Justification magnets


David Lewis is associated with the controversial thesis that some properties are more eligible than others to be the referents of our predicates solely in virtue of those properties’ being more natural; independently, that is, of anything to do with our patterns of usage of the relevant predicates. On such a view, the natural properties act as ‘reference magnets’. In this paper I explore (though I do not endorse) a related thesis in epistemology: that some propositions are ‘justification magnets’. According to the doctrine of justification magnetism, we have better justification for some propositions than for others solely in virtue of certain features of those propositions; independently, that is, of anything to do with evidential support or cognitive accomplishment. In the course of discussing an objection to justification magnetism I describe (though I do not endorse) a novel approach to epistemology akin to interpretationism in the theory of reference.

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  1. 1.

    I follow Williams (2007, MS) for exegesis of this part of the Lewisian project.

  2. 2.

    Weatherson (MS) questions whether this is the correct interpretation of Lewis on eligibility. These exegetical doubts are interesting, but will not be explored here since Lewisian reference magnetism per se is not the focus of this paper.

  3. 3.

    In saying that the choice is underdetermined, the proponent of this underdetermination problem is not to be understood as having said that there is no determinately epistemically appropriate thing for S to do in this situation. She may hold that the determinately epistemically appropriate thing for S to do is to suspend judgment. The ‘underdetermination’ terminology is merely supposed to indicate that neither p nor q is singled out as the better choice by the conventionally epistemically relevant factors.

  4. 4.

    I am using Goodman’s (1955) notion of grue here, except that the year built into the definition of ‘grue’ in terms of ‘green’ and ‘blue’ is 3,000 rather than 2,000.

  5. 5.

    There are many nearby variants of JM where what gets ‘magnetized’ is not justification but some other epistemic property, such as warrant. For reasons of space I cannot explore the variants here, though I certainly think others are of interest.

  6. 6.

    Thanks to Daniel Nolan for suggesting I discuss cases like this.

  7. 7.

    I assume here that p is true and q isn’t. However, S need not be assuming that in order for p to enjoy a justificatory boost for S by the lights of JMtruth.

  8. 8.

    I am indebted to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa for raising this kind of case in discussion.

  9. 9.

    Thanks to Anjan Chakravartty for this suggestion.

  10. 10.

    ‘In decision theory, a decision is said to be made “under risk” if the relevant probabilities are available and “under uncertainty” if they are unavailable or only partially available’ (Hansson 2011, §2).

  11. 11.

    Thanks to Kian Mintz-Woo for floating this suggestion in discussion.

  12. 12.

    Adam Morton suggested this case in discussion.

  13. 13.

    Cf. Cohen (1984).

  14. 14.

    I am indebted to Sophie Horowitz here.

  15. 15.

    If one wants nevertheless to lessen the feeling of disanalogy here, consider that if one believes in perfect naturalness (as Lewis does, though it doesn’t seem to me to be an entailment of the thesis that there are different degrees of naturalness), then one can regard that as an on/off matter and as reference-magnetic. Also, if one believes in some stable and regimented notion of verisimilitude whereby propositions can have varying degrees of verisimilitude (not just 0 and 1), then one might try developing a version of JM whereby it is greater verisimilitude in general that magnetizes justification, not just on-or-off truth. (However, I am wary of assuming that there is such a notion to be had.) Thanks to Robbie Williams for getting me to think about these points.

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Aidan McGlynn for this worry.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Magdalena Balcerak Jackson for raising this suggestion.

  18. 18.

    Thanks to Joshua Spencer here.

  19. 19.

    This view is in some ways like a hybrid of JMnaturalness and a view I describe briefly on Sect. 3: JMhinges, on which the propositions that magnetize justification are epistemically basic ‘hinge’ propositions (characterized as per Wright 2004). For both JMhinges and this hybrid, there are serious questions to be asked about why and whether there are any genuinely epistemically fundamental propositions in the required sense.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa for this idea.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa for this suggestion. As far as I can tell, this version of JM might be understood as approximately the kind of view developed in connection with certain kinds of a priori justification in Ichikawa and Jarvis (2013), but redescribed from within the JM framework.

  22. 22.

