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This paper surely contains some errors

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The preface paradox can be motivated by appealing to a plausible inference from an author’s reasonable assertion that her book is bound to contain errors to the author’s rational belief that her book contains errors. By evaluating and undermining the validity of this inference, I offer a resolution of the paradox. Discussions of the preface paradox have surprisingly failed to note that expressions of fallibility made in prefaces typically employ terms such as surely, undoubtedly, and bound to be. After considering what these terms mean, I show that the motivating inference is invalid. Moreover, I argue that a closer consideration of our expressions of fallibility suggest that epistemically responsible authors would not be rational to believe that their books contains errors. I conclude by considering alternative expressions of fallibility that employ terms such as possible and probable, and discuss the role that expressions of fallibility play in conversation.

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  1. We should consider the subset of a book’s claims which are clearly categorical claims. This deflects the reply that even though authors assert that P, they really mean that probably P (cf Lacey 1970; Hoffman 1973). In addition, we should assume that the book is one in which each categorical claim that p transparently reflects the author’s belief that p. In many cases, the author’s attitudes towards the book’s claims are more complicated. For example, in Sorensen (1988, p. 13), the author remarks that the proffered philosophical accounts are proposed as “fertile [accounts]”. This suggests a more complicated relationship between the author and the book’s claims. Thanks to a reviewer for raising these cases.

  2. This discussion, as exemplified in Pollock (1986), Hawthorne and Bovens (1999) and Douven (2003), is complicated by questions about probabilistic rules of acceptance. I will set these issues aside since I am not using the preface paradox as a puzzle about probability and rules of rational acceptance.

  3. Williamson (1996) and DeRose (2002) are prominent supporters of this view.

  4. These secondary norms are those that govern whether the subject reasonably believes that some act conforms to a norm. And if truth is the epistemic norm governing assertion (cf Weiner 2005) and the speaker reasonably believes that her assertion satisfies the epistemic norms governing assertion, then she reasonably believes that P is true. See DeRose (2002) for a discussion of these secondary norms.

  5. It may be worth noting here that we should ignore preface claims that acknowledge the existence of typographical errors. These are errors at the level of communication, not at the level of the author’s beliefs. A nice example of this is the preface of Suppes (1960) where the author thanks his editors for their help in removing errors and goes on to say that errors will still be found. In the context, it seems clear that Suppes is referring to typographical errors.

  6. Evnine (1999) is a notable exception. Evnine thinks that the reasonable assertion-to-belief inference does not apply because we need an additional inference from a second-order belief to a first-order belief. He proposes that preface claims express the author’s rational belief that something she wrote was false. However, if we are to infer from this that the author ought to believe that one of her book’s claims is false, we must assume that authors are required to possess an accurate inventory of all the claims made in the book. Evnine argues that since rationality does not make this demand, this inference is not always valid. While Evnine’s observation is right, I do not think it solves the paradox. Authors who know exactly what they have written still appear reasonable in asserting preface claims. This situation does not depend upon idealized agents with perfect memory for the author may use various tools like a computer to keep track of what he has written and whether he has accepted each written claim. And if these authors may assert preface claims, the paradox still arises.

  7. Here are some additional examples (italics are mine). “Though I’ve done everything possible to assure that the information which follows is correct, undoubtedly it still contains a few errors, and for this I apologise.” (Pinto 2001, p. 53) “I realize that, because of the complex nature of the issues involved, the text of the book is bound to contain some errors. For these I now apologize in advance.” (Rescher 2001, p. 213) “I have to acknowledge my own responsibility for the errors this book will inevitably contain.” (Clark 2002, p. xiii)

  8. “Admittedly, there would be something odd about a preface that baldly stated ‘This book contains errors!’ ” (Christensen 2004, pp. 35–36) This also places some constraints on what variants of the preface paradox we must consider. Many resolutions of the preface paradox fall prey to reformulations of preface claims. However, it is important that we remember that such reformulations cannot amount to straightforward claims of errors or to claims that are stronger than these straightforward claims.

  9. I borrow the term from Biber and Finegan (1988).

  10. While I will focus on the adverb surely, my analysis applies to all surely adverbials.

  11. Fox (2001).

  12. See Willett (1988) and Aikhenvald (2004) for a taxonomy of EV markers found in natural languages.

  13. Downing (2001) argues more generally for this claim. The argument found in Von Fintel and Gillies (2010) that the epistemic must is an evidential marker signaling an indirect inference may be thought to apply to surely. My claim that surely is an evidential marker of potential, unspecified evidence is meant to be compatible with the fact that it also signals an indirect inference.

