Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: a critique



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There is, I think, a natural response which the instrumentalist might make to this particular line of objection. The instrumentalist might claim that, although in our ordinary practice we treat epistemic reasons as categorical reasons, the relevant aspects of our practice do not constitute evidence for the claim that epistemic reasons are categorical reasons, because these aspects of our practice would be exactly as they are regardless of the true nature of epistemic reasons. That is, the reason that we would be inclined to treat epistemic reasons as categorical reasons in the course of our everyday practice, and indeed, to think that epistemic reasons are categorical reasons in the course of our theorizing (regardless of their actual status) is that all of us do possess the relevant cognitive goal, viz. believing the truth, or having true rather than false beliefs. Unlike more idiosyncratic goals, which are possessed by some of us but not by others, the goal of believing the truth is a goal which is universally held.22 And if a given goal is sufficiently widespread, it would be quite natural to take that goal for granted in our thought and talk about reasons, and to speak and think, not of reasons for believing relative to that goal, but of reasons for believing simpliciter.

Compare: it is natural to think that those of us who have reasons to act in ways which would prolong our lives do so because we have the goal of living longer. Still, it's not surprising that when we present someone with a reason to  (where ing is the performing of an action which would lengthen that person's life), we present these reasons as reasons that the individual in question has, and not as reasons that the individual in question has insofar as he or she has the goal of living a longer life. When I see you about to consume a fatally poisonous substance, I might very well think, and say, that you have a reason not to consume the substance. I definitely would not think, or say, that you have a reason not to consume the substance insofar as you have the goal of living longer. But these facts about our ordinary practice in no way show that you do have such a reason, independently of your having the relevant goal. For the true story might be this: the goal of living longer is so close to universally-held that we simply take it for granted that any particular person has this goal, and we think and speak accordingly. As Quine might put it: we don't bother to express 'the terminal parameter'. The same might be true with respect to reasons for belief. The apparently categorical character of epistemic reasons might actually be an artifact of the universality of the relevant goal.23

The present dialectical situation should not be misunderstood. One who offers such a story on behalf of the instrumentalist need not claim that the story on offer positively supports the view that epistemic reasons are hypothetical reasons. Rather, the story on offer purports to undermine what would otherwise be extremely strong evidence for the contrary conclusion, viz. that epistemic reasons are categorical reasons. In general, one undermines the claim that p is evidence for q by showing that p would obtain even if q was false.24 In the present case, the claim is that the fact that

we constantly think and act as though epistemic reasons are categorical reasons

is evidence for the further claim that

epistemic reasons are categorical reasons.


Let it be conceded that, in general, the fact that we constantly think and act as though such-and-such is the case is strong evidence that such-and-such is the case, all else being equal. In this case though, not all else is equal: what would ordinarily be strong evidence is undermined. Because we would think and act as though epistemic reasons are categorical reasons regardless of their true nature, the fact that we do this does not count as evidence that epistemic reasons are categorical reasons.

The viability of this instrumentalist response, of course, presupposes that there is some shared cognitive goal which might underwrite the existence and intersubjectivity of epistemic reasons. In fact, it is here, I believe, where the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality founders: there is simply no cognitive goal or goals, which it is plausible to attribute to people generally, which is sufficient to account for the relevant phenomena. Individuals do not typically have this goal: believing the truth.

The sense in which individuals typically lack this goal requires clarification. No doubt, individuals frequently manifest a preference for having true beliefs about particular subject matters. Thus, individuals seek out reliable sources in order to ask for directions about how to arrive at a particular destination, look up facts in books, visit museums, read newspapers, and watch news programs in order to acquire accurate information. Individuals perform scientific experiments and conduct statistical surveys. All of these activities, I think, are indicative of a concern for truth. Even an action as simple as redirecting one's gaze from the center of the room to the corner in order to discover the cause of an unexpected sound is (perhaps) indicative of a concern for truth.

But activities such as these indicate only that the individual in question has fairly specific, particularized cognitive goals. When I ask a reliable source for directions to Fenway Park, I do so because it is important to me to have true beliefs about how to get to Fenway Park. (About this subject matter I have a strong preference for having true beliefs rather than false beliefs, and for having true beliefs to no beliefs at all.) Similarly, when, upon hearing a strange noise in the corner of the room, I intentionally redirect my gaze in order to discover its source, this behavior is indicative of the fact that I have a quite specific cognitive goal: that of finding out (the truth about) what's happening in the corner of the room. Parallel remarks apply to the cases of scientific experiments and statistical surveys.