    See e.g. Quine (1951, 1960).

  23. 23.

    For present purposes I set aside the differences Wright posits between (a) entitlement and justification and (b) acceptance and belief.

  24. 24.

    Wittgenstein (1969).

  25. 25.

    I in fact think that theoretical virtues such as simplicity are relevant to epistemic justification, but I acknowledge that the task of explaining why and how is a substantial undertaking, so it is at least dialectically advantageous to avoid taking on that task where possible.

  26. 26.

    Although the justificatory boost provided to q by its possession of the magnetizing property may on some definitions count as an ‘a priori’ (albeit non-evidential) kind of justification, such a priorism imposes no further explanatory burden on the defender of JM once she has said enough to made JM plausible.

  27. 27.

    Give or take some skirmishing about the differences mentioned in footnote 23.

  28. 28.

    Cf. my criticism of Field’s 2000 argument for default reasonableness at pp. 68–69 of my 2008.

  29. 29.

    Thanks to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa for raising this comparison in discussion.

  30. 30.

    It is worth noting, however, that this classical foundationalist position in conjunction with certain other commitments could make for a commitment to justification to believe p which arises at least partly in virtue of p’s truth. Suppose, for example, our classical foundationalist is also a reliabilist. And suppose propositions like I now believe something or I am thinking (if such exist) are such that, whenever they are true, we are entirely reliable with respect to them. Then one has justification to believe such a proposition under circumstances where it is true in virtue of one’s reliability under such circumstances with respect to the relevant proposition, where this reliability in turn obtains in virtue of the truth of the proposition in question. (Thanks to Daniel Nolan here.) This still wouldn’t quite be a JM view as intended here, however; JM isn’t supposed to require a commitment to anything like reliabilism or to take a detour through anything so conventionally epistemically relevant as the subject’s reliability in accounting for the connection between truth and justification.

  31. 31.

    It is a fun fact that Kripke appears to be explicitly forbidding attempts to solve semantic underdetermination problems in this sort of way when he says, in connection with the famous plus-quus underdetermination problem: ‘Let no-one—under the influence of too much philosophy of science—suggest that the hypothesis that I meant plus is to be preferred as the simplest hypothesis’ (1982, p. 38).

  32. 32.

    See Williams (MS, §3) for discussion of the analogy, and Lewis (1973, 1983) for the account of laws.

  33. 33.

    This kind of bestness needs to be distinct from any kinds of epistemic bestness covered by the epistemically normative theory in question, or else there is a risk of circularity (and hence failure of reduction) here.

  34. 34.

    Glüer and Wikforss (2009) offer an overview of the tradition of linking meaning with normativity.

  35. 35.

    Additional complications for this kind of response could be generated by considering rival theories according to which S is justified in, say, suspending judgment, or having indeterminate credence in p. Analogously, it could be a problem for the original interpretationist response to the magic objection to RM if a semantic theory according to which a predicate refers to a natural property has rivals according to which that predicate is, say, indeterminate in reference (as opposed to determinately referring to some less natural property). I set these complications aside here mainly for reasons of space, although I think they are interesting and may be important.

  36. 36.

    I am indebted to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa here.

  37. 37.

    Thanks to Miriam Schoenfield for helping me think about this.


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Many thanks to Trent Dougherty, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, Daniel Nolan, Brian Weatherson, and J. Robert G. Williams for comments on earlier drafts, to participants at the University of British Columbia Spring Colloquium 2012, participants at the Paris-Sorbonne Metaphysical Knowledge Conference 2012, participants at the Northern Institute of Philosophy Conference on the A Priori 2012, especially my commentator Aidan McGlynn, participants at the Leeds Indeterminacy Workshop of June 2012, and participants at the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference 2012, especially my commentators Andrew Bailey and Sophie Horowitz. I acknowledge receipt of many excellent comments and suggestions that I’m unable to do full justice to in this paper, but hope to pursue in further work.

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Jenkins, C.S.I. Justification magnets. Philos Stud 164, 93–111 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-013-0093-y

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  • Justification
  • Reference
  • Reference magnets
  • David Lewis
  • Epistemology
  • Interpretationism