Epistemic and Practical Dependence and the Value of Skills or: Satnavs, Good or Bad?

Elizabeth Pricker

Our Extensive Epistemic Dependence on Testimony and a Question It Makes Salient

Testimony1 as a distinctive epistemic source comprises the spoken or written word of a speaker or author, who (actually or apparently) seeks to impart her knowledge to others by means of linguistic assertions aimed at achieving this.2 Primary testimony consists of face-to-face telling, a personal transaction. Extended testimony includes personal letters and emails, all purportedly factual television and radio programs, similar newspaper and magazine articles and books, and of course nowadays all purportedly factual Internet sources.

In modern societies our epistemic dependence on testimony for what we know and believe is massively extensive. Through reliance on what we learn from others, we gain access to a rich heritage of accumulated theoretical belief, hopefully much of which is knowledge—of history, geography, the sciences, and so forth. True, one may first acquire a belief through testimony but then later acquire nontestimonial evidence for it. Nonetheless, it is obvious that, in the circumstances of modern society, for much of what each person believes they do so only on the basis of testimony; and if their belief is indeed knowledge, this is due to its source in suitable testimony.3 Moreover there is an oblique dependence on testimony even for beliefs immediately arrived at through one’s own perception, when the conceptual background enabling one’s perception of some fact involves concepts that gain their identity from their place in a theory one’s knowledge of which is mediated by testimony. This is an everyday phenomenon; for instance, to see that someone is using her mobile phone one must possess that concept, and this entails one’s grasp of a network of knowledgeable beliefs epistemically dependent on knowledge acquired from others.4

So, for each one of us members of an epistemically advanced society with a rich accumulated heritage of knowledge, one’s massive epistemic dependence on one’s past acceptance of the word of others is a fact of one’s epistemic circumstances. The wealth of one’s epistemic superabundance

Dependence and the Value of Skills 65 is bought at the price of one’s huge epistemic dependence on the word of others—one’s past and ongoing accepting reliance on testimony, primary and extended.5

The reliance of each one of us on others’ testimony for one’s knowledge is a fact of our modern epistemic predicament, one that there is no going back on—it is not feasible, without giving up on any semblance of a normal modern lifestyle, to prescind from all reliance on knowledge gained from accepting others’ testimony. In this chapter I explore a question made salient by this fact. One relies on others for knowledge when they possess epistemic skills that oneself lacks. But although one cannot aspire to acquire all possible epistemic skills oneself, over time one faces choices about which skills to continue to rely on others to exercise on one’s behalf and which to set out to acquire oneself.

What holds for epistemic skills holds for skills more generally—practical as well as epistemic. At a given point in time, if another possesses a skill one lacks, one relies on her for its outputs, epistemic or material, in the domain in question. But over time one faces a choice: to continue to rely on the other, or to set out to acquire the skill in question oneself. And so I ask the question: does one have some reason to acquire and exercise skills, practical or epistemic, oneself, where one can, rather than relying on others to exercise them on one’s behalf?6

One’s skill-related reliance may be only indirectly on other persons. This is so when one relies directly on a machine or electronic device designed and manufactured by others who deployed skills and knowledge that oneself lacks. Reliance on devices that one does not know how to construct oneself, nor fully understand how they work, is almost as old as civilization itself. But its extent, and its pace of advance, have become extreme in the last 50 years. With the advent of advanced microchip technology, smart devices are now being designed and marketed that have the capability to substitute for and replace very many highly sophisticated skills that previously have been exclusively the province of intelligent human beings—self-driving cars are but one example. More and more of what were exclusively human skillful activities can be given over to robots and other computer-controlled devices, leaving the humans without any need, as in the past, to develop and exercise the skill in question.

Society should be concerned about this. By concern I do not mean anxiety. But it is important that we ask questions about this radical new development overtaking us, before it is too late to influence and direct its course. This is one central motivation for my question about the value of possessing and sometimes exercising skills. There is also a more specific autobiographical spur to my concern with this issue. My interest in the question I address was in part prompted by arguments with my children about the desirability or otherwise of being able to navigate on a car journey oneself, albeit with the use of a map, rather than relying uncritically on the audible instructions of an electronic “satnav” or GPS device. My instinctive view was that having some understanding of the route of one’s journey was of value; that something of what is worthwhile in human life is lost if one abdicates from all pretensions both to grasp the layout of one’s environment and the skills to navigate it, and is happy blindly to obey the dictates of an electronic device in achieving arrival at one’s intended destination. This chapter explores a broader question whose answer determines whether there is any good philosophical argument to support my initial prejudice. My conclusion is that there is. To see how, and to find out if you agree with me, you must read on. Some more scene setting is needed, before I can address my main question about the value of skills—that is, of possessing and sometimes exercising them.

The Nature of Our Epistemic Dependence on Testimony

A recipient of testimony may respond to it epistemically in any of four different ways. She may disregard it epistemically, giving it no credence; she may actively disbelieve it; she may take the fact of the speaker’s testimony that P as some evidence for P, but without believing it outright; or she may take the speaker’s word for what she states and form the belief that P on her say-so. My concern in this chapter is with this last, canonical response.7

A speaker who tells her intended audience that P purports to be expressing her knowledge that P: she presents herself as doing so. The recipient’s complementary role in this “Gricean handshake”8 is to accept the speaker to be indeed doing what she purports, viz. expressing her knowledge with a view to imparting it to her audience, and to form a belief in what she is told on this basis—taking the speaker’s word for what she states and forming a belief on her say-so. A recipient who believes what she is told on this basis is committed to accepting that the speaker knows what she states—discovering she does not know it defeats the basis for her belief.9 A few freak cases apart, she will be epistemically placed to know this only if she is in a position to know that the speaker has this property:

Truss|>o Not easily10 would S tell me that P on this occasion O unless she knew that P.

