Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: a critique



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The aim of any heart is to pump blood

Therefore, I have the aim of having a heart which pumps blood.
(Someone is attempting to commit suicide by stopping his own heart from pumping blood: It would be a mistake, I take it, to attribute to such a person the aim of having a heart which pumps blood.)

Moreover, the crucial premise--that “belief aims at truth”--is notoriously obscure. Talk of belief “aiming” at truth is, I assume, metaphorical, and this metaphor has yet to be fully unpacked.35 Suppose, however, that there is some non-metaphorical interpretation of “belief aims at truth” or “truth is the constitutive aim of belief” which is both true and philosophically interesting. Would this help the instrumentalist?

In fact, to appeal to the claim that belief aims at truth at this juncture is, I think, essentially to abandon the attempt to reduce epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality. After all, what is distinctive about instrumental rationality is precisely the fact that which instrumental reasons a person has depends on which ends (goals, aims) he or should would prefer to have realized. To appeal to states which by their very nature ought to be a certain way (regardless of whether anyone has any preference for their being that way) is already to move beyond instrumental rationality.

Compare: a neo-Aristotelian might hold that, because human beings are by their very nature certain sorts of beings, they have distinctive ends which they ought to realize (regardless of whether they have any preferences for the realization of those ends) and the fact that they have these ends gives them reasons to act in some ways rather than in others. Such reasons, I think, would not be instrumental reasons.

I want to ask the speaker a question, and I know that I will only be able to ask my question if I raise my hand. These facts give me an instrumental reason to raise my hand. In explaining why my action is rational, there is no need to appeal to a “constitutive aim” of my action, or some such thing. That is, no role is played by constitutive aims in paradigmatic exhibitions of instrumental rationality.

4.2 The Appeal to Merely Hypothetical Goals


Consider the following instrumentalist response:
Epistemic rationality is in fact simply a special case of instrumental rationality (viz.,

instrumental rationality in the service of some cognitive goal), but it is not crucial

that individuals actually do possess the relevant goal. Rather, as theorists we can evaluate

how well an individual's ways of revising his or her beliefs would promote the goal in

question, regardless of whether he or she in fact possesses that goal. And it is from

this perspective that judgements of 'epistemically rational' or 'epistemically irrational' are

made.
Imagine a being who differs from us only in that he is afflicted with a peculiar sort of avarice: he always strongly prefers to believe more truths (no matter how trivial or useless for his other projects) to fewer. And he loathes the thought of believing anything false. Plausibly, the most instrumentally rational strategy for such a person to pursue is to believe all and only those propositions which it is epistemically rational for him to believe. Does this fact help the instrumentalist?

We can, of course, consider how it would be rational for an individual to pursue some goal whether or not the individual actually holds that goal. Thus, we can ask how it would be rational for me to pursue the goal of now believing true propositions and now not believing false propositions, even though I don't in fact have this goal.36 But this, I think, is not enough to save the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality. The crucial fact here is the following: whether it is in fact instrumentally rational for me to  depends on the content of the goals which I actually hold. It's no doubt true that if I had the goal of asking the speaker a question, I would have an instrumental reason to raise my hand, and (all else being equal) my doing so would be instrumentally rational. But if in fact I do not have this goal, I have no reason to raise my hand. Only goals which I actually hold make a difference to what is instrumentally rational for me.37 But I can have epistemic reasons to believe propositions even though doing so holds no promise for promoting any goal which I actually hold. This suggests that it is a mistake to assimilate epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality.

No doubt, much of the allure of the instrumentalist conception consists in the fact that

(1) Insofar as I am pursuing the goal of now believing true propositions and not now

believing false propositions, it is a good (i.e., instrumentally rational) strategy to (i)

believe those propositions which it is epistemically rational for me to believe and (ii) to

not believe those propositions which it is epistemically irrational for me to believe.
I believe that (1) is true. But the correctness of the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality cannot be derived from (1).

In order to appreciate this fact, consider a parallel case. It's no doubt true that

(2) Insofar as I am pursuing the goal of being a moral person, it is a good (i.e.,

instrumentally rational strategy) for me to (i) perform all of those actions which I have

overriding moral reasons to perform, and (ii) to not perform any action which I have

overriding moral reasons not to perform.


