Thursday, July 21, 2011

On positive epistemic obligations

Mark Nelson has a paper on this issue in Mind which I tried reading today, but I was waiting in Jiffy Lube and Ellen was on (not that I wanted to watch, but I can't read when a TV is on). I'll take a look at that later. Here's an argument on the general issue. (Andrew, this is for you.)

I'm interested in the issue of positive epistemic obligations in part because the following strikes me as a plausible argument against the view that the rational and the justified amount to the same thing:

1. If the rational and the justified were the same thing, then if there were only one rational option available, it would be obligatory.
2. There are situations in which it would be irrational to withhold judgment as to whether p and irrational to disbelieve p.
3. (Therefore) If the rational and the justified were the same status, you would be obligated to believe p.
4. There are no positive epistemic obligations.
C. (Therefore) the rational and the justified are distinct statuses and the former does not make for the latter.

In support of (2), think about situations in which you are in the same non-factive mental states as someone who is trying to settle the question as to whether p and then hits upon evidence they know is conclusive evidence for p. To withhold judgment or to judge that ~p in such a situation does seem irrational. Nevertheless, I think we should not say that this is a situation in which you are epistemically obligated to believe p. If so, then we have our conclusion.

What is wrong with the idea of positive epistemic obligations? First, intuitively, I just do not see what wrong you could be guilty of if you do not bother to draw conclusions from the evidence you have. If you believe p and fail to believe p’s obvious logical consequences, what of it? Not forming the obvious logical consequences of what you believe is not like not bothering to help those less fortunate than you.

Second, I have a hard time seeing any plausible account of positive epistemic obligation. If there were positive epistemic obligations, there should be some principle that identifies a condition, C, such that if your belief meets C, you ought to have that belief. Suppose that condition is truth. Since we cannot believe all the true propositions, much less all the true propositions we can grasp, we have a violation of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. The same problem arises for the view that you ought to believe all the known consequences of your evidence.

What if instead the principle said that you ought to form as many beliefs as you can that satisfy C? This still seems problematic. You have two options. You can head to the library or you can head to the laboratory. In the library it is easy to learn new truths. It takes more work to form beliefs that satisfy C in the lab, which means that the number of beliefs you could form that meets C in the library is greater than the number of beliefs you could form that meets C in the lab. Suppose further that the beliefs that you would form in the lab and the library differ in content. Now, suppose you head to the lab. The beliefs you form there constitute knowledge, but forming those beliefs means that you cannot form the beliefs you would have formed in the library. You would not satisfy the principle, but certainly you meet your epistemic obligations if all of your beliefs constitute knowledge. Discovering that p rather than learning that q and that r is not like deciding not to save the greater number.

One way of getting around the problem is to specify the obligation in such a way that it is relative to interests (or something like that). Then the principle might be something like this:

(HPO) If you're interested in whether p, you ought to believe p if your belief satisfies C.

Two problems. First, the rationality of withholding doesn't depend upon whether you're interested in settling a question. So, if this is what we're forced to, the problem that I think arises for the view that rationality just is justification doesn't go away. Second, I don't think this is a positive epistemic obligation. If there are positive epistemic obligations, shouldn't they apply to you even if you don't really care to settle questions?


Christopher Cloos said...

Might the following condition provide a way of explaining positive epistemic obligations:

(C) S has an epistemic obligation to believe that p if S is culpable for not believing that p.

Ignorance involves, in part, not-knowing that p. One way to not know that p is to fail to believe that p. There is a distinction between culpable and non-culpable ignorance. Culpable ignorance is not an excusing condition for bad actions and bad (false) beliefs. However, non-culpable ignorance is an excusing condition for such actions and beliefs. Culpable ignorance is cashed out by Rene van Woudenberg (2009, p. 377) in the following way:

(CI) S’s ignorance with respect to p at time t is culpable when (a) given S’s position at t, S should have know that p at t and (b) given S’s abilities and circumstances at t, S could have know that p at t.

This might be amiable to countering premise (4) in your argument because it doesn’t rely on an evidentialist assumption which implies that you must believe in accordance with your evidence and believe that which is entailed by your evidence, and (b) in (CI) aligns with the idea that the (OIC) principle can fail. If you cannot know what you ought to know, in light of your epistemic position, then your ignorance is not culpable.

Matthew said...

Nelson's paper is nice. When he was first presenting it the paper was an attempt to give an unified Rossian account of ethics and epistemology. I thought it was a lot of fun, but apparently reviewers weren't interested in the Ross bits. In any case, I agree with pretty much everything in your post. So I'll be interested to read what you say about Nelson's paper.


Expanded with (CI) I take C to say something like:

(C) S has an epistemic obligation to believe that p if given S’s position at t, S should have know that p at t and given S’s abilities and circumstances at t, S could have know that p at t.

To say that you have an epistemic obligation when you should have known p just begs the question. Right?

Daniel Whiting said...

A very interesting post. I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that there are no positive epistemic obligations (and, for what it's worth, have argued for something like this myself).

An alternative to (HPO) I've come across in conversation and in print (e.g. Millar's 'How Reasons for Action Differ from Reasons for Belief') is a principle along the lines of:

(CPO) If you going to have a belief as to whether p, you ought to believe that p if p.