Of course, some cognitive goals are wider than others. When I consult a reliable source in order to acquire accurate information about how to get to Fenway Park, I have one particular question to which I want a true answer: “How do I get to Fenway Park?”25 My goal of believing the truth about how to get to Fenway Park is a relatively narrow goal, in the following sense: there is a fairly limited range of information which is such that, if I came into cognitive possession of this information, my doing so would constitute this goal's being better achieved. On the other hand, when I read the morning newspaper or watch a television news program, there is (typically) not some one question or small range of questions which I want answered. Rather, I am typically motivated to undertake such activities because I have the goal of, e.g., acquiring information about any event of significance which has recently occurred. The goal which motivates my reading the newspaper is a relatively wide goal, in the sense that there are many truths (a fairly wide range of information) such that my coming to believe (any of) these truths would constitute the relevant goal's being better achieved.

There are, however, very real limits to how wide even the widest of my cognitive goals are.

In addition to those many truths such that my believing them would contribute to the achievement of some goal that I have, there are also (countless) truths such that my believing them would not contribute to any goal that I actually have. Whether Bertrand Russell was right- or left-handed, whether Hubert Humphrey was an only child--these are matters of complete indifference to me. That is, I have no preference for having true beliefs to having no beliefs about these subjects; nor, for that matter, do I have any preference for having true beliefs to false beliefs. There is simply no goal--cognitive or otherwise--which I actually have, which would be better achieved in virtue of my believing true propositions about such subjects, or which would be worse achieved in virtue of my believing false propositions about them.

However, from the fact that some subjects are matters of complete indifference to me, it does not follow that I will inevitably lack epistemic reasons for holding beliefs about those subjects. If, despite my utter lack of interest in the question of whether Bertrand Russell was left-handed, I stumble upon strong evidence that he was, then I have strong epistemic reasons to believe that Bertrand Russell was left-handed. Indeed, my epistemic reasons will be no different than they would be if I had acquired the same evidence deliberately, because I did have the goal of finding out whether Russell was left-handed. Once I come into possession of evidence which strongly supports that claim that p, then I have epistemic reasons to believe that p, regardless of whether I presently have or previously had the goal of believing the truth about p, or any wider goal which would be better achieved in virtue of my believing the truth about p. The fact that I can have epistemic reasons to believe propositions even though doing so holds no promise of better achieving any of my goals (cognitive or otherwise) fits poorly with the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality, since whether it is instrumentally rational to  always depends on the contents of one's goals.26

It is for this reason that the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality fails to do justice to the intersubjectivity of epistemic reasons. For individuals will typically differ greatly with respect to which subject matters are matters of indifference and which are not. That is, individuals will differ greatly with respect to which cognitive goals they possess. Among my cognitive goals is the goal of having true rather than false beliefs about the nature of epistemic rationality. But this is no doubt an extremely idiosyncratic goal relative to the general population: very few people, I suspect, have some goal which would be better promoted in virtue of having true beliefs about the nature of epistemic rationality. Because I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, I have a strong interest in having true rather than false beliefs about which Somerville streets are one-way streets; because I do not live in Bakersfield, California (and have no intention of going there) I have no interest in having true beliefs about which Bakersfield streets are one-way. Someone who lives in Bakersfield is likely to differ from me in both of these respects. It does not follow that we will inevitably differ in what we have epistemic reason to believe. Differences in our cognitive goals need not find reflection in the epistemic reasons that we possess.

Not only are there (many) subjects with respect to which I have no preference for having true beliefs, there are also subjects with respect to which I would prefer to have no beliefs at all to having true beliefs. Thus, I tend to see newly-released movies after many of my friends. During the interval of time which is bounded on one side by my friends' viewing of the movie and bounded on the other side by my viewing the movie, I often make a conscious, deliberate effort to avoid finding out how the movie ends--since doing so might very well interfere with my enjoyment when I do see it. (When conversations about the movie begin in my presence, I either excuse myself or, reminding the discussants that I have yet to see the movie, implore them not to "give away" the ending, and so on.) That is, I quite deliberately take steps to avoid acquiring information about the movie. Sometimes these efforts are successful, sometimes they are not. When they are unsuccessful--as when someone inconsiderately blurts out the ending in my presence--it does not follow that I have no epistemic reasons to believe the propositions which he asserts. Indeed, with respect to the question of which epistemic reasons I possess, there is no difference between this case and a case in which I ask the individual to tell me the ending because I do have some goal which would be better achieved by my believing the relevant truths. The fact that in the one case I do have a goal which is better achieved by my believing the relevant truths, but in the other I have no such goal--indeed, I have goals which would be hindered or frustrated by my believing these truths--makes no difference to my epistemic reasons.

