MacFarlane differentiates his assessor relativism from speaker relativism by specifying that i is initiated not by the context of utterance but by a separate context of assessment. He defines the context of assessment as follows:
* Context of Assessment: the setting from which such a use is being assessed for truth or falsity on some actual or possible occasion of assessment. (14)
On MacFarlane's view, the context of utterance is used to determine which proposition is asserted by a speaker. However, the context of assessment is used to evaluate the truth of that proposition by delivering the relevant informational state: the informational state of the assessor at the time of assessment. With the context of utterance and the context of assessment at his disposal, MacFarlane can define the truth of an utterance of a sentence [PHI] as follows:
An utterance of a sentence [PHI] at a context CU is true as assessed from a context CA iff [PHI] is true at every point of evaluation <CU, WCU, iCA, a>, where
* wCU = the world of CU,
* iCA = the set of worlds that aren't excluded by what is known at (CA) by the agent centered on CA,
* a = an assignment of objects from the domain of C to the variables. (15)
On this initial version of assessor relativism, the truth of epistemic modals depends on the information state of a single individual. MacFarlane refers to this version of relativism as "solipsistic." As we will see in section (6), MacFarlane considers moving from a solipsistic version of assessment relativism to a version in which the truth of epistemic modal claims depends on the informational state of more than one individual.
2.2.1 Assessor relativism and assertion
How does the technical apparatus of solipsistic assessor relativism apply to a case such as (1)? So far, it is hard to tell. This is because it isn't yet clear how MacFarlane's formal semantic framework applies to ordinary language. To complete his explanation, MacFarlane must explain the role that his doubly contextual truth predicate "true at a context of use CU and a context of assessment CA plays in the speech act of assertion." (16) The traditional characterization of the role of truth as the "aim of assertion" seems inappropriate for relative truth. (17) After all, what does it mean to "aim at truth" if truth is relative to assessors? Instead of focusing on the norms for making an assertion, MacFarlane concentrates on the normative consequences of making an assertion. On his view, "an assertion (even an insincere one) is a commitment to the truth of the proposition asserted." (18) MacFarlane explains that by asserting an assessment-sensitive proposition, we commit ourselves to three things:
(W) In asserting that p at C1, one commits oneself to withdrawing the assertion (at any future context C2) if p is shown to be untrue relative to the context of use C1 and the context of assessment C2.
(J) In asserting that p at C1, one commits oneself to justifying the assertion when the assertion is appropriately challenged. To justify the assertion in a context C2 is to provide grounds for the truth of p relative to the context of use C1 and the context of assessment C2.
(R) In asserting that p at C1, one commits oneself to accepting responsibility (at any future context C2) if, on the basis of this assertion, someone else takes p to be true (relative to the context of use C1 and the context of assessment C2) and it proves to be untrue (relative to C1 and C2). (19)
At this point, we have a clearer picture of how assessor relativism operates in an example like (1). According to a solipsistic version of assessor relativism, one and the same utterance (or occurrence) of a sentence can be true relative to one context of assessment, and false relative to another. Accordingly, Max's utterance of "The fish might be a rainbow trout" in (1) expresses a truth, as assessed by him, just in case what he knows (at the time of his assessment) does not rule out the fish being a rainbow trout. Since his evidence does not rule out that possibility at the time he assesses his own utterance, he is licensed to assert his claim. However, Luke occupies a separate context of assessment. At the time he assesses Max's claim, Luke's evidence does rule out the fish being a rainbow trout. In that case, Luke is licensed to say, "The fish can't be a rainbow trout." Furthermore, both Luke and Max tacitly take on certain commitments as speakers. For instance, Max has committed to withdrawing his statement if it is shown to be false relative to any future context of assessment. Once he learns that rainbow trout have pink streaks, his informational state changes. Hence, he occupies a new context of assessment. His original claim is false relative to this new context, and therefore he is assertorically obligated to retract it.
