Spring 2016, NYU Abu Dhabi

Practice Writing Exercise 1

Instructions: Extract and summarize the argument from one (and only one) of the following passages, in your own words.

I don't want you to criticize or evaluate the arguments. Just set them out, as carefully as you can, and in your own words. The point of this writing exercise is to hone your ability to exposit other people's philosophical arguments or positions. Learning how to do this well is an extremely important philosophical skill, and it's much harder than you'd expect.

Stay focused on the specific passage you choose. Tell me what it is arguing. You don't have to tell me what article it came from, or what the larger paper was about. Nor should you try to show me how much you know about Descartes or the dreaming argument. Just tell me what's going on in that specific passage.

Don't just give me a line-by-line paraphrase. You should be able to summarize the argument in your own words, and tell me what its highlights are. What conclusion is the author trying to establish? What position is he trying to defend or to criticize? What premises or assumptions is he relying on? Explain how he thinks those premises help support his conclusion. If one of the author's premises, or his conclusion, can be understood in more than one way, you should say so, and explain the difference between the different interpretations.

Make your summary as clear and simple as you can. A successful summary will be one that another undergrad in the philosophy department could read and understand, without needing to have studied any epistemology yet.

You may find my Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper helpful.

Try to avoid using special technical vocabulary except where it's directly useful; and if you do use some, you need to explain what it means---even if I introduced and explained it in class. Philosophers often attach subtly different meanings to their technical words, so it's important that your reader knows precisely what you mean.

First Passage
  1. ...I cannot know that I am not now dreaming.
  2. If I cannot know that I am not now dreaming, then I cannot know that I am not always dreaming.
  3. Therefore, I cannot know that I am not always dreaming...

In criticizing Descartes' skepticism, Williams comments:

even if...considerations of past error were allowed to show that any occasion of supposed perception might be illusory (because, for instance, I might be dreaming), there would be no valid inference from this to the supposition that every supposed occasion of perception might be illusory.

Williams's claim is that (6) does not follow from (4), that is, that premise (5) is false. According to Williams, even if I cannot know that I am not now dreaming, I can know that I am sometimes awake.

We want to argue, however, that the inference from (4) to (6) is actually legitimate. (4) says that at any time, for all I know, I may be dreaming at that time. But take any time, say now---if I am dreaming now, then my belief that not all my experiences have been dreams is itself a belief held in a dream, and hence it may be mistaken. If I am dreaming now, then my recollection of having been awake in the past is merely a dreamed recollection and may have no connection whatever with reality... Our point is this: if I cannot know that I am not now dreaming, then I cannot know that I have been awake in the past. I might only be dreaming that I have been awake. The truth of (4) generates a special epistemic context: given (4), I am, for all I know, "inside a dream," and my belief that I have been awake may be mistaken.

It should be noted that our defense of (5) depends on the idea that if I believe that I have been awake in the past, this belief is to be justified by my apparent memories of having been awake. The argument is that if I am dreaming now, then my current memories are not to be trusted---they are not a reliable index of what has actually occurred, and hence cannot provide the required justification. It might be objected, however, that this argument still does not show that (6) follows from (4). What it shows is that, if (4) is true, there is no way that I can show on a posteriori grounds that I have ever been awake. To defend the claim that (6) follows from (4) it would have to be shown as well that (6) is not false a priori.

Second Passage

When Descartes asks himself how he knows that he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand why does he immediately go on to ask himself how he knows he is not dreaming that he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand? ...[H]e thinks he must know that that possibility does not obtain if he is to know that he is in fact sitting there...

If that really is a condition of knowing something about the world, I think it can be shown that Descartes is right in holding that it can never be fulfilled...

Suppose Descartes tries to determine that he is not dreaming in order to fulfil what he sees as a necessary condition of knowing that he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand. How is he to proceed? He realizes that his seeing his hand and seeing and feeling a piece of paper before him and feeling the warmth of the fire---in fact his getting all the sensory experiences or all the sensory information he is then getting---is something that could be happening even if he were dreaming. To establish that he is not dreaming he would therefore need something more than just those experiences or that information alone. He would also need to know whether those experiences and that information are reliable, not merely dreamt. If he could find some operation or test, or if he could find some circumstance or state of affairs, that indicated to him that he was not dreaming, perhaps he could then fulfil the condition---he could know that he was not dreaming. But how could a test or a circumstance or a state of affairs indicate to him that he is not dreaming if a condition of knowing anything about the world is that he know he is not dreaming? It could not. He could never fulfil the condition.

Let us suppose that there is in fact some test which a person can perform successfully only if he is not dreaming, or some circumstance or state of affairs which obtains only if that person is not dreaming...

There is an obstacle to his ever using that test or state of affairs to tell that he is not dreaming and thereby fulfilling the condition for knowledge of the world. The test would have to be something he could know he had performed successfully, the state of affairs would have to be something he could know obtains. If he completely unwittingly happened to perform the test, or if the state of affairs happened to obtain but he didn't know that it did, he would be in no better position for telling whether he was dreaming than he would be if he had done nothing or did not even know that there was such a test. But how is he to know that the test has been performed successfully or that the state of affairs in question does in fact obtain? Anything one can experience in one's waking life can also be dreamt about; it is possible to dream that one has performed a certain test or dream that one has established that a certain state of affairs obtains. And, as we have seen, to dream that something about the world around you is so is not thereby to know that it is so. In order to know that his test has been performed or that the state of affairs in question obtains Descartes would therefore have to establish that he is not merely dreaming that he performed the test successfully or that he established that the state of affairs obtains... At no point can he find a test for not dreaming which he can know has been successfully performed or a state of affairs correlated with not dreaming which he can know obtains. He can therefore never fulfil what Descartes says is a necessary condition of knowing something about the world around him. He can never know that he is not dreaming.

Your paper should be about 1200 words (which comes out to 3-4 standard double-space pages). It may be shorter: if you can write concisely and effectively, you may be able to do a good job with fewer words. It should not be much longer: under no circumstances should your paper be longer than 5 pages.

Please double-space your papers, use wide margins, number the pages, and staple them.

Papers are due by email on Thursday 25 Feb by 7 PM.

These exercises won't be graded for quality, but only for effort: if you make a serious effort and turn them in on time, you'll get full credit. However, since the point is to help you improve your writing, the more work you put into it, the better able I'll be to give you helpful feedback.