In his brief consideration of the putative possibility that someone might lack the goal of now having true beliefs and not now having false beliefs (1987, pp.11-12), Foley speculates that this envisaged possibility might turn out not to be possible after all. In support of this speculation, Foley claims that “the vast majority of us” attach an intrinsic value to having true beliefs, and even those among us who do not do so presumably care about having true beliefs because they recognize that such beliefs have instrumental value. Now, perhaps it is in fact impossible (in some fairly weak sense of “impossible”) for someone to be wholly unconcerned with having true beliefs, in the sense that, necessarily, every individual is such that there are some subject matters about which he or she is concerned to believe the truth. Perhaps it is even the case that, as Ernest Sosa has suggested, “for any arbitrary belief we actually hold, we would prefer that it be true rather than not be true, other things equal”.27 But this--as Sosa himself notes--is a far cry from the claim that individuals typically have some goal which is better achieved whenever one believes some true proposition, no matter how trivial or insignificant. But of course, one can have extremely strong epistemic reasons to believe utterly trivial and insignificant propositions.

Ultimately, Foley appears prepared to say that, if a person genuinely did lack the requisite goal—which he somewhat grudgingly admits may be possible—then nothing would be either epistemically rational or irrational for that person (1987, p.12). A similar conclusion is embraced by David Papineau.28 Interestingly, Papineau takes the possibility of individuals who lack the requisite cognitive goals as favoring the kind of instrumentalist account which I am attempting to undermine. He argues as follows. After noting the existence of cases in which individuals deliberately avoid seeking evidence in order to avoid unwanted beliefs, he claims (correctly, I believe) that there are cases of this sort in which the individuals in question are subject to no legitimate criticism for acting in this manner. He then concludes that this supports the idea that epistemic norms—or “norms of judgement” have a “hypothetical” as opposed to a “categorical” character. But to proceed in this way is to conflate (1) the reasons which one may or may not have to seek out further evidence which bears on the truth of p, and (2) the reasons which one may or may not have to believe p.29

Are there any positive reasons for supposing, against Foley and Papineau, that an individual might have reasons to hold beliefs about a subject matter even if she has no goal which would be better promoted in virtue of her believing the relevant truths? Consider the following. When I undertake deliberate measures in order to avoid discovering how the movie ends, my project is simply this: I want to avoid the acquisition of reasons for believing the truth about how the movie ends. Notice, however, that if the possibility of acquiring reasons for believing the truth about p is contingent on one’s having some goal which would be better promoted by believing the truth about p, then this project is incoherent: there is no need to deliberately avoid the acquisition of epistemic reasons to believe propositions about subjects with respect to which one has no desire to believe the truth, for one knows a priori that there are no such reasons. (Indeed, that there could not be such reasons.) But in fact, the envisaged project is not incoherent. I might have epistemic reasons to believe the truth about how the movie ends despite my not having the relevant goal, as becomes apparent when—in spite of my best efforts—I acquire the unwanted belief by stumbling upon the unwanted reasons. Notice that when I acquire the unwanted belief in this fashion, that I do so is not merely a matter of pure psychological compulsion: in such circumstances, we might very well explain why I formed the unwanted belief by citing my epistemic rationality, along with the fact that I was presented with epistemic reasons of the relevant sort. But this explanation would not be available to us if we claimed, with Foley, that nothing would be epistemically rational for one who lacked the relevant goal. Put simply: one cannot immunize oneself against the possibility of acquiring reasons for belief by not caring about the relevant subject matter.

Philosophers often suggest that in addition to our many and various local cognitive aims (e.g., having true rather than false beliefs about what the weather will be like tomorrow, or about whether the stock market will continue to go up), there is some more general, global cognitive aim with respect to which our epistemic practices and efforts are to be assessed. Thus, Roderick Chisholm once suggested that we should understand our central cognitive goal as that of 'having the largest possible set of logically independent beliefs that is such that the true beliefs outnumber the false beliefs'.30 As we have seen, Foley suggests that judgements of epistemic rationality are made relative to the goal of 'now believing true propositions and not now believing false propositions'. Here, of course, there is not one cognitive goal but rather two: (1) now believing true propositions and (2) not now believing false propositions. This fact leads directly to familiar questions about the relative weights which are to be assigned to these two goals.31 Typically, questions about how the central cognitive aim is to be understood are raised only to be set aside, as by Alston:

Epistemic evaluation is undertaken from what we might call the 'epistemic point of view'.