3. "The Boss" Problem for Assessment Relativism
There has been a lot of debate over whether examples like (1), in which the assessor knows more than the speaker, motivate relativism at all. (20) However, even if relativists are allowed to count these cases in their favor, other examples appear to work against them. Gillies and von Fintel offer us one such case. Their example is based on one by Edgington and is closely analogous to "Gibbardian stand-off cases, where information is passed along from two equally well-informed speakers to a comparatively less informed assessor. In Gibbardian stand-offs, two individuals are both fully entitled to accept one of two contradictory conditionals, and yet a third party is nonetheless able to draw a correct and well-justified conclusion by conjoining reports of the two conditionals. (21) The classic Gibbardian cases are supposed to provide a challenge to certain popular semantic theories of conditionals. Gillies and von Fintel hope that their version of the case provides a similar challenge to assessment relativism. (22)
The Boss Case
The Boss has two informants, Jack and Zack. There is a meeting of spies in a room, and the Boss, Jack, and Zack know that one and only one of their (conveniently named) comrades P, Q, and R is a turncoat. Jack looks through his peephole and sees clearly that it is either P or Q who is the turncoat, and Zack looks through his peephole and sees clearly that it is either Q or R who is the turncoat. Each slips the Boss a note informing him:
(2) [From Jack]: It must be that either P is the turncoat or Q is the turncoat.
(3) [From Zack]: It must be that either Q is the turncoat or R is the turncoat. (23)
The Boss gets the messages, concluding that Q is the turncoat. (24)
Intuitively, the Boss correctly infers from Jack's and Zack's claims that Q is the turncoat. But how can this be on MacFarlane's theory? Here Gillies and von Fintel note that, as with might-claims, what matters for the truth of must-claims is what the assessor knows at the time of the assessment. "By [the assessment relativist's] lights, an assessor [J.sub.a] should reject any must-claim whose truth (with respect to [C.sub.A]) would rule out worlds compatible with the facts at [C.sub.A] (or whose truth would require such worlds to have already been ruled out)." (25) From the point of assessment the Boss occupies, he has no information about who is the turncoat. In this case, what he knows includes worlds where P is the turncoat, worlds where Q is the turncoat, and worlds where R is the turncoat. But if that is so, then the Boss should judge what Jack and Zack each said to be false. Jack said the turncoat must be either P or Q (but not R), and since what the Boss knows, when he gets the report, is compatible with R being the turncoat, then what Jack said is false. Zack said that the turncoat is either Q or R (but not P), and since what the Boss knows, when he gets the report, is compatible with P being the turncoat, then what Zack said is false. As Gillies and von Fintel put it, "It is a bad idea for the Boss to conclude something he thinks is false on the basis of reports he thinks are false." (26)
By "a bad idea," Gillies and von Fintel seem to mean that not only would it be epistemically irresponsible for the Boss to draw conclusions on the basis of one or more falsehoods, it would also be completely a matter of luck that he arrived at the right conclusion by doing so. This is a bad result for relativism because it seems pretty clear that not only is the Boss not doing something epistemically irresponsible in concluding that Q is the turncoat, but his arriving at this conclusion also has nothing to do with luck.
4. Why the Boss Is Not a Problem for Relativism
Contrary to appearances, the Boss case does not pose a challenge to assessor relativism. In order to demonstrate this point, I'll first examine the most straightforward interpretation of Gillies and von Fintel's objection. Here I'll show that the case rests on an implausible view about the Boss's evidence and the process by which he assimilates new information. Next, I'll provide a more sophisticated interpretation of Gillies and von Fintel's objection. I'll then show that this version of the objection, though attractive, involves a conflation between epistemic and assertoric norms.
4.1 Behind the Boss
4.1.1 A bad view of the evidence
Again, Gillies and von Fintel's argument seems to be this: intuitively, the Boss should be able to reason from his informants' claims to the conclusion that Q is the turncoat. That is just to say that there is nothing epistemically irrational or epistemically irresponsible in the Boss's reasoning. The Boss's reasoning is only rational and responsible so long as he judges his informants' claims to be true. Relativism requires that the Boss should judge his informants' claims to be false; therefore, relativism gives the wrong result in this case.
