Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: a critique

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Velleman, David 2000a. “The Possibility of Practical Reason”, reprinted in his The Possibility

of Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.170-199.
Velleman, David 2000b. “On the Aim of Belief”, reprinted in his The Possibility of Practical

Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 244-281.

Wedgwood, Ralph. “The Aim of Belief”, Philosophical Perspectives 16 (2002): 267-297.

Williams, Bernard 1973: "Deciding to Believe", reprinted in his Problems of the Self.

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.136-151.

Williams, Bernard 1981: "Internal and External Reasons", in his Moral Luck (Cambridge

University Press, Cambridge), pp. 101-113.

1Plantinga (1993) distinguishes five 'varieties' of rationality; Goldman (1986) explicitly excludes rationality from the terms of epistemic evaluation which he seeks to analyze on the grounds that 'this notion is so vague in ordinary usage, and so disparately employed by different philosophers and social scientists, that it has limited usefulness' (p. 27).

2As presented in his (1987) book.

3Foley (1987, Ch.1. See especially pages 6-8.). Foley is also read in this way by both Plantinga (1993, p. 27) and Harman (1999b, p. 101). In later work (e.g., 1993), Foley sometimes characterizes the epistemic goal as that of ‘having an accurate and comprehensive system of beliefs’. This difference is immaterial to the discussion which follows.

4Quine (1986, pp. 664-665). Quine is in the course of explaining to Morton White why, contrary to what White and many others had supposed, Quine's persistent calls for a naturalized epistemology are not calls for doing away with normative epistemology. Compare Quine's remarks in his later (1993, p. 19).

5In addition to Quine and Laudan, a list of philosophers who endorse this conception of epistemic normativity as a means to naturalizing epistemology would include Hilary Kornblith (1993), Kitcher (1992), Giere (1989), and James Maffie (1990a, 1990b). Foley's enthusiasm for this way of thinking about epistemic rationality does not seem to be rooted in naturalist concerns.


For a recent argument that the existence of normativity undermines naturalism, see Parfit (forthcoming).


For example, by Jaegwon Kim (1993). But this, as we have noted, is a misreading of Quine--although perhaps an understandable misreading, given some of Quine's early pronouncements. If in fact a thoroughgoing naturalist is ultimately committed to eliminativism about epistemic normativity, then this would be, as Frank Jackson has said, 'strong beer' (1999, p. 434).


In his “A Prioricity as an Evaluative Notion”. Perhaps the first philosopher to explicitly consider expressivism in epistemology was Roderick Chisholm (1957). (But for Chisholm's views on normativity in epistemology, see also note 12 below.)

9Although I have here presented the instrumentalist conception as an alternative to expressivism in epistemology, it's worth noting that expressivism in epistemology is in fact compatible with the instrumentalist conception: one might hold that epistemic rationality is instrumental rationality, and then proceed to tell an expressivist story about instrumental rationality. On the other hand, one might be an expressivist about epistemic rationality while rejecting the instrumentalist reduction.


A particularly clear and prominent statement of this thought is Mackie (1979). See especially Ch. 1, 'The Subjectivity of Values'.

11Hilary Putnam is among the most prominent of those who have attempted to tie the fate of moral reasons to epistemic reasons in an effort to defend the former. See, e.g., his (1990). As one would expect, Putnam is also a critic of naturalism in epistemology (Putnam, 1983). Compare Derek Parfit:
If moral reasons were to queer to be part of the fabric of the Universe, that would be true of

all normative reasons, including reasons for believing. That conclusion is incredible...If

moral skeptics wish to avoid such all-embracing skepticism, they must abandon these

objections to moral realism. If reasons for believing are not incompatible with a scientific

world view, nor are...[moral reasons] (forthcoming, p.29).
The strategy of defending moral reasons by tying their fate to that of epistemic reasons has also been pursued by Frank Jackson (1999). For stimulating discussion of related issues, see also David Velleman (2000a) and Peter Railton (1997).


Of course, even if turns out that the normativity of epistemology is not reducible to the normativity of instrumental reason, this wouldn't show that epistemic normativity is irreducible, or that it is (as one says) 'sui generis'. One of the most prominent epistemologists of the twentieth century, Roderick Chisholm, was a longtime advocate of the interesting if eccentric view that epistemic normativity is really a species of ethical normativity. See, e.g., his (1991, p.119) where he notes his career-long disagreement with Roderick Firth on this issue. For Firth's side of the argument, see his (1998a) and (1998b).

