Saturday, November 07, 2015

Three Options in the Epistemology of Philosophy

You pursue your arguments as far as they go, and eventually reach your bedrock assumptions: foundational premises that you accept (and might describe as seeming 'intuitive' to you), but that you can give no further argument for.  Further, you realize that coherent philosophical diversity is possible: others could, coherently, accept (and find 'intuitive') different starting points from yours.  What should you do about it?

One might deny the stipulated set-up, and insist that there is ultimately only one internally coherent philosophical world view.  But that seems unlikely, so I will put aside that ambitious view for now.  One might also reject the "foundationalist" structure I've assumed above, defending instead the idea that our beliefs might form an interlocking (ultimately circular, but "mutually supporting") web, with no privileged starting points.  But I think what I say below will be easily translatable into coherentist idiom: the question just becomes what to think of our web of beliefs as a whole, given that coherent alternatives are possible.

Option 1: Skepticism

So, one obvious option is to throw up our hands in defeat.  One might appeal to principles to the effect that, if we can't give a non-question-begging defense of our foundational assumptions (or of our web of beliefs as a whole) then we can't reasonably regard our beliefs as more likely to be true than the alternatives.  And if that's so, then we can't coherently maintain them as beliefs (representing our best judgment of what's true) at all.

On the other hand, such radical skepticism is self-undermining: once you accept it, you can no longer believe it, nor the putative reasons that originally led you there.  So it's worth exploring more doxastically stable alternatives...

Option 2: Epistemic Conservatism

We could hold that our beliefs are justified by default.  Or, in the variant that is phenomenal conservatism: we are justified by default in believing whatever seems intuitive to us (and isn't ultimately defeated by other considerations that are even more intuitively plausible).  This makes it easy to come by justification.  Too easy, we might worry:

* It renders the ideally coherent Caligula, and other bad characters, epistemically justified in their acceptance of such (I would say) self-evident falsehoods as that it's good to go around torturing people for fun.

* It creates an awfully large gap between justification and truth.  If we are committed to calling "justified" all sorts of philosophical beliefs that aren't even remotely on the right track, how great an epistemic merit can this really be?

Option 3: Objective Warrant

A more objective alternative looks for justification not in us, and our subjective status of finding something plausible-seeming, but rather looks to the contents of the propositions that are candidates for belief, and determines whether they are (or are not) intrinsically credible, or warrant belief.  Just as moral objectivists are apt to hold that we should desire what's truly desirable, and not just whatever (possibly crazy/horrid) things seem so to us, so the epistemic objectivist can hold that we should believe the a priori propositions that are truly credible, and not just whatever (possible crazy) things happen to seem so to us.

Presumably any view of this form will hold that the a priori truths are self-evident, inherently credible, or warrant belief.  And there will be some outrageous philosophical views (perhaps our imagined Caligula's views on the intrinsic value of torture, and grue-some views of induction / projectible predicates, etc.) that are ruled out of bounds, or self-evidently false, again no matter how subjectively plausible a crazy agent might find them.  It remains very much an open question how much epistemic permissiveness we should expect: Are views that are ultimately misguided, but not totally crazy, a priori warranted?  Variations on this approach might be more or less restrictive on such matters.

This overcomes the problems with unrestricted epistemic conservatism, but raises its own worries.  In particular:

* Warrant has now become so objective (and so closely tied with the truth of the matter) that we might worry that it has lost its ability to fill the roles associated with normative guidance.  There's an obvious sense in which we can no longer tell what's warranted and what's not.  So the guidance to "believe in line with the evidence" is not much more useful than the patently unfollowable guidance, "believe just what's objectively true."

Other options?  I'm not really seeing any, so option 3 is looking to me the best way to go, despite its faults.  But what do you think?  Which is the best of the above options? and Can you think of any better alternative views?  Suggestions welcome!


