Rejecting the presupposition of Sellars’ Problem

As noted in my previous post on Sellars’ problem, one option is to jettison the presupposition in my characterization of Sellars’ problem that the notion of justification (or whatever notion is thought to close the gap between true belief and knowledge) is connected with the notions of intelligibility, insight into truth, and the cognitively understood, seen, or grasped. On such an approach, it is better to characterize the cognitive machine more on the model of inputs and outputs, where the outputs are beliefs and the inputs can be whatever the particular theorist wishes to hold generates epistemic value for beliefs. Intelligibility and understanding are jettisoned, and the new language uses notions such as reliability of the mechanism, proper functioning of the system, and production by systems that get us to the truth at least most of the time.

Approaches to the problem that fall into this category include Goldmanians, Plantingites, and Sosians. These groups have a hard time explaining why the relationship between experience and belief is not completely variable as long as the varying is truth-conducive in certain specified ways (the ways that distinguish various versions of reliabilism from each other).

I’m not so interested in the problems and solutions proposed from the reliabilists here, as I am in another group of theories of foundationalist and coherentist sorts. Take coherentism first. Let the kind be that which limits the role of experience to that of belief production. It doesn’t play any role in justification, but it does play a role in producing beliefs with a special status in the system of beliefs. These beliefs, in Lehrer’s memorable phrase, are the products of the “prick of sense.” But the experiences have no content and play no role beyond identifying certain beliefs within the system as spontaneous beliefs or observational beliefs, or whatever else the theorist in question chooses to call them.

After we have the system of beliefs divided in this way into those produced by sensation and those not so produced, we have special rules that tell us when the entire system coheres. In the worst case for coherentism, the rules pay no attention to the distinction between sensory beliefs and the remainder, resulting in a theory that would produce exactly the same justificatory picture even if the role of experience had bizarrely changed so as to produce other beliefs in the same system. A more plausible story is that the special rules for coherence treat the sensory beliefs in a way different from the other beliefs.

This difference won’t help much, though, since it won’t matter which experiences cause which beliefs. All that matters is that the beliefs are sensory ones. There is no guarantee that we couldn’t vary which beliefs are the products of which experiences and get the same results, and even if this possibility could be eliminated, we could replace the experiences in question with entirely different ones or simply permute which experiences cause which beliefs, and as long as the system of beliefs stayed the same, with the same beliefs counting as sensory beliefs, we have problems. (This is precisely Plantinga’s point with the mountain climber/opera case).

So coherentism is in trouble if it doesn’t find a more substantive role for experience, substantive in the sense of finding a way to tie the nature of the experience to an appropriate belief.

What is interesting, I think, is that a version of foundationalism has the same problem. Suppose you’re a foundationalist who denies that experiences have content, but that certain beliefs are justified in part by being produced by such experiences. If experiences have no content, then the beliefs which result are not justified in virtue of some shared content with an experience. So it is not in virtue of any content of the state of it’s appearing to you that it is raining that either your belief that it is raining or your belief that it seems to you that it is raining is justified. Just as with the coherentist picture above, there is the threat that we could vary the experiences and the foundationalist would have no explanation why the sensory beliefs produced are justified in one case but not in the other.

The result of this reasoning is as follows. If we use the presupposition of Sellars’ problem in our metatheory, we carve up theories of knowledge in such a way that some versions of foundationalism and coherentism end up in the same category as reliabilism, proper functionalism, and standard virtue epistemology. Somewhat strange bedfellows, wouldn’t you think?


Rejecting the presupposition of Sellars’ Problem — 10 Comments

  1. “Suppose you’re a foundationalist who denies that experiences have content, but that certain beliefs are justified in part by being produced by such experiences. If experiences have no content, then the beliefs which result are not justified in virtue of some shared content with an experience. So it is not in virtue of any content of the state of it’s appearing to you that it is raining that either your belief that it is raining or your belief that it seems to you that it is raining is justified. Just as with the coherentist picture above, there is the threat that we could vary the experiences and the foundationalist would have no explanation why the sensory beliefs produced are justified in one case but not in the other.”

