Is Knowledge the Norm of Belief?

Steven Reynolds’ interesting comments on my earlier post regarding knowledge being the norm of assertion prompt the following query. At one point, Williamson considers the idea that assertion is to belief as outer is to inner. If so, then we should expect that if knowledge is the norm of assertion, then knowledge is also the norm of belief.

Why would anyone think that, however? Ralph, in one of the threads, considers the idea that there is a sense of what we “should belief” which is such that we should believe p iff p. If knowledge is the norm of belief, then the left-to-right reading would be true, but not the right-to-left reading. Moreover, the commonplace acknowledgement of fallibilists that justified false beliefs are possible entails that knowledge is not the norm of belief–to have a justified belief is to have a belief regarding which one has done nothing wrong from a purely cognitive point of view. It’s not just that one is not blameworthy for the belief–that’s a weaker concept than the concept of justification.

Of course, many of the most interesting ideas in philosophy begin by climbing the mountain of counterintuitiveness, and maybe that’s the case here?


Is Knowledge the Norm of Belief? — 16 Comments

  1. Jon,

    I think I can gesture towards an explanation. If we begin distinguishing explicitly cases of unknown unknowns and known unknowns, we can ask whether it is possible for S to be justified in believing p when S knows p is unknown.

    My intuition, which seems to run counter to some things said by Hawthorne in his Lottery book, is that one can’t be justified in believing a known unknown.

    Assuming this is correct, there will be different explanations of this. Some will say that when it is known to S that p is unknown, S will have acquired a defeater that defeats the justification S had for believing p. However, if this explanation doesn’t cover all the cases, then perhaps the intuition is some evidence to think that knowledge is the norm of belief.

    This is speculative of course, but then the K is the norm of belief people could argue that the ‘truth is the norm of belief’ camp can’t explain why whenever one knows p is unknown, one must have defeated one’s justification for believing p. As I’m unclear what a convincing impossibility proof would look like here, it isn’t clear that this strategy will work.

    But isn’t there a more venerable strategy that comes down from Plato. Knowledge is more valuable from the epistemic point of view than truth. One doesn’t aim at knowledge in order to hit the more important target of truth. Perhaps treating K as the norm of belief is the best way to explain why accidentally true beliefs are failures as beliefs.

  2. Ah, Clayton, very nice–I like these ideas because they connect strongly with views I’ve articulated already. First, I think you’re right about the known unknowns–my draft in the sidebar defending coherentism from the possibility of justified inconsistent beliefs argues for the point you make. The value of knowledge stuff is trickier–I don’t think there’s any defense of the value of knowledge available post-gettier–that’s a central thesis of my new book. The other central part is that it’s really understanding that we’re after anyway, not knowledge. It’s not surprising that things got confused in this way, given the debate about whether to translate ‘episteme’ as knowledge or understanding.

  3. I seem to be developing a bad habit of trailing around after Jon asserting p just after he has asked rhetorically who would assert that p. I think that knowledge is the norm of belief, if by belief one understands full belief. I like Clayton’s suggestion that we should treat the disinclination to hold that a belief can be justified if we know that we don’t know it as evidence for this thesis.

    My idea, to put it in a slogan, is that justification is what knowledge looks like from inside. If it isn’t justified, it won’t look like knowledge, and so one shouldn’t assert it (given the norm of knowledge for assertion). What we think we shouldn’t assert, for epistemic reasons, we also think we shouldn’t (fully) believe (though we may realize that we do believe it anyway, belief not being as much under our control as assertion is). (I’m probably assuming a norm of frankness here — other things equal, one should be willing to assert what one believes, so if one shouldn’t assert it one also shouldn’t believe it.)

  4. I think the strongest argument against the idea that justification is what knowledge looks like from the inside is lottery sentences (along with preface paradox considerations and the like). It is hard to deny that if the lottery is big enough, we can be justified in believing that our ticket is a loser. But we don’t know that.

    This ignores, of course, the point about full belief. I’m not sure what to say about that, but if it’s a Bayesian notion where we assign probability 1 to it, we’re going to have other problems. Nothing can rationally move the probability lower once it is that high, and so one would expect fully rational individuals not to assign that high a probability.

    I think, though, that what you say, Steven, is true of epistemic justification, the kind of justification that puts in one a position to know (i.e., add true belief and lack of gettier issues, and you get knowledge). If that’s right, and if combined with the idea that this kind of justification is what knowledge looks like from the inside, then the conclusion I’d draw is that epistemic justification is the norm of belief.

    By the way, it’s nice to have contrary opinions here!

  5. Clayton, where did you get that known unknown/unknown unknown terminology from? (I use it myself in a paper defending precisely the counterintuitive view Jon describes above… If there is another source, I would like to know about it.)

