Saturday, March 8, 2008

Belief's aim and its justification

Suppose you think reasons are objective matters of fact rather than psychological states of an agent. I'm thinking of guiding or justificatory reasons here. If what I say turns out to be true of motivating or explanatory reasons, I'd be surprised. I'm not not open to surprises, however. If you think of reasons as considerations that favor an action you will probably be sympathetic to this sort of view. Lots of people think that that's what reasons are, so I suspect lots of people will be sympathetic.

I'm of the view that belief aims at the truth, but I'm not sure that this is something we ought to take as basic. If an explanation can be given, perhaps this will suffice. The aim, purpose, or function of belief is to provide the agent with reasons for the purpose of practical and theoretical deliberation. Of course, we're talking about guiding or justificatory reasons. Any false belief will pass off a non-reason as a reason. Any false belief will fail in its aim, function, purpose, etc... So, any false belief will fail to fulfill its aim. Extensionally, as it were, the claim that all beliefs aim at the truth is correct. The fact that beliefs all aim at the truth, however, is not a brute fact.

Think about the belief's justification. There's justification for doing things or believing things that we have reason not to do or believe--sometimes. There is when there is a stronger reason to the contrary that defeats the reason(s) against. As there's no aim, function, or purpose of belief that gives us reasons that override the reasons to refrain from holding those beliefs that will pass off non-reasons as reasons, it seems there cannot be justification for adopting, holding, or deliberating from the false beliefs. If a belief cannot be justified when there is a reason not to hold it and no accompanying overriding justification that defeats this reason, there are no false beliefs that are also justified. The justification would have to involve an overriding normative or guiding reason that defeats treating a non-reason as a reason for the purposes of theoretical or practical deliberation. I don't think anyone actually believes in such things. I've never met someone who has.

In short, here's the argument. Every false belief passes off a non-reason as a reason. Beliefs are supposed to provide us with reasons, not non-reasons, for the purpose of deliberation. There could be a justification for this only if there were overriding reasons for treating non-reasons as reasons. There aren't. There is not sufficient justification for adopting, holding, or deliberating from a false belief or a belief that passes non-reasons off as reasons. Doxastic justification is factive.


John Turri said...

Hey Clayton,

Just curious: aren't the objective facts, which true beliefs provide us with, both reasons and non-reasons?

A fact that is a reason to adopt one course of action might be a non-reason to adopt a different course of action.

In any case, I think there's room for clarification and development in this area.

Clayton said...

Good question.

I thought that this sort of wrinkle would come up (although I hadn't anticipated its coming up in the first twenty minutes...).

Here's what I'd say to that. If we think of reasons as favorers, any fact that favors something or other is a reason for something or other. It won't be a non-reason, then, although it could fail to be a reason for something in particular. So, the fact that there's a piece of blue lint under my couch is a reason provided that there's some action or attitude favored by that fact. One might be refraining from betting my life on there not being any lint under the couch. It's not a reason for believing that Truman's presidency was a failure, but it's not for that a non-reason. If, however, X is such that it could not be a reason for anything, X is a non-reason.

If there are arguments that, say, states cannot be reasons than all states will be non-reasons.

John Turri said...

Won't psychological states end up being reasons, then, too?

Take my belief that Obama will win the Mississippi primary. This psychological state favors, say, my believing that I believe that Obama will win the Mississippi primary. That'll remain true even if it's false that Obama will win the Mississippi primary. So even false beliefs will count as reasons!

Maybe it's not the psychological state itself, but the fact that I'm in the state, which "provides" the reason. Could be, but it's hard to see how, on the present view, reasons wouldn't also include subjective and psychological stuff, too.

Clayton said...

Sure, facts about psychological states can be reasons. Then we have to ask what they can be reasons for, how they relate to other reasons, etc... I've never (so far as I know) been opposed to saying that facts about us can be among the reasons there are and among the reasons that go towards determining what we should do, believe, etc...

The reason that it's not a big deal that false beliefs count as reasons is that the reason they contribute is _not_ the reason they purport to contribute. When you believe p, that belief passes p off as a reason when it's no such thing. The belief that you believe p, however, will pass off the fact that you believe p as a reason. And, that _is_ is a reason for something. It's just not a reason for the same things that p is a reason for.

John Turri said...

I guess you'll want to adjust this, then:

There is not sufficient justification for adopting, holding, or deliberating from a false belief or a belief that passes non-reasons off as reasons.

I'm also a little bit hazy on the notion of a belief passing off its content as a reason. What does that amount to? (My hunch is that it'll have to involve more of the surrounding psychology than just the belief itself.)