Degree of Justification for Philosophical Views

Over at the Garden of Forking Paths, they are having a discussion about the evidence for libertarianism regarding free will. Glossing details, the concern is that without strong reason to believe in free will, our punishment practices are not warranted. The next step of the argument is to question the quality of reasons for believing in free will, and to conclude that our punishment practices are too harsh (and that free-willers are hard-hearted).

The issue itself is interesting, and the epistemology is interesting as well. I’m inclined to think that we don’t know our positive views in philosophy, so if belief in free will counts as a philosophical view, we don’t know that it’s true. (We do know negative things in philosophy, of course, such as that the JTB analysis of knowledge is subject to counterexample, and if you push me on the difference between a positive and a negative thing in philosophy, I will raise my hands and surrender.)

Even so, one might think, that says nothing about whether we are justified in believing that we have free will. There are at least two interesting epistemological issues here.

First, if the argument is telling, one might have thought it should be put in the language of knowledge, at least if one is inclined toward the Hawthorne/McGrath-Fantl view that it is knowledge that licenses practice and not just justification. I’ll let that one pass, though, since I’m not yet convinced of that point. The second point is whether, if one holds that we don’t know that we have free will, can we nonetheless be justified in believing that we do?

In one sense, of course we can. But the interesting sense is one that assesses the quality of present reasons. I’m not so much interested in assessing the free will claim itself, as the general status of positive views in philosophy. Do we really think that we are justified in believing the positions we defend, or is our honest opinion something less than that? And should we view the quality of our reasons as sufficient for knowledge in the presence of ungettiered true belief? If so, it looks as if my view would be mistaken, the view that we don’t know our positive views in philosophy. For, I suspect, some of them are true, and whatever one thinks about gettiering, it surely is not ubiquitous.

So it looks like this to me. To retain my skepticism about positive philosophy, I can’t hold that philosophical views are epistemically justified either. I can hold, of course, that they are justified in the weaker way in which lottery propositions are justified (a kind of justification insufficient for knowledge even in the presence of true, ungettiered belief). Or else I should just be less skeptical here…?


Degree of Justification for Philosophical Views — 2 Comments

  1. Of course, once you open up the metaphilosophical can of worms — well, you’ve got yourself a whole lot of things squirming around that are difficult to get ahold of.

    But here is a quick reaction: You have indicated some discomfort about the distinction between positive and negative views. But let’s suppose we have a grip on this.

    Can you really reach the sorts of negative conclusions you either draw or seem to find tempting — we do not have knowledge of or justification for positive philosophical theses — without knowing anything positive about the nature of knowledge or justification? That seems unlikely to me.

    I also think you might want to wonder about this: You are committed to the view that we can be justified in believing or even know various negative philosophical claims. What is the epistemolological explanation for this? If I know or am justified in believing that justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge, what accounts for this fact?

    I think it would be difficult to explain this without allowing that my intuitive judgments about various hypothetical situations have some fairly strong positive epistemic status. But if that is so, it is difficult to see why I could not use such intuitive judgments to justify positive philosophical views. Moreover, once one allows that intuitions regarding hypothetical cases can have some serious epistemic standing, why not think that we can have similar intuitions regarding at least some positive epistemological theses?

    One way to convince one’s self (or jolly one’s self into) this last idea is to reflect upon the content of an intuitive judgment regarding a hypothetical case. One might be inclined to think something like this: The judgment reragding the counterexample is some sort of particular proposition: Smith knows (does not know). A philosophical theory, on the other hand, will be some sort of general or universal claim. But making a judgment about the Smith of some hypothetical case is not the same thing as making a judgment about an actual person. All there is to Smith is what we are told in the example. So it seems to me more accurate to think that our judgment is to the effect that a person who has a belief with such and such features knows (does not know). (More accurately, this will presumably have to be “such and such and no other (relevant) features.” I’m unsure how much complication this introduces. particularists will of course make much of it.) And that is really just a general or universal claim. So we really already have, at least in those cases where we intuitively judge that some inhabitant of a hypothetical case knows or is justified, a positive philosophical thesis that we either intuitively know, or are justified in believing.

  2. Mike, I thought everything was OK until I got to your last paragraph, and there went my answer! I was going to say that for positive claims you have something like a universal generalization, and refuting one is easier than confirming one. But your last paragraph addresses that response, and it’s not as simple as I thought.

    I agree that some refutations involve hypothetical cases, though I’m enough of a Moorean to be willing to hold up a hand every now and then instead. But I need the more general claim relying on hypothetical cases. I think there’s still a difference between generalizations and hypothetical cases, though I’m not sure the difference is very helpful. The difference I’m thinking about here is that hypotheticals have a literary character to them, so the imagination plays a role that need not be played by a simple generalization. That makes it a bit less like a simple generalization, but maybe not enough.

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