However, Gillies and von Fintel are mistaken in thinking that Relativism requires the Boss to judge his informants' claims to be false. Their mistake comes in how they fill in the epistemological details of the case. Gillies and von Fintel seem to think that the only evidence the Boss is provided with when he hears his informants' claims is what he reads off the notes (and what he infers from the fact that the culprit can be only P, Q, or R), namely:
* It must be either P or Q (but not R).
* It must be Q or R (but not P).
Since, taken separately, either piece of evidence conflicts with what the Boss knows when he receives it, he cannot update his own information state in light of it. Therefore, relativism requires the Boss to judge both claims to be false at the time of assessment.
However, this description of the case provides an impoverished picture of the Boss's evidence. It also tells an unlikely story about how the Boss is allowed to update his beliefs. Jack and Zack provide the Boss with a special kind of evidence: testimonial evidence. Along with the information the Boss reads off the notes, he also has information about the source of this evidence. The Boss must choose whether to assimilate the information from either of the notes on the basis of whatever information he has about the informant's trustworthiness, along with information about the likelihood of error. On this picture, the Boss adjusts his evidence before he judges the claim, not after. If enough adjustments are made, then the claim will be true relative to the Boss's updated informational state.
Suppose the Boss knows Jack to be trustworthy. Judging Jack to be trustworthy means believing at least two things about him. First, it means having reason to think that Jack has made no mistakes with regard to the evidence he had. This involves knowing something about the margin of error, which in turn involves knowing something about the difficulty of establishing the claim. Second, it means believing that Jack has correctly reported his conclusion. If these conditions are met, then the Boss knows that if Jack says "It must be P or Q," then he must have had enough evidence to rule out R. Pending further evidence, the Boss should rule out R as well for the time being. Once the Boss has adjusted his own evidence to exclude R-worlds, he is in a position to judge Jack's claim to be true. The same process will hold for Zack, provided he is a trustworthy source as well.
4.1.2 The importance of the epistemic details
This point about speaker trustworthiness is easily overlooked because Gillies and von Fintel leave it out of their description altogether. This omission is strange, considering that the reason the Boss's inference seems epistemically responsible is that we presume that the Boss takes Jack and Zack to be trustworthy sources of information. (27) If the Boss had reason to distrust what Jack or Zack said, then it seems that he shouldn't update his information in light of their testimony. In that case, he ought to judge the claims to be false until he is given reason to think otherwise. (28) Of course, this scenario does not provide a counterexample to assessor relativism. If the Boss has reason to think that his informers are untrustworthy, we no longer have the intuition that the inference is reasonable. Not only would it be epistemically irresponsible for the Boss to reason on the basis of claims given by an untrustworthy source, it would also be a matter of luck if he came to the correct conclusion with this reasoning.
At this point, we can see that our intuitions about the plausibility of the case vary depending on whether the speaker is taken to be trustworthy. In other words, our intuitions about the goodness of the inference depend directly on how we fill in the epistemic details. Knowing this, it should be clear that the Boss case is not a proper test for the semantics of epistemic modals.
4.2 A second version of the objection
Perhaps Gillies and von Fintel have a deeper worry--one about the epistemological commitments of assessor relativism. Perhaps they worry that assessor relativism doesn't allow for testimonial evidence because relativism encourages a sort of epistemic presumptuousness. Perhaps their point is that since assessment relativism says that it's what the assessor knows that matters for the truth of epistemic modal claims, it gives the assessor license to simply ignore the evidence of others. If the Boss is justified in ignoring the evidence of others, maybe assessor relativism would predict that he should judge his informants' claims to be false. This version of the objection seems to capture the real reason people have found the Boss example so convincing. In that case, it is worth addressing this version of the objection, regardless of whether we can attribute it to Gillies and von Fintel.