This avoids your objections from obvious logical consequences and from ought implies can. Also, unlike (HPO), it does not present the epistemic obligation as merely hypothetical.

Is (CPO) an example of a positive epistemic obligation? Perhaps. But arguably it rests on a negative epistemic obligation. Consider:

(NO) You ought not to believe that p unless p

Suppose I am going to form a belief as to whether p. If I form the belief that p but it is not the case that p, then I have violated (NO). That is, if I am going to form a belief as to whether p, the only way to do so without violating (NO) is to believe the truth. So, there is a case to be made that (CPO) holds because (NO) holds.

Alternatively, and more tendentiously, one might say that the 'real' epistemic obligation is a negative one; the positive obligation is just a consequence of it.

I'm not sure how this bears on your opening argument...

Christopher Cloos said...

Hi Matthew…Good question. It’s possible that your circularity worry arises out of an infelicitous substitution. Your combination of (CI) and (C) makes it look like I’m claiming you have an epistemic duty to believe what you should believe, which is like saying you should believe what you should believe. I resist this characterization for the reasons below.

You imported (CI) into (C) by replacing “S’s ignorance with respect to p at time t is culpable” with “S has an epistemic obligation to believe that p.” However, these two clauses are not equivalent. The claim is not that epistemic obligation = culpable ignorance. There are cases where an epistemic obligation is present even though culpable ignorance is not. Relatedly, (C) is not a biconditional claim, and (CI) is only one way of satisfying (C), only one way of being culpable for non-belief: when you had it in your power to *not* be ignorant that p and are thereby without excuse for your non-belief. In such a case, you should have believed that p. Culpability derives from the fact that you should have known that p or could have known that p. But, culpability is not the ground of obligation. Epistemic obligation is ultimately ground in certain facts about your position, abilities and circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Hi Clayton.

You said, “Not forming the obvious logical consequences of what you believe is not like not bothering to help those less fortunate than you.”

I think this is only true in some cases.

Imagine this case. Smith lives in a county in which every fifth car driving down Main Street goes extremely fast such that if one were unable to count she would almost certainly die from being hit by a car. Smith’s parents (and others) tried to teach him to count and even warned him of the danger he might face if he didn’t learn to count. However, Smith was stubborn and decided he didn’t want to learn to count. As Smith was walking home from work one day, he noticed an elderly woman attempting to cross Main Street and in need of assistance in order to safely cross. He decided to “help” the woman cross the street. They both died that day.

It seems obvious to me that Smith should have formed the belief that he wasn’t the right person to help the woman cross Main Street (we’ll call this belief, P). And his acting out of a belief set that doesn’t include P, seems to make him culpable for her (and his) death.

I agree that claiming we should believe all true propositions, all of the known consequences of our evidence, etc. is too high a standard. But it is cases like the one I presented above that make me think (intuitively) there IS some kind of standard out there...even if we can’t give a principled account of it.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Charles Myro here,

By our Anglo-American legal tradition you may be held responsible, liable, punishable if your action leads to harm and if your action is one that-- as the legal phrase states-- any "reasonable" person would have "reasonably" concluded could lead to harm.
If the jury finds that your action produced harm and that you "reasonably" should have known it would---you may be held to account and fined or jailed.
Yes, folk differ what constitutes "reasonable", so there is no hope except you get the right judge and jury to agree with your definition of "reasonable". Thus is resolved the ambiguity in the term "reasonable"--resolved essentially by the jury's fiat.
Thus the arbitrariness, the pure caprice of our system of justice.

Anonymous said...

Hey- I know this may be random, but I'm curious about a claim your associate Alexander Pruss repeatedly makes about there being more ex-Atheists in Philosophy of Religion than Ex-Christians (I may be wrong since I cannot find the article on prosblogion). I have searched his blog for information and even did a few google searches, but I found nothing in support of the claim. He claims that if you read many biographies, it becomes obvious that this is the case. Do you know what he's talking about. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I made a mistake. It wasn't Pruss, but Trent Dougherty- and he made the comments here:

Here is one of comments, where he states his source.

"My "source" is the many intellectual biographies I've read as well as common knowledge of outspoken converts, and--given my extroverted nature--lots of personal experience.

I mean more than that, though that's a big part of it. Part of the more is that it seems insupressable, like under comunism in Russia or in China, it seems to constantly crop up in environments even where social conditions are pretty bad. It's weird the way kids raised in irreligious households seem to have spontaneous religious beliefs at a surprising rate. I'd definitely recommend the Evens book mentioned above on this. He's spent decades following this literature.

Didn't claim it was "shocking" but it seems clearly more expected on theism than atheism. So it's one item of incremental confirmation for theism. "

I was curious as to what you made of this? Thanks.

Ian said...

Hi Clayton,

Just stumbled across this post and I'm trying to get a handle on the first premise. Not sure I get it unless we're assuming that "S is justified to believe p" means S has an obligation to believe p. Are we assuming that? Why not think instead that justification to believe entails only permission to believe (which strikes me as more plausible)?

And why not the following for C: If you're attending to p, then you're obligated to believe p if p fits your evidence ?

It doesn't strike me as odd that what you're obligated to believe depends on what you've attended to. Especially if we hold that once you attend to a proposition, you're forced to either believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgment.