How wishful seeing is not like wishful thinking
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On a traditional view of perceptual justification, perceptual experiences always provide prima facie justification for beliefs based on them. Against this view, Matthew McGrath and Susanna Siegel argue that if an experience is formed in an epistemically pernicious way then it is epistemically downgraded. They argue that "wishful seeing"—when a subject sees something because he wants to see it—is psychologically and normatively analogous to wishful thinking. They conclude that perception can lose its traditional justificatory power, and that our epistemic norms should govern how experiences are formed. To make this case, the downgrader must first isolate a feature of wishful thinking that makes it epistemically defective, then show that this feature is present in wishful seeing. I present a dilemma for the downgrader. There are two features of wishful thinking that could plausibly explain why it is irrational: the fact that a desire causes you to form a belief not supported by adequate evidence, or the mere influence that desire holds over belief formation. Each option presents formidable difficulties. Although the first “bad evidence” explanation, which McGrath employs, explains the irrationality of wishful thinking, it does not transfer to wishful seeing, since experiences are not formed in response to evidence. The second “influence of desire” explanation, which Siegel employs, fails to isolate an epistemically defective feature of wishful thinking, and also does not transfer to wishful seeing. I conclude that the downgrader’s argument from wishful seeing fails.
KeywordsPerception Perceptual justification Epistemology Cognitive penetration
For written comments, thank you to Michael Huemer, Zoe Jenkin, Cameron Kirk-Giannini, and Matthew McGrath. Thanks to audiences at the Brandeis Student Speaker Series and the NYU-Columbia graduate conference. For many comments and much encouragement, thanks to Jessi Addison, Brett Chance, Alyssa Colby, Jenny Judge, Rachel Katler, Max Lewis, Phil Shannon, and Aarthy Vaidyanathan. For a team assist with copy-editing, many thanks to Carolina Flores, Zoë Johnson-King, and Elise Woodard. (Any typos are their fault.) For extensive conversation, thank you to Jeremy Fantl, EJ Green, Eli Hirsch, Eric Mandelbaum, Jerry Samet, Miriam Schoenfield, and Susanna Siegel.
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