Does assessor relativism saddle us with these kinds of unappealing epistemic commitments? No. According to the semantics, epistemic modal claims are only true or false relative to what the assessor knows at the time of assessment. According to the norms of assertion, a speaker (who is by default an assessor of her own claim) may make a claim on the basis of what she knows at the time of utterance. Along with this, the speaker takes up certain commitments with regard to justifying, withdrawing, or taking responsibility for her claim at any future context of assessment she occupies.
At no point does assessor relativism (either implicitly or explicitly) place restrictions on how the assessor forms or updates her informational state. (29) Nowhere does relativism imply that the knowledge of others is not relevant to the assessor's informational state. Nowhere does relativism require that the assessor refrain from updating her body of beliefs before she judges the truth of someone's claim. This is how it should be. A semantic theory should not come packaged with these sorts of requirements. This is the case even when the theory specifies that truth, in some cases, depends on what is known. Furthermore, it is important to remember that relativism about epistemic modals is not a theory about the truth of all sentences, just those containing epistemic modals. According to assessor relativism, the truth of an epistemic modal claim like "It must be P or Q" depends on what the assessor knows. However, the truth of a categorical claim "It is P or Q" doesn't depend on what anyone knows. Just because something must be the case epistemically, that doesn't mean that it is the case. If we want our categorical beliefs to reflect the way the world is; we can't ignore other people's evidence. Although relativism (as a semantic theory) doesn't give us any advice on how to update our beliefs, we have independent, epistemological reasons for considering the information of others.
5. Theorem X
Once the problem with ignorant assessor cases, such as the Boss case, has been made clear, we might wonder if such cases were really convincing in the first place. However, ignorant assessor cases have been taken quite seriously in the literature on epistemic modals. Even MacFarlane, the author of assessment relativism, has taken great pains to address ignorant assessor cases. In his (2009) article, MacFarlane worries about an ignorant-assessor problem brought to his attention by Richard Dietz. (30) MacFarlane presents his own version of Dietz's case as follows:
Suppose that yesterday I proved Theorem X and asserted "Theorem X must be true." Today, however, my memory has grown fuzzy. I recall that I was working on Theorem X, but I don't remember whether I proved it, refuted it, or did neither. If Solipsistic Relativism is correct, I should be able to say:
(4) If I said, "Theorem X must be true" yesterday, then what I said was false. (31)
For what I know now (at the context of assessment) leaves open the possibility that Theorem X is false, and the truth of a "must" claim requires that all possibilities of falsehood be excluded. And this seems very bizarre. Intuitively, I don't have warrant to pronounce on the falsity of claims made by my better-informed past self, even when these claims contain epistemic modals. If epistemic possibility is perspectival, as these data suggest, it is asymmetrically perspectival. The truth of epistemic modal claims can depend on what is known by the assessor, but only if the assessor knows more than the original asserter. (32)
5.1 A clarification
For the sake of clarity, I want to make one small change to MacFarlane's example. As the example is stated above, "must" is embedded in a conditional. Since the semantics of conditionals is itself a controversial topic, MacFarlane's use of it in (4) makes the example more complicated than it needs to be. (33) In that case, I suggest we reformulate the Theorem X case slightly. We can keep most details of the case the same. Only suppose that yesterday, after MacFarlane proves Theorem X, he makes a voice recording saying, "Theorem X must be true." Today, he replays his recorded message, and utters:
(5) I know I said, "Theorem X must be true" yesterday, but what I said was false.
By substituting (5) for (4), we get a slightly cleaner version of the Theorem X case.
6. MacFarlane's Response
MacFarlane offers two kinds of solutions for Theorem X that represent two ways of capturing the idea that epistemic modals are asymmetrically perspectival. Both cases involve a departure from his original solipsistic version of assessor relativism. The first solution--Hybrid Relativism--widens the relevant informational state to include the speaker's knowledge. The second solution--Flexible Relativism--allows features of the context of assessment to determine whose knowledge is relevant. I will briefly examine each of these below and explain how they circumvent the Theorem X problem.
