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So if it is obvious to us that Descartes must know that he is not dreaming if he is to know that he is sitting by the fire, it cannot be simply because the possibility in question is known to be incompatible with what he claims to know. It is not. If there is some "simple and obvious fact about knowledge" that we recognize and rely on in responding to Descartes's reasoning it must therefore be more complicated than what has been suggested so far. Reflecting even on the uncontroversial everyday examples alone can easily lead us to suppose that it is something like this: if somebody knows something, p, he must know the falsity of all those things incompatible with his knowing that p (or perhaps all those things he THE PROBLEM OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD knows to be incompatible with his knowing that I will not speculate further on the qualifications or emendations needed to make the principle less implausible.

If I come to suspect that all the witnesses have conspired and made up a story about the man's being in Cleveland that night, for example, and their testimony is all I have got to go on in believing that he was in Cleveland, I might find that I no longer know whether he was there or not until I have some reason to rule out my suspicion. If their testimony were all invented I would not know that the man was in Cleveland. But strictly speaking his being in Cleveland is not incompatible with their making up a story saying he was.

If, in order to know something, we must rule out a possibility which is known to be incompatible with our knowing it, Descartes is perfectly right to insist that he must know that he is not dreaming if he is to know that he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand. He knows his dreaming is incompatible with his knowing. I have already argued that if he is right in insisting that that condition must be fulfilled for knowledge of the world around us he is also right in concluding that it can never be fulfilled; fulfilling it would require knowledge which itself would be possible only if the condition were fulfilled.

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9 Tales of Space and Time

by Daniel

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