  6. Jon,

    I picked it up from the Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld (the infamous press conference about 6 months ago where he started waxing about knowns versus the known unknowns and the extra dangerous unknown unknowns in the battle against terror). Anyway, in the blogosphere and amongst the grad students I knew, this was all something of a joke until someone spoiled the fun and pointed out that Rummy’s seemingly spontaneously generated typology made sense. CNN political and military coverage is a seemingly endless source of entertaining lingo for epistemological use. I’ve been trying to work the actionable/unactionable intelligence distinction into a paper on warrant transmission and Moorean responses to scepticism.

  7. Thanks, Clayton; at the time, I noted that Rumsfeld’s typology applies, it seems to me, to *propositions* rather than beliefs themselves. That is, he meant there are *things* we know we don’t know and *things* we don’t know that we don’t know we don’t know (and believe anyway?) — and those things are, in standard philosophical parlance, the propositions that are the objects of belief. But epistemologists would do well to apply the distinction to beliefs themselves — the beliefs we (allegedly) have that do not amount to knowledge, and that we (are in a position to) know do not amount to knowledge (such as lottery beliefs), and the beliefs we have that do not amount to knowledge and which we do not know do not amount to knowledge (such as we find in Gettier cases). And instances of both of those kinds of beliefs have been taken to be justified although not knowledge. (And I disagree on both counts.)

  8. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see why the existence of justified false beliefs is inconsistent with the idea of taking knowledge as the norm of belief (if “knowledge as norm of the belief” is meaningful.)

    A justified false belief is one that is false, even though its formation relied upon proper logical methods and evidence. If Williamson is right that evidence is the sum of knowledge, then why can’t a belief be justified insofar as it is based on *some* evidence (knowledge), but not *enough* to come to the truth? Here knowledge would be the norm, insofar as the presence of some knowledge (evidence) shows that the belief is justified–but the belief would still be false.

  9. To say that knowledge is the norm of belief is to say that a person shouldn’t have any beliefs except those that count as knowledge. Put another way, it is to say that you’ve done something wrong, something contrary to a norm, if you hold a belief that is not also knowledge. So, no matter what your reasons for holding a belief, if the belief is false, you’ve violated the norm for belief, and thus every justified false belief is improper with respect to that norm.

  10. I guess I don’t think there is anything consequentialist here. We can put the norms for various activities in imperatival form: “don’t act inconsistently,” “don’t assert what’s false,” “don’t believe the ridiculous.” If you do any of these things–act inconsistently, assert what’s false, believe the ridiculous–you violate the norm.

    The important question is what the proper norms are. If knowledge is the norm of assertion, then we can say that the norm is “don’t assert what you don’t know to be true.” And if knowledge is the norm of belief, then we can say that the norm is “don’t believe what you don’t know” as well. In either case, if you say what you don’t know or if you believe what you don’t know, you violate the norm.

  11. I agree that there would be a problem for false justified beliefs if the norm in question were “don’t believe anything you don’t know.” But I think there is good reason to question whether Williamson could mean anything as simple as that.

    There is a serious problem with the idea of directly choosing one’s beliefs. See Alston, “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification,” (1989) for more on this.

    Williamson acknowledges this problem on page 46, where he suggests that the difficulty of willing to believe that p can be explained by reference to the difficulty of willing to know that p. This sounds to me like an endorsement of the idea that there’s something wrong with the idea of choosing our beliefs.

    At the same time, it seems like the norm “don’t believe anything you don’t know” is appropriate only if we do have a direct choice about what to believe. Just like “don’t murder” implies we have a choice about whether or not to murder.

    If Williamson agrees beliefs cannot be chosen, and if that imperative is inconsistent with this concession, Williamson must mean something other than that imperative by the idea that knowledge is the norm of belief.

    It occurs to me that even on a rule consequentialist theory of norms, there will be cases in which one is justified by reference to a norm, even if one’s actions do not succeed in achieving the end in question in a particular instance. E.g., if the greatest happiness is the end, one may be justified in doing things that don’t lead to hapiness in particular instances, because doing them follows from habits that, if practiced consistently, do lead to the general happiness. It seems that a kind of rule consequentialist view of epistemic justification, with truth as the end, could work the same way.

  12. Ben, I think I see the issue now. Williamson does hold the very straightforward rendition of the norm of assertion: “don’t say what you don’t know.” He doesn’t endorse the corresponding norm for belief, but in the chapter on the norm of assertion, he is tempted by the idea that belief is to assertion as inner is to outer. He never rejects this claim, and examines its implications in a different context. If he’s serious about the inner/outer analogy, then he ought to endorse the simple norm for belief as well.

    You’re right that such a position appears to be in conflict with a denial of doxastic voluntarism. But maybe not: Rich Feldman has some interesting cases where obligations do not presuppose voluntarism. His paper is a response to Alston’s work that you cite; I think it’s in Phil Perspectives, but I’m not sure.

  13. I think distinguishing the two norms is helpful. I don’t have comments on the issue about the inner/outer issue. But thanks for the note on the Feldman paper: I didn’t know about it.

  14. The inner/outer remark is on p. 255, with discussion following which assumes it, but W never flat-out endorses it, though he says it is a “plausible” view.

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