6.1 Hybrid Relativism
According to hybrid relativism, epistemic modals are sensitive to the epistemic states of both the speaker and the assessor. This view, so named because MacFarlane thinks of it as a hybrid of speaker relativism and assessor relativism, can be spelled out in at least two different ways. The first way is to conjoin the knowledge of the speaker and the assessor. Formally, the only departure from the assessor-relativist semantics here is a change in the definition of the truth of an utterance of a sentence in a context:
An utterance of a sentence [PHI] at a context CU is true as assessed from a context CA iff [PHI] is true at every point of evaluation <Cu, WCU, iCu + CA, a>, where
* wCU = the world of CU,
* iCU+CA = the set of worlds that aren't excluded by what is known at (CA) by the agent centered on CA or by what is known at (Cu) by the agent centered on Cu
* a = an assignment of objects from the domain of C to the variables. (34)
A second way of reconstructing the semantics to accommodate the speaker's information is to formulate truth at a point of evaluation in terms of what is known distributively by the speaker at the context of utterance and by the assessor at the context of assessment:
* iCU+CA = the set of worlds that aren't excluded by what would be known by a rational agent who knew everything known at CA by the agent centered on CA or by what is known (at CU) by the agent centered on CU. (35)
MacFarlane suggests that either form of hybrid relativism might be used to escape the Theorem X problem. The reason is that both forms make the speaker's knowledge directly relevant to the truth of epistemic modal claims by stipulating that the truth of epistemic modals depends on an amalgamation of the speaker's and assessor's knowledge. As a consequence, the assessor cannot truthfully contradict the speaker in those cases where the speaker knows more than the assessor. Since, in the Theorem X case, the amalgamated knowledge includes the speaker's memory of having proved Theorem X, the speaker cannot truly utter (5). Hence the speaker is not saddled with a true but unwarranted assertion.
6.2 Flexible Relativism
According to flexible relativism, the context of assessment determines whose knowledge is relevant to the truth of epistemic modal claims, but it does not always select the assessor as the relevant knower. The definition of truth for an utterance of a sentence at a context leaves open what information state is relevant at the context of assessment.
An utterance of a sentence [PHI] at a context CU is true as assessed from a context CA iff [PHI] is true at every point of evaluation <CU, WCU, iCA, a>, where
* wCU = the world of CU,
* iCA = the set of worlds that aren't excluded by the information that is relevant at CA by,
* a = an assignment of objects from the domain of C to the variables. (36)
Like hybrid relativism, flexible relativism allows the speaker's knowledge to be directly relevant to the truth conditions for epistemic modals. However, instead of explicitly mentioning the speaker's knowledge in the semantics, it is left to the context of assessment to determine when it's relevant. What features of the context of assessment help determine whose knowledge is relevant? MacFarlane is never explicit on this point, though he does give some examples.
In contexts where the primary point of the assessment is critical evaluation of a speaker's assertion (as when one is trying to determine whether the speaker might be a trustworthy source of information), the relevant information state will generally be a composite of the speaker's and the assessor's information. (37)
In the Theorem X case, the assessor was engaged in a critical evaluation of the speaker's assertion. Therefore, in this circumstance, flexible relativism gives us the same results as hybrid relativism: the assessor cannot truly utter (5).
7. Why Theorem X is Not a Problem for Relativism
MacFarlane admits that both of his semantic solutions come with costs. I will not spend time elaborating on the costs, because I believe that the solutions are uncalled for to begin with. Assessor relativism only appears to be threatened by the Theorem X case.
