[lit-ideas] Disposition, Belief, and Knowledge

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2013 10:47:55 -0500 (EST)

We are discussing, with McEvoy, what he calls the disposition of this or  
that atom -- and I would add 'mineral' in general. This we do vis-a-vis the  
disposition of this or that vegetable ('tree' his example) and animal 
(including  man). We are dealing with whether we can do without a 'semantic' 
argument  here.

It would seem that we don't have any trouble ascribing  disposition.

Then some dispositions are not necessarily 'beliefs', but  are deemed 
'knowledge', defined, explicitly or not, as a disposition which  serves an 
adaptive function in terms of Darwinian selection. This criterion  seems to 
definitional. Or not.
McEvoy brings in the idea of 'information' that should also feature large  
in this or that account. Or not, of course. McEvoy's commentary commented  
There is a reference to the 'definition' of Knowledge as Justified True  
Belief, and the idea is to play with 'knowledge' not necessarily involving 
truth  at all -- which we have addressed in previous posts (McEvoy's example of 
a woman  who KNEW -- 'wrongly' a purist may add -- that her husband would 
drive his car  on a certain day). 
"Truth" is admitedly a sort of metaphysical notion, so it does seem as if  
by focusing on adaptive strategies with a view to survival and natural 
selection  alla Darwinian lines may do without it. Or not.
I would think NOT. If a tree _believes_ that it has reached a table of  
water (and McCreery's recent link may be interesting to check out here -- and  
also McEvoy's reference to a metal allegedly 'remembering' this or that) we 
want  that 'belief' to be 'true'. A tree may WRONGLY 'believe' that its 
roots have  reached a table of water. So we may define the 'true' component 
as being  attached to a 'disposition' (such as belief) that becomes 
'successful' in the  plant's adaptive behaviour.
Oddly, Grice, who loved the notion of 'soul', starts his 'eschatological  
remarks' -- from the banal to the bizarre -- in his "Method in Philosophical  
Psychology" essay with squarrels (his version of squirrels) hobbling nuts 
before  them, rather than with plants -- and this emphasis on the 'function' 
an  ascription of a disposition like a 'belief' (or a 'want' for that 
matter) seems  akin to his overall project. Or not.

Know and Believe

In a message dated 12/19/2013 2:44:06 P.M.  Eastern Standard Time, 
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
The idea that my  post relies on semantic argument is purely in the eye of 
the beholder (not so  long ago Walter wrongly suggested an argument of mine 
was stipulative, when in  truth his own was: is this an occupational disease 
of philosophers? It is  certainly tiresome after a while.) 


Well, I guess there IS a  difference.

I LOVE a semantic argument.

On the other hand, the  polemic between McEvoy and Walter O. seems to rely 
on the fact that neither of  them likes a 'stipulative argument' (Oddly, I 
LOVE a stipulative argument,  too).

Since I guess I'm NOT that interested in ascribing 'know' to atoms,  I will 
go back to McEvoy's earlier commentary:

"To rebut this by  stipulation as what 'knowledge' means is facile and  
beside the point:  and will amount, perhaps unwittingly, to substituting a 
problem for a  substantive one."

A "stipulation as to what 'knowledge' means" seems to  involve various 

By uttering "know", Speranza means x.
By  uttering "know", McEvoy means y.

For Speranza, 'know' =df. x.
For  McEvoy, 'know' =df. y.

There are various types of definitions, and  stipulative ones (vide 
Robinson, "Definition" -- he of Oriel College, Oxford)  seem to be _good_ ones.

There are also 'implicit' definitions.

Let  us see if we can extract McEvoy's implicit (if not stipulative) 
'definition' as  to what 'knowledge' means -- This he may still regard as a 
'verbal' versus a  'substantive' point. 

GEARY's is a substantive point when he says, "I  don't care what you call 
it" (referring to the mutual relations between Adam and  Eve, as when the 
writer of the Bible writes, "And Adam knew Eve, and vice  versa".



"We can, if we like, call whatever  dispositional properties that atoms and 
molecules have, their 'knowledge' (or  call a subset of these dispositions 

This is not as absurd  as it seems.

It entails we may go on to say things like:

"This  atom KNOWS what he is doing".


"That is semantics."  

"But, if we do, what is our model of their  'knowledge'?"

"Substantively, theirs is not 'knowledge' formed by  'natural selection' 
and nor is it 'knowledge' of any purposeful sort or which  may be part of an 
adaptive strategy in Darwinian terms. So even if we call such  physical or 
chemical dispositions 'knowledge' we will have to differentiate this  from a 
tree's 'knowledge', as the correct model of a tree's 'knowledge' is very  
different to the correct model of an atom's (so-called)."

Yes, perhaps  'dispose' is a better neutral term.

We may say that some dispositions are  adaptive (those McEvoy calls 
'knowledge') and that some dispositions are formed  by 'natural selection' 
called 'knowledge') by McEvoy. 

On the other  hand, there are dispositions that are admittedly NOT formed 
by 'natural  selection' or are part of any adaptive strategy in Darwinian 

These dispositions are STILL something and may be entitled to be 'causal  

"But a model of the atom's 'knowledge' is so threadbare, one  wonders what 
the agenda is in insisting we refer to an atom having 'knowledge'  at all? 
In particular, an atom or molecule is not in a feedback loop involving  
information such as we might think necessary to any model of knowledge, whereas 
a tree is - a tree can detect the moisture in the soil and react to this  

Here we seem to have a criterion then:

--  dispositions which are not involved in any feedback loop involving  
-- dispositions which ARE involved in such feedback.

This  may rely on a more prior definition of  'information'.


"Atoms do not process information from  their environment as organisms do, 
never mind react to it - and this gives  substantive reason to deny that 
atoms have knowledge."

Atoms do seem to  react. Even 'in chain'. "Chain reaction" I think it's 
called. More generally,  inorganic matter seems to react.

There is a whole theory about the origin  of life that relies on inorganic 
matter being able, on occasion, to react in  this or that IMPORTANT way.

This is the 'primordial soup' theory  propounded by Oparin.

Oparin proposes that the "spontaneous generation of  life" that had been 
attacked by Louis Pasteur did in fact occur once.

In  other terms, on THAT occasion, inorganic matter KNEW.

Oparin goes on to  argue that this knowledge is today almost impossible to 

"because  the conditions found on the early Earth had changed, and 
preexisting organisms  would immediately consume any spontaneously generated 

Oparin  argues that the "primeval soup" of organic molecules COULD possibly 
be created  but only in an oxygenless atmosphere and through the action of 

These organic molecules thus created could then combine in ever more  
complex ways until they formed what Oparin calls "coacervate droplets" (which I 
dub 'knowing agents' -- of sorts).

These droplets, Oparin suggests, could  "grow" by fusion with other 
droplets, and "reproduce" through fission into  "daughter droplets".

This way, we would have a primitive metabolism in  which those factors 
which promote "cell integrity" survive, and those that do  not become extinct. 

Most current theories of the origin of life still  take Oparin's ideas as a 
starting point -- while a few don't,  admittedly.


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