That point of view is defined by the aim of maximizing truth and minimizing falsity in a

large body of beliefs. The qualification 'in a large body of beliefs' is needed because

otherwise one could best achieve the aim by restricting one's beliefs to those that are

obviously true. That is a rough formulation. How large a body of beliefs should we aim at?

Is any body of beliefs of a given size, with the same truth-falsity ration equally desirable?

And what relative weights should be assigned to the two aims of maximizing truth and

minimizing falsity? We can't go into all that here; in any event, however these issues are

settled, it remains true that our central cognitive aim is to amass a large body of beliefs with

a favorable truth-falsity ratio.32


Here, the suggestion seems to be that it would be a good thing if we had answers to all of these questions; that these issues might be settled if only we had the time and space to go into them (indeed, that they will be settled at some point), and that their being definitively settled would be a desirable state of affairs.

But there is no reason to think that we do possess some one “central cognitive aim” in the relevant sense. That is, there is no aim, or goal, which (1) is better achieved whenever one adds true propositions or avoids adding false propositions to one's stock of beliefs, and which (2) people actually hold.33 At least, nothing in the way that people behave suggests that they do have such a central cognitive goal--as opposed to a vast number of more specialized, narrower cognitive goals. After all, people routinely pass up opportunities to add true beliefs to their present stock even when doing so would be of little or no cost. Nor, I think, does introspection reveal the existence of any such goal. (Here I speak for myself, and invite the reader to undertake a similar inquiry.)

There is, I suspect, a very good reason why the question of the relative weights which are to be given to the two cognitive goals--believing what is true and not believing what is false--is typically raised only to be set aside. Quite simply: there is no answer to this question when it is asked at the level of extreme generality at which it is typically posed. As statisticians are fond of emphasizing, the relative importance of avoiding a ‘Type I mistake' (that is, failing to take something to be true which is in fact true) as opposed to avoiding a 'Type II mistake' (that is, taking something to be true which is in fact false) is highly sensitive to specific features of a given context.

When it is instrumentally rational for me to , this is because ing promises to promote some goal or goals which I possess. The attempt to assimilate epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality founders on the fact that one can have epistemic reasons to believe propositions even in cases in which it is clear that one's believing those propositions holds no promise of advancing any goal which one actually possesses.



4. Some Instrumentalist Replies
In this section, I take up some natural instrumentalist replies to the preceding argument. Rather than engaging in a futile effort to consider every reply which an instrumentalist might offer, I want to examine, at some length, what I take to be the two most formidable and philosophically interesting replies.

I have argued that the attempt to assimilate epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality founders on the fact that it can be epistemically rational to believe propositions even in cases in which it is clear that believing those propositions would not advance any goal which one actually holds. The first instrumentalist reply challenges the claim that one has no goal which is better promoted whenever one believes a proposition that one epistemic reasons to believe. According to this reply, individuals generally do have such a goal, but I have missed this fact as a result of unduly restricting the kinds of considerations which can justify attributing goals to individuals. The second instrumentalist reply grants the claim that individuals typically do not have such goals, but contends that this fact is compatible with the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality.

4.1 Truth as The Constitutive Aim of Belief
Recall our earlier example: despite the fact that I would prefer not to believe the truth about how the movie ends, I can acquire epistemic reasons to believe the truth about how the movie ends.

But don't I have the goal of believing the truth about how the movie ends? You inconsiderately blurt out the ending of the movie in my presence ('the butler did it'); in response, I immediately come to believe that the butler did it. I now have a belief about how the movie ends--and beliefs, as Bernard Williams has famously claimed, “aim at truth”.34 Truth is the constitutive aim of belief. Perhaps then, in virtue of my newly-acquired status as one who has beliefs about how the movie ends, I inherit the aim or goal of believing the truth about how the movie ends, in virtue of the nature of belief. Beliefs aim at truth; I am a believer about x; therefore, I have the aim of believing the truth about x.

This line of thought, I believe, is fallacious. After all, why is the argument

I have beliefs about x

The aim of any belief is truth

Therefore, I have the aim of having beliefs about x which are true

any better than the following (presumably bad) argument?
I have a heart

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