13I have in mind here especially the exchanges between Laudan (1996), Siegel (1989, 1990, 1996), and Giere (1989).


For arguments that this is in fact the case, see Korsgaard (1997), Hampton (1998, especially Part 2, "Instrumental Reason") and Parfit (forthcoming).

15The point is perhaps more obvious in the case of logicism for the following reason. Frege, the father of logicism, was a great enemy of empiricism. In contrast, Quine is a great enthusiast for naturalism, and indeed, as we have seen he explicitly suggests something much like the instrumentalist reduction as a way of naturalizing epistemology.


For a sampling of the literature, see Heil (1983, 1992), Kelly (2002), Meiland (1980), Mills (1998), Nozick (1993, ch. 3) and Foley (1987, ch. 5).

17The possibility that epistemic and practical considerations are incommensurable is raised--but neither endorsed nor discussed at any length--by both Heil (1992, p.50) and Mills (1998, p.29).

18The present claim should not be misunderstood. I don't mean to commit myself here to the view that it is possible to deliberate rationally about how one's noninstrumental goals or 'final ends' should be ordered. Rather, the point is that given the way my goals are in fact ordered, it would be (all-things-considered) irrational for me to jeopardize my life in order to acquire a chocolate milkshake. We might imagine an individual whose preferences are very different from mine; for this person (bizarrely) it is much more important to acquire a chocolate milkshake than to preserve his life. Nothing I have said should be taken as suggesting that it would be all-things-considered irrational for such a person to jeopardize his life in order to acquire the milkshake. (Thanks are due to James Van Cleve for impressing upon me the need to clarify this point.)

19Similarly: suppose that, as Chisholm holds, epistemic normativity is really a species of ethical normativity (cf. note 12 above). If so, then in cases in which epistemic considerations and (say) self-interested considerations pull in opposite directions, there need be no more (and no less) incommensurability than there is between ethical and self-interested considerations generally.


Foley seems to be well aware that the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality has important implications for the ethics of belief. He insists that "All things being considered, it can be rational for an individual to believe what it is not epistemically rational for him to believe" (1987, p.214). He also insists that, although conflicts between epistemic reasons and nonepistemic reasons for belief are sometimes rationally resolvable, it is not the job of a theory of epistemic rationality to resolve them: rather, such questions fall within the jurisdiction of a more general theory of rational belief, a theory which takes into account one's nonepistemic goals (1987, p.211). These answers, I think, are exactly those answers which an instrumentalist should give to the relevant questions.

21Compare Railton (1997, p. 53).

22"Truth, then, would be rather like what John Rawls has called a primary good, something that is useful for a very wide range of purposes--almost all--and hence will be desired and bring benefit (almost) no matter what our particular purposes might be" (Nozick 1993, p. 68).


Compare Kant on the pervasiveness of happiness as an end. For Kant, our reasons to perform actions conducive to our own happiness have hypothetical force as opposed to the categorical force of moral reasons. But because we all have the end of happiness as a matter of 'natural necessity', we state imperatives of prudence, like imperatives of morality, in ‘assertoric’ rather than 'hypothetical' form (1981, p. 26).


You suggest that the fact that my dog is barking is evidence that she wants to go outside, I undermine this claim by informing you that my dog barks constantly, regardless of whether she wants to go outside. Cf. Pollock's excellent discussion of epistemic defeasibility (Pollock, pp.37-39). In Pollock's terminology, we are concerned here with 'undercutting' as opposed to 'rebutting' defeaters.

25Of course, the fact that I have the goal of finding out how to get to Fenway Park will often give rise to other goals: if I am told that in order to get to Fenway Park, I first have to get to point X, I will acquire the goal of finding out how to get to point X, etc.

26Harman (1999b) is similarly skeptical of the idea that individuals typically possess 'a general desire' to 'believe what is true and not believe what is false'. He writes: 'Of course, people do not actually have this general desire. Curiosity is more specialized. One wants to know whether P, who did D, what things are F, and so forth' (p.100).