When one thus takes a speaker’s word for what she states, trusting11 her with respect to her testimony, one has epistemic dependence on the speaker for the knowledge one thereby gains. That is to say, first: the recipient comes to know that P in this way only if the speaker, in telling, expressed her knowledge. (See Fricker 2006a, 2015.) Second: the positive status as knowledge of the recipient’s belief is partly inherited from the fact that the speaker knew, and hence had suitable evidence for, what she stated.12 So, in forming a belief through trust in another’s testimony, I rely for the status of my belief as knowledge on the relevant epistemic and

Dependence and the Value of Skills 67 character virtues of the testifier—her sincerity and competence, which together comprise her trustworthiness (Trus S,P,O) on this occasion. I rely on the speaker to know what she tells me; in doing so, I rely on her abilities correctly to gather, interpret and assess the evidence for what she tells—on her relevant epistemic skills.

One’s Choices Regarding Remaining Epistemically and Practically Dependent Versus Acquiring New Skills

As we have already acknowledged, this epistemic dependence on others for much of one’s knowledge is a practically inevitable feature of modern life—if one attempted to restrict oneself to belief in what one can know without dependence on what one has learned from others, one would know impossibly little. The supposed ideal of the autonomous knower, who takes no one else’s word for anything and believes only what she is able to find out for herself, using her own individual cognitive resources, is not a realistic practical possibility. Moreover, this supposed ideal is in reality no such thing: someone who never trusts another person’s word shows either an irrational paranoia or a complete lack of a grasp of folk psychology. Everyday knowledge of the world, and of the nature and situation of oneself and other people, shows one’s own limited epistemic reach, and the fact that on many matters others are better placed epistemically than oneself and well enough placed to attain knowledge. Hence in many situations it is not merely epistemically permissible to take the word of others, but epistemically mandatory to do so, in some situations to override one’s own previous opinion. Refusal to accept another’s judgment over one’s own in a case where she is evidently better placed to know than oneself shows not laudable epistemic self-direction, but irrational, pig-headed epistemic egoism. (These arguments are developed in more detail in Fricker 2006b.)

So our epistemic dependence on others for much of our knowledge is a fact of modern human life. Trying to eliminate it entirely is both infeasible and would be, in our actual human epistemic and cognitive circumstances, irrational. But although total elimination of one’s epistemic dependence on others is not an option, there remain further questions we can and should ask. Here is one: should one seek to minimize one’s epistemic dependence on others to the maximum extent feasible? Despite the constraints set by our limited cognitive capacities and our worldly situation, including time constraints, there is much room for choices here. One may have no choice but to trust another’s word, on pain of remaining ignorant on a topic, at a given moment in time. But when one considers the progress of one’s life, including one’s epistemic activities over time, it is clear that major choices confront one. Over time one can take steps to acquire both knowledge and knowledge-gathering skills in a domain of enquiry. I will refer to these as epistemic skills.

A particular epistemic skill, say the ability to identify birds in the wild, will typically consist partly of mastery of a system of propositional knowledge, and partly of cognitive-cum-practical abilities, including perceptual recognitional abilities. Together, this package equips its bearer to acquire new knowledge in fresh circumstances, where someone lacking the package cannot do so. For instance the bird expert can tell what bird just flew overhead or was making its call, while the novice cannot. (This may be through a combination of perceptual recognitional capacity, plus background knowledge of what bird species are likely to be in the area.)

Our bird example illustrates a key pervasive feature: that the gleaning of fresh knowledge through perception is very frequently dependent on background knowledge and training. A microbiologist looking down a microscope at a slide may be able to draw all sorts of conclusions about the sample, whereas someone ignorant of the relevant science would see only some dark wriggly things. A cricketing enthusiast may see the batsman swing at a loose ball and catch an edge and be caught at second slip, where one not familiar with the game will struggle to see anything much at all. This is why, to repeat, epistemic skills most importantly confer the ability to gain fresh knowledge in a situation, where one lacking the skill cannot do so.

Individuals make choices in their lives, and choices are certainly there for them, as to which epistemic skills they are content to rely on others to exercise on their behalf, gaining their knowledge in the domain in question only at second-hand,13 and which they set out to acquire for themselves, to attain first-hand knowledge. For instance, if I know only enough about cars to be able to drive one, then I am entirely reliant on my mechanic to diagnose a fault, and to tell me what is wrong with my car and what is required to repair it.

There are similar choices to be made as regards which practical skills one is content to allow others to exercise on one’s behalf, and which one decides to acquire and exercise for oneself. In fact there is no clear separation between practical and epistemic skills—most skills include elements of both; and epistemic dependence tends to go hand-in-hand with practical dependence. Hence there is no clear separation between the choices to enlarge the domain of one’s epistemic and one’s practical skills: if I understand nothing of how a car engine works, I will both have to trust my mechanic as to what its fault is and rely on her to repair it for me.14 Learning more about car engines will enhance my perceptual knowledge-getting skills when I inspect the engine, and is likely to enable me to do at least some simple repairs myself.

 
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