But no one would think that it follows from (2) that morality just is instrumental rationality, or some such thing. After all, even a Platonist about moral reasons would presumably accept (2). Similarly, from the fact that it is a good (i.e., instrumentally rational) strategy to be epistemically rational insofar as one is pursuing the goal of now believing true propositions and not now believing false propositions, it in no way follows that epistemic rationality just is instrumental rationality in the service of this goal.


5. The Role of Instrumental Rationality in Theoretical Reasoning: Theoretical Rationality as a Hybrid Virtue

I have argued that it is a mistake to attempt to assimilate epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality in the service of one's cognitive goals. Nevertheless, it would also be a mistake to underestimate the epistemic importance of instrumental rationality. Indeed, responding to instrumental reasons plays a pervasive and indispensable role in both theoretical inquiry and theoretical reasoning--a role which complements the role of epistemic rationality. In the final section of this paper, I want to delineate, in broad outline, the respective roles of epistemic and instrumental rationality in the achievement of one's cognitive goals through theoretical reasoning.

Let's begin by considering the role of instrumental rationality in the activities constitutive of theoretical inquiry. As we have already noted, the fact that one has certain cognitive goals often makes it instrumentally rational for one to act in some ways rather than others. In particular, the fact that one has the goal of finding out the truth about some question often provides an instrumental reason to improve one's epistemic position with respect to that question. Suppose that I hear a strange and unexpected sound behind me, and, seeking to find out the source of this noise, I turn around. Here, the reason that I have to turn around is an instrumental reason--I have the (cognitive) goal of finding out what is responsible for the relevant noise, and given this goal, it is instrumentally rational for me to change my epistemic position in a certain way.38 Suppose further that, upon turning around, I discover the source of the noise: a cat has entered the otherwise-empty room. Finding myself face-to-face with the cat, it is now epistemically rational for me to believe that a cat was responsible for the noise. What is the relationship between my possessing an epistemic reason to believe this proposition and my possessing the relevant cognitive goal? In one respect, the fact that it is epistemically rational to believe this proposition does not depend on the fact that I possess the goal: someone who occupied my same epistemic position, but who lacked the goal, would have the same epistemic reason that I do. On the other hand, that it is epistemically rational for me to believe that a cat is responsible for the noise is historically dependent on my possession of the relevant goal: if I did not possess the relevant goal, I would never have turned around and (hence) never acquired epistemic reasons to believe the proposition. Notice that, in this case, fulfilling my goal of discovering the truth about the source of the noise requires that I exhibit both instrumental rationality and epistemic rationality: it is because I am instrumentally rational that I improve my epistemic position in the requisite way, and it is because I am epistemically rational that, having improved my epistemic position, I come to the true belief that a cat is responsible for the noise.

At the most abstract level, scientific inquiry itself might be understood as simply a (much) more complicated and sophisticated version of this basic picture. The reasons which one has to engage in practices of evidence-gathering and experimentation are instrumental reasons; once the experiments have been performed, however, what it is rational to believe is no longer a matter of instrumental (but rather epistemic) rationality.

Moreover, being instrumentally rational in the pursuit of one's cognitive goals plays an important role in theoretical reasoning itself. By theoretical reasoning I mean reasoning which is undertaken in order to determine what to believe (as opposed to practical reasoning, reasoning which is undertaken in order to determine what to do). Theoretical reasoning, I believe, closely resembles theoretical inquiry in that the former, like the latter, involves responding to both epistemic and instrumental reasons.

The capacity to respond to instrumental reasons is central to theoretical reasoning because of the directed or goal-oriented nature of such reasoning. In reasoning theoretically, one does not simply arrive at new beliefs by applying rules of inference willy-nilly to one's present corpus. Rather, in engaging in theoretical reasoning, one typically has some particular question or questions which one wants answered. That is, one has a certain cognitive goal which one wants to achieve, and the content of this goal gives one instrumental reasons to engage in certain mental activities rather than others.

