Knowledge via public ignorance
Yesterday Rohit Parikh gave a very interesting talk at Carnegie Mellon on a kind of modal epistemic logic he has been working on recently with several collaborators, cleverly called topologic, because it carries interesting topological properties. The first thing Parikh said was "I like formalisms, but I like examples more." In that spirit, I wanted to describe here one simple example he showed us yesterday, without digging into the technicalia, because it generates a potentially philosophically interesting situation: someone can (under suitable circumstances) gain knowledge merely via other people's declarations of ignorance.
Imagine two people play the following game: a natural number n>0 (1,2, ...) is selected. Then, one of the players has n written on his or her forehead, and the other player has n+1 written on his forehead. Each player can see what is written on the other's forehead, but cannot see what is written on their own. The game allows only two "moves": you can either say "I don't know what number is on my forehead" or state what you think the number on your forehead is.
So, for example, if I play the game, and I see that the other person has a 2 written on her forehead, I know that the number on my own forehead is either a 1 or a 3, but I do not know which. But here is the interesting part: if my fellow game-player wears a 2, and on her first move says "I don't know what my number is," then I know what my number is -- at least, if my fellow game-player is reasonably intelligent. Why? If I were wearing a 1, then my interlocutor would say, on her first move, "I know my own humber is a 2" -- because (1, 2) is the first allowable pair in the game. Thus, if she says "I don't know what my own number is" on her first move, then I know my number can't be 1, so it must be 3. This same process of reasoning can be extended: by playing enough rounds of "I don't know" moves, we can eventually successfully reach any pair of natural numbers, no matter how high. We just have to keep track of how many rounds have been played. (This may remind the mathematically-inclined in the audience of the Mr. Sum-Mr. Product dialogue.)
What is interesting to me about this is that the two players in such a game (and the other examples Prof. Parikh described) can eventually come to have knowledge about the world simply via declarations of ignorance. These cases prompt two questions for me:
(1) Is this type of justification for a belief different in kind from the others philosophers busy themselves with? Or is this just a completely normal/ standard/ etc. way of gathering knowledge, which differs only superficially from other cases? (I'm not qualified to answer this, since I'm not an epistemologist.)
(2) Are there any interesting real-world examples where we achieve knowledge via collective ignorance in (roughly) this way? (Prof. Parikh suggested that there might be a vague analogy between what happens in these sorts of games and game-theoretic treatments of evolution, but didn't have much further to say.)