Fumerton on Doxastic Justification and the Role of Epistemologists

In his Epistemology, Fumerton argues that propositional justification is more central to (applied) epistemology than is doxastic justification.  Here is one of his arguments:

There is another reason that epistemologists interested in applied epistemology are probably well advised to focus on what there is [propositional] justification for people to believe rather than which beliefs are actually [doxastically] justified.  If it is true that S’s belief is [doxastically] justified only if it is based on good reasons, and it is also true that basing is to be understood, even partially, in terms of causation, then it is not clear that philosophers, in their capacity as philosophers, are particularly well equipped to answer questions concerning which beliefs are [doxastically] justified.  The causes of a belief are a more appropriate subject for the psychologist.  Freud spent a great deal of time wondering what causes a belief in a God or in an afterlife.  The epistemologist, qua epistemologist, should find such speculation utterly uninteresting.  Whatever causes such beliefs, the epistemologist’s concern is with the question of whether we possess good reasons for believing the propositions in question.  To answer that question we need not concern ourselves with what is actually causing our beliefs. (36-7)

I worry that this argument shows too much.  If it shows that epistemologists, qua epistemologists, shouldn’t be interested in what we are doxastically justified in believing, then a parallel line of reasoning shows that epistemologists, qua epistemologists, shouldn’t be interested in what we have propositional justification or good reasons for believing.  Here is the parallel argument:

Whether we have certain reasons to believe P largely depends on what beliefs or experiences we have.  But whether we have certain beliefs and experiences is the sort of question that epistemologists, qua epistemologists, are not suited to answer.  If you wanna know the answer to that question, go talk to our friends the psychologists and cognitive scientists.

The parallel certainly isn’t perfect, but it seems close enough to cast doubt on Fumerton’s argument. (The parallel is stronger if we assume (i) that one can be mistaken about which beliefs and experiences one has and (ii) that brain scans and/or psychological evaluation can provide information about what experiences or beliefs one is having.  Fumerton seems to endorse at least (i).)


Fumerton on Doxastic Justification and the Role of Epistemologists — 6 Comments

  1. I’m with Fumerton on this issue. If one one takes epistemology to be an enterprise which can be conducted from the armchair, then if the causes of our beliefs cannot be determined from the armchair, the epistemologist qua epistemologist can tender no justified verdict regarding doxastic justification.

    (I suppose I think that some beliefs are such that either we can determine their causes from the armchair (consider my belief that I am now in pain) or our immediate grasp of their being doxastically justified is sufficient to refute an entirely general causal account of doxastic justification.)

    Your parallel argument breaks down if one thinks that the mental states relevant to propositional justification are armchair accessible (even if fallibly).

    How does that sound?

  2. Hey Joel,

    I’m thinking that I have armchair access to both what I’m believing/experiencing and to what causes my beliefs. I know that I am typing. I also know that this belief is caused, in part, by the current experience that I am having of my fingers hitting the keys.

    I think it is plausible that I have better armchair access to my beliefs and experiences, but this is only a matter of degree. I have armchair access to both my beliefs and what causes them.

  3. I’m thinking about issues in epistemology as that of the epistemic closure principle. When the epistemologist is asking if justification is closed under entailment (let alone the case in which the agent doesn’t see the relevant implication), he is talking about propositional or doxastic justification? Assuming one or another doesn’t change the answer to the question of whether justification is closed under entailment?

  4. Hey Luis,

    The issue of whether justification is closed under entailment is best thought of as an issue concerning propositional justification. To see why, we need to make explicit a key difference between doxastic justification (DJ) and propositional justification (PJ). For some evidence E to provide S with DJ for S’s belief in P, it must be the case that:
    1) S believes P.
    E can provide S with PJ for P even if neither 1 isn’t true. So DJ is more demanding than PJ.

    If we focus on DJ, it seems clear that justification is *not* closed under entailment. I don’t believe everything that is entailed by my beliefs. I’ve known the following claim for the last 30 minutes or so:
    A) I am typing on a computer.
    According to the rules of logic, A entails:
    B) I am typing on a computer or my flat is haunted by Slimer.
    Until I thought B about 1 minute ago, I didn’t even believe it. And according to what we said above, doxastic justification requires belief. So for a while I had DJ for A but didn’t have DJ for B, even though A entails B. So DJ isn’t closed under entailment.

    Or consider:
    C) Goedel’s First Incompleteness Theorem.
    Since this theorem is true, every one of my sister’s justified beliefs trivially entails it. But my little sister has never even heard of the theorem and doesn’t believe it. If she doesn’t believe it, then she doesn’t doesn’t have doxastic justification.

    It’s clear, then, that DJ isn’t closed under entailment. So to have an interesting issue, we’d need to focus on propositional justification. I should say, though, that the case involving C shows that justification isn’t closed under propositional justification either. But if you ignore the trivial cases of entailment, you might get an interesting debate going about the closure of PJ (but not DJ) under entailment.

  5. Got it Chris. To refute DJ being closed under entailment we just need to point that the doxastic operator B (believe that) isn’t so closed. If B transmission from premises to conclusion fail to hold, then DJ fail to hold (and K also, since knowledge entails belief).It remais the question if PJ is closed under entailment. But then, it would seem that PJ is always closed under entailment, since I don’t need to believe in having PJ.
    Well, apart from saying that PJ does not require belief (a negative definition), what is propositional justification exactly?

  6. Hey Luis,

    You ask, “what is propositional justification exactly?” Well, you will get a different answer depending on who you talk to. Ignoring defeaters, evidentialists will say that a propositional justification for P just is having evidence for P (perhaps also with some further requirement that you be capable of appreciating the evidential connection between the evidence and P). Reliabilits might say that one has propositional justification just in case they have some reliable method of believing P that is available to them. Externalists, though, are less likely to talk about propositional justification than are internalists. If you are more interested in the connection between doxastic and propositional justification, Turri has a paper on the topic in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research I think (though, I actually disagree with a lot of what he says).

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