Formulating reductionism about testimonial warrant and the challenge from childhood testimony

Abstract

The case of very young children is a test case for the plausibility of reductionism about testimonial warrant. Reductionism requires reductive reasons, reductively justified and actively deployed for testimonial justification. Though nascent language-users enjoy warranted testimony based beliefs, they do not meet these three reductionist demands. This paper clearly formulates reductionism and the infant/child objection. Two rejoinders are discussed: an influential conceptual argument from Jennifer Lackey’s paper “Testimony and the Infant/Child Objection” and the growing empirical evidence from developmental psychology on selective trust in children. Neither Lackey’s argument nor the empirical evidence vindicate reductionism.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Comprehension-based beliefs are beliefs based on our psychological capacity to comprehend the broad category of assertive speech acts. A “testimony-based” belief is a comprehension-based belief with a speaker’s testimony as its distal cause. All testimony-based beliefs are comprehension-based beliefs, but not vice versa. For discussion, see my “Testimony as Speech Act, Testimony as Source” (Graham 2016a) and my “Testimonial Entitlement and the Function of Comprehension” (Graham 2010).

  2. 2.

    I have argued elsewhere that perceptual warrant resides in the reliability of our perceptual representational competencies, that perceptual warrant consists in the normal functioning of our perceptual representational capacities and the transition to perceptual belief, for those capacities reliably induce true beliefs in normal conditions when functioning normally (Graham 2012, 2016b, cf. Burge 2003).

  3. 3.

    A good deal of human reasoning is done without awareness of the reasoning. I may reason about the upcoming traffic without being aware that I’m reasoning about the traffic. My reasoning may be conscious, for my premises and conclusion may be conscious beliefs. Even so I may not be aware that I am reasoning. Consider how an ape might reason. That’s danger; that’s to be avoided. That’s red and edible; that is to be consumed. The ape is aware of the animal or the fruit and forms representations that guide (control) its actions. The ape is not aware of its reasoning. It is conscious of the world, not of itself. Some cases of reasoning may even be entirely unconscious. Unconscious reasoning is commonplace. It is often fast and automatic. We get jokes “without thinking.”

  4. 4.

    For further discussion of critical reason that I have found helpful, see Burge (1996).

  5. 5.

    Creatures with beliefs reason. Beliefs are propositionally structured mental attitudes composed of concepts that are actual and potential steps or elements in reasoning. Concepts are inferentially articulated representations that feature in propositional thoughts. General (non-singular) concepts are one species of representation that represent general repeatable properties. There are other kinds of representation that also represent general repeatable properties. Perceptual representations, for example, group particulars as green, as near, as moving, etc. These representations, though they group or categorize, are not concepts.

  6. 6.

    Epistemologists with reductionist leanings include Fumerton (2006), Kenyon (2012), Lackey (2008), Lyons (1997), Malmgren (1996), Shogenji (2006) and Van Cleve (2006), among others. Audi (1997) leans reductionist, but see Audi (2013) for qualifications.

       Compare Coady (1992), Burge (1993), Graham (2006a), Goldberg and Henderson (2007) and Reid (1764). Lackey (2008) defines reductionism as the thesis that reductive reasons (along with true belief) are sufficient for testimonial knowledge. She then rejects the sufficiency thesis, and so rejects reductionism in her sense. This is not how I define reductionism. I define reductionism as stating necessary conditions on testimonial warrant. These conditions, along with true belief, may be insufficient for knowledge. Given my definition, Lackey’s “positive reasons” requirement makes her a reductionist in my sense.

  7. 7.

    For supporting discussion, see Burge (1999) and Hunter (1998).

  8. 8.

    Though I have my doubts. For the opposing view, see Lyons (1997), Fricker (2002), Shogenji (2006), Kenyon (2012). Lyons advances anti-reductionist reliabilism about other minds to defend reductionist reliabilism about testimony. Kenyon responds to scarcity of information examples in the adult case, such as asking a stranger for directions in an unfamiliar city. Kenyon does not directly address the issue of reductive evidence, just the scarcity of (possibly non-reductive) evidence. Nor does he address the childhood case. In the end, Kenyon’s position may parallel Fricker’s (1995) position, discussed in a previous note.

