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Victor's Error

Author(s): Michael Dummett

Source: Analysis, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 1-2
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Committee
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3329148
Accessed: 12-09-2016 09:17 UTC

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Victor's error


If it is known that A and it is known that B, does it follow that it is known

that A and B? Obviously not, if 'it is known' means 'somebody at some
time knows'; different people at different times might know that A and that
B. A theorist - say Victor - with an epistemic notion of truth proposes that
a statement A is true just in case someone suitably placed could have
known or could later come to know that A. In mathematics, if an effective
procedure is available, it always remains available; but the evidence for an
empirical statement may dissipate, and retreat beyond our reach. This is
why Victor includes the first clause in his characterization of truth. There
may be some point in saying that, for any statement not known to be false,
we can never absolutely rule out the possibility that some indirect evidence
for its truth may turn up; but if we are ever to be credited with knowing
the truth of a universal empirical statement other than one that follows
from scientific laws, this possibility may be so remote that we are some-
times entitled to say - as we often do - that it will never be known whether
Victor grants that he is committed to the schema:

(*) If A, then OK(A),

where A is any sentence, 'K' abbreviates 'it is known that' and the pos-
sibility operator 0 is suitably interpreted. Can Victor allow that some state-
ment B might be true, and yet it was not and never will be known that B?
He does allow this: that was the whole point of his inserting the modal
element in his characterization of truth. But now substitute 'B & -,K(B)'
for 'A' in (*). It is obviously impossible that anyone should know both that
B and that it will never be known that B. By contraposition, Victor should
infer that it cannot ever hold good both that B and that it will never be
known that B. This is the paradox of knowability.
Victor appeared to be putting forward a coherent conception of truth,
whether acceptable or not. But the paradox seems to show it incoherent.
What mistake has Victor made? His mistake was to give a blanket charac-
terization of truth, rather than an inductive one. He needed to distinguish
some class of basic statements, and then, where 'Tr(A)' abbreviates 'it is
true that A', to lay down:

ANALYSIS 61.1, January 2001, pp. 1-2. ? Michael Dummett

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(i) Tr(A) iff OK(A), if A is a basic statement;

(ii) Tr(A and B) iff Tr(A) & Tr(B);
(iii) Tr(A or B) iff Tr(A) v Tr(B);
(iv) Tr(if A, then B) iff (Tr(A) -- Tr(B));
(v) Tr(it is not the case that A) iff -- Tr(A);
(vi) Tr (A(something)) iff 3xTr(A(x));
(vii) Tr(A(everything)) iff VxTr(A(x)),
where the logical constant on the right-hand side of each c
stood as subject to the laws of intuitionistic logic. Clauses (vi)
need to be glossed by some mechanism of assignments of o
ables, and a characterization of a predicate's being true of
Victor can surely supply this gloss. The definition will also ne
plemented by further clauses governing whatever other opera
ognize as used to form complex empirical statements; but t
clear. There is a good deal of work for Victor to do, partic
fying what is to count as a basic statement; if his inductive c
of truth is to be comprehensive, the basic statements must in
that cannot be represented as in any of the forms governed b
to (vii), or by any supplementary clauses. We are not conc
carry out this work: merely to diagnose the mistake that led
trap posed by the paradox.
In the presence of his notion of truth, it is reasonable for V
tain the schema:

(+) If A, then Tr(A).

This schema does not hold good for every possible conception
for instance, for one under which A's not being true does
negation of A. Victor, however, is likely to accept it. Now
statement, Victor will still be committed by his inductive cha
of truth to inferring from:

B & K(B)
both that it could have been or could later be known that B and that in fa
it never has been and never will be known that B, but there is now no con
tradiction in this; that was precisely the type of situation he wished to env
age. The apparent unreasonable exportation of 'it is known that' acr
conjunction was effected by Victor's careless endorsement of the blan
schema (*). If he is more careful, he can easily avoid the appearance
putting forward an incoherent conception of truth.

New College
Oxford OX1 3BN, UK

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