Enablers and Conferrers

I was talking with Matt McGrath yesterday about the following problem. If we consider ordinary epistemic principles such as “if you’re appeared to F-ly, without grounds for doubt, then it is reasonable to believe that something is F,” we can distinguish conferrers of justification (in this case, being appeared to F-ly) from enablers (in this case, lacking grounds for doubt). (The question is important especially regarding memorial beliefs which are dispositional and regarding which one no longer possesses the original evidence for the beliefs. It looks like about all that such beliefs having going for them, if one insists that justification must depend on present factors, is the idea that one has no reason to abandon them.)

Here’s one idea, though I think Matt was ultimately not satisfied with it.

Conferrers obey a principle connecting the state of being justified with the practice of justifying a belief. A conferrer of justification is an item one could legitimately cite in defense of a belief. The lack of grounds for doubt can’t be so cited, so it’s not a conferrer of justification.

One problem that worried Matt, and he’s right about this, is the question of how complete a cited defense might be. So if asked, relative to the above principle, one might say, “I’m appeared to F-ly”. But one might also say, “I’m appeared to F-ly and have no reason to doubt that my appearances are accurate in this case.” Both answers are acceptable, and hence the latter conjunction would have to count as a conferrer as well.

This possibility would be a problem if, whenever A&B is a conferrer of justification on p, then so is A and so is B. But that problem can be resolved just by denying &-Elim in this context.

Here’s a different and deeper worry, however. If asked about continuing to believe the kind of memorial belief mentioned in the first paragraph, one likely response would be that you have no reason to abandon the belief. We often defend our actions this way (“because I always eat oatmeal for breakfast”), and it is hard to see why such a defense isn’t legitimate. It can, of course, be challenged, but so can the defense in terms of appearances (“you say you believe something is F because your appeared to F-ly, but that’s a lousy reason unless you supplement it with something else, such as a principle of self-trust”).


Enablers and Conferrers — 11 Comments

  1. Here’s another idea, which looks more attractive to me.

    Conferrers obey a principle connecting what justifies your belief (in the sense of conferring justification on it) with what the belief can properly be BASED or GROUNDED on. That is, conferrers but not enablers are what we’d expect to constitute your REASON FOR believing P.

    Well, OK, things are probably not THAT simple. For your belief to be properly grounded, it’s probably got to be based not just on SOMETHING that confers justification on it, but rather EVERYTHING that does so. Or better: for your belief in P to degree d to be properly grounded, it’s got to be based on some considerations/facts/evidence/whatever that, taken together, confer justification to degree d on P. We might also require that those considerations/whatever not be undermined by any further considerations/whatever that you’re not taking account of.

    For your belief to be properly grounded, I’d ALSO want to require that you be _prepared_ to take account of underminers, absent enablers, and so on. When everything’s pretty, you don’t have to BASE your belief in P ON a belief (nor on the fact that) that there are no underminers, or on a belief (or the fact that) all the enablers are in place, or anything like that. But if you believe P too pig-headedly, that is, you aren’t prepared to back off in the face of undermining evidence, or evidence that the enablers are absent, or what have you, I hesitate to regard your belief in P as properly grounded.

    So I’d say proper grounding has two components: a “taking” component—what do you “take” as a reason to believe P?—and a dispositional component—are you prepared to respond appropriately when things start to look uglier?

    It’s the “taking” component that I think is distinctively tied to conferrers, and not to enablers.

    What do other CDers think?

  2. As far as “what you can legitimately cite” I’m not sure I see why enablers can’t be cited, at least in some situations. Suppose (would that it were true) that only the worst 10% of the job seekers at the Eastern Division meeting will not get jobs, and this is common knowledge – knowledge which I have every reason to believe you possess. I don’t know anything about where I stand, but I say: “I’m going to get a job this year!” You, eternal pessimist, challenge me. “Why think that?,” you scoff. My reply: “I have no reason to think that I’m in the bottom 10%”

    That conversation seems reasonable enough to me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my belief isn’t based on a belief that 90% of job seekers get jobs, but when it comes to “what you can legitimately cite” isn’t it all going to depend on context?