  9. 9.

    Though Fricker (1995) clearly rejects anti-reductionism for adults (as she defines the view), and her rhetoric naturally leads one to think she is a reductionist, it is not clear to me that she is, for she asserts anti-reductionism for children, and then seems to favor coherentism for adults, a theory that denies the priority of any kind of evidence (say, from perception) over another (e.g. testimony). Coherentism, that is, denies a presupposition of the reductionism versus anti-reductionism debate. So prior to coherence justification for testimony (before children have enough to go on to have a coherent network of beliefs to support testimony), she asserts anti-reductionism (for the childhood case). From a non-coherentist point of view, this is just to grant anti-reductionism across the board. (For the compatibility of Fricker’s points with anti-reductionism in the adult case, see Graham (2006b) and Burge (2013).) I think Fricker is more interested in defending internalist, rationality constraints on testimonial acceptance, and comes across as a reductionist for reductionists are clearly internalists about testimonial warrant. What Fricker’s position shows is that not all internalists about testimonial warrant (at least for the adult case) embrace reductionism.

  10. 10.

    For reviews of the literature see Harris and Corriveau (2011) and Brosseau-Laird et al. (2014). For discussion by epistemologists, see Goldberg (2008) and Shieber (2015).

  11. 11.

    Step (A) comes closest to Lackey’s (ii). But to come closer to (A), (ii) should be reformulated to read “infants and young children lack (at least some of) the concepts required to think the premises in the reductive argument.” They lack the cognitive capacity because they lack the concepts required to think the required thoughts. In (B) I have claimed that very young children lack the reductive inductive evidence required to reductively justify the premises in the reductive argument. Children (often) lack reductive justification for the reductive premises. I do not deny in (B) that very young children lack the cognitive capacity for inductive reasoning. (B) does not claim that children lack a cognitive capacity; it claims that they lack sufficient exercise of that capacity to meet the reductive demands of the reductively justified reductive argument. I have the capacity to collect evidence on the behavior of my cats; I just can’t be bothered to do it. Lackey’s (ii) might entail (B), but if it does, it clearly overstates the case. The way Lackey states (ii) also overstates the case for (C). If children cannot even possess reductive reasons (the premises of the reductive argument), then they cannot base beliefs on the argument. But (C) can be true even if (ii) is false. (C) only claims that some (I believe most) doxastically warranted comprehension-based beliefs of very young children are not based on a reductively warranted reductive argument. (C) can grant the infants and young children possess the cognitive capacity for acquiring and possessing non-testimonially based positive reasons and critical reasons; it simply denies that children in fact exercise the intellectual and executive skills required to bring such arguments to bear in every case of a warranted comprehension-based belief.

  12. 12.

    Additional passages: “...if infants and young children are incapable of having negative reasons...” (Lackey 2005, pp. 170; 172, 177, 178). “...if infants and young children do not have the capacity for reasons, then how can anything count against their beliefs epistemically [how can they have negative reasons]?” (Lackey 2005, p. 174) “...the problem with non-reductionism is that nothing—absolutely nothing—can count against the belief of someone...incapable of appreciating any counterevidence.” (Lackey 2005, p. 176)

  13. 13.

    I am grateful for questions and comments that led to improvements from the Southwest Epistemology Workshop at New Mexico State University; from the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Luxembourg; from Robert Audi, Richard Fumerton, Sandy Goldberg, Frank Hofmann, Jack Lyons, Matthew McGrath and Joseph Shieber; and the referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Graham.

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Graham, P.J. Formulating reductionism about testimonial warrant and the challenge from childhood testimony. Synthese 195, 3013–3033 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1140-y

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Keywords

  • Epistemology of testimony
  • Testimonial justification
  • Childhood testimony
  • Selective trust
  • Critical reason
  • Defeaters
  • Jennifer Lackey