More on Rules and Principles

Suppose, with Boghossian, that we distinguish epistemic rules and principles. Both are conditionals, but rules have imperatival consequents whereas principles are true or false. To each rule, there corresponds a principle: if the rule says “In C, believe p,” the principle can say either “In C, it is obligatory to believe p” or “In C, it is permissible to believe p.”

Let’s simplify a bit a say that a cognitive system operates in accord with a rule when the imperatival consequent is fulfilled and the antecedent describes the causal/explanatory factors that prompted (in the near enough past) the belief formation in question. We’ll have to say something at some point about deviant causation, but I’ll ignore that for now. Let’s then say, also simplifying, that the good rules are ones that, by operating in accord with them, a person can arrive at a doxastically justified belief. Not that this result is always achieved, but that it can be achieved, i.e., the rule specifies in its antecedent a possible basis for a doxastically justified belief.

Given this stagesetting, it is pretty obvious that the epistemic principles that correspond to the rules that we operate in accord with will be mostly false.

We see an oak tree in the back yard and believe that it is an oak tree–the causal/explanatory path goes from a certain perceptual state to a belief state. The belief is doxastically justified in virtue of being based on the perceptual state itself. But both of the following epistemic principles are false:

When you are appeared oak-tree-ly, it is obligatory to believe that an oak tree is present.
When you are appeared to oak-tree-ly, it is permissible to believe that an oak tree is present.

The primary difficulty with both principles is that they lack a defeater, or grounds for doubt, clause. Perhaps our perceptual skills develop to the point that we come to be on alert for defeaters as we mature, but that is certainly not true of early cognition.

Once we appreciate this point, the connection between rules and principles can no longer be taken to be a simple one. The hard question is this: take your stock of true epistemic principles, including the global one that specifies the conditions under which any belief is justified. What rules must cognition operate in accord with in order for the resulting beliefs to be justified?

Here’s a first step: strip true epistemic principles of their defeater clauses, and the “function in accord with” requirement for doxastic justification is met by functioning in accord with the corresponding rule. Then, if the defeater clause is actually satisfied and any other requirements for justification are met (including any purported requirement that one follow the rule in addition to operating in accord with it), then the belief is justified.

The interesting question from my perspective is whether further distancing between rules and principles is needed. Herein lies potential catastrophe. Here’s one example. Suppose you think of some domain of belief as skill-based, such as perceptual belief. Then you think of the true epistemic principles as specifying in their antecedents skill-displaying features. Finally, you notice that when people are developing their skills, they behave in a stilted fashion and are even instructed to do so: think of, for an analogy, the difference between someone following instructions about how to flyfish and someone who knows how to flyfish. And then the pressure is felt to avoid having to say that those developing their skills can’t have any justified beliefs.

In the face of this pressure, two options are available. The first is to abandon the skill-based picture of (some of) cognition, but that requires starting over on a new research program. So the temptation is to take the less revolutionary approach, and allow more distancing between rules and principles. The rules no longer need to specify in their antecedents displays of skill relevant to the kind of belief in question, but can specify only operations relevant to mastering the skill in question.

So now you have epistemic principles that tell you when it is permissible to form beliefs, and you have rules that it is, in some sense, OK to follow that are unrelated to any true epistemic principle. They are not derived from principles by stripping the antecedent of a defeater clause, and yet the motivation for presenting such rules has something to do with wanting a theory that allows justified beliefs to be obtained in the process of learning a skill.

The critic presses: “this makes no sense! The beliefs, you say, are justified even when the skill is not yet present, but no epistemic principle allows that such beliefs are permissible.” And here the temptation is to reply: “Oh, that’s OK, the skill-based principles specify conditions for objective justification and the rules specify conditions for subjective justification.”

Depending on their patience with silly philosophy, critics may just walk away shaking their heads. Or, if they stay, the proper thing to say is this. Did you mean it when you formulated principles that defined the arena of impermissible belief? You had to, or else your principles are false. So, whatever “subjectively justified” means, it carves out a subclass of beliefs that you simply should not hold. Period, no qualification allowed.

