Study Questions

Descartes, Meditation 1
  • What is Descartes' aim in the Meditations?
  • What is the method of doubt?
  • What is the dream argument? What, exactly, does it show?
  • What does Descartes take himself to know at the end of the first Meditation?

Descartes, Meditation 2

  • Why can't the evil genius deceive Descartes into falsely believing he exists?
  • Descartes not only forms a belief that he exists, he also forms a belief about what he is. What does he think he is?
  • What is the point of the wax example? How is it important in knowing the self?

Stroud, "The Problem of the External World"

  • Stroud identifies three assumptions or premises in Descartes' dreaming argument. What are they?
  • What is the "straightforward" response to Descartes? What does Stroud think is wrong with it?
  • What is the difference between (1) a possibility incompatible with p, and (2) a possibility incompatible with my knowing that p? What do such possibilities have to do with knowledge, according to Stroud?
  • What does Stroud think is the best response to Descartes' dreaming argument?

Berkeley, Dialogue 1

  • What does Berkeley mean by "material substance" or "matter"?
  • What are some examples of primary qualities? Of secondary qualities?
  • What is the difference between primary and secondary qualities?
  • Philonous (speaking on Berkeley's behalf) gives several arguments against the mind-independent reality of secondary qualities.  
    • What is the argument based on pleasure and pain?
    • What is the argument from relativity?
    • What is the argument from (lack of) resemblance?
    • Do these arguments apply to all secondary qualities, or just some of them?
  • Philonous also argues against the mind-independent reality of primary qualities.
    • Are his arguments here different from his arguments against secondary qualities? How so? Are they equally convincing?   

Berkeley, Dialogue 2

  • What is the role of God in Philonous/Berkeley's philosophy? Does Philonous offer an argument for God's existence, a reason to think God exists?
  • Hylas suggests that matter causes our ideas (perceptions). What is Philonous's response?
    • What's the difference between a cause and an occasion? Does the difference make a difference? (Is it important? Why?)
  • How does Hylas think appeal to brains will help him out of his difficulty? How does Philonous respond?
Berkeley, Dialogue 3
  • On Philonous/Berkeley's view, there are two fundamental kinds of things in the world. What are they?
  • What is the significance of the slogan "to be is to be perceived" (esse est percipi)? Does this hold for everything in existence, according to Philonous, or just some things?
  • Hylas presents a series of objections to Philonous's view. What are they, and what are Philonous's responses?
Hume, Enquiry Chapter 4
  • What is the difference between "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact"?
  • Why does Hume restrict his attention to matters of fact other than those "attested by our present senses or the records of our memory"? Are these matters of fact more reliable?
  • What is the importance, according to Hume, of reasoning about cause and effect?
  • What is the basis of our judgments about cause and effect?
  • Why can't we use a priori reasoning to determine relations of cause and effect? [What does a priori mean?]
  • Why can't mathematics or geometry give us knowledge of causes?
  • How pervasive is reasoning about matters of fact? How often do we rely on it?
  • What are the two kinds of reasoning Hume identifies? Why can't either one be used to ground or justify our reasoning about matters of fact?

Russell, Problems of Philosophy Chapter 6

  • What does Russell mean when he says "probability is all we ought to seek"?
  • What is the inductive principle?
  • Why can't the inductive principle be proved by experience?

Carroll, "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles"

  • What is in dispute between the tortoise and Achilles?
  • How is their dispute analogous to the problem of induction?

Moore, "Proof of an External World"

  • What is Moore's proof that there is an external world?
  • What are Moore's three criteria for an acceptable proof?

Moore, "Four Forms of Scepticism"

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer paper. This excerpt does not distinguish four forms of skepticism, so don't worry if you can't figure out what the title's talking about.

  • What sort of claim or argument is Moore making in the final paragraph? This is what we will call "the Moore shift".

Moore, "Certainty"

  • What does Moore mean when he says "true belief is not identical with knowledge"?
  • What premise does Moore identify in skeptical philosophers' reasoning that "seems harmless", and what is his "very serious objection to the procedure of using it as a [premise] in favour of the derived conclusion"? Compare the line of reasoning here with Stroud's objection to the "straightforward response" to the dream argument.

Gettier, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?"

  • What account of knowledge is Gettier arguing against? What does "justification" mean here? What assumptions about justification does Gettier rely on?
  • Which direction of the account is Gettier attacking? That is, does Gettier aim to show that justified true belief is insufficient or unnecessary for knowledge?
  • What are Gettier's counterexamples? Do they accomplish their task? That is, do they succeed in showing that the JTB account of knowledge is mistaken?
  • If Gettier's examples do succeed, in your opinion, can you think of a way of repairing or amending the JTB account so that it handles Gettier's cases correctly?

Harman, Thought (excerpt)

  • What is a "rule of acceptance"? What is a "probabilistic rule of acceptance"?
  • How does Harman's principle P avoid the problems for the "no false premises" response to Gettier raised in lecture?
  • What is the significance of the Nogot/Havit example on page 195?
  • How does Goldman's causal theory explain the Nogot/Havit case?
  • Harman recommends we replace Goldman's "causal theory of inferring" (note: that's inferring, not knowing) with a different inference rule. What is the rule, and why is it superior to the causal one?
  • What is the significance of the Sure-Fire match example on pages 198-199?
  • What is the significance of the coin-flipping example on page 200?
  • What is the significance of the three "further examples" presented on pp. 201-2? What do they have in common? Do you share Harman's intuitions about them? (That is, Harman says of each case that someone either does or does not know something. Do you agree with Harman?) (In other words, do you think these are genuine Gettier examples, as Harman claims?)
  • Harman suggests a principle to explain the examples on p. 203. What is the principle, and how does it explain the examples? What does Harman mean when he says the principle is "too strong"?
  • Explain the "paradox" Harman presents near the end of p. 203. How does this relate to skeptical arguments we've considered previously, such as the dreaming argument? How does Harman resolve the paradox?
  • What is "undermining" evidence? How does it figure in Harman's account of inference?

Zagzebski, "The Inescapability of Gettier Problems"

  • What is Zagzebski's thesis? In what sense does she mean that Gettier problems are "inescapable"?
  • What does Zagzebski mean by "independence between truth and the other conditions of knowledge"?
  • Zagzebski argues that any view that denies that justification entails truth must allow Gettier examples. Why?
  • Zagzebski also argues that two other options--taking justification to entail truth, or allowing luck to be a significant ingredient in knowledge--lead to equally bad consequences. What are these bad consequences?