In certain respects, MacFarlane's ignorant-assessor case is like Gillies and von Fintel's Boss case. Gillies and von Fintel worry that relativism would make a seemingly reasonable and responsible inference unreasonable and irresponsible. MacFarlane, on the other hand, worries that assessor relativism would make a seemingly unwarranted claim like (5) assertable. Here MacFarlane is explicitly concerned with the epistemological consequences of assessor relativism. Again, he says, "Intuitively, I don't have warrant to pronounce on the falsity of claims made by my better-informed past self, even when these claims contain epistemic modals." (38) And he goes on to say, "If epistemic possibility is perspectival, as the data suggests, it is asymmetrically perspectival. The truth of epistemic modal claims can depend on what is known by the assessor, but only if the assessor knows more than the original asserter." (39) In responding to MacFarlane, I first want to examine the intuition that (5) is unwarranted. I then want to comment on MacFarlane's claim that (5) shows that epistemic modals are "asymmetrically perspectival."
7.1 Is (5) unwarranted?
As with the Boss case, our intuitions about the warrant of (5) vary depending on how we fill in the epistemic details of the case. Like Gillies and von Fintel, MacFarlane has given a caricature of the assessor's informational state at the time he utters (5). MacFarlane seems to think that because he, as the assessor, does not have any evidence based on the memory of having proved Theorem X, he must judge his past self's claim to be false.
But of course, when MacFarlane hears that his past self claimed that Theorem X must be true, he has testimonial evidence for the truth of Theorem X. At this point, the details about speaker trustworthiness are essential to our intuitions regarding the case. Unfortunately, MacFarlane leaves these details out of his description. Because of this, we are left to fill the details in from what we, as readers, know about the trustworthiness of MacFarlane's past self. We know that MacFarlane is supposed to have proved Theorem X, however difficult the theorem may have been to prove. We also know that he honestly reported his conclusion. All of this evidence leads us to believe that MacFarlane's past self is a trustworthy source of information.
Of course, what matters to the case is whether MacFarlane had reason to think his past self was better informed. The fact that we, as readers, know that MacFarlane's past self was better informed shouldn't make us think that MacFarlane is unwarranted in uttering (5). We have to ask what evidence he had about the trustworthiness of his past self.
Notice how much our intuitions about the case change when we explicitly include details regarding what MacFarlane knows about his own trustworthiness. Suppose MacFarlane had every reason to think that he is a trustworthy testifier. Imagine that MacFarlane knows that Theorem X is a relatively easy theorem to prove and that the margin for error is relatively small. In addition, imagine that MacFarlane knows that he is an excellent theoretician and that he is always honest in reporting his conclusions. When we fill in the details this way, it seems that (5) would be unwarranted. However, this is unproblematic for relativism, since relativism would not license uttering (5) in this case. If MacFarlane had reason to think his past self was better informed, then his informational state should be adjusted accordingly. Depending on how extensive these adjustments are, he may be able to accept his past self's claim. In that case, assessor relativism will not license (5).
On the other hand, consider a case where MacFarlane did have reason to distrust his past self. For instance, imagine that MacFarlane knows that Theorem X is extremely difficult to prove. Furthermore, suppose MacFarlane was intoxicated yesterday. Today, when MacFarlane presses the Play button on his tape recorder, he hears himself utter in a drunk and slurring voice, "Theorem X must be true" along with "I've just invented a perpetual motion machine" and "The President's dog knows calculus." In this scenario, it should be obvious that there is no need for MacFarlane to adjust his information in light of his past self's testimony. Since what he knows at the time of assessment leaves open the possibility that Theorem X is false, assessor relativism does license (5). However, in this case, it's clear that (5) no longer provides a counterexample to assessor relativism because we no longer have the intuition that (5) is unwarranted.
7.2 Evaluating MacFarlane's strategy
I have tried to show that MacFarlane's semantic solutions are unnecessary for addressing Theorem X. I will conclude by making a methodological point concerning the approach MacFarlane takes toward semantically incorporating epistemic data. I will argue that the sort of strategy MacFarlane employs to solve Theorem X raises problems similar to Theorem X. In the end, this failure shows something important about how epistemic data, such as intuitions about epistemic warrant, are related to a semantic theory of epistemic modals.
