Monday, July 18, 2005

Whatever floats your boat?

One of the comments made by an audience member when I gave my paper at the Joint Session was that Crispin Wright's defence of epistemic entitlement sounded reminiscent of Neurath's idea that, in epistemic enquiry, our position is like that of a ship at sea - we can replace various planks as we go along but cannot throw out the whole system and start again.

Wright states that in empirical enquiry we cannot but rely on 'cornerstones' unsupported by further evidence, such as the proposition that we are not brains in vats. Since he also thinks that a 'proper concept' of warrant will not make impossible demands upon us, he takes it that a proper concept of warrant will not require that we have evidence for these cornerstones in order to count as warranted in accepting them and relying on them in our enquiries.

It sounds as if Wright thinks since we cannot but trust in the truth of the cornerstones, it cannot undermine our rationality if we do so. This sounds akin to the coherentist thought that, since we are ships at sea and cannot build our belief systems from scratch as foundationalism seems to require, it must be that starting from scratch is not required in order for our beliefs to be justified.

Another audience member (I think it may have been Daniel Whiting?) pointed out that Wright seems to think the ship we are afloat on has particular planks that can't be removed without letting the water in, which isn't a standard part of the ship-at-sea metaphor. In this respect, I think, Wright's view seems to be closer to that of Lewis, who holds that certain ('Moorean') aspects of common sense are the planks of the epistemic boat which cannot (all) be replaced on pain of irrationality (as was recently brought to my attention by reading Daniel Nolan's helpful book on Lewis). A particular commonsense plank might be ditched, in order to best respect the rest of our commonsense views, but there is no rational way to ditch all the members of this subset of our beliefs simultaneously. I wonder, then whether Lewis thinks, as Wright does, that the very impossibility of rationally ditching this set of beliefs is what makes it rational to hold onto them. Or is it the other way around: that the fact we are rational to hold onto them makes it irrational to ditch them? The former (Wright-like) interpretation is suggested by the following passage:

'[I]t's not that common sense speaks with the voice of some infallible faculty of "intuition". It's just that theoretical conservativism is the only sensible policy for theorists of limited powers, who are duly modest about what they can accomplish after a fresh start'.

This same modesty is what motivates Wright's views. If Lewis's line is as similar to Wright's as I've suggested, certain worries I have about Wright's proposal would apply here too - in particular, the apparent step from 'nothing else is a sensible policy' to 'this one remaining policy is sensible'.


Protagoras said...

I don't see that there's anything in Neurath which would commit him to saying you can replace a whole bunch of major planks all at once, so unless the thesis is that there are some particular commonsense planks which can't be removed on their own, I don't think the position you're attributing to Lewis is different from Neurath's.

Carrie Jenkins said...

Thanks Protagoras. I didn't mean to claim that using the ship-at-sea metaphor commits one to *denying* (what I'm thinking of as) the Wright/Lewis view that there are certain outright irreplacable sections of the ship. I just meant that (as far as I know anyway) the metaphor isn't standardly taken as implying that there are. (Allowing someone like Quine to use it while denying that there are any irreplacable planks.)

Daniel Elstein said...

Carrie, you remember I asked at the session whether the issue between you and Wright might be about whether epistemic norms are free-standing (actually I don't really suppose that Wright agrees with me; but if I were defending his position, this is the move I'd make). To flesh it out a little more, you can blur the link between epistemic and pragmatic norms by saying that we have some kind of choice between various possible sets of epistemic norms, and that we make this choice on pragmatic grounds.

To put things this way isn't to deny that we have epistemic intuitions, or that there can be genuine conflicts between epistemic and pragmatic norms (e.g. cases where there is an epistemic reason for you to check the evidence, but you have pragmatic reasons to not want to find out the truth). Rather, the idea is that there is a multiple level structure to epistemic normativity. When we're doing our ground level epistemic thinking we don't let pragmatic concerns intrude. But there's also a critical level where we reflect on these ground level norms and consider whether they are optimal. Without taking a stand on exactly what the point of having epistemic norms is, it certainly looks as though they don't do us any good by making us worried about whether fundamentally pragmatically necessary beliefs are justified. So perhaps Wright could concede your intuition that such beliefs aren't justified, but say that this is so much the worse for that intuition. Thus his argument can be construed not as arguing that such beliefs are justified according to our actual ground level epistemic norms, but instead that the best set of norms would count those beliefs as justified. But I get the impression you don't like this way of thinking about epistemic norms...

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for reminding me about that - it's an interesting idea. It's not really that I don't like it in the sense of thinking it's false (well - I am tempted to think it's false but I don't have arguments); it's just that I think that, if epistemic rationality grounds out in pragmatic rationality in the way you're suggesting, that would undermine the idea of epistemic rationality properly so called. If things are going to ground out in pragmatics eventually, why beat about the bush? Why not just say straight out that the things it's epistemically rational to believe are the things it's most useful to believe? I suppose there might be pragmatic reasons against doing this - perhaps there could be a parallel here with the thought that although utilitarianism is true the way to maximize overall utility is for us to live by rules which don't maximize utility on every particular occasion. But just as this sort of consequentialist view doesn't amount to deontology proper, I'm tempted to say that your proposal doesn't recover epistemic rationality proper.

Daniel Elstein said...

That was exactly the parallel I had in mind. Here's a way of explaining why there's a link between pragmatic reasons and epistemic reasons, but the link isn't tight enough to collapse epistemic rationality. In the cases where we want to distinguish between pragmatic reasons and epistemic reasons, the pragmatic reason only applies to particular individuals. For example, we can set up a situation where I have a pragmatic reason to believe P, but I can see that other people do not have such a reason. But in that case in seems to follow that I don't have an epistemic reason to believe P, because in order for me to have an epistemic reason not available to everyone else, my epistemic position would have to be better than theirs, and it clearly isn't if all that differentiates me from them is my special pragmatic reason. But in the Wright cases, the pragmatic reason is shared, and so is the alleged epistemic reason. So if there is some kind of constraint that differences in epistemic reasons supervene on differences in epistemic situation (evidence etc.), that would be compatible with Wright's verdicts. Such a supervenience constraint is reasonable because it allows us to distinguish evidence from other things. Whilst it is good practice to look for evidence in support of beliefs, it won't be good practice to try and get in a position where I have a pragmatic reason for believing P. It seems consistent with such a constraint to say that temporary or personal pragmatic reasons do not generate epistemic reasons, whilst universal, permanent pragmatic reasons do.

Carrie Jenkins said...

The constraint on epistemic reasons that you mention (supervenience on evidential state) might be correct, but I would want to deny that it is the only constraint. My intuition is that there's something wrong with taking pragmatic reasons to constitute or ground epistemic reasons even if those pragmatic reasons are reasons that we all share. (Even if they are practical reasons that *necessarily* we all share.)