I’ve been thinking a bit about McDowell’s epistemological argument for the disjunctive conception of experience. One reaction I’ve come across in conversation is basically that McDowell derives an implausible claim about the nature of experience from implausible claims about perceptual knowledge and justification. It’s not a surprise that you get a crazy view out when you put strange assumptions in. While I’m not completely sold on experiential disjunctivism, I’m pretty sympathetic to some McDowellish assumptions. Thought I’d explain why, see if there is a way of defending McDowell from his critics, and (finally) bring out a flaw in his argument that I think hasn’t been discussed in the literature.
This is the sort of reasoning that McDowell thinks stinks:
If there is a cat in the corner and it looks to you as if there is, you have good reason to believe there is a cat in the corner. Indeed, you might have good enough reason to believe this. Since it can look to you as if there is a cat there even if the nearest cat is miles away, experience can provide you with a sufficiently good reason for belief even if there is no cat. The reasons provided by veridical experience give you the right to believe. The same is true for the reasons subjectively indistinguishable hallucination provide. If so, the justificatory work is done by the elements common to hallucination and perception. These elements do their justificatory work just as well in cases of perception and hallucination. After all, you have the same evidence either way.
The conditions that distinguish veridical experience from hallucination are essential to perceptual knowledge. Knowledge, he says, is a standing in the space of reasons. As he sees it, Same Reasons leads to skepticism. To avoid skepticism, he accepts:
The evidence veridical experience provides is ‘better’ than the evidence provided by subjectively indistinguishable hallucination in the sense that veridical experience provides evidence that hallucination does not (Better Reasons).
Consider as an alternative view:
If two individuals have the same evidence, the same reasons bear on their beliefs and it is impossible for two individuals to have different evidence if these individuals are non-factive mental duplicates (Mentalism).
Mentalism (so understood) would accept:
Veridical experience and subjectively indistinguishable hallucination provide you with the same evidence for your worldly beliefs (Same Reasons).
Same Reasons, McDowell would say, leads to skepticism. I think he’s right. I would go further than rejecting Same Reasons and would endorse:
Only in the case of veridical perception do you have good enough reason for your worldly beliefs. If you believe on the basis of hallucination, you cannot believe with justification. You can believe with sufficient justification if your experience is veridical (Good Enough).
Now, it is not enough to simply endorse Better Reasons and Good Enough. If you were to say that the nature of the psychological states and events by virtue of which it looks to you as if such and such is the case are the same in the case of perception and hallucination, the view leads right back to skepticism. On such a view, the qualities by virtue of which your reasons are thought to be better would be blankly external to you. For McDowell, this is verboten:
The root idea is that one’s epistemic standing … cannot intelligibly be constituted, even in part, by matters blankly external to how it is with one subjectively. For how could such matters be other than beyond one’s ken? And how could matters beyond one’s ken make any difference to one’s epistemic standing? … But the disjunctive conception of appearances shows a way to detach this “internalist” intuition from the requirement of a non-question begging demonstration. When someone has a fact made manifest to him, the obtaining of this fact contributes to his epistemic standing on the question. But the obtaining of the fact is precisely not blankly external to his subjectivity, as it would be if the truth about that were exhausted by the highest common factor.
To reject the skeptical view, you have to endorse:
An appearance can either be a mere appearance, as with hallucination, or a fact made perceptually manifest. The nature of the psychological states and events by virtue of it looks to you as if p depends upon whether you are hallucinating or your experience is veridical (Disjunctivism).
We can summarize McDowell’s epistemological argument for Disjunctivism as follows. Given the internalist intuition that epistemic standing cannot be constituted by factors blankly external to you or beyond your ken, Same Reasons leads to skepticism. Knowledge is an epistemic standing. Same Reasons says that the conditions essential to this standing are blankly external to you in the case of veridical experience. If you endorse Better Reasons but deny Disjunctivism, you do not avoid the skeptical consequences of Same Reasons because your view commits you to saying that the conditions essential to knowledge are beyond your ken even in cases of veridical experience. The only alternative to skepticism is a view that combines Better Reasons with Disjunctivism. So, on the plausible assumption that we have perceptual knowledge, we have to reject the traditional conception of experience.
I think there’s a quick and compelling argument for Better Reasons.
(1) I know non-inferentially that I have hands.
(2) If I know I have hands non-inferentially, I believe that I have hands, this belief is non-inferentially justified, and this belief is true.