MacFarlane takes the Theorem X case to show that the speaker's knowledge is somehow relevant to the truth of epistemic modal claims. MacFarlane is right to think that the speaker's knowledge is relevant in this case, but he is wrong about how it is relevant to the semantics of epistemic modal claims. MacFarlane's strategy for incorporating the speaker's evidence is to find a way for her evidence to be directly relevant to the semantics. He does so by specifying the speaker's evidence in the truth conditions for epistemic modal claims. In hybrid relativism, the semantics stipulates that the speaker's knowledge always comprises part of the truth conditions. In flexible relativism, the context of assessment determines that the speaker's knowledge sometimes comprises part of the truth conditions.
However, using a "direct incorporation" strategy like hybrid relativism or flexible relativism to handle the Theorem X case will only result in other epistemically problematic cases. On hybrid relativism, we "amalgamate the asserter's and the assessor's knowledge into a single body of known facts with respect to which the epistemic modal is to be evaluated." (40) As it stands, this form of relativism would allow assessors to make claims on the basis of the amalgamated body of knowledge, even when the assessor has only partial access to this knowledge. For instance, consider again the case where MacFarlane proves Theorem X despite its difficulty and his being intoxicated. In that case, even though MacFarlane has every reason to think that his past self did not prove Theorem X, he should be able to truthfully utter (6).
(6) I know I have no reason to think Theorem X is true. Nonetheless, when I said "Theorem X must be true" yesterday, what I said was true.
Even if (6) is true, it is not warranted. However, the reason it is unwarranted cannot be due to the fact that hybrid relativism failed to include the speaker's knowledge in the truth conditions for epistemic modals. Clearly, (6) is unwarranted because we are not justified in making claims (even if they are true) on the basis of testimony that we believe is unreliable.
In the case of epistemic modals, it is often difficult to distinguish the boundary between semantics and epistemology. This is only natural, considering that the truth of epistemic modals depends on a body of beliefs--a body that is continually revised and updated. For instance, epistemic norms often oblige us to defer to the better informed when we form or revise our beliefs. Since truth depends on a body of beliefs subject to these norms, this sort of deference to the better informed will naturally be indirectly reflected in the semantics. The upshot is that because of the way epistemic information factors into the truth conditions of epistemic modal claims, there is no need to complicate the semantics to capture the kinds of epistemic intuitions under discussion.
Regardless of what difficulties assessment relativism may have, I hope to have shown that uptake problems such as the Boss and Theorem X are not among them. With regard to both cases, I argued that it is possible to assimilate the information from the claims of the better informed, so long as we take them to be epistemically trustworthy. More importantly, I have tried to draw attention to the interaction between epistemic and semantic issues in arguments surrounding the semantics of epistemic modals. In the end, I hope to have convinced the reader that we do not have to complicate the semantics of epistemic modals in order to accommodate epistemic data such as intuitions about epistemic warrant.
(1.) Kazan, 1954.
(2.) See Schaffer, 2011 and Kolbel, 2008 for introductions to possible views.
(3.) Whether the truth of epistemic modals depends, strictly speaking, on what is known, or on something like the evidence one has, is a matter of debate. I'll be assuming the latter, since I believe it provides the best fit with the view I will be discussing here. I'll use "knowledge," "evidence," "informational state," and "body of beliefs" interchangeably.
(4.) MacFarlane, 2011.
(5.) See Knobe and Yalcin, 2014, for a critique of the use of truth-value judgments and retraction judgments in semantic theories of epistemic modal language.
(6.) von Fintel and Gillies, 2008.
(7.) See Kobel, 2008 and Schaffer, 2009, for an explanation of "perspectival expressions."
(8.) For instance, see Buetow, 2014, for a discussion of the role of philosophical and semantic intuitions in debate regarding predicates of personal taste.
(9.) With minor adaptations, most of the formalism I use is taken directly from MacFarlane, 2011.
(10.) See Kaplan, 1989 and Lewis, 1980.
(11.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 164.
(12.) Adapted from MacFarlane, 2011, p. 159. MacFarlane uses "context of use" rather than "context of utterance" to cover more than verbal uses of a sentence.