I strongly agree with Harman’s claim that people do not have the general desire in question. However, it would be a mistake, I think, to assimilate our curiousity, or our concern with truth, to the desire to know the answers to specific questions (as Harman seems to suggest here). When I read the morning newspaper, I am sometimes motivated to do so because I have the goal of discovering the answer to some specific question (e.g., who won last night's election). More frequently, however, I am motivated to do so not because I want to find the answer to any particular question; rather, I simply want to learn interesting and important truths about the world.

In attempting to characterize our concern with truth, there are two opposite errors that must be avoided:
(i) that our concern with truth is such that it is better satisfied whenever we come to believe

any true proposition, no matter how trivial or insignificant, and

(ii) that our concern with truth is wholly exhausted by our wanting to know the answers to

specific questions.

27Sosa (unpublished, p.3).

28 Papineau, “Normativity and Judgement”. See especially pages 23-25.


 In a passing footnote (p.24, fnt.8), Papineau shows that he is aware of the distinction. He seems, however, not to appreciate its potential significance, for in the main text he passes, directly and without argument, from the claim that (i) an individual might be under no obligation to gather evidence which she does not presently possess to the claim that (ii) an individual might be under no obligation to conform her beliefs to the evidence which she presently possesses. In the same footnote, Papineau notes that deliberately refusing to conform one’s beliefs to evidence which one already possesses (in contrast to deliberately refusing to seek out further evidence) is of “doubtful psychological possibility” and wonders why this is so. Below, I will suggest that the asymmetry in question gives us further reason to doubt the sort of view which Papineau favors.

30Chisholm (1982, p.7). It is, I think, extremely dubious that anyone has ever had, or should have had, this particular goal. (Notice that the goal to which Chisholm refers would be better achieved by someone who has 5,000,000 true beliefs and 4,999,999 false beliefs than by someone who has 9,999,998 true beliefs and zero false beliefs.)


As is often noted, there is a certain tension between pursuing these two cognitive goals. The more weight one gives to the goal of not believing false propositions, the more it behooves one to be very conservative about what one believes, and to believe only those propositions for which one has a great deal of evidence. On the other hand, the more weight one gives to the believing of true propositions, the more it behooves one to believe large numbers of propositions, including propositions for which one does not have a great deal of evidence. Epistemic caution and abstinence count as virtues relative to the aim of not believing false propositions; epistemic aggressiveness and commitment count as virtues relative to the aim of believing true propositions.

The point that there is a certain tension between pursuing the two cognitive goals was first made (I believe) by William James in his (1956, pp.18-19).


Alston (1989, pages 83-84). Even the little that Alston says here is enough to raise qualms. For example, Alston's remark that
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

seems to suggest that the relevant qualification is motivated by the thought that there is not a large number of obvious truths. But, given any natural interpretation of 'a large number' and 'obvious', this thought is mistaken.


Here I am tempted to make the strong claim that no one, or almost no one, actually holds such a goal. In fact, given the intersubjectivity of epistemic reasons, it is enough for my argument, I think, if there is even a single person who lacks such a goal. I believe that I am such a person.

34Williams (1973). The general line of thought is well-summarized by one of its critics, Fred Dretske (Dretske, 2000).


Although much progress toward this end has undoubtedly been made by Velleman (2000b) and Wedgwood (forthcoming).

36As noted by Foley (1987, p.12).


Perhaps Williams (1981) can be interpreted as arguing for a somewhat wider conception of instrumental rationality, according to which I can have instrumental reasons to advance not only goals which I actually hold but also goals which I might reach by a process of sound deliberation from my present 'subjective motivational set'. If this is in fact the right way of thinking about instrumental rationality, then the objection which I have developed should be put like this: it can be epistemically rational to believe propositions even when it is clear that doing so would promote no goal which one actually holds or which might be reached by a process of sound deliberation from one's subjective motivational set.

38In this case, changing my epistemic position in the requisite way involves changing my physical position, but, as will become clear below, deliberately changing one's epistemic position does not always involve changing one's physical position.

39See for example Audi (1991).

40For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper I am grateful to Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Jim Pryor, Richard Heck, Pamela Hieronymi, and Aaron James. For financial support, I am grateful to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.

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