The Problem of the Criterion

Before going further into the nature of knowledge we have to pause for a moment and ask the question, “How do we determine what counts as good knowledge or belief?” This seems like an easy enough question, but answering it can lead to a bit of a quandary. When we seek to identify the good beliefs, that is, to know what exactly it is we know, then we need good methods to sort the good beliefs from the bad. But if we already know which methods are good methods for separating good from bad beliefs, then it appears that we are already able to identify good beliefs independently of our method.

This leads to an infinite regress of justification to validate our beliefs. If we say, “These are good beliefs to start from,” then the skeptic must only ask, “Why those beliefs?” Logically one would fall back onto his sorting method and respond, “Because this sorting method says they are because it sorts the good beliefs from the bad.” To which the skeptic may answer, “But how do you know that it sorts good beliefs from bad?” And there, to quote a halfway decent playwright, is the rub. Because faced with this question one must return to their starting point and say, “Because I believe this method is a good belief to start from.” To which the skeptic may once again reply, “But why?” And so we start over again.

This is called The Problem of the Criterionand there are a few ways that we can try to solve it.

The first is to be skeptical of everything. Skepticism looks at this situation and says that you can’t know which beliefs are good until you have a good selection method, but you can’t know which methods are good until you have good beliefs. Since we’re stuck in an endless cycle that we can’t break we can’t know anything at all. There are no knowable epistemic claims and no access to second order knowledge.

A second option is that we can adopt is methodism. Methodism asserts that knowledge can only be gained if the methods by which we sort it are in place first. This option allows that one can know epistimic claims and have second order knowledge, but it suffers because anything that we claim to know is determined by whatever method we choose. Therefore, it is entirely possible that two groups accepting methodism could start from different criteria and be completely justified in holding something as true by there own criteria and yet have their beliefs be in logical contradiction of each other. Particular judgments are always slave to the criteria by which we sort.

A third option is to adopt particularism. Particularism starts at the opposite side of the cycle from methodism and asserts that there are certain things that we can just know to be true without any outside justification. These properly basic beliefs are what then determines how we judge which criteria we use to sort the rest of our beliefs. Philosopher G.E. Moore demonstrated this method in his 1939 paper Proof of an External WorldMoore demonstrates that the skeptics argument against having certainty of knowledge can be written thusly:

  1. If skepticism is true, then you can’t prove that you have hands.
  2. You can’t prove that you have hands
  3. Therefore, skepticism is true.

Moore responds to the critics by inverting their argument on them. He states:

  1. If skepticism is true, then I don’t know that I have hands.
  2. I know that I have hands
  3. Therefore, skepticism is false.

Within his paper he demonstrates the validity of his argument by stating that when asked to prove that he has hands all he has to do is wave them in front of his face. His point being that there is no degree of skepticism that can ever make us doubt the existence of sensory input that is telling us that we have hands. The knowledge provided by our senses and by certain type of a priori reasoning needs no other justification other than the fact that we just know them to be so. These types of knowledge have been dubbed, “Moorean facts” and they can be defined as “those things which we know better than any philosophical argument to prove them otherwise.”

A fourth and final option is a reflective equilibrium in which we admit that there are certain intuitive methods and intuitive judgments which are both valid from which we can start. This position seeks to find the balance between methodism and particularism by stating that our criteria and judgments are slaves to each other and we can’t escape the cycle of mutual justification. This position, however, leaves us stuck in the cycle of endless justification just as much as skepticism does.

When comparing all four positions it makes good sense to accept the particularist’s position that we can have properly basic beliefs, but the reasons for why this is so will have to wait until our next post in epistemology.


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