    Am I right in thinking that the fact that my memorial beliefs are justified (at present) by nothing but a lack of defeaters is a “worry” only if you are commited to:

    (Principle) A belief is justified only if it is justified in virtue of being based/grounded on some reasons or evidence.

    I’d be inclined to take this fact about memory as a reason to reject the principle … (it also seems to me that beliefs like ‘Nature will remain uniform’ are justified only by a lack of defeating evidence … i.e. the enablers are doing all the work, i.e. all you have to do to be justified is be prepared to change your mind in light of new evidence.)

  3. Jim, I like your ideas here very much. I especially am attracted to the idea of an implicit theory of evidence encoded in the idea of what you take as a reason for belief. I don’t quite see, however, how it helps with the case of dispositional belief where you no longer have the evidence which originally prompted the belief. Unless you think that what justifies you in *presently* believing the claim is what justified it at some prior point in the past.

    There’s some pressure against this last idea, I think, unless the following is true: in the absence of acquiring new information that undermines justification, it is impossible for justification to be lost. I’m inclined to think that this position is shown false by the ordinary phenomenon of the graceful degradation of our cognitive equipment: we’ll get old(er) and perhaps end up senile with fragments of cognition left for which we’ve lost justification without ever having had these remnants of our former cognitive selves undermined by further information. From my own perspective, this point argues in favor of some coherentist aspect to justification.

  4. Hi, Allan, I certainly agree about the first point here. That is what the memory example shows as well, I think: my inclination is to answer, “I have no reason to give it up.” And if you press, I’ll say that I assume that I formed it responsibly in the first place, though I’m not sure that this assumption is a belief of mine (that’s what my earlier post on assumptions touched on), and so I’m not sure it is evidence that I was in a position to be using as a basis for belief (prior to being asked).

    You’re right that the worry here is one that is especially troubling for evidentialists. The one point I have a question about, and this is relevant to Jim’s emphasis on dispositions as well, is what case there is for the idea that having such a disposition is an enabler of justification at all. First, I’m not sure that thorough dogmatists lack justification when their attitudes line up with their evidence (and are based appropriately). But suppose we let that issue pass, and assume that this isn’t so. Any intuition that we should require some disposition of openness would seem to me to succumb to the following problem. Take two individuals S and S’. S has the disposition in question, so passes the test for justification. S’ does not, but has a different disposition: the disposition to acquire the disposition S possesses in the circumstances where contrary evidence comes to light. I see no reason to think that S’ lacks justification.

  5. “”I’m going to get a job this year!” You, eternal pessimist, challenge me. “Why think that?,” you scoff. My reply: “I have no reason to think that I’m in the bottom 10%” That conversation seems reasonable enough to me”

    Why does that seem reasonable? In the absence of other information (maybe this is supposed to be implicit) this is consistent with you having deliberately avoided every reasonable way of having discovered that you are in the bottom 10%.

    But then suppose you have sought information that you are in the bottom 10% and not found it. In that case the conversation seems reasonable. But in that case you have (it seems) something more than an enabler. It’s not that you have not observed that you are in the bottom 10%, but that you have observed that you are not in the bottom 10%.

  6. Mike, that first point seems right, so the case needs a caveat; let it be this: I have not been engaging in any of that kind of avoidance behavior (i.e. I am normal in every way not specified). But I don’t think you’d need to have sought evidence or reasons (in the way you describe) to be justified … maybe the 10% should be 5% …

    John (if I may) – is there a difference between being disposed to X in circumstance Y and being disposed to gain a disposition to X in circumstance Y? Isn’t the latter just a (weird sort of) disposition to X in circumstance Y? (Is the concern that the disposition must be psychologically real?)

