The Myth of Stochastic Infallibilism

Episteme 18 (4):523-538 (2021)
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There is a widespread attitude in epistemology that, if you know on the basis of perception, then you couldn't have been wrong as a matter of chance. Despite the apparent intuitive plausibility of this attitude, which I'll refer to here as “stochastic infallibilism”, it fundamentally misunderstands the way that human perceptual systems actually work. Perhaps the most important lesson of signal detection theory (SDT) is that our percepts are inherently subject to random error, and here I'll highlight some key empirical research that underscores this point. In doing so, it becomes clear that we are in fact quite willing to attribute knowledge to S that p even when S's perceptual belief that p could have been randomly false. In short, perceptual processes can randomly fail, and perceptual knowledge is stochastically fallible. The narrow implication here is that any epistemological account that entails stochastic infallibilism, like safety, is simply untenable. More broadly, this myth of stochastic infallibilism provides a valuable illustration of the importance of integrating empirical findings into epistemological thinking.

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Adam Michael Bricker
University of Turku


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