Philosophers who are reluctant to agree that claims about knowledge and justification attain objective epistemic status generally agree on a much more basic point: that there are epistemic reasons for beliefs. For example, epistemic relativists such as Rorty (1980) countenance epistemic reasons. Rorty just thinks that the epistemic authority that epistemic reasons aspire to is confined to the social contexts giving rise to them, a point that absolutists like Boghossian deny. But neither denies that there are epistemic reasons.
Enter here the epistemic error theorist. Think of epistemic error-theory as analogous to moral error-theoryFootnote 8. The moral error theorist (e.g., Mackie 1977) draws our attention to the queerness of moral properties, which would be “qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe” (1977, p. 38). We have, Mackie thinks, no reason to think moral properties are ever actually instantiated in the world, and thus, that there are no facts consisting in the instantiation of such properties. All statements that attribute moral properties (e.g., including attributions of moral reasons) are false.
The meta-epistemic analogue to this position—epistemic error-theory (e.g, Olson 2011) regards epistemic properties as in the same boat as moral properties. Thus, as Nishi Shah (2011, p. 96) puts it:
... Just as no persons have the property of being a witch, so [according to the epistemic error theorist] there are no facts or states of affairs that have the property of being a reason for belief. Any judgment that attributes to something the property of being a reason for belief is, therefore, false.
Epistemic error-theory is of course an odd view; if it’s true, it means that our practice of attributing epistemic reasons is fundamentally mistakenFootnote 9. As Bart Streumer (2012) has argued, it might not even be possible to believe this view, regardless of whether it is trueFootnote 10. And, as Crispin Wright (1994) suggests, the truth of epistemic error theory would seem to call into doubt the sensicality of continuing to engage seriously with epistemological questionsFootnote 11. But let’s set all of this aside.
There are currently arguments available, the most developed of which are due to Jonas Olson (e.g., 2011, 2014) which claim that epistemic error theory is in fact true. The arguments are sophisticated, though for our purposes, the details won’t matterFootnote 12. Let’s now consider the following case.
Lemonade: A student, A, sees what appears to be a glass of lemonade sitting on his meta-ethics professor’s desk, and, accordingly, forms the belief that there is. Call this belief lemonade. After some further discussion with the professor and two classmates, A then acquires three further beliefs, in addition to lemonade, which are: (i) mountain dew, (ii) hallucination and (iii) error theory. mountain dew is the belief that the meta-ethics professor drinks only Mountain Dew (which is different from, but looks like, lemonade). hallucination is the belief that A has recently ingested crystal DNTFootnote 13, which causes inaccurate but highly believable hallucinations. error theory is the belief that Jonas Olson’s arguments for epistemic error theory (as outlined during the class by the professor drinking the yellow looking drink) are persuasive, and thus, that there are no reasons for belief.
Stipulate that A’s original belief, lemonade, is epistemically unimpeachable at the time of its formation. A, let’s assume, is justified in believing lemonade
Footnote 14, prior to acquiring the further beliefs A acquires. By acquiring the belief mountain dew, A acquires (in the sense of Pollock 1986) a rebutting defeater for believing lemonade, which defeats A’s justification for lemonade by indicating that lemonade is false. By acquiring the belief hallucination, A acquires an undercutting defeater for lemonade. hallucination indicates that the process (perception) that issued A’s lemonade belief is unreliable in the present circumstances, given the ingestion of crystal DNT, and so therefore not sufficiently indicative of the truth of lemonade. But what about error theory? What implication does A’s acquiring error theory have for the status of A’s original justified belief that what is sitting on the professor’s desk is a glass of lemonade?
One line of response to this question is that A’s acquisition of the error theory belief is entirely orthogonal to the epistemic status of A’s lemonade belief. Call this orthogonalism. If orthogonalism is true, then this of course undermines the thought that A’s acquiring error theory might (in some way) defeat in any interesting way the epistemic status of A’s belief lemonade.
The reasoning in support of orthogonalism goes as follows. (i) A’s acquisition of error theory can potentially defeat the epistemic status of A’s belief lemonade only if A’s acquisition of error theory is relevant in some way to the truth of A’s belief that lemonade. But, whether (ii) A’s belief that error theory is true is irrelevant to the truth of A’s belief that lemonade; (iii) Therefore, it’s not the case that A’s acquisition of error theory can potentially defeat the epistemic status of A’s belief that lemonade.
Let’s simply grant the orthogonalist’s premise (i)—i.e., that A’s acquisition of error theory can potentially defeat the epistemic status of A’s belief lemonade only if A’s acquisition of error theory is relevant in some way to the truth of A’s belief that lemonade. Even if this much is conceded, we needn’t accept the conclusion of the orthognalist’s reasoning. This is because we should reject premise (ii). In short, this is because premise (ii) overgeneralizes in such a way that it has implausible implications concerning undercutting defeat.
Consider that undercutting defeaters are epistemically significant because they indicate that the grounds one has for one’s belief aren’t sufficiently indicative of the truth of the target proposition. After all, hallucination is epistemically significant for A vis-à-vis lemonade because it indicates that A’s grounds for believing lemonade aren’t sufficiently indicative of the truth of lemonade. But, A’s acquisition of the belief error theory also (like hallucination) indicates that A’s grounds aren’t sufficiently indicative of the truth of lemonade. Specifically, A’s acquisition of error theory indicates that A’s grounds aren’t sufficiently indicative of the truth of lemonade by indicating that A simply lacks the grounds which A originally thought A had which indicated the truth of lemonade.