    I guess I’m such a foundationalist. (“Knowing How to Believe with Justification,” Philosophical Studies 64: 273-292 (December 1991)” and some other articles too.

    My idea is to prevent the arbitrary substitutions of experiences by saying that their qualitative nature wouldn’t feed into our recognitiional skills in the appropriate way, where the recognitional skills are shaped by prior interactions with the things that cause our experiences and with other people.

  2. Steven, I’ve been waiting for the “know-how” theorists to answer here, including you, Markie, and Bergmann (I should include McDowell as well, but he’s not participated here yet, and I think I understand the first three a little better…). Is there a place in your view for experiential beliefs that are justified without depending on prior learning? If we think of initial experiential beliefs, they don’t depend on recognition skills shaped by anything prior, so it looks like your description above has to count them all as unjustified.

    A second question: are the skills in question recognition skills, where the notion of recognition is taken as a success term? If so, it looks like inhabitants of evil demon worlds can’t have justified beliefs. Or perhaps I misunderstand your view (which I haven’t looked at for several years, and I may be confusing some concerns that apply to other views along these lines.

  3. 1) I like what I take to be Sellars’ way of dealing with this problem — babies don’t have justified beliefs or knowledge or even concepts, but they do develop habits or learned responses or something sub-belief like. Then when the structure of those habits/responses (etc.) reaches a critical mass, the baby has a sudden acquisition of a large number of concepts/recognitional skills and the capacity to acquire new justified beliefs in response to experiences. But there is still prior learning, or something analogous, and its only after a fair amount of it that justified beliefs become possible. So the prior learning at least can’t consist in the acquisition of knowledge or justified beliefs a few at a time.

    2) I suspect it’s not consistent with ordinary usage of the term ‘recognition’, but no I don’t use it as a success term. When I mistake Linda for her identical twin Lynn, I am employing my recognitional skill, and given the right background (didn’t know she had an identical twin) I may be justified in the resulting false beliefs. If I had been envatted last night, then on my view my current beliefs are largely justified (setting aside the problem of how to understand those belief analogues that would be expressed with demonstratives in that situation).

  4. Steven–I like this view that you defend quite a bit, but I have a worry. As I see it, all the view is entitled to claim is that in the learning process, certain dispositional features become engrained in a cognitive agent. I don’t want to call them recognition skills at this point, to avoid the “success” aspect of the ordinary uses of ‘recognition’.

    So we have dispositional inclinations to form certain beliefs in the presence of certain sensory stimuli, and these dispositional inclinations impute some degree of justification to the beliefs, and the epistemological story we tell makes such a claim without relying at all on any appeal to some semantic content, of the stimulation.

    As described, such a view is very much like Plantinga’s, in the following way. Though there is no appeal to proper function, the view leaves open that sensory stimulation by a rock could be dispositionally tied to any kind of belief, including belief in God. That is, I don’t see what restrictions the view places on possible relationships between sensation and belief, except those that can be ruled out because there the agent couldn’t develop the dispositional inclination to interpret the “prick of sense” in that way.

  5. That seems to oversimplify the view in a way that makes it seem implausibly unconstrained. “Certain dispositional features become engrained in a cognitive agent” That isn’t false, exactly, but it leaves out a lot. A toddler learning to say that something is yellow goes through a process of correction and trial and error, corrected by more mature speakers, which results in her being willing to say “yellow” in the presence of variety of shapes of objects, but only when the light is good (although she can’t explain why). She comes to mistrust attempts when the thing is too small or too far away or the room is too dark.That’s the sort of learning or training that I think is involved in coming to have the concept of yellow, so so that one can have beliefs that things have that color. Although animals’ cognitive skills are less shaped by social interactions, there still seems to be a period in which they learn to estimate distances and speed and accelerations of movements and match their own movements to what they perceive (watch how a kitten plays with a ball, starting off very clumsy and eventually becoming very skillful in anticipating and managing its movement). These are complex cognitive achievements, not the simply “engraining of dispositions”, as if one were setting a thermostat. I don’t think we have beliefs about all of these matters, but there is some kind of monitoring of the process, which in humans at least is easily made conscious when there is something objectionably unusual, and although not quite conscious most of the time, it is not unintelligent.