  7. Allan, yes, I think there is a difference. The second is like the finkish dispositions that C.B. Martin introduced and David Lewis discusses. Finkish dispositions are ones that are lost under the very conditions that realize them. Here, the opposite occurs: the disposition is created by the very conditions that realize it. Both kinds of disposition create obvious problems for any counterfactual attempt to analyze the notion.

  8. A couple of suggestions:

    (1) Perhaps the confer/enable distinction has to do with positive versus negative conditions: We are more apt to consider a negative condition a mere enabler. Witness examples such as your lacking reason to doubt that P, versus your having a q-memory that P.

    However, this is probably not right; it’s not absurd to propose a positive condition — e.g., your having a disposition to reconsider P in light of contrary evidence — as a (mere) enabler.

    (2) Perhaps the distinction depends on what we regard as normal conditions: A conferrer of justification on P makes P likely to be true, in otherwise normal conditions. But in normal conditions, an enabler does not do so. E.g., my merely lacking grounds for doubting the reliability of my sense perception does not make it probable that there is a table in front of me, in normal conditions. But my having a sensory experience of a table does.

    (3) About the memory issue: My view is that one needs justification for a proposition when one acquires belief in it. After that point, one needs only justification for retaining it, which is much cheaper than justification for acquiring a belief. In essence, I think one has justification for retaining as long as one has no reason for changing one’s mind. So I think memory beliefs don’t require a current conferrer of justification. (I had a paper on this in Pac Phil Quarterly 1999.)

  9. Mike, sounds exactly right about the positive/negative proposal. And I’m becoming more convinced that your view about retaining beliefs is the only way to go.

    On the normal conditions proposal, I wonder if it will work. If likelihood here is contingent, I think it won’t. I expect there are worlds where lacking grounds for doubting that sense perception is reliable makes it likely that sense perception is reliable, but I still wouldn’t want to count the lack of grounds for doubt as a conferrer. Not that it couldn’t be a conferrer, but just that it isn’t simply in virtue of the likelihood in question. I would say the same, I think, about cases in which belief itself makes it more likely that the belief is true. Until we discover this fact, the mere likelihood of truth doesn’t make the belief more justified.

    We could fix this, perhaps, with a more “accessible” notion of likelihood, so that it amounts to something like an intelligible increase. I don’t really know what such a notion would be like, though…

  10. Yeah, we probably want subjective, epistemic, or logical probability — certainly not physical probability. You said:

    I expect there are worlds where lacking grounds for doubting that sense perception is reliable makes it likely that sense perception is reliable, but I still wouldn’t want to count the lack of grounds for doubt as a conferrer.

    If you’re thinking of a conferrer of J for a particular claim about the external world, this would have to be a very strange scenario. As I was understanding it, what you need is
    a) Some default, normal background level of probability of A.
    b) When the conferrer obtains, and conditions are otherwise normal, the probability of A is greater than the default.

    So, in order for your lacking grounds for doubting that perception is reliable to count as a conferrer on my criterion, you need a case in which the default level of probability is less than the probability conditional on “I lack grounds for doubting, etc.” I think that requires a scenario in which the default, normal situation is one of your having grounds for doubt, etc. So we’re to imagine a case in which you normally have grounds for doubting the reliability of perception, but sometimes you don’t, and on those occasions, a particular claim about the external world is likely to be true.

    I could imagine such a case: say I have a background justified belief (like Neo) that I live in the Matrix, so I ‘normally’ have grounds for doubting the reliability of my perception. However, sometimes I unplug from the Matrix, at which point I lose my general grounds for doubting the reliability of sense perception. I then am justified in believing certain specific claims about the external world, e.g., “my head is not now connected to one of those jacks to the matrix.”

    I guess that convinces me that your sort of example is possible. I don’t feel like calling my lack of grounds for doubt in that case a conferrer of J. Maybe we should here appeal, as a supplemental account, to the fact that the lack of grounds, etc., isn’t a mental state of mine. And if you switch to considering an actual mental state, e.g., my belief that I lack grounds for doubt, etc., then I’m not sure that that isn’t a conferrer of justification.

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