PHI 313: Theory of Knowledge

Undergraduate course, Spring 2012. Lectures are in McCosh 4 on Mon & Wed 11:00-11:50a. (Note: McCosh 4 is in entryway "B" of the McCosh building.)

Instructor: Adam Elga. Assistant in Instruction: Jordan DeLange (follow links for contact information).

Description: What justifies your confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that you are not living in a computer simulation? Is it ever reasonable to believe something just because believing it will have good consequences for you? Is it possible to decide to believe something? Is the apparently fine-tuned nature of the physical constants evidence that there are multiple universes? Should you reduce your confidence in your political views if you find out that you would have taken contrary views had you been raised by different parents? Can two people with the same evidence rationally disagree?

Readings: To access the readings (all available electronically, as linked below), you will need a userid (the userid is "guest") and a password (announced in class). If you would like to preview the readings, please email .

Note: In some cases, only a subsection of the linked reading may be required. In those cases, the required page range is listed after the reading itself.

Writing assignment deadlines

Assignment 1: Tue Mar 6 noon

Assignment 2: Tue Apr 24 noon

Assignment 3: Tue May 15 noon

Topics and readings

Readings will be adjusted according to the pace of the class; revisions will be posted on this page. In several cases, only a subsection of the listed article will be assigned as strictly required. In such cases the subsection will be posted shortly before the day that the article is to be discussed. The readings will consist of approximately one philosophy paper per lecture.

Epistemology: what and why?

Mon Feb 06: No required reading.

Practical reasons for belief

Wed Feb 08: Thomas Kelly. The rationality of belief and some other propositional attitudes. Pages 163-178.

Mon Feb 13:

Wed Feb 15: G. A. Cohen. Paradoxes of conviction. (Chapter 1 of If you're an egalitarian, how come you're so rich?). Pages 7-13.

Mon Feb 20: Review Cohen reading and argument.

Wed Feb 22: Ronald Dworkin. Objectivity and truth. Page 124 ("Or would we? ...) - 125 ("...about how you should vote or act.") Optional but recommended challenge: produce an argument analysis of this passage. If you are doing an argument analysis and want more information on the notion of "normative connection", you might also look at page 126.

Mon Feb 27: Joshua Greene. The secret joke of Kant's soul. Pages 42-43.


Wed Feb 29: Writing assignment 1 handed out and discussed.

Mon Mar 05: Bertrand Russell. On induction

Wed Mar 07: Gideon Rosen. The Problem of Induction. Lecture notes from PHI 203. Read sections "The skeptical problem: We have no good reason to accept UN" and "The Cautious Martian and the Counterinductivist".

Mon Mar 12: James van Cleve. Reliability, justification, and the problem of induction. Sections I-III.

Wed Mar 14: We begin discussing probabilistic confirmation theory.

Mon Mar 26: Patrick Maher. Betting on theories, Chapter 4. Sections 4.1-4.2, 4.4-4.5 (pages 84-88, 91-94).

Also: if you haven't worked much with probabilities before, have a mathematically-inclined friend explain to you the formula P(H|E)=P(H&E)/P(E).

Wed Mar 28: Nelson Goodman. The new riddle of induction (chapter 3 of Fact, fiction, and forecast). Read sections 1 and 2, paying special attention to the 1st complete para on p. 62 and the 1st complete para on p. 64. Please bring your copy of the Goodman to class.

Anthropic reasoning

Mon Apr 02: Derek Parfit. Why anything? Why this? Read from the beginning through the end of section 1 (i.e., through p. 16 according to the article's pagination.) Pay special attention to the fifth paragraph of section 1 ("Here is another analogy...")

Wed Apr 04: Roger White. Fine-tuning and multiple universes. Sections 1 through 3.

Mon Apr 09: Roger White. Fine-tuning and multiple universes. Sections 4 through end. Also think about the following question: suppose that you enter a Star-Trek style teletransporter which will destroy your original body and recreate 10 duplicates. Nine of the duplicates will be on Earth, one on the moon (the duplicates will be created in rooms that look the same). Upon awakening in a room, remembering all of the above, how confident should you be that you are on the moon?

Wed Apr 11: Nick Bostrom. The mysteries of self-locating belief and anthropic reasoning. Read section 3 (on page 3) through the third full paragraph of section 7 (i.e., through the first full paragraph on page 11).

Mon Apr 16: Nick Bostrom. The mysteries of self-locating belief and anthropic reasoning. Read pages 11-12, paying special attention to the connection drawn between Incubator and Serpent's Advice.

Wed Apr 18: Nick Bostrom. Are you living in a computer simulation? Sections 1-5.

Dealing with fallibility

Mon Apr 23: David Christensen. Does Murphy's Law apply in epistemology? Self-doubt and rational ideals. Introduction and section 2.

Wed Apr 25: Michael Huemer. The problem of memory knowledge Read up to and including section 4.

Mon Apr 30: Susan Rinard. Reasoning one's way out of skepticism Read up to and including section 4.

Wed May 02: Roger White. Epistemic permissiveness. Read up to and including section 2.


Overflow: Timothy Williamson. Knowledge and its limits chapter 4: Anti-luminosity

Overflow: Timothy Williamson. On being justified in one's head


Overflow: Rene Descartes. Meditation 1

Overflow: Hilary Kornblith. What is it like to be me?

Overflow: Roderick Chisholm. The myth of the given


Overflow: Alvin Goldman. What is justified belief?

Overflow: Jonathan Vogel. Reliabilism leveled

Optional background resources

Bernard Williams. Deciding to believe.

Carl Ginet. Deciding to believe. Pages 63-67.

Michael Huemer. Compassionate phenomenal conservatism

Gilbert Harman. Pragmatism and reasons for belief. Pages 123-5.

James van Cleve. Is knowledge easy or impossible? Externalism as the only answer to skepticism

David Christensen. Conservatism in epistemology

Sarah McGrath and Tom Kelly. Is Reflective Equilibrium Enough?

Gilbert Harman. Rationality. Section 6.3.

Course mechanics and policies

Late paper policy

Late papers are marked down three percentage points (e.g. from 95% to 92%) for each 24 hours (or portion thereof) late.

If you miss a class or precept

If you do miss a class or precept, it is your responsibility to find out from another student what happened and to get copies of notes and handouts. After doing that, if you have questions about what was covered, please meet with your preceptor to discuss them. Some material will only be covered in class.


Grades on writing assignments are given as percentages rather than letter grades. The main component of the final grade is based on a weighted average of the percentages earned on the writing assignments, with later writing assignments counting more than earlier ones. These are verbal descriptions to give you some idea of how we think of the various percentages:

To get some idea of how percentages map onto letter grades at the end of the semester, please see the tables listed here.

Adam Elga | Princeton University