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Ideas of Michael Williams, by Text

[British, fl. 1989, Graduate of Oxford. Professor at Yale University.]

2001 Problems of Knowledge
Ch. 1 p.21 Is it people who are justified, or propositions?
     Full Idea: What exactly is supposed to be 'justified': a person's believing some particular proposition, or the proposition that he believes?
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 1)
     A reaction: A key distinction. See my comment on Idea 3752. What would justify a sign saying 'treasure buried here'? People can be justified in believing falsehoods. How could a false proposition be justified?
Ch. 1 p.23 Sometimes I ought to distrust sources which are actually reliable
     Full Idea: I may reach a belief using a procedure that is in fact reliable, but which I ought to distrust.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 1)
     A reaction: The tramp on the park bench who gives good share tips. The clock that is finally working, but has been going haywire for weeks. Reliabilism is a bad theory.
Ch. 1 p.26 We control our beliefs by virtue of how we enquire
     Full Idea: We control our beliefs by virtue of how we enquire.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 1)
Ch. 2 p.29 In the causal theory of knowledge the facts must cause the belief
     Full Idea: According to Goldman's early causal theory of knowledge, my belief that p counts as knowledge if and only if it is caused by the fact that p. This is sufficient as well as necessary, and so does not involve justification.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: I take his theory simply to be false because what causes a belief is not what justifies it. I expect my mother to ring; the phone rings; I 'know' it is my mother (and it is), because I strongly expect it.
Ch. 2 p.30 How could there be causal relations to mathematical facts?
     Full Idea: It is not clear what would even be meant by supposing that there are causal relations to mathematical facts.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: I agree, though platonists seem to be willing to entertain the possibility that there are causal relations, for which no further explanation can be given. Better is knowledge without a causal relation.
Ch. 2 p.31 Externalism does not require knowing that you know
     Full Idea: From an externalist point of view, knowing about one's reliability is not required for 'first-order' knowledge.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: Ah. 'First-order knowledge' - what's that? What we used to call 'true belief', I would say. Adequate for animals, and a good guide to daily life, but uncritical and unjustifiable.
Ch. 2 p.33 Externalist reliability refers to a range of conventional conditions
     Full Idea: The radical externalists' key notion is 'reliability', which is a normative condition governing adequate performance, involving reference to a range of conditions which we decide rather than discover.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: If we can decide whether a source is reliable, we can also decide whether a reliable source has performed well on this occasion, and that will always take precedence.
Ch. 2 p.36 Externalism ignores the social aspect of knowledge
     Full Idea: A problem with pure externalism is that it ignores the social dimension of knowledge.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: This seems to be contradicted by Idea 3573, which allows a social dimension to agreement over what is reliable. I am inclined to take knowledge as an entirely social concept.
Ch. 5 p.61 Scepticism can involve discrepancy, relativity, infinity, assumption and circularity
     Full Idea: The classical Five Modes of Scepticism are Discrepancy (people always disagree), Relativity ('according to you'), Infinity (infinite regress of questions), Assumption (ending in dogma) and Circularity (end up where you started).
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 5)
     A reaction: I take Relativity to be different from scepticism (because, roughly, it says there is nothing to know), and the others go with Agrippa's Trilemma of justification, which may have solutions.
Ch. 7 p.85 Foundationalists are torn between adequacy and security
     Full Idea: The foundationalists dilemma is to define a basis for knowledge modest enough to be secure but rich enough to be adequate.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 7)
     A reaction: ..And that is just what they are unable to do, precisely because adequate support would have to have enough content to be defeasibe or fallible.
Ch. 7 p.88 Strong justification eliminates error, but also reduces our true beliefs
     Full Idea: A strongly justificationist view of rationality may not be so rational; we want the truth, but avoiding all errors and maximising our number of true beliefs are not the same thing.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 7)
     A reaction: An interesting dilemma - to avoid all errors, believing nothing; to maximise true belief, believe everything. It is rational to follow intuition, guesses, and a wing and a prayer - once you are experienced and educated.
Ch. 8 p.96 Are empirical foundations judgements or experiences?
     Full Idea: Empirical foundationists must decide whether knowledge ultimately rests on either beliefs or judgements about experience, or on the experiences or sensations themselves.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: This clarifies the key issue very nicely, and I firmly vote for the former option. The simplest point is that error is possible about what sensations are taken to be of, so they won't do on their own.
Ch. 8 p.97 Experience must be meaningful to act as foundations
     Full Idea: If we are to treat experience as the foundation of knowledge, then experience must itself be understood to involve propositional content.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: This sounds right, but since pure 'experience' obviously doesn't have propositional content, because it needs interpretation and evaluation, then this strategy won't work.
Ch. 8 p.97 Sense data avoid the danger of misrepresenting the world
     Full Idea: The point of insisting on the absolute immediacy of sense data is that representation always seems to involve the possibility of misrepresentation.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 8)
Ch. 8 p.98 Sense data can't give us knowledge if they are non-propositional
     Full Idea: Acquaintance with sense data is supposed to be a form of non-propositional knowledge, but how can something be non-propositional and yet knowledge?
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 8)
Ch. 8 p.100 Propositions make error possible, so basic experiential knowledge is impossible
     Full Idea: Propositional content is inseparable from possible error. Therefore no judgement, however modest, is indubitable. So if basic experiential knowledge has to be indubitable, there is no such knowledge.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch. 8)
Ch.10 p.118 Justification needs coherence, while truth might be ideal coherence
     Full Idea: Contemporary coherence theorists are advancing a theory of justification, not of truth, …with those who argue that truth is also coherence explaining it in terms of ideal coherence, or coherence at the limit of enquiry.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.10)
Ch.10 p.119 Coherence needs positive links, not just absence of conflict
     Full Idea: It is often claimed that coherence is more than 'absence of conflict' between beliefs; it also involves 'positive connections'.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.10)
Ch.10 p.122 Only a belief can justify a belief
     Full Idea: Justification requires logical rather than causal connections. That is the point of the slogan that only a belief can justify a belief.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.10)
     A reaction: It seems better to talk of 'rational' connections, rather than 'logical' connections. It isn't 'logical' to believe that someone despises me because their lip is faintly curled.