(3) If I believe that I have hands, this belief is non-inferentially justified, and this belief is true, then my evidence includes the proposition that I have hands.
(4) My evidence includes the proposition that I have hands.
(5) My evidence includes the proposition that I have hands only if I have hands.
(C) Thus, it is possible for two individuals to differ evidentially without differing mentally–the proposition that I have hands is not evidence that my handless mental duplicates have.
The argument rests on these assumptions:
(i) If you know p non-inferentially, p is part of your evidence.
(ii) p is part of your evidence only if p is true.
(iii) The scope of non-inferential knowledge is broad enough that we can know non-inferentially those propositions we come to believe by taking experience at face value.
Combined, we know things our deceived counterparts do not. I’ve defending (ii) elsewhere. I think (iii) is pretty plausible, if you think that perceptual experience provides us with knowledge we could not gain from introspection alone. As for (i), you can find support for that in the thought that your evidence will include those reasons you can treat as reasons and rely on without needing independent and antecedent reasons. What you know non-inferentially will play that role. With the case for Better Reasons before us, we can now see why McDowell is right that Same Reasons leads to skepticism. To assert that Same Reasons is true, you either need to say that we cannot have non-inferential knowledge of the external world (and that’s close to saying that we cannot have perceptual knowledge) or say that you can know something non-inferentially without what you know being part of your evidence. Since what you can treat as a reason without needing independent/antecedent justification looks evidence, I’ll wait to see what others say evidence has to be before elaborating.
On one horn you have someone like Conee who thinks that Better Reasons could not be true, not even if Disjunctivism is true. On the other, you have McDowell. Better Reasons, if true, requires Disjunctivism. Let’s start with Conee’s objection.
In explaining how it is possible to have the kind of knowledge the skeptic denies we could have, McDowell rejects Same Reasons and argues that Disjunctivism is needed to explain Better Reasons. Nothing could be a reason that contributes to the justificatory standing of your belief unless that reason is part of your basis for believing. For reasons we have touched on, having such a reason requires having a kind of unmediated, unbroken mental contact with the facts you come to know via perceptual experience. Conee objects to this on the grounds that Disjunctivism could not explain Better Reasons because such an explanation would run afoul of the following principle:
A subject’s justification for a belief is not stronger than a second subject’s justification for the same belief, if their respective justifications are prone to being equally well defeated by the same defeaters (Defeat).
If Defeat says that two reasons defeated by the same defeater cannot differ in strength, the principle is not very plausible. A full house is stronger than a pair even if four aces would beat both hands. On a more charitable reading, Defeat says that the justification provided by two conscious experiences is equally strong if these justifications are liable to defeat by all the same defeaters. This is more plausible, but still hardly self-evident.
He thinks veridical perceptual experience and subjectively indistinguishable hallucination are equally well defeated by the same defeaters because they are subjectively indistinguishable. If his objection is sound, it shows that if two conscious experiences are indistinguishable, the reasons they provide for your beliefs are equally strong and these experiences will justify the same beliefs to the same degree. Consider two theses about indiscriminability and justification:
Transitivity-i: (x)(y)(z)[(Ixy &, Iyz) –> Ixz)].
Transitivity-j: (x)(y)(z)[(Jxy & Jyz)–> Jxz)].
According to Transitivity-i, a and c must be indiscriminable or indistinguishable for you if you cannot distinguish a from b and cannot distinguish b from c. According to Transitivity-j, if a and b justify the same (i.e., justify the same beliefs to the same degree) and b and c justify the same, a and c must justify the same as well. Arguably, Transitivity-i is false. Suppose a, b, and c are perceptual experiences you have while looking at three different paint chips in good viewing conditions. It seems possible for a and b to be indiscriminable, b and c to be indiscriminable, even if you can discriminate a from c. If these chips differ only slightly, you might be unable to distinguish the first from the second and the second from the third even if you can discriminate the first from the third by sight. What goes for the chips goes for the perceptual experiences of the chips. Although it seems that Transitivity-i is false, Transitivity-j is true. For Transitivity-j to be false, there would have to be some proposition, p, such that the degrees to which a and c justified belief in p differed even though both a and c justified belief in p to the same degree that b does. This is impossible.
With this in mind, I shall argue that Conee cannot use Defeat to show that Disjunctivism cannot explain Better Reasons. His objection assumes:
(1) (x)(y)(Ixy –> Jxy).
