II Skill in epistemologyhttp://taylorandfrancis.com


Knowledge, luck and cognitive skill

There is an intimate connection between knowledge and skill, to the extent that it is not seriously in question that the former demands the latter.1 That is, when a subject has knowledge her true belief is in some significant way due to her exercise of relevant cognitive skills. This is one reason why a subject who gets to the truth in a completely random way—through guesswork, say (assuming that guesswork is ever a genuine route to belief)—doesn’t count as having knowledge, since their cognitive agency is not playing any role in producing their cognitive success.2 Elsewhere 1 have referred to this widespread intuition in epistemology as the ability platitudes'

Note that it is useful to keep the ability' platitude apart from a second widely held intuition about knowledge. This is the anti-luck platitude that knowledge cannot be due to luck.4 For many cases, a true belief that fails to amount to knowledge runs afoul of both platitudes. In the case just imagined, for example, where the subjects true belief is entirely through guesswork, it is true both that the cognitive success is purely down to luck and that it has nothing to do with the subjects exercise of relevant cognitive skill. Moreover, this doesn’t seem to be at all accidental. If one gets to the truth through one’s exercise of relevant cognitive ability, then doesn’t that exclude the possibility that one got to the truth simply through luck? And if one’s cognitive success is not down to luck, then what else could it be attributable to except one’s exercise of relevant cognitive ability? On the face of it, then, it does look as if these two platitudes are simply two sides of the same coin.

Interestingly, however, there are also cases that appear to trade on only one of these platitudes. Consider, for example, a belief that is guaranteed to be true, given how it was formed, but where this has nothing to do with the subject’s exercise of relevant cognitive agency. Perhaps, for example, there is a divine helper whose sole concern is to ensure that the subject’s beliefs about a certain subject matter, formed in this particular way, are sure to be true (to the extent that the divine helper will, if need be, change the facts to conform with what the agent believes). Now imagine that our subject forms her beliefs in this regard in ways that have nothing to do with the exercise of relevant cognitive agency (such as, again, guesswork, say). Since the beliefs are guaranteed to be true, there is no plausible sense in which we can say that they are only true as a matter of luck, and hence the anti-luck platitude should be satisfied. But nonetheless they clearly don’t amount to knowledge, and the natural explanation for why this is so is that they don’t satisfy the ability platitude.’

As we will see shortly, there are also cases that seem to demonstrate that one’s belief can satisfy the ability platitude but fail to count as knowledge nonetheless because it fails to satisfy the anti-luck platitude. If that’s right, then the two platitudes come apart in extension in both directions. But this second type of scenario is more controversial, for reasons that I will explain. In any case, our interest just now is in the ability’ platitude and in theories of knowledge which take their lead from this platitude. In particular, there is a way' of thinking about knowledge that takes the idea that knowledge involves cognitive skill or ability’ as primary We can usefully classify such views as virtue epistemologies, even though such a classification covers a very broad spectrum of views. Indeed, there will be positions that fall under this classification where the proponents of these positions would eschew this description (albeit for reasons that don’t concern us here).6

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