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January 15, 2009, 11:01 am
Filed under: Epistemology

The are at least two kinds of surprise.  

Sometimes you feel surprised even though you saw it coming.  Say you’ve smoked for 20 years and have been diagnosed with cancer.  You’d feel shocked and surprised, right?  But you know that smoking causes lung cancer.  It is no surprise that a smoker would get lung cancer, right?  But you feel surprised.

But there is a deeper kind of surprise.  By definition, if you are surprised in this deeper sense, then you didn’t see it coming.  You didn’t anticipate the surprise.  This is a surprise in the full and proper sense, not merely a felt surprise.

Can we ever be non-culpably surprised in this full sense?  Or are we always blameworthy for our surprises?  

What if we do our very best (epistemically), but we still fail to anticipate something?  That would count as surprise in the full and proper sense that I’m interested in.  We’d be truly and non-culpably surprised. 

But does this ever happen?

It seems to me that it does.

But if it does ever happen, then that changes everything.

For, logically, you can never anticipate this kind of deep surprise.  

So, this year, will we be surprised to find out that the moon is made of cheese?  

Logically, we can never know for sure.  Because, even if we will be surprised, we won’t be able to anticipate it. 

The fact that we do not anticipate a surprise does not count as evidence that we won’t be surprised.  In fact, our inability to anticipate a surprise is a necessary precondition for being surprised in the deeper, non-culpable sense.


If deep surprises ever happen, then all knowledge is rooted in faith/commitment.  

For you’ll never know beforehand if you’ll be surprised.  And so you’ll always have to reach out and trust that you won’t be surprised.  You’ll have to reach out and commit yourself to a future in which you are not surprised.


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