Let me introduce a further assumption:
(2) (x)(y)(~Ixy–> ~Jxy).
The justification for (2) is that in discriminating between two things, you can know that these two things are distinct. If you can discriminate between a and c, you will have stronger reasons for believing that you are undergoing a while undergoing a than you will have for believing that you are undergoing some experience you can knowingly discriminate from a (e.g., c).
If Transitivity-i is false, we can coherently suppose that a is indiscriminable from b, b is indiscriminable from c, but you can discriminate between a and c. (1) entails that a and b justify the same beliefs to the same degree. It also entails that b and c justify the same beliefs to the same degree. It follows by Transitivity-j that a and c justify the same beliefs to the same degree. But, if (2) is correct, this contradicts the further assumption that a and c are experiences that you can discriminate between. The most obvious way to avoid this contradiction is to deny (1). If (1) is false, Conee’s Defeat principle is no threat to Better Reasons. His objection was that McDowell’s view implied that it is possible for indistinguishable states to provide different reasons for belief, reasons that differed in strength. His objection assumed that indistinguishable states can be defeated by precisely the same considerations and that states that can be defeated by precisely the same considerations cannot offer reasons that differ in strength. We know now that these assumptions cannot both be correct. Either the reasons provided by two indistinguishable states are not defeated by the very same considerations or the reasons provided by two states can be defeated by the same considerations even if these states provide different reasons.
Nothing in the arguments for Better Reasons told us anything about the nature of perceptual experience. If the traditional view of experience is left in place, all is lost. Why is that? Remember that McDowell wanted to hold onto the internalist thought that your epistemic standing cannot be constituted even partially by matters blankly external to you. Why not? Because, he says, such matters are beyond your ken and what is beyond your ken cannot make any difference to your epistemic standing.
If I understand the reasoning right, it goes something like this:
(1) If q is blankly external to your subjectivity, q is beyond your ken.
(2) If q is beyond your ken, q cannot make a difference to your epistemic standing.
(3) Thus, if q is blankly external to your subjectivity, q cannot make a difference to your epistemic standing.
What does it actually mean to say that something is blankly external to your subjectivity? One interpretation that seems plausible is given by van Cleve–q is blankly external to your subjectivity iff a complete description of your psychological states neither entails q nor ~q. What does it mean to say that q is beyond your ken? Whatever it means, we know that McDowell’s conclusion is that whether you know something cannot depend upon q if q is beyond your ken. And, so, let us say that if q is beyond your ken, you are not in a position to know q non-inferentially. If, however, you are in a position to know q non-inferentially, q is not beyond your ken.
We can now restate the argument as follows:
(4) If a full description of your psychological states entails neither q nor \simq, you cannot know whether q know non-inferentially.
(5) If you cannot know whether q non-inferentially, q cannot make a difference to the justificatory status of your beliefs.
(6) Thus, if a full description of your psychological states entails neither q nor \simq, q cannot make a difference to the justificatory status of your beliefs.
Does this compel us to accept Disjunctivism?
McDowell is probably right that if something is beyond your ken, it cannot confer any epistemic benefit upon you. However, I think it is a mistake to say that your epistemic standing cannot be determined, in part, by features that are beyond your ken. In fact, McDowell should say as much. On his view, there can be matters beyond your ken that can partially determine the justificatory standing of your beliefs–that you are in the bad case, for example, is not blankly external to your subjectivity but it is, nevertheless, something that partially determines your epistemic standing. It does if Disjunctivism is true and either Better Reasons or Good Enough is true. Better Reasons and Good Enough say that there is a justificatory difference between the good and bad cases and Disjunctivism says that this corresponds to a difference in the psychological states and events by virtue of which it looks to you the way it does in these cases. Thus, we should restate (5) and (6) as follows:
(5′) If you cannot know whether q non-inferentially, q cannot make a difference to the justificatory status of your beliefs by conferring any sort of epistemic benefit upon you.
(6′) If a full description of your psychological states entails neither q nor ~q cannot make a difference to the justificatory status of your beliefs by conferring any sort of epistemic benefit upon you.
With this fix in place, we have our argument for Disjunctivism.
