Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is infallibility supposed to be?

This week I'm thinking about Laurence Bonjour's In Defense of Pure Reason. In §4.4, Bonjour offers what he takes to be a very straightforward argument against the infallibility of rational insight: just look, he says, at all the examples of alleged cases of rational insight that are false — some have been empirically refuted, and some been shown a priori to be incoherent, and some are just inconsistent with others in a way that guarantees that at least some are false.

He qualifies the charge of fallibility, recognizing that it's open to deny that such cases of seeming rational insight into something that ends up being fall are genuine rational insights at all; this, he says, is a "mere terminological or conceptual stipulation" and "fails to secure infallibility in any epistemologically useful sense".

I don't see what infallibility was ever going to amount to if it was to be something stronger than what Bonjour thinks is an uninteresting sense. Did or could anybody ever have thought that anything that seemed to be a rational insight thereby guaranteed its truth? Descartes, for example, recognized the possibility that human reason might be deceived by a God or demon, or imperfectly designed, such that it led into error.

What is the correct characterization of a strong form of infallibility?


  1. I don't think that's right about Descartes. He thinks that clear and distinct perception is infallible in just this strong sense. That's how he gets out of the sceptical challenge that all of out beliefs are based on fallible methods.

  2. Really? You think Descartes endorses the entailment:

    It seems to me that I clearly and distinctly perceive that p
    Therefore, p

    That's never been my reading of Descarates, although I'm far from an expert. Before I go try to back up my claim that this isn't something Descartes thinks -- have I gotten you right, Brian? Are you saying Descartes would endorse that entailment?

  3. I was thinking that this is an entailment Descartes endorses:

    I clearly and distinctly perceive that p
    Therefore, p

    And I was also thinking that he thinks it is introspectively knowable whether a mental state is a clear and distinct perception.

    Those two views seem to combine to give a strong kind of infallibilism.

  4. This doesn't seem to be the strong sense of infallibility that Bonjour is refuting. It's not refuted by cases in which people seem to clearly and distinctly perceive that p, but really do not. For such cases are consistent with its being introspectively knowable that they do not clearly and distinctly perceive p.