Consider, for example, the activity of calculating. At the conclusion of meals, I am often confronted with the task of determining how much to leave as a gratuity, given that I want to leave an amount which is equal to 20% of the total bill. Typically, I pursue the relevant cognitive goal by first, determining how much 10% of the total bill would be and then doubling that number. Even a process of reasoning as simple as this, I believe, involves responding to both epistemic and instrumental reasons. Before beginning my calculation, I don't know how much to leave, and I pursue the goal of determining how much to leave by attempting to improve my epistemic position with respect to the relevant question. As we saw above, the reasons which one has to improve one's epistemic position with respect to some question are typically instrumental reasons--although in this case, responding to such reasons does not involve changing my physical position. Rather, I respond to these instrumental reasons by undertaking those mental activities which I need to undertake in order to arrive at a solution. Thus, the rationality which I exhibit in undertaking the sub-task of determining 10% of the total bill is instrumental rationality in the service of my cognitive goal (if I did not have the cognitive goal of determining 20% of the bill I would quite literally have no reason to undertake this task). But having performed any particular step in the calculation, that I believe what I should believe given my newly-arrived at epistemic position is a matter of my being epistemically rational, i.e., appropriately sensitive to the epistemic position which I have now come to occupy. My epistemically rational belief that 10% of the total bill is n can then be used as an input to further reasoning, reasoning which it is (instrumentally) rational for me to undertake in virtue of my particular cognitive goal. In this way, instrumental rationality and epistemic rationality work in tandem in cases in which an individual pursues his or her cognitive goals through theoretical reasoning.

The general point, viz. that which cognitive goals one possesses can and should make a difference to which one conclusions one ultimately reaches through theoretical reasoning, is noted by Harman, who provides the following example:


There are various conclusions that Jack could reach right now...He could solve some

arithmetical problems....He could try to resolve a philosophical paradox...But, at the

moment, Jack is locked out of his house and really ought to try to figure out where he left his

keys. If Jack thinks about where he left his keys, however, he won't be able at the same time

to resolve the philosophical paradox or solve the arithmetical puzzles. Because he wants

very much to get into his house, he devotes his attention to figuring out where his keys must

be.
From this, Harman concludes that “your desires can rationally affect your theoretical conclusions by affecting what questions you use theoretical reasoning to answer” (Harman 1999a, p.15).

All of this, I think, is correct. However, what I would like to emphasize is that practical, goal-oriented considerations enter in not only at the most general level of, say, deciding to determine the present location of one's keys as opposed to spending time attempting to solve a philosophical paradox. Rather, even after one has adopted the goal of determining the present location of one's keys, or the goal of determining how much one should leave as a gratuity, the subsequent pursuit of such adopted goals via theoretical reasoning will typically require responding to instrumental as well as epistemic reasons. Theoretical reasoning of any significant degree of complexity requires responsiveness to both epistemic and instrumental reasons.

Philosophers tend to juxtapose theoretical rationality and practical rationality, where being practically rational consists in being responsive to practical reasons. This suggests (naturally enough) that theoretical rationality similarly consists in being responsive to a certain type of reason, viz. 'theoretical reasons'. 'Theoretical rationality' is thus sometimes used as a synonym for 'epistemic rationality', and 'theoretical reason' as a synonym for 'epistemic reason'.39 But this terminology, I think, is both symptomatic of, and further encourages, a mistaken view about the nature of theoretical rationality. Theoretical rationality is a virtue which consists in proficiency in theoretical reasoning. Being proficient in theoretical reasoning in turn, involves manifesting sensitivity to two different kinds of reasons: epistemic reasons and those instrumental reasons which one possesses in virtue of possessing the particular cognitive goals which one does in fact possess. We might imagine--with some difficulty, perhaps--a person who has either sensitivity in the absence of the other. That is, we can imagine a being who is perfectly epistemically rational (in the sense that at any given moment she believes all and only those propositions which it is epistemically rational for her to believe at that time) but who constantly fails to undertake those mental activities which she needs to undertake in order to achieve her cognitive goals. On the other hand, we can imagine a being who, being fully instrumentally rational, does undertake the needed mental activities but fails to achieve his cognitive goals in virtue of being pathologically epistemically irrational. Both of these two individuals should, I think, be considered seriously deficient with respect to their possession of the virtue of theoretical rationality.

There is not some one kind of reason--'theoretical reasons'--sensitivity to which qualifies one as theoretically rational. Rather, being theoretically rational is a hybrid virtue: it involves sensitivity to two very different kinds of reasons.40

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