Weighing aims in doxastic deliberation

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In this paper, I defend teleological theories of belief against the exclusivity objection. I argue that despite the exclusive influence of truth in doxastic deliberation, multiple epistemic aims interact when we consider what to believe. This is apparent when we focus on the processes involved in specific instances (or concrete cases) of doxastic deliberation, such that the propositions under consideration are specified. First, I outline a general schema for weighing aims. Second, I discuss recent attempts to defend the teleological position in relation to this schema. And third, I develop and defend my proposal that multiple epistemic aims interact in doxastic deliberation—a possibility which, as of yet, has received no serious attention in the literature.

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  1. 1.

    McHugh (2011, 2012), Sosa (2010), Steglich-Petersen (2006, 2009), and Velleman (2000) all defend teleological theories of belief. Velleman now prefers a normative reading of belief’s aim (see Shah and Velleman 2005).

  2. 2.

    I am not here primarily concerned with normative theories of belief. I mention them only as a point of contrast. For two influential defences of the normative approach, which focus specifically on the contrast between teleological and normative readings of belief’s aim, see Shah (2003) and Shah and Velleman (2005). For a general collection of readings on the topic see Chan (2013).

  3. 3.

    It’s important to bear in mind that this debate is framed in the context of doxastic deliberation, which is a conscious process. No one denies that non-epistemic reasons can subconsciously influence what we believe. The obvious example is wishful thinking (Shah 2003).

  4. 4.

    A similar objection is also raised by Kelly (2003).

  5. 5.

    Appeals to the exclusivity thesis are apparent on both sides of the debate. For instance, see Archer (2015), Owens (2003), Shah (2003), Steglich-Petersen (2006, 2009), Sullivan-Bissett and Noordhof (2013), Sylvan (2016) and Velleman (2000).

  6. 6.

    As Steglich-Petersen acknowledges, the point is not that mutually incompatible aims logically or necessarily exclude each other (though they might); it is just that they practically exclude each other for the individuals who are weighing them in deliberation. Given that we are interested in how aims interact in actual cases of deliberation, this weaker (practical) modality is sufficient to demonstrate that deliberation sometimes requires us to abandon one (or more) aims in favour of other aims.

  7. 7.

    On occasion, pursuing mutually compatible aims decreases the extent to which we can satisfy those aims. For instance, you can watch a movie and go to the gym the same evening, but you might have to spend less than your ideal amount of time at the gym, so that you can also get back in time to watch the movie.

  8. 8.

    In more detail: The rational thing to do in the golf case is to abandon one of your aims, because attempting to satisfy both will have an overall negative effect on your ability to satisfy either. If you attempt to perfect your golf swing and catch up on your research duties, then according to your own reasoning, you will be able to achieve neither of your aims to a satisfactory degree. So, in these situations, you must give one of your aims up completely.

  9. 9.

    As Owens acknowledges, there is no principled objection to epistemic aims interacting with pragmatic aims. Contrast guessing: when we guess, we aim to guess the truth. This is an epistemic aim. Nonetheless, we can also guess for pragmatic reasons, such as when we guess in order to win a prize on a gameshow. In such situations, we can integrate a pragmatic aim (to win the money) with an epistemic aim (to guess the truth), and take a guess all things considered. Exclusivity denies that belief’s aim can interact with pragmatic aims in this sense (see Owens 2003, pp. 290–293 for his discussion of guessing).

  10. 10.

    McHugh ultimately prefers to attribute an essential knowledge-aim to belief, rather than merely a truth-aim. Nonetheless, he takes the truth-aim to be derivative of the knowledge-aim, so regardless of which aim we prefer, we still need to establish whether we can make any sense of beliefs aiming at the truth. (See McHugh 2011, p. 382).

  11. 11.

    For details, see Atkinson (2018), pp. 43–48.

  12. 12.

    For further discussion of the difficulties of accepting both the teleological thesis and pragmatism, see Atkinson (2018).

  13. 13.

    For additional criticisms of McHugh’s position, see Sullivan-Bissett (2017) and Sylvan (2016).

  14. 14.

    Indeed, this is why Steglich-Petersen introduces the distinction between mutually compatible and incompatible aims interacting to the debate.

  15. 15.

    Versions of this aim are defended by McHugh (2011), Sosa (2010), Steglich-Petersen (2006, 2009) and Velleman (2000). This is also the formulation that is the explicit target of the exclusivity objection, as described by Owens (2003).

  16. 16.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out that Owens (2003) anticipated this response to his objection, and explained that he didn’t think it would work for this very reason.

  17. 17.

    For their ongoing debate on this matter, see Steglich-Petersen (2009, 2017) and Sullivan-Bissett and Noordhof (2013, 2017).

  18. 18.

    I say 'at least’ because I later argue that there are potentially many aims interacting in doxastic deliberation, insofar as we might be deliberating over multiple propositions.