    I have some sympathy for your concerns about using ‘recognition’ and variants where there is no implication of success, but how else would you explain my mistake in taking Linda for Lynn? A sophisticated capacity that I have and you lack was involved in that mistake, one relevantly like my capacities to recognize other people I know who don’t have identical twins. So what shall we call it, if not a recognitional capacity (or as I prefer to say ‘skill’, since it involves a complex cognitive achievement)?

    One difference from Plantinga is that I want to make culture do more of the work, and leave less of the story to design plans, (see my paper, “Testimony, Knowledge & Epistemic Goals,” Philosophical Studies, 110 (2) (August 2002): 139-161). As for the stimulation by a rock and belief in God — I think that could happen if ‘God’ came to mean that rock. Or maybe the rock is some sort of icon, which fits into one’s religious activities in such a way that viewing it strengthens one’s belief in God? There are the problems that Davidson noticed about how I could reasonably be said to believe that God is present when I perceive this stone, though some strange story about God and the stone could be told to rationalize attributing to me that belief. Anyway, one constraint on the arbitrariness of association of experience and belief is a Davidsonian holism about belief attribution.

  6. Steven, this is very helpful. Apart from the Davidsonian point at the end, I see a divide for views such as yours. One can require that actual learning have taken place, where learning involves getting things right. Or one can fall back on my description, which does not presume getting things right. Once we add in the the Davidsonian point, I think you get to have my description of the process, with the inference to actual learning undergirded by the Davidsonian point. Does that sound right to you?

  7. I’m not quite following your point. Are you thinking of ‘getting things right’ as coming to hold beliefs that are true? Or would riding the bicycle acceptably count as getting things right (and involve real learning, as I think it does, but without holding beilefs about all of the detailed adjustments one has learned to make to keep the bicycle going, avoid obstacles, etc.?

    A summary of my overly long comment: Your case of believing in God in response to stimulation by a stone seems to me a) not to involve anything that could reasonably be described as a recognitional skill (which aren’t just conditioned reflexive responses to particular stimuli) and b) to presuppose a simplistic conception of belief, on which we could believe anything, however incompatible with our other beliefs, desires, experiences, skills, etc., as we can say anything that we have the concepts to express. (That’s the point about Davidsonian holism. I’m not thinking here of any Davidsonian guarantees of truth in our beliefs, although I kind of think there’s something right about that notorious claim of Davidson’s too.)

  8. Steven–Let me try once more. If you use the learning in a practical skill as a model for the epistemic, then you’ve learned only if, in suitable conditions, your belief is true most of the time. On this understanding, there is a likelihood of truth aspect to the view.

    The alternative is to refuse this aspect, and simply talk about conditioned responses to sensory stimuli, where enough conditioning finally yields stable dispositions to form certain beliefs in the face of certain sensory stimulations.

    On the former view, I would say that the ordinary connotations of success for the concept of learning are being honored: you haven’t learned to distinguish red from yellow without getting it right most of the time (under certain conditions). That makes the view have a kind of reliabilist basis to it. Does that make sense yet?

    Even if one adopts the alternative approach, where we only talk of stable dispositions, refusing to say that such stability makes for liklihood of true belief, there is still a way to get likelihood of truth by adopting some form of Davidsonian holism about belief attribution.

    In sum, my question was where the truth-conducivess comes from: from the claims about learning, or from the Davidsonian holism.

    On the rock/God case, if we suppose that a person becomes conditioned in such a way that a stable disposition to believe that God exists when confronted with a rock, I don’t see that this commits us to the view that anything can be believed. If, on seeing a rock, you have a strong urge to believe that God exists, you’re very strange, but I don’t see that this needs to be incompatible with anything about your mental life. It might not cohere, but that’s different. The case is strange, but stranger things have happened than this… In any case, the example was meant to address the implications of Plantinga’s theory, and to see what kinds of constraints on the experience/belief relation your own view endorses.