So further distancing seems to me to fail. The rules we operate in accord with often (typically?) correspond only to principles without defeater clauses in them, but a good theory should not countenance any further distancing between the two.


More on Rules and Principles — 14 Comments

  1. Jon,

    You contrast, by analogy, stilted fly-fishing skills with knowing how to fly-fish. But this contrast seems too stark. It isn’t true that the person with stilted skills doesn’t know how to fly-fish. It’s more like he vaguely knows how to fly-fish. Similarly, it is not true that the person with somehat awkward and unnatural perceptual skills has no justified perceptual beliefs. Rather he has vaguely justified perceptual beliefs. But that is just what we should expect, I think, in the development of fly-fishing, epistemic or any other sort of skill. There is no discrete point at which these skills are determinately acquired.
    But then the pressure to say that those acquiring epistemic skills have no justified beliefs is relieved. True, their beliefs are not determinately justified. True too their beliefs are not determinately unjustified. But also true their beliefs are vaguely justified.

  2. Mike, you’re right that there will be vague cases here as everywhere else. The person who is merely following simple instructions aimed at teaching one how to flyfish, though, doesn’t know how to flyfish and isn’t displaying the skill of flyfishing, even in a vague way. That’s the only point I was making above. The facts about vagueness can’t relieve the skill-based approach to perception of the pressure in question unless all acquiring of perceptual skills is disanalogous to the flyfishing case. That’s pretty implausible, however.

  3. “The person who is merely following simple instructions aimed at teaching one how to flyfish, though, doesn’t know how to flyfish and isn’t displaying the skill of flyfishing, even in a vague way.”

    Really? Here, I am awkwardly and unnaturally following the rules on how to assemble a bicycle. I’ve never assembled a bike and I don’t have good bike-assembling skills. Still, aren’t I assembling a bike? Aren’t I displaying the inchoate skill of bike-assembling? It would be weird if I weren’t. After all, when I’m done, there is an assembled bike.

  4. Don’t infer that you’ve got a skill because you succeed in accomplishing what skilled individuals accomplish. Even unskilled tennis players sometimes hit great shots. But flyfishing is an especially instructive example. If you happen to catch a fish in the process of learning how to flyfish, it would be a bad inference to assume that you have acquired the skill.

    In the case you describe, you don’t have bike-assembling skills; you have direction-following skills.

  5. The worry (right?) is whether I can have a justified perceptual belief in cases where I am following the right rules but I don’t have the corresponding skills. In the bike-assembling case, you conclude that I don’t have even minimal bike-assembling skills. I think that’s false; still, let’s suppose it’s true. Even under that assumption the fact that the bike was assembled was not due to chance (as you suggest with the good tennis shot/bad tennis player example). I followed the rules one follows in order to reach the goal of having an assembled bike. It is not at all obvious that the same isn’t true with respect to the goal ‘having true beliefs’ or ‘having justified beliefs’. I follow the epistemic rules, I don’t YET have the skills, but I reach the goal. I don’t yet have the skills but the process is not chancy. I reach the goal by following the rules well.
    On a different point, in the bike-assembling case, I didn’t conclude that I had bike-assembling skills from the fact that I succeeded in assembling the bike. I concluded that I had primitive or inchoate bike-assembling skills, from the fact that I succeeded in building the bike. If I had thrown the pieces in the air and they had fallen into the bike-shaped object in front of me, I would agree. But I intentionally did what a good bike-assembler does. I just did not do it as well.

  6. It seems to me that belief is a commitment to a theory about the world. Belief is confidence that a theory will correctly predict the outcome of future measurements. Thus, valid justification for a belief would not merely be the observation of certain facts, but the prior utility of a theory consistent with those facts.

    Of course, there are an infinite number of theories consistent with a finite set of observations, so certainty is not possible. However, some foundational theories may be granted a high confidence level for strategic reasons. For example, I strongly believe that the world is causal, not simply because experience shows it to be, but because the assumption of the contrary has no utility.

    The belief in one’s ability to assemble a bicycle given parts and instructions is justified when the assembler has previously followed recipes and utilized basic bicycle construction techniques in other contexts.

