Monday, January 25, 2021

Learning whether p by bringing it about that p

Alice is driving to an appointment she doesn’t care much about. She is, however, curious whether she will arrive on time. To satisfy her curiosity, she stops driving, since she knows that if she stops driving, she won’t arrive on time.

It seems a bit perverse to bring it about that p in order to know whether p. Yet there are cases where people do that.

A straightforward family of cases is very pragmatic. You can only make preparations for something if you know what will happen, so you force a particular thing to happen. For instance, you can only book vacation travel when you know where you will decide to go—so, you decide where to go.

One family of cases is linked to anxiety. Not knowing whether p can induce a lot of anxiety, and knowing for sure can relieve that anxiety. This is, presumably, one of the reasons why peopel turn themselves in for crimes: to relieve the anxiety of not knowing whether one will be arrested today, one ensures that one is arrested today.

Another family is scientific. One arranges a laboratory setup in part precisely to know what the experimental setup is like.

But the Alice case is different from all these. In all of the above cases, you seek knowledge whether p for the sake of something other than knowledge whether p: to buy plane tickets, to relieve anxiety, or to learn some other scientific facts.

What seems perverse, then, is to bring it about that p for the sake of knowing whether p for the sake of knowing (“[t]o satisfy her curiosity”, I said of Alice).

I wonder, now, whether Alice is really being perverse. Maybe it’s just this: there are very few things that we can bring about where there is significant non-instrumental value in knowing them. There is very little value in knowing whether one will arrive on time to the appointment apart from instrumental considerations. Most of the things knowledge of which has significant non-instrumental value are out of our hands: theological, philosophical and scientific facts. But if there is very little value, it’s not worth much trouble. If an appointment is of so little value that it’s worth missing it to know whether one will make it on time to it, it’s probably not worth going to in the first place!

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