  19. 19.

    One advantage of my proposal, besides helping us to avoid the exclusivity objection, is that it explains why we should not (and perhaps cannot) believe that p when not-p is true (and vice versa). Believing falsehoods is always a violation of one of our doxastic aims. However, a difficulty worth mentioning, which Sullivan-Bissett (2018) raises against both teleological (and normative) theories of belief, concerns why we should not (and perhaps cannot) withhold belief in p when we have settled on p being true. If the aim (or norm) of belief is to believe that p only if p, then withholding belief is always permissible, regardless of whether we take p to be true. The second doxastic aim I propose—to believe that not-p only if not-p—does not help us to resolve this issue. Even with this second aim, withholding is always an option. So, what should we make of withheld belief? While I cannot give a detailed analysis of withheld belief here, there are a few possibilities that would be worth exploring. For instance, we might attempt to find a unique aim of withheld belief, such as to give a teleological account of withheld belief that is consistent with our teleological reading of belief (for a related effort, see Sosa 2010, Ch. 1). We might also attempt to characterise withheld belief as an altogether different sort of attitude than belief, such that we understand the nature and normativity of withheld belief in and importantly different way from how we understand that of belief—for example, it has been suggested that withheld belief might best be understood as an attitude towards a question, rather than towards a proposition (e.g. see Booth 2014 and Friedman 2013, 2017). Or, alternatively, we might further consider whether Sullivan-Bissett’s (2018) functional account of suspension can be squared with our teleological account of belief. On the surface, it is not clear that the functionalists and teleologists are entirely at odds with one another, when it comes to explaining doxastic attitudes. Sure, there are important differences, but they both generally have naturalistic ambitions, and it is common for teleologists to appeal to natural functions when explaining the source of belief’s telos (e.g. Steglich-Petersen 2006, p. 510, and Velleman 2000, p. 253, fn. 18). Any of these options, if they worked out, could help with the problem of withheld belief without us having to abandon the central claims of the teleologists.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for urging me to elaborate my stance on this issue.

  21. 21.

    A potentially important disanalogy between agency and belief, even on the High Brow view, is that we can be practically akratic but we cannot be doxastically akratic. That is, we can recognise that x is Good, but not be compelled to do x; yet we cannot recognise that p is true, but not be compelled to believe that p. Thus, in this sense, there is still an important difference between practical and doxastic deliberation. However, while I think this distinction is probably true, I do not think I need to deny practical akrasia to make my point. Rather, the strength of my comparison holds on the basis of practical akrasia being hypothetically impossible: even if practical akrasia were impossible, such that we could only be motivated by the Good, I still think we would not be forced to conclude that agency is not an aim-motivated activity. It would still make sense to talk about specific actions as aim-motivated, even though the only truly motivating reasons for those actions would be reasons that the agent took to be in service of the Good.

  22. 22.

    This would not be a one-to-one correspondence, since the number of aims would also depend in part on the relations that are thought (by the agent) to hold between the propositions in question.

  23. 23.

    Matthias Steup’s doxastic decision thesis is pertinent to the comparison I am making. According to this thesis, when we deliberate what to believe, we subsequently carry out intentions to believe the propositions that we take ourselves to have the best reasons to believe, just as we carry out intentions to perform actions (Steup 2012, p. 158; also see his 2017). My point in the text can also be put in terms of intentions to believe: if we understand doxastic aims as intentions, then we can talk about doxastic deliberation as a process that involves a multitude of intentions to potentially be carried out, where those intentions differ according to the propositions that we intend to believe.

  24. 24.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to be clearer on this problem.

  25. 25.

    I limit my success to the domain of doxastic deliberation because that it is the focus of the exclusivity objection. There are, of course, other objections that the teleologist must face. One particularly pressing concern is Shah’s (2003) ‘teleologist’s dilemma’, which I do not profess to have solved here. Nonetheless, I take my proposal to be consistent with potential solutions to the dilemma, such as that proposed by Steglich-Petersen (2006).


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I’d like to thank my Ph.D. supervisors, Darrell Rowbottom and Jenny Nado, for their guidance during the Ph.D. process. It is due to their many helpful comments on drafts of my thesis that I have been able to write this paper. I’d also like to thank Andrea Sauchelli, Derek Baker, and Tinghao Wang for their detailed comments on earlier drafts of this paper, and an audience at the 2018 Frontiers of Epistemology conference at Yonsei University, Seoul, for their helpful feedback. And finally, I’d like to thank two anonymous referees for this journal, whose comments helped me to clarify a number of important points.

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Correspondence to C. J. Atkinson.

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Atkinson, C.J. Weighing aims in doxastic deliberation. Synthese (2019).

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  • Belief
  • Doxastic deliberation
  • Aim of belief
  • Teleological
  • Purposive
  • Exclusivity