  14. Even in cases where the straightforward assertion seems appropriate, surely appears to function as an EV. In a math textbook, the author may write that the conclusion surely follows. Here, the author appears to be identifying an unarticulated argument as the source of the author’s belief in the asserted proposition. I discuss cases like these below.

  15. One might think that if inquiry went on long enough, Bill would eventually possess the evidence and he is thereby appealing to the strength of his future inevitable epistemic state.

  16. Feldman (2007, p. 151). Thanks to a reviewer for raising this point.

  17. Fitelson (2012) has shown there are counter-examples to Feldman’s principle. Nevertheless, Fitelson agrees that the principle holds when we have conclusive evidence that there is conclusive evidence that quantum mechanics is false. This restricted version of Feldman’s principle seems to apply here since Bill may express that there will surely be conclusive evidence that quantum mechanics is false.

  18. One may object that Bill knows that every prior scientific theory has been inadequate. As I discuss below, if this type of evidence does count as genuine evidence, then our form of the preface paradox does not arise and we are left with a paradox that is much like the lottery paradox.

  19. Hall (1999) offers a resolution of the surprise exam paradox and appeals to the intuition that if evidence is far enough removed, it weakens the EV support provided by that evidence.

  20. “An assertion should be understood as a proposal to change the context by adding the content to the information presupposed.” (Stalnaker 1999, p. 10)

  21. Of course, surely can also play a rhetorical function by expressing incredulity at believing the negation of what is asserted. When used in this way, utterances using surely may be illocutionary acts that attempt to persuade one’s interlocuters. Thanks to Don Hubin for this observation.

  22. See Kaplan (1983, p. 35) for some examples.

  23. One key difference between the lottery paradox and the preface paradox concerns the aggregation of risk or uncertainty. In the lottery, we know exactly how to measure the risk we would undertake if we were to believe that some ticket will lose. Furthermore, we also know how to aggregate these risks if we were to conjoin our beliefs. We also possess conclusive evidence that some ticket will win. Our author is in a very different situation. Not only do we not know how to measure the uncertainty the author embraces if she were to believe each well-researched historical claim, we also do not know how to aggregate this uncertainty. Finally, the author does not possess conclusive evidence that some claim is false.

  24. See Christensen (2004, pp. 33–34) for discussion.

  25. This suggests that the preface claim expressing possible error should be treated differently than the Moorean claim that p but p might not be the case. The infelicity of asserting the latter can be explained pragmatically. One may not assert that p but p might not be the case because one would be proposing an incoherent update to the common ground such that every world is a p world and that some world is a not-p world. In contrast, if one were to preface a set of assertions by stating that what I assert might be wrong, then one is simply weakening the assertoric force of the subsequent utterances. In Sect. 4, I propose that these remarks can be used by speakers to allow for and countenance potential disagreements. Thanks to a reviewer for pointing out the connection to Moorean sentences.

  26. See Arló-Costa and Pedersen (2012) for a summary of the debate.

  27. Some types of qualitative all-or-nothing beliefs are incompatible with the possibility of error. A full belief, which is characterized in Levi (1980), offers one example. The incompatibility of full belief and the possibility of error is a sufficiently good reason not to view our author’s beliefs as full beliefs.

  28. See Gardenfors and Sahlin (1988, Chap. 1).

  29. It would be sufficient for our purposes to interpret strength of belief as epistemic probability. What is important is that this notion be distinguished from the credences that are derived from fair betting rates. If we did interpret strength of belief in terms of the credences derived from betting behavior then the resulting paradox or problem would be quite different. For example, one preface claim that appeals to these credences is found in Sorensen (2001, pp. 100–101). However, it is unclear what the relationship is between rational belief and rational betting behavior. For example, on the view of belief found in Ross and Schroeder (2012), one may rationally believe that p even though one is not willing to bet at any odds on p. On such a view, it is not clear that any paradox arises. Thanks to a reviewer for raising this type of case.

  30. See Gardenfors (1988).

  31. Christensen (2004) uses future-tensed expressions of error as examples of appropriate preface claims.

  32. The pragmatic role of preface claims explains why it would be inappropriate to assert that the book is error-free. This expression of immodesty would misrepresent the type of interaction that the author would like to have with her readers.

  33. Thanks to a reviewer for the observation that this role is just one of many.


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For their comments, objections, and support of this paper, I would like to thank Anubav Vasudevan, Don Hubin, Guillermo Del Pinal, Jennifer Nagel, John Collins, Katie Gasdaglis, the audience at ANU, and an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies.

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Kim, B. This paper surely contains some errors. Philos Stud 172, 1013–1029 (2015).

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