Explanationist aid for phenomenal conservatism


Phenomenal conservatism is a popular theory of epistemic justification. Despite its popularity and the fact that some think that phenomenal conservatism can provide a complete account of justification, it faces several challenges. Among these challenges are the need to provide accounts of defeaters and inferential justification. Fortunately, there is hope for phenomenal conservatism. Explanationism, the view on which justification is a matter of explanatory considerations, can help phenomenal conservatism with both of these challenges. The resulting view is one that respects the internalist character of phenomenal conservatism and its motivating intuitions while providing an intuitive and elegant account of both inferential justification and the justificatory impact of defeaters.

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  1. 1.

    From this point on I will drop the qualifier “epistemic”. However, any time I mention “justification” or one of its cognates I am referring to epistemic justification.

  2. 2.

    Huemer (2014).

  3. 3.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  4. 4.

    See Huemer (2001) concerning PC and external world skepticism, Huemer (2005) concerning PC and moral skepticism, and Huemer (2001, 2007, 2011) for arguments that denying PC is self-defeating.

  5. 5.

    Huemer (2014).

  6. 6.

    For example, Conee (2013), DePoe (2011), Hasan (2013), and Markie (2013) argue that PC is not the only theory that can avoid self-defeat.

  7. 7.

    See Huemer (2014) and the papers collected in Tucker (2013b) for discussion of some of the primary objections to PC.

  8. 8.

    PC, as it has been presented in the literature, is only an account of propositional justification (when S has justification for believing that p). It is not an account of doxastic justification (when S’s belief that p is justified). Supporters of PC will readily admit that in order for S to have a justified belief that p she must have propositional justification for believing that p, and she must base her belief on her propositional justification in the appropriate way. Hence, in addition to needing modification to account for defeaters and inferential justification, PC also needs to be supplemented with an account of the basing relation in order to be a full account of doxastic justification. For the present purpose there is no need to dwell on PC’s need for an account of the basing relation though because PC seems consistent with the major views on the nature of the basing relation. So, once PC has been modified to be a complete account of propositional justification, it is likely that there will not be any great difficulties in adding a basing requirement and arriving at an account of doxastic justification. In the cases that will be discussed below, it can simply be assumed that the subject meets the requirements for properly basing her belief on her propositional justification. For more on the basing relation see Evans (2013) and McCain (2012b).

  9. 9.

    Huemer (2007, p. 30) See Pryor (2000) for a similar view restricted to perceptual justification. See Huemer (2001) and Tucker (2010) for similar formulations of PC.

  10. 10.

    Tucker (2013a, pp. 3–6).

  11. 11.

    See Moretti (2015) and Tucker (2013a, b) for further discussion of these views.

  12. 12.

    Moretti (2015) Not only is this the most popular account of seemings, there is reason to think that versions of PC that do not accept the Experience View of seemings face a version of the isolation objection that is often pressed against coherentism. See McCain (manuscript) for more on the isolation objection and PC.

  13. 13.

    This is a plausible understanding of the position of Huemer (2001), and it is explicitly defended in McAllister (2016). Also see Conee (2004) for consideration of such a view without explicit endorsement.

  14. 14.

    See footnotes 5 and 7 concerning PC and self-defeat. See Tucker (2010) for explicit endorsement of the idea that only seemings provide justification.

  15. 15.

    For discussion of the nature of defeaters in general and the distinction between rebutting and undercutting defeaters see Pollock and Cruz (1999).

  16. 16.

    This sort of case seems possible as long as not every belief has an accompanying seeming—something that supporters of PC should grant unless they want to risk PC collapsing into a more general epistemic conservatism (the view that merely holding a belief provides justification for that belief). For discussion of the relation between PC and epistemic conservatism see Hanna (2011) and McCain (2012a). See Christensen (1994) and McCain (2008) for critical discussions of epistemic conservatism.

  17. 17.

    For discussion of how being disposed to recall something as known can provide justification see Conee and Feldman (2011) and McCain (2014a, 2015d). For accounts of how testimony might directly justify a belief see the discussion of anti-reductionist views of testimony in Lackey (2008) and Lackey and Sosa (2006).

  18. 18.

    Bergmann (2006) argues explicitly for the conclusion that mere (unjustified) beliefs can be defeaters. Sturgeon (2014) also seems sympathetic to this understanding of defeaters.

  19. 19.

    See Markie (2013) and McGrath (2013).

  20. 20.

    McCain (2014a).

  21. 21.

    Huemer (2016, p. 151).

  22. 22.

    Huemer (2016, p. 152).

  23. 23.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296) Importantly, this hybrid account has at least one advantage over the account of inferential justification Huemer puts forward. Huemer’s account needs additional machinery in order to account for defeaters, but the hybrid account developed below accounts for both defeaters and inferential justification with the same explanationist machinery.

  24. 24.