Ch.10 p.123 Seeing electrons in a cloud chamber requires theory
     Full Idea: Armed with enough theory, we can see electrons in a cloud chamber.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.10)
Ch.10 p.124 Foundationalists base meaning in words, coherentists base it in sentences
     Full Idea: In the foundationalist picture the meaning of individual words (defined ostensively) is primary, and that of sentences is derivative. For coherentists sentences come first, with meaning understood functionally or inferentially.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.10)
     A reaction: Coherentism about language doesn't imply coherentism about justification. On language I vote for foundationalism, because I am impressed by the phenomenon of compositionality.
Ch.11 p.129 Why should diverse parts of our knowledge be connected?
     Full Idea: Why should political theory ever have much to do with quantum physics, or pet care with parliamentary history?
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.11)
     A reaction: This hardly demolishes the coherence account of justification, since your views on pet care had better be coherent, for your pet's sake. It's a pity people can make their politics cohere with their ethics.
Ch.11 p.135 Coherence theory must give a foundational status to coherence itself
     Full Idea: Coherence theory implicitly assigns the criteria of coherence a special status. …In so far as this status is assigned a priori, the coherence theory represents a rationalistic variant of foundationalism.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.11)
     A reaction: Nice move, to accuse coherence theorists of foundationalism! Wrong, though, because the a priori principles of coherence are not basic beliefs, but evolved pragmatic procedures (or something...).
Ch.11 p.136 We could never pin down how many beliefs we have
     Full Idea: Asking how many beliefs I have is like asking how many drops of water there are in a bucket. If I believe my dog is in the garden, do I also believe he is not in the house, or in Siberia?
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.11)
Ch.12 p.138 Phenomenalism is a form of idealism
     Full Idea: Phenomenalism is a form of idealism.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.12)
Ch.12 p.140 The only way to specify the corresponding fact is asserting the sentence
     Full Idea: The trouble with appeal to facts in the correspondence theory is that, in general, we have no way of indicating what fact a sentence, when true, corresponds to other than asserting the sentence.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.12)
Ch.13 p.148 Scepticism just reveals our limited ability to explain things
     Full Idea: All the sceptic's arguments show is that there are limits to our capacity to give reasons or cite evidence.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.13)
Ch.13 p.154 What works always takes precedence over theories
     Full Idea: A theory that represents working practices as unworkable is a bad theory.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.13)
     A reaction: Good point. There's a lot of this about in epistemology, especially accusations of circularity or infinite regress, which (if true) don't somehow seem to worry the cove on the Clapham omnibus.
Ch.18 p.215 Deduction shows entailments, not what to believe
     Full Idea: The rules of deduction are rules of entailment, not rules of inference. They tell us what follows from what, not what to believe on the basis of what.
     From: Michael Williams (Problems of Knowledge [2001], Ch.18)
2005 Without Immediate Justification
§1 p.204 Traditional foundationalism is radically internalist
     Full Idea: Traditional foundationalism is radically internalist. The justification-making factors for beliefs, basic and otherwise, are all open to view, and perhaps even actual objects of awareness. I am always in a position to know that I know.
     From: Michael Williams (Without Immediate Justification [2005], §1)
     A reaction: This is a helpful if one is trying to draw a map of the debate. An externalist foundationalism would have to terminate in the external fact which was the object of knowledge (via some reliable channel), but that is the truth, not the justification.
§2 p.206 Coherentists say that regress problems are assuming 'linear' justification
     Full Idea: From the point of view of the coherentist, Agrippa's Dilemma fails because it presupposes a 'linear' conception of justifying inference.
     From: Michael Williams (Without Immediate Justification [2005], §2)
     A reaction: [He cites Bonjour 1985 for this view] Since a belief may have several justifications, and one belief could justify a host of others, there certainly isn't a simple line of justifications. I agree with the coherentist picture here.
§3 p.207 In the context of scepticism, externalism does not seem to be an option
     Full Idea: In the peculiar context of the skeptical challenge, it is easy to persuade oneself that externalism is not an option.
     From: Michael Williams (Without Immediate Justification [2005], §3)
     A reaction: This is because externalism sees justification as largely non-conscious, but when faced with scepticism, the justifications need to be spelled out, and therefore internalised. So are sceptical discussions basic, or freakish anomalies?
§4 p.210 Basic judgements are immune from error because they have no content
     Full Idea: Basic judgements threaten to buy their immunity from error at the cost of being drained of descriptive content altogether.
     From: Michael Williams (Without Immediate Justification [2005], §4)
     A reaction: This is probably the key objection to foundationalism. As you import sufficient content into basic experiences to enable them to actually justify a set of beliefs, you find you have imported all sorts of comparisons and classifications as well.
§4 p.213 Sensory experience may be fixed, but it can still be misdescribed
     Full Idea: The fact that experiential contents cannot be other than they are, as far as sensory awareness goes, does not imply that we cannot misdescribe them, as in misreporting the number of speckles on a speckled hen (Chisholm's example).
     From: Michael Williams (Without Immediate Justification [2005], §4)
     A reaction: [Chisholm 1942 is cited] Such experiences couldn't be basic beliefs if there was a conflict between their intrinsic nature and the description I used in discussing them.