  9. That does make sense, and I appreciate your patience in this exchange. There is of course some kind of qualified reliability requirement in my view, as in any sensible view of epistemic justification. I try to make it a consequence of some other claims about knowledge and justification in the papers I mentioned above, but I won’t try to go into that here. The following cases make me think that the relation of reliable production of true beliefs and what I am calling recognitional skills must be rather complex however: Suppose I see a woman at a party, and conjecture that she is Sarah, whom I have heard about but never met. I look at her for a few moments. Later when I see her, having forgotten these events, I just come to have perceptual beliefs that I would express using ‘Sarah’ — beliefs that are about Sarah, as well as about the woman that I am seeing again. As it happens, this woman is Sarah, though I have no good reason to think so. My subsequent perceptual beliefs about Sarah will be reliably true, but they don’t seem to me to be justified, even though they are the result of the same sort of recognitional processing, so far as I can tell, as any of my more ordinary perceptual beliefs about people. Second example: Someone introduces me to a woman they call Sally, whom again I have heard about independently. In fact the introduction is a lie — this woman isn’t Sally, but I have no reason to doubt what I have heard, and I develop a recognitional capacity for this woman, which I subsequently use to acquire many beliefs about Sally — as it happens, mostly false beliefs. In this case it seems to me that my beliefs are justified, and justified in part by my recognitional skill, even though I certainly agree with you that I have not learned to recognize Sally. I want an account of perceptual justification that accommodates my intuition that my perceptual beliefs about Sally are nevertheless justified.

    I am conscious of grossly flouting Eleanor Roosevelt’s rule (she reportedly allowed herself only one ‘new’ or disagreeable idea per talk), but I can’t resist trying to make a little more plausible my Davidsonian claim about the rock and God.

    Suppose I say something like this: “I haven’t changed my views about evil and perfect beings, nor have I acquired any more respect for the traditional religious texts as factual, nor have I had any of the traditional sorts of religious experiences. But when I see this rock, I dunno, it just looks to me as if God exists.” So you naturally say “Is there something miraculous about it? Some religious imagery in it, some religious significance in its being here now?” “No”, I say,”it’s just like every other common rock you can find on that river bank. No religious images, no miraculous occurrences associated with it. It just looks like God exists to me, maybe because I keep saying “God exists” to myself while looking at it.” Of course you wouldn’t believe me when I said that. You’d think I was making a tedious joke, just being obnoxious or something like that. But here, I think is a difference between you and me in our views about the nature of belief. You want to say that there could be such belief (not likely that there would be, and it wouldn’t be justified, of course) and I want to say that there couldn’t be. Not only is it enormously unlikely that anyone could have that response to the rock, but, I say, one couldn’t have such a belief, no matter how apparently sincerely one said it, and no matter what feelings of conviction welled up in one as one said it. It just couldn’t count as a belief with the content that God exists in response to that sort of sensation, and that sort of sensation alone. And I suspect that if you tell an alternative story on which it could happen, it will either look like it isn’t a perceptual belief, or it will start to look as if the person involved really could be justified in holding that belief.

  10. Steven, the discussion of Sarah helps a great deal. In general, I don’t want reliability in the picture at all when the discussion is epistemic, though I am moved somewhat by arguments in the philosophy of language for some degree of reliability here. The Sarah case shows, as you point out, that the reliability needn’t be local however, even if it is somehow a general requirement.

    I’m not quite sure why you want to defend that belief can’t occur on the basis of looking at a rock. I don’t think your epistemological views require saying that, do they? I guess I’m more impressed with how crazy things can be cognitively speaking. I once saw a map of the universe drawn by a schizophrenic (a cognitive map), on which “can” was linked to “cancer” (these were cognitive inferences by the person in question), and the conclusion from the connection was that eating canned food is the explanation of the rise of cancer. Also on the map was a link from “carnation evaporated milk” to Jesus, via the term “incarnation”. Never did hear the implications of that one…!

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