McDowell is right to deny that something inaccessible to you can confer upon you an epistemic benefit. Consider some examples. Suppose someone does something there is reason not to do. Suppose that there happens also to be reason to do it. Bernie shoots a kid carrying a weapon (that is something there is a pro tanto reason not to do), but doesn’t know that the kid is carrying a weapon. Maybe the kid was going to use that weapon to attack a bunch of people (perhaps that’s a pro tanto reason to shoot the kid). Since this has nothing to do with Bernie’s reasons for shooting, it is hard to see how facts about what the kid was carrying and what the kid planned to do with his weapon could be cited to justify his deeds. Even if Bernie were made aware of the kid’s weapon, if Bernie is shooting the kid just because he hates kids it is hard to see how these facts could justify his conduct. To justifiably act against a reason, it seems that it is not enough that there is overriding reason that happens to be out there somewhere. It seems that this reason to act has to be the reason for which the subject acts if that reason is going to be the reason in virtue of which some other agent’s deeds are going to have a moral standing superior to the standing of Bernie’s deeds. The reasons that count in favor of acting seem to contribute positively to moral standing only if they play some motivational role. They cannot play that motivational role, however, if they are beyond the subject’s ken. Indeed, one argument for the claim that considerations beyond your ken cannot confer any justification is predicated on the assumption that considerations can only justify when they play some motivational role. If Bernie’s reasons for shooting were not the reasons for which he shot, those reasons seem to do nothing to justify his action even if he is aware of them but is motivated instead wholly by malice. We do not need practical examples to make the point. One lesson you might take from BonJour’s clairvoyant examples is precisely that considerations that are inaccessible to you cannot be reasons that justify forming beliefs.
This much seems right. It seems to be the sort of thing that might lead McDowell to say that there is something a subject in the good case is cognizant of that explains why a subject in this case ends up with beliefs better justified than beliefs formed in the bad case. The reasons that count against acting, however, can contribute negatively to the normative standing of an action without playing any motivational role. Moreover, the reasons that count against acting can contribute to normative standing of an action even if the agent is non-culpably ignorant of them. Think about cases where someone is imprisoned for a crime that we later discover that they did not commit. In the wake of this discovery, we discover that we have a duty of reparation and must compensate the victim. Such reparative duties are, however, not mere duties of beneficence. Such reparative duties should leave the victim better off than they were, but unlike duties of beneficence the duty is one that arises between the victim and the subject(s) that harmed the victim. These duties can exist when the parties responsible for imprisoning the victim were non-culpably ignorant of the fact that the accused was innocent. (Just think about cases where reliable eyewitnesses came forward to suggest that the victim was guilty and it was only later developments in forensic science that exonerated the person imprisoned.) These duties only exist when the agent acted against some genuine reason that contributed negatively to the normative standing of the original act. (Otherwise, helping the wrongly accused would not be a response to some past wrong and would be a mere duty of beneficence.) If this is right, the act of putting the innocent victim away and forcing them to suffer the hardships of prison was wrongful and wrongful for reasons that all relevant parties could have been non-culpably ignorant of.
Examples like these suggest that there is an important asymmetry between reasons for belief or action and reasons against. Even if reasons for believing or acting cannot contribute to normative standing unless the subject is cognizant of them, reasons against can contribute negatively to normative standing when the subject is not cognizant of them. (This line of thought is something I owe to John Gardner who might not be thrilled that I’m crediting/blaming him for the fact that I have thoughts like this.) McDowell himself seems to concede this much if he accepts Better Reasons and accepts that subjects in the bad case are in no position to realize that their reasons are defective. Since comparative normative standing is a function of both the reasons for and reasons against, there is a serious lacuna in McDowell’s argument for Disjunctivism. Why? Well, suppose there are reasons not to believe p on the basis of how things look when its looking as if p is due to hallucination. It could be that beliefs in the good case are comparatively better off even if there is not something internal to the subject’s experience that is distinctive of the good case. The disparity is due entirely to reasons not to believe that are present only in the bad case that make beliefs formed in that case defective.
Notice that there is a way of accomodating the internalist point about reasons to believe. None justify if they are beyond your ken. However, if he must concede that reasons not to believe can do their work by making it wrongful to believe even if they are beyond the subject’s ken, we can explain the difference in epistemic standing between the good case and bad in terms of this difference in the reasons not to believe. We could say, if we wanted, that there were the same reasons to believe in these cases. Thus, it seems that the right to believe does not depend upon the possession of reasons that entail that the belief in question is true. One might have such reasons on hand, say, in the case of non-inferentially justified belief, but there is no necessary connection between rightly held belief and entailing evidence.
Why does this matter? Because maybe we do not need factive reasons. Even if we are rather radical externalists.