    Conee and Feldman (2008), McCain (2013, 2014a, b, 2015c), and Poston (2014) have each recently defended versions of explanationism. Prior to these recent developments, explanationism has been largely out of the spotlight since the late 1980s when Harman (1986) (expanding on his 1973 defense of an explanationist view), Lycan (1988), and Moser (1989) defended explanationist theories.

  25. 25.

    McCain (2015c, p. 339) This is a slight modification of the basic formulation of the explanationist theory of propositional justification that I defend elsewhere (2013, 2014a, b). The primary difference is that in this latest version of my explanationist theory of propositional justification I replace “logical consequence” with “explanatory consequence”. The other main difference between the various formulations that I put forward in these works is that in my (2013) I refer to this account of propositional justification as “Explanationist Evidentialism”, but in my (2014a) the term “Explanationist Evidentialism” is reserved for the complete explanationist account of justification-one that accounts for both propositional and doxastic justification. In my (2014a) I call this component of the complete explanationist account of epistemic justification “Ex-EJ”. In my (2015c) I call the revised version of Ex-EJ presented in the main text above “Ex-EJ 2.0”.

  26. 26.

    McCain (2014a) defends an account of the basing relation and uses it in developing a full theory in that work, which I call “Explanationist Evidentialism”. This full theory is an account of well-founded belief (doxastic justification).

  27. 27.

    In fact, some explanationists (Poston 2014) argue that “explanation” is a primitive concept that cannot be given a full analysis at all. I remain neutral on this issue here.

  28. 28.

    Kim (1994, p. 68) For more on how this ecumenical approach captures the relations that the most prominent theories of explanation deem explanatory see McCain (2015b).

  29. 29.

    See Jenkins (2006, 2008), Lipton (2004), and Moser (1989).

  30. 30.

    McCain (2014a).

  31. 31.

    See Lipton (2004) and McCain (2014a) for further discussion.

  32. 32.

    McCain (2014a, p. 67) It is important to note that this does not require that S have concepts of “evidence” or things of that sort. All that is required is that S can have a seeming that p is part of the best answer to “why do I have this?” where “this” refers demonstratively to S’s evidence.

  33. 33.

    McCain (2015c, p. 339) Clearly, this account of availability with its appeal to seemings is at least somewhat amiable to PC.

  34. 34.

    See Schupbach and Sprenger (2011) and Strevens (2000).

  35. 35.

    Feldman and Conee (2001, p. 2).

  36. 36.

    One concern that I have, that is perhaps shared with others, with claiming that seemings exhaust one’s basic evidence is that it is likely that dispositional states are important components of one’s evidence. This may not be an issue if there can be dispositional seemings though—an idea that Huemer (2013) is at least willing to entertain.

  37. 37.

    It is worth mentioning that the idea that beliefs justified by seemings are evidence/justifiers is itself a modification of PC as it has been explicitly formulated in the literature.

  38. 38.

    This is, of course, setting aside concerns about skepticism. For reasons to think that our commonsense explanations are better than skeptical alternatives see McCain (2014a), Huemer (forthcoming), and Vogel (1990).

  39. 39.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  40. 40.

    Although the cases discussed above concern perceptual beliefs and how defeaters can effect their justification, the account of defeaters offered by Ex-PC is perfectly general. Ex-PC can account for defeaters in all sorts of cases and with respect to all sorts of justification—introspective, memorial, and so on.

  41. 41.

    More precisely, since S is relying on her memory of her past observations, the idea, given Ex-PC, is that it seems to S that each raven she has observed was black. Part of the best explanation for this seeming is that it is true that every raven she observed was black. It is plausible that part of the best available explanation she has for why every raven she observed was black is that they are all black.

  42. 42.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  43. 43.

    See Huemer (2014) and Moretti (2015) for discussion of these arguments. I do not detail the arguments and how Ex-PC is consistent with them because doing so would take up a considerable amount of space and add complications that may distract from the primary focus of the present work. Additionally, it is not difficult to see that Ex-PC is consistent with these arguments when one examines them.


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I am grateful to Blake McAllister, Matt Frise, Matt King, Jon Matheson, Andrew Moon, Ted Poston, Chris Tweedt, anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the 2015 Alabama Philosophical Society Meeting and the 2015 Southeast Epistemology Conference for helpful discussion and/or comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Kevin McCain.

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Huemer’s (2009) “Explanationist Aid for the Theory of Inductive Logic” inspired the title for this article. In that article Huemer, one of the chief proponents of PC, argues that explanationism can help make a probabilistic approach to the problem of induction successful. Here I will argue that explanationism can help make phenomenal conservatism more plausible.

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McCain, K. Explanationist aid for phenomenal conservatism. Synthese 195, 3035–3050 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1064-6

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  • Epistemic justification
  • Explanation
  • Explanationism
  • Defeaters
  • Inferential justification
  • Phenomenal conservatism