  1. I never like putting things like this in terms of justification of belief, because I always worry about it covering more subtle, yet still important, differences. I think epistemic conservatism, for instance, can be given a much stronger defense if we are talking not about justifications of particular beliefs but pragmatic vindication of postulates of inquiry, or if the idea is not that we are justified by default in believing whatever seems intuitive but that there is actually a tertium quid between beliefs that are justified and beliefs that are unjustified (e.g., beliefs that are still 'under investigation'). And I think one could also argue that we might be dealing with a division that should be seen not as domain-general but as varying from domain to domain -- e.g., Newton's fourth Rule of Reasoning in Philosophy in the Principia can be seen as an epistemic conservatism rule for physics, and one might think it makes a lot of sense for physics and not for, say, finance.

    But, that aside, my general sympathies lie with the objective warrant approach. The way you've stated it suggests to mind the Stoic theory of cataleptic (or kataleptic) impressions: that there are at least some cases where seeming true and being true are connected in a substantive and necessary way, although, of course, this need not be an immediately obvious way. The Skeptics, of course, always argued that all impressions were acataleptic. (And as the Skeptics held to your Option 1 for belief in a strict sense of judging true, and your Option 2 for belief in the looser sense of 'what you're treating as apparently true in your practical life', perhaps the ancient dispute provides a supplementary reason for thinking that your three options do identify all the possibilities, or at least all the possibilities that are likely to come up without getting into complicated subtleties and weird ideas people don't usually come up with.)

  2. Philosophy covers a lot of subjects, so I'm not sure there will be a unified correct approach.

    In the case of morality, an alternative option - which I take you disagree with, but it's an alternative - is that radically different aliens do not have moral beliefs at all, even if they have some set of norms more or less analogue to morality.
    As for humans (or relevantly similar aliens), a subvariant of this alternative is that even if no single consistent set of moral beliefs, all consistent such sets overlap in at least all or nearly all of the cases humans can understand (alternatively: the cases humans actually have considered), and many more. In particular, there is no Ideally Coherent Caligula (ICC), even if there are possible ideally coherent agents that have no moral beliefs and may go around torturing people for fun, evaluating the behavior as positive for himself (or positive according to some system of norms other than morality).

    Under that interpretation, epistemic conservatism (or something in the vicinity, perhaps more complicated) might work reasonably well for morality.

  3. Just a few thoughts (no answer to the question itself!):

    Off the top of my head, it seems possible that someone could believe that we can't know a single thing, without regarding that belief itself as something that is known, or something that is rational. For it seems at least logically possible for a person to just hold onto a certain belief about our knowledge with a kind of blind and invincible instinct - in the same way that Hume seems to suggest that we ultimately hold onto many of our foundational beliefs about the world. But, it may very well be an empirical impossibility, or a thing that never actually happens in the world.

    As for the third option, I think that there are at least some propositions that we know are true, but which we cannot know are true from the contents of those propositions alone (or, which are not "intrinsically credible," or worthy of belief). For instance, it seems to me that I know that I am currently perceiving a black and red object. But, in order to know that such a proposition is true, it doesn't seem sufficient to grasp the contents of the proposition itself - or, the proposition itself doesn't seem to be intrinsically worthy of belief. Rather, it seems that it is only because I also grasp the subjective experience to which the proposition corresponds, that I can know that the proposition itself is true. So, in that case at least, just knowing the objective content doesn't seem to be sufficient to know that the proposition itself is correct. (In my own terminology, I'd say that this suggests that all self-evident propositions may be knowable, but that not every proposition that we know is self-evident - if a self-evident proposition is one which we can know that is true just by knowing the meaning or the content of the proposition itself.)



    1. I agree that self-evidence is not the only kind of evidence! There I'm focused on a priori beliefs, as found in philosophy. For a posteriori (and typically contingent) matters, such as what you're currently perceiving, your perceptual evidence matters.

    2. Oh yeah, I hadn't meant to suggest that you'd denied the existence of other sorts of evidence. My intention was just to suggestion that there are certain kinds of statements which are doubtlessly known, without being known by virtue of the objective content of the statement - such that at least some of our knowing must have a different sort of foundation than the kind laid out in option three (while also being immune to the kind of skeptical critique put forward by option one).

  4. You could have something more cosmopolitan than justifying based on (potentially unusual) features of your own psychology. My take on a related topic here:


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