(13.) MacFarlane uses "contextualism" to denote the view I am calling "speaker relativism." His use of contextualism is somewhat idiosyncratic. Most philosophers and linguists who use the label "contextualism" use it to denote a view where perspectival information is handled on the level of content, and not by the circumstance of evaluation. Conversely, most philosophers and linguists who hold the view MacFarlane describes as "contextualism" use the label "relativism." See Schaffer, 2011, for a helpful discussion of these labels in the context of the present debate.
(14.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 159.
(15.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 167. Instead of defining utterance truth, MacFarlane defines the truth of an occurrence of a sentence. The latter includes inscriptions as well as utterances. However, utterance truth is all that is needed for our purposes.
(16.) See MacFarlane, 2005, especially pp. 328 and 337.
(17.) See Dummett, 1959, for an explanation of truth as the aim of assertion.
(18.) MacFarlane, 2005, p. 333.
(19.) MacFarlane, 2005, p. 337.
(20.) For instance, see von Fintel and Gillies, 2008. See also Schaffer, 2011.
(21.) See Edgington, 1995, and Gibbard, 1981.
(22.) Ludlow, forthcoming, argues that in some of the cases Gillies and von Fintel provide against relativism may not involve epistemic modals at all, but rather contain a "scalar modifier" of the matrix verb.
(23.) It ought to be noted that, strictly speaking, these two claims are not contradictory. In that sense, this example is not completely analogous to a Gibbardian Stand-off.
(24.) von Fintel and Gillies, 2008, pp. 11-12.
(25.) von Fintel and Gillies, 2008, p. 11.
(26.) von Fintel and Gillies, 2008, p. 12.
(27.) This omission is additionally perplexing considering the emphasis placed on epistemic trustworthiness in the Gibbard case. In a stand-off situation, the fact that neither individual has made any mistakes with respect to the evidence available to him, nor made any errors in reporting his evidence, is what gives us grounds for thinking that each claim is true. Without this feature, Gibbardian cases fail to get started in the first place.
(28.) What if the Boss has no information about the speaker's trustworthiness? Perhaps, in the case where the assessor lacks evidence about the trustworthiness of the speaker, she ought to suspend judgment about the speaker's claim. Or perhaps there ought to be some sort of prima facie presumption in favor of speaker trustworthiness in these cases. In any case, I think this is a matter best settled within the scope of a debate about testimonial evidence.
(29.) See Nuffer, 2015, for an account of the effect that epistemic modal sentences have on the informational states of those who accept them. See also Cook, 2013, for a discussion of the flow of information in a group-deliberative setting within the context of conversations regarding epistemic modals.
(30.) Dietz, 2008.
(31.) Dietz, 2008.
(32.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 174.
(33.) See Bennett, 2003, for an excellent introduction to the debate about the semantics of conditionals. Also, see Moss, 2015, for a novel account of the behavior of epistemic modals in embedded contexts such as conditionals. Finally, see Hacquard and Wellwood, 2012, for a corpus-based study of epistemic modals in embedded contexts.
(34.) Adapted from MacFarlane, 2011, p. 175. Again, for technical reasons, MacFarlane uses "occurrence of a sentence" instead of "utterance of a sentence."
(35.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 175, footnote 31.
(36.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 176.
(37.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 176-177.
(38.) MacFarlane, 2011, pp. 174. The emphasis here is mine.
(39.) MacFarlane, 2011, pp. 174.
(40.) MacFarlane, 2011, p. 175. Since flexible relativism gives the same results as hybrid relativism in cases of "critical evaluation" like Theorem X, I'll focus on hybrid relativism.
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Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Lowell
How to cite: Furey, Heidi (2017), "Do Ignorant Assessors Cases Pose a Challenge to Relativism about Epistemic Modals?," Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 16: 29-48.
Received 11 January 2016 * Received in revised form 28 February 2016
Accepted 29 February 2016 * Available online 20 March 2016
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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