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Professors Say The Darnedest Things
January 20, 2009, 12:28 am
Filed under: Epistemology, Philosophy

A potential hire came in to give a talk to my department.  He outlined an externalist account of epistemic warrant, and then applied it to moral knowledge.  Basically, you are entitled to hold some beliefs without having reasons for them.  Prime examples: perceptual beliefs and moral beliefs.  

The questions some of the faculty asked during question period were embarrassing, and betrayed their ignorance of both epistemic externalism and the responses moral realists have made to standard objections to moral realism.


First, the fact that you need to give reasons in order to explain why you are entitled to a belief does not mean that you need to have reasons to actually be entitled to the belief.  You can be entitled even if you can’t explain why.  These are the basics of the externalist position, folks.  It might be wrong (it ain’t), but you sound silly when you confuse the giving of reasons to explain why you are entitled to a belief with the giving of reasons for the belief.


Second, one of the more famous professors in my department seemed to think that the very existence of Paul Bernardo is sufficient proof that moral realism is false.  

After all, Bernardo denies that what he did was wrong.  Therefore he obviously doesn’t know it was wrong, right?  

Wait a minute!!!  Think that one over for a second.  Clearly you can deny what you know to be true.  That’s obvious, isn’t it?  Far better to think that Bernardo:

(i) knows it was wrong but simply doesn’t care

(ii) knows it was wrong but believes that he deserves special exemption

(iii) knows it was wrong but will say anything to get out of prison

(iv) has something wrong with his belief producing cognitive faculties

The first two are just the kinds of things you’d expect from a psychopath, right?  Bernardo seems like a paradigm case of psychopathy, right?

The prof accused these alternative explanations of being ad hoc.  Bullshit.  Give me one reason to think that my denying something entails that I don’t know it.  That’s not even plausible.

Anyway, I can absolutely guarantee that this fellow won’t be offered a job.  I’ve never seen such a hostile question period.  The department hated him.  But for the sloppiest of reasons.  Idiots.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

did you participate in the discussion? voice your views? or were you ‘allowed’ to?

Comment by Gabe

Grad students are generally given a first crack during questions period. But, given that this was special potential hire talk, that rule was not enforced.

My only question to him would have been, “You say Alvin Plantinga ruined the term ‘warrant’ and that you mean something else by the term. But I can’t see how your position differs that much from Plantinga. Plantinga, like you, grants that warrant is defeasible and comes in degrees. So what is it, exactly, about your account that is different from Plantinga? Plantinga’s use of a ‘design plan’ in accounting for proper function?”

I would have liked to question the questioners. Or, better, two or three of the questioners. Mostly because I’m such a convinced externalist. Though I do admit that you should only belief what is internalistically justified for you. But my account of what this internalist justification amounts to would be drastically different from the typical accounts.

To top it all off, during his talk someone started a snowblower that was so loud that it nearly overpowered him. Embarrassing. It felt like we were some kind of ‘cow college’.

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