Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Feldman and Conee's article "Evidentialism" tries to defend the view that epistemic justification for a belief is determined by the quality of the believer's evidence for the belief. They sum this up in a principle EJ:
Doxastic attitude D towards proposition p is epistemically justified for S at t iff having D toward p fits the evidence S has at t.

There's a couple of things about this article that I want to mention. First, the view seems pretty normative. Justification seems like a thoroughly normative notion, whether it is of the epistemic flavor or not. Feldman and Conee say that their view doesn't conflict with Goldman's view (in regards to people believing logical consequences of their justified beliefs) because "EJ does not instruct anyone to believe anything. It simply states a necessary and sufficient condition for epistemic justification." There's a sense in which I agree. EJ doesn't instruct anyone to believe; agents can disbelieve, reserve judgment, whole-heartedly endorse, etc. This isn't what they mean I guess. I take it they mean that it doesn't recommend any doxastic attitude. But, surely this is false. It seems reasonable to assume there are only a finite number of doxastic attitudes one can have. Some of these, say the subset JB, will be justified with regards to p and the evidence at one's disposal at t. Surely EJ recommends adopting one of those attitudes in JB as they are the justified ones whereas the ones not in JB are not justified.

That is in section II. In section III they make the claim: "Having acknowledged at the beginning of this section that justified attitudes are in a sense obligatory, we wish to forestall confusions involving other notions of obligation." Whoa. That makes my interpretation of them from the preceding paragraph look bad. I don't see how this meshes with their previous claim though. They say that there may be non-epistemic obligations that one encounters in forming beliefs, but these seem besides the point. There may be a point I'm missing (it might be the narrow reading of "belief" I discounted above), but it looks like they are asserting contradictory things.

One final observation, they say at the end of section III: "But it is a mistake to think that what is epistemically obligatory, i.e., epistemically justified, is also morally or prudentially obligatory, or that it has the overall best epistemic consequences." This once again asserts the normative nature of their account. But, I want to focus on the last bit of that. They say that epistemic obligation doesn't have the overall best epistemic consequences. Does this mean that it doesn't ensure true beliefs? Fair enough. What are the overall best epistemic consequences then? They don't mention knowledge in the article, so it is doubtful that is what is at issue. They can't be talking about justification, cause that wouldn't make sense. Really, this claim strikes me as weird and based on odd reasoning. It is based on a weakly supported inference from an idea from James's Will to Believe. If you believe God exists even though you aren't justified in that belief, there may be epistemically good consequences. From this they draw the inference that EJ might not promote the epistemically best consequences. If it doesn't why adopt it? Their inference is far too hasty and does some work to undermining their point in the article.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Rereading the paper in light of this post, I'm quite impressed by how poor of a job the paper does of making clear what it's saying on this issue. That said, I'm not sure they're contradicting themselves. The best way to read what they're saying is that yes, justification is a normative notion, and it tells you something about what to believe. There is a real epistemic obligation to believe mostly those things which your evidence justifies you in believing. But to get from that particular epistemic obligation to a norm which will instruct people to believe something, you have to factor in the other obligations that they're subject to. So perhaps one elaborates Goldman's point into the principle that a person can only be obligated to believe things that they're capable of believing. Then EJ (or any evidentialist principle) on its own is incapable of implying even a single sentence of the form "S should believe p."