Monday, August 29, 2005

Belief Without Evidence

There's no denying that there's a very tight connection between belief and conscious assessment of evidence or truth. Shah sees this in terms of the phenomenon of transparency, whereby "the deliberative question whether to believe that p inevitably gives way to the factual question whether p". But I previously argued that this only holds if we artificially restrict what is to count as "doxastic deliberation". To avoid this problem, I think a better way to look at the issue is to build on the neutral description offered in my first sentence. In particular, the phenomenon in need of explanation is what I will call the subjective evidence principle:

(SEP) When one attends to one's belief that p, one must believe that one has adequate evidence that p is true.

Or, as Adler puts it ('The Ethics of Belief: Off the Wrong Track', p.273):
Necessarily, if one regards one's evidence or reasons as adequate to the truth of p then one believes that p; and if one attends to one's believing that p, then one regards one's evidence or reasons as adequate to the truth of p.

Note that this principle is sufficient to explain transparency in all and only those contexts where it actually occurs. In particular, it explains why "one cannot arrive at a belief that p just by deliberating on whether it would be beneficial to believe that p." So long as one holds the evidence for p to be inadequate, one is incapable of consciously believing p. But it doesn't, for example, prejudge the question of whether one can take account of practical reasons when deliberating about whether one ought (all things considered) to believe that p.

So, how are we to explain SEP? One option (and Adler's own, I should add) is to agree with Shah that the normative hegemony of truth is built into the very concept of belief. An alternative, that I prefer, is to appeal to the internal logic of belief. To quote Foley (The Theory of Epistemic Rationality, p.215):
Just as it may be impossible for a person S to believe p and also to believe its contradictory not-p, so too it may be impossible for him to have "near contradictory" beliefs, such that he believes p while also believing that his evidence indicates that p is likely to be false.

What's the difference? Well, this latter standard of coherence is entirely internal to the person's belief set. In contrast, evidentialists like Shah and Adler want to hold that it's part of the concept of belief that belief aims at truth -- a standard external to the person's set of beliefs.

A problem for these evidentialists is that their account over-reaches. If the normative hegemony of truth were intrinsic to the concept of belief, then "I ought to have a false belief" would be a necessary falsehood. But it obviously isn't. If a demon will torture your family unless you believe the Earth is flat, then by damn, you ought to believe it! Reflecting on your situation, you may think "p is false but I ought to believe it", and there is nothing incoherent about this thought. You can think "the welfare of my family is a reason for me to believe that the Earth is flat", and this is not just coherent, but true!

My coherence account has no problem with these cases. While you cannot simultaneously believe that p and believe that the evidence is against p, there are two ways to remedy this. You can change your belief about p, or you can change your belief about the evidence. You are not rationally compelled to follow the evidence, contrary to the evidentialist's suggestion. You can instead conclude "I ought to have a false belief", and thereby resolve to manipulate your evidential situation (perhaps by taking a magic pill) in such a way as to enable you to form this false belief.

Thus the pragmatist can provide an account of SEP and transparency to rival the evidentialist's.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I see that the belief that p is inconsistent with the belief that not p, and thus that coherence dictates that one drop one or the other belief, but why is it incoherent to believe that p and believe that one's evidence is inadequate for the truth of p? It isn't incoherent to suppose that p and judge that one's evidence is inadequate for the truth of p. So how is belief different? My account gives an explanation for this difference, does yours?

    Also, it seems to me that there are cases in which one unconsciously believes that p and one consciously believes that one's evidence is insufficient for the truth of of p. Can your account accomodate these cases?

    On my account, I can allow that it would be good or virtuous to believe that p. Although this evaluation doesn't directly affect whether I have reason to believe that p, it may affect what I have reason to do, if there is some action of mine that can bring about the belief that p. So it seems that I have the same options for dealing with these cases that you do. The difference is that, unlike you, I don't think that all evaluations of belief can be translated into reasons for belief, because I think that reasons serve a particular normative function that other types of evaluations don't. I doubt that such cases can settle the issue between 'internalists' and 'externalists' about reasons, as each side has its own well entrenched ways of dealing with counterexamples at this point.

  2. Hi Nishi,

    How about if I appealed to the concept of belief, but in a slightly different way than you do? Whereas you hold that the external* standard of truth is built into the concept of belief, I would instead suggest that the concept commits one to the internal standard of coherence (which I stipulate involves having no "near contradictory" belief-pairs). Since this account is very similar to your own -- differing only in content, not structure -- it should, I hope, have the same advantages. In particular, it will apply only to beliefs, and not "suppositions" and the like.

    All the advantages of theft over honest toil, as Russell would say ;)

    But I think my version has the further advantage of allowing the coherence of the thought "p is false but I ought to believe it". You allow that it might be good to have a false belief. But shouldn't the above thought be incoherent, if it were built into the concept of belief that truth is its sole normative standard? How could one conceive of their state as a belief whilst applying non-evidential standards to it? This would be incoherent on your account, wouldn't it?

    (* = I should clarify that by "external" standard I mean that it appeals to a property (i.e. truth) that is outside of the agent's belief set. The foundation of this norm is still intrinsic to the concept of belief though, and so "internal" in that sense.)

    By the way, I appreciate you taking the time to discuss these issues with me. I'm pretty new to it all, so I hope it hasn't been too frustrating for you. Anyway... just wanted to say thanks :)

  3. Hi Richard,

    Thank you for discussing my work! If you decide to write these thoughts up into a paper, I would be happy to look at it.

    As far the the phenomenology, goes, it seems that when asking myself whether to believe that p I immediately ask myself whether p is true, not whether believing p would be coherent with my other beliefs. It may be the case that the only way I can figure out whether p is to to test it for coherence against my other beliefs, but this is a question about method, not goal.

    Why is it incoherent to think that it would be in my interest to believe that p but that it would be incorrect to do so? This seems no more incoherent than believing that it would be in my interest to lie but also believing that lying would be wrong. Furthermore, it seem coherent to think that because lying would be wrong, the fact that it would be in my interest to lie provides me with no reason whatsoever to do so. This, I take it, is what philosophers mean when they say that moral considerations can 'silence' the reason-giving force of other considerations.

  4. I wasn't just talking about prudiential oughts, but rather, moral or rational or all-things-considered oughts. If I ought to believe p (despite the evidence) then there must be reasons for me to believe p (despite the evidence). So, if you agree with me that it is coherent to say "p is false but I ought to believe it", then doesn't that show your account is mistaken?

  5. Well, yes, if it is a claim about reasons, then I do think that it is incoherent to judge that p is false but that I have sufficient reason to believe p. The real question is whether all evaluations of belief generate reasons for or against belief. And this is an issue which I doubt can be resolved by counterexamples, given the state of the debate between internalists and externalists about reasons.

  6. Say, your entire argument depends upon internalism, doesn't it? I mean, externalists could grant that evidential norms are built into the concept of belief, and then say "so what?". Practical considerations might still count in favour of beliefs, even if we could never acknowledge them as such whilst still conceiving of our state as a belief. It would be just another case of inaccessible reasons.


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