What this means is that if orthogonalism is correct, then, it becomes at best mysterious why undercutting defeaters are epistemically significant. So if A’s coming to believe that Jonas Olson’s arguments for epistemic error theory are plausible can’t defeat in any way the epistemic status of A’s belief that the glass the professor is drinking from is filled with lemonade, it’s not because orthogonalism is true.
As I indicated in the previous section, I think there is an interesting kind of epistemic defeat at the meta-epistemic level. And that is indeed what I think is going on in the case described above. However, before engaging with this, I want to consider one further diagnosis of the Lemonade case according to which A’s acquisition of the error theory belief does count as a defeater for A’s justification for lemonade, but not by defeating the meta-epistemic status of A’s justification for lemonade. Rather, on the diagnosis I will now consider, the epistemic status that is defeated is just regular first-order (not-second-order) status: by acquiring error theory, A simply loses (on this envisioned diagnosis) A’s justification for believing that lemonade.
In order to get this assessment of the case in view, we need to introduce a different kind of epistemic defeater, called a no-reason defeater. According to Michael Bergmann (1997), a no-reason defeater for a belief, p, is a reason to believe that it’s no longer reasonable to believe p given that (a) one has no reason for believing p and (b) the belief that p is the sort of belief that it’s reasonable to hold only if one has evidence for p (Bergmann 1997, pp. 102–103)Footnote 15. For example, suppose I believe that the President is in Boston. But then, on reflection, I can’t locate any reason I have for believing this, while maintaining also that this is the kind of proposition that’s reasonable to hold only if I have evidence for it. I thereby acquire on Bergmann’s view a no-reason defeater for my (would-be) justification for my belief that the President is in Boston.
Consider now the following question: Is A’s acquisition of the belief error-theory plausibly a no-reason defeater for A’s justification for believing lemonade? There’s an initially plausible story for why it is. And if this story is right, then the notion of meta-epistemic defeat needn’t enter the picture here.
The ‘no-reason’ diagnosis of the Lemonade case goes as follows: in Lemonade, A, in acquiring the belief error theory, is in much the same position as I am when on reflection I can’t locate any reason for believing the President is in Boston. In both cases, it looks as though one comes to believeFootnote 16 that one lacks a reason for believing the target proposition, even though the target proposition would be reasonable to believe only if there is some evidence for it. In short, on this line of thinking, error theory is a ‘no reason’ defeater because believing it is tantamount to rejecting that you have a reason for believing the professor’s glass is full of lemonade.
The ‘no-reason’ diagnosis is, granted, an elegant way to think about the case. However, it is on closer consideration unworkable. The reason has to do with defeater defeaters, the acquisition of which neutralizes the original defeater and in the course of doing so causes the target belief to regain its previous epistemic status prior to having that status defeated.Footnote 17
A defeater-defeater can be illustrated by a simple example. Let’s simply run a twist on our case used to illustrate a no-reason defeater. In short, I believe that the President is in Boston, but on reflection, I can’t locate any reason I have for believing this. Let’s now add to the story. Suppose that what accounts for why I actually hold the belief that the President is in Boston is that I overheard some people mentioning this. Because the circumstances under which I encoded this information were unremarkable (e.g., overheard on a train) I do not remember the reason for my belief when I attempt to locate it.
On the no-reason line, my inability to locate this reason defeats my justification for believing that the President is in Boston. As the recent epistemic situationist literature has indicatedFootnote 18, our cognitive abilities are to a significant extent influenced by environmental factors, including weather-induced negative moodFootnote 19. Suppose I fly to Svalbard, and my mood deteriorates, improving my memory recall just enough so that I can now locate my reason for believing that the President is in Boston—viz., that I overheard it that morning on a train. Having now accessed this reason which was previously inaccessible to me, I acquire a defeater-defeater; it defeats my no-reason defeater. I no longer am such that I cannot locate a reason for my belief. The (previous) defeater is accordingly neutralized.
Let’s return now to Lemonade. If error theory were a no-reason defeater for lemonade, then, as such, it could itself be neutralized by the kinds of defeater-defeaters that characteristically defeat no-reason defeaters. But, as I want to suggest, error theory can’t in principle be defeated this way, i.e., via one’s coming to believe of some reason that that is one’s for believing the target proposition. Therefore, the conclusion we should draw is that A’s acquisition of the error theory belief cannot be a no-reason defeater.
To appreciate this point, the first step will be to run a ‘no-reason defeater’ variation on the original Lemonade case.
Lemonade*: A student, A, sees what appears to be a glass of lemonade sitting on his meta-ethics professor’s desk. Furthermore, A overhears other students talking about the lemonade on the professor’s desk, and even more, the professor announces that she is drinking lemonade. A accordingly forms the belief that there is lemonade on his professor’s desk. Call this belief lemonade. A then (due to a moment of confusion and blurred vision, due to anxiety) tries but fails to locate a reason for believing lemonade but cannot find one. The spell of anxiety subsides. A then reflects and is able to locate the various reasons he has for believing that there is a glass of lemonade on his professor’s desk.
In Lemonade*, A’s no-reason defeater for his justification for believing lemonade is defeated when, after the spell of anxiety subsides, A can locate several reasons A has for believing lemonade—viz., that A saw what appeared to be a glass of lemonade sitting on his professor’s desk, that A overheard other students talking about this, and that the professor herself announced that she is drinking lemonade. Any one of these reasons A locates suffices to defeat the no-reason defeater A acquired for lemonade when, during the anxiety spell, A tried but failed to locate a reason for believing lemonade. A thus