    I don’t see any conflict between cases like bike construction where instructions are adequate to create some level of belief in one’s skill, and those cases where instructions are inadequate because the sensory and motor skills required for a task need to be learned (e.g., roller skating).

    This definition of belief merely assumes that the universe is causal and self-consistent, and that we possess an ability to create theories, ie.e., maps from consistent mathematical structures to perceptions.

    Wouldn’t this model of belief constitute an epistemic principle?

  7. Mike, you say, “The worry (right?) is whether I can have a justified perceptual belief in cases where I am following the right rules but I don’t have the corresponding skills.”

    No, that’s not the worry. The skill examples are examples where the unskilled follow different rules in the process of acquiring skills. In your bike-assembling case, you don’t act in accord with the same rules as a skilled bike assembler–all we have to do is watch the two of you work, and this will be obvious. The same with flyfishing, and the same with people who can’t yet discriminate natural kinds perceptually. The worry on the skill-based account is that a temptation to fudge the epistemology will occur: they are doing their best, so their rules must be OK in some epistemic sense. So then we’ll hear talk of subjective and objective justification to try to mend the tear when the conflict with the principles is pointed out.

    The point I was driving at is that there has to be some distancing between principles and rules, but no more than results from stripping the antecedent of the defeater clause and changing the consequent to an imperative. And this point holds independently of whether one thinks the rules have to followed, and thus perhaps represented in the system, or merely conformed to.

  8. Jon,
    All of (1)-(6) are true in the bike-assembling case.

    1. I follow the rules specified in the instructions.
    2. I do not have bike-assembling skills.
    3. You do have bike-assembling skills.
    4. We do not act exactly alike in assembling bikes.
    5. I assemble a bike, but not by chance.
    6. You assemble a bike, but not by chance.

    Because of (5), I conclude that I can reach the goal of assembling a bike before I have every bike-assembling skill. True, right? Because of (6), I conclude that I reach the same goal as the person with bike-assembling skills. Similarly, the person following epistemic instructions in the formation of his beliefs might be BOTH developing the relevant epistemic skills (as I am developing the relevant bike-assembling skills) AND actually forming justified beliefs (as I am actually building a bike). In the end I’ve built a bike, that’s the goal, though I don’t have all of the relevant skills. In the end I have the justified belief, that’s the goal, though I don’t have all of the relevant skills. All of this is consistent with (4) that in assembling the bike (forming the belief) we are not acting in just the same way.

  9. Mike, that’s the idea, and then the problem arises for the skill-based view: your epistemic principles say the belief is impermissible. So the lesson is that the skill-based approach either has to maintain the hard line that the beliefs aren’t justified, or start over in constructing epistemic principles.

  10. Mightn’t we say that the unskilled epistemic agent is learning how to be justified? At first, his process of belief formation leads him to beliefs that don’t find justification in his following the appropriate rules of belief formation, because he’s still learning those rules; but as he learns the rules, his beliefs tend more and more to actually be epistemically justified. When the learner gets a belief right, it might at first only be by chance; he might not actually be justified. But he observes that he’s gotten it right–that he agrees with the “skilled” believer–and over time learns what the rules are, and over time comes to form beliefs in accord with those rules, and so becomes justified in holding even a belief that at first he held merely by chance. (He might not be totally without justification at first, however, if he follows the initial rule, “Until you become skilled, believe what the skilled people believe.” That would permit him to believe truly, and to be justified in believing, until he could learn the rules and thus become justified independently of that initial rule.)

    Keith Brian Johnson

  11. A side question: How is the second oak tree principle obviously false? I take the permissibility of belief as meaning something like, “OK, you can go ahead and believe there’s an oak tree out there when you are presented to oak-tree-ly (because it’s usually true); you might be mistaken, but it’s still OK to form the belief.” I don’t see how defeaters matter when the principle doesn’t say you *must* believe but instead merely says you *may* believe. How was permissibility intended?

    Keith Brian Johnson

  12. The permissibility principle is false for the reason given immediately after it: it lacks a defeater clause. So one might be appeared to oak-treely and yet know that one was just given a drug in a psychological experiment that induces tree experiences. In such a case, it isn’t epistemically permissible to believe that there’s an oak tree there.

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