Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fitting the Evidence

I've never been at all sure what to make of 'evidentialism' in epistemology. Following is a fairly naive response to Conee and Feldman; I suspect there's some discussion of these or closely related issues; I'd be happy to be pointed to them.

Conee and Feldman think that the doxastic attitude I'm justified in having toward any given proposition is the one that fits my evidence. However, it's just not at all clear what that's supposed to mean. They offer examples, by way of illustration:
Here are three examples that illustrate the application of this notion of justification. First, when a physiologically normal person under ordinary circumstances looks at a plush green lawn that is directly in front of him in broad daylight, believing that there is something green before him is the attitude toward this proposition that fits his evidence. That is why the belief is epistemically justified. Second, suspension of judgment is the fitting attitude for each of us toward the proposition that an even number of ducks exists, since our evidence makes it equally likely that the number is odd. Neither belief nor disbelief is epistemically justified when our evidence is equally balanced. And third, when it comes to the proposition that sugar is sour, our gustatory experience makes disbelief the fitting attitude. Such experiential evidence epistemically justifies disbelief.

My problem here isn't that anything strikes me as false -- it's just that I don't see that justification has been illuminated by the connection to 'fitting the evidence'. I don't feel like I have a better antecedent grip on what the evidence is, and how to tell what fits it, than I do on what is justified. Conee and Feldman go on to observe that various views about justification are inconsistent with evidentialism, because, e.g., they have the implication that only a responsibly formed belief is justified, but some beliefs that are not responsibly formed fit the evidence. One needn't think this, though; perhaps what fits the evidence is what one would do if responsible. Or, certain reliabilist views will have the implication that Bonjour's clairvoyant character has justified beliefs; this too can be rendered consistent with the letter of evidentialism by allowing that external facts about reliability play a role in what evidence one has (or, less plausibly, which attitude fits a given body of evidence). A commitment to evidentialism per se doesn't seem to tell you much.

A theory of justification, it seems, ought to be illuminating, in the sense that it should explain justification in terms of states and relations that are antecedently well-understood. (As indicated last post, however, I don't think this constraint implies that the stuff on the right-hand-side need always be non-epistemic.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Naturalistic Reduction of Justification

I'm starting work on a new project on epistemic justification. I'm trying to begin by laying out various perceived or actual desiderata for theories of epistemic justification. Here's one, laid out in Alvin Goldman's classic paper, "What is Justified Belief?": a theory of justification should give necessary and sufficient conditions in non-epistemic terms. We could call this a "naturalistic reduction" constraint. Goldman writes:
The term 'justified', I presume, is an evaluative term, a term of appraisal. Any correct definition or synonym of it would also feature evaluative terms. I assume that such definitions or synonyms might be given, but I am not interested in them. I want a set of substantive conditions that specify when a belief is justified. Compare the moral term 'right'. This might be defined in other ethical terms or phrases, a task appropriate to metaethics. The task of normative ethics, by contrast, is to state substantive conditions for the rightness of actions. Normative ethics tries to specify non-ethical conditions that determine when an action is right. A familiar example is act-utilitarianism, which says an action is right if and only if it produces, or would produce, at least as much net happiness as any alternative open to the agent. These necessary and sufficient conditions clearly involve no ethical notions. Analogously, I want a theory of justified belief to specify in non-epistemic terms when a belief is justified. This is not the only kind of theory of justifiedness one might seek, but it is one important kind of theory and the kind sought here.

I am not sure I feel the motivation for this constraint. I can certainly see why we might not be satisfied by a theory of justification that is circular (justification is justification) or otherwise uninformative (justified belief is belief that is epistemically good), but barring all epistemic notions from the right-hand-side seems like a pretty strong constraint. But perhaps I've misunderstood Goldman's motivation here? Is the naturalistic reduction constraint motivated by something other than informativeness?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Rules of Thought

Benjamin Jarvis and I have been working for some time now on a book manuscript on mental content, rationality, and the epistemology of philosophy. I posted a TOC of our first draft last summer. Since then, we've received some helpful comments from reviewers, and have revised extensively; we now have a full new draft, which we feel ready to share with the public. If you're interested, you can download the large (2.3 MB, 331 page) pdf here. Comments and suggestions are extremely welcome.

I'm including a table of contents of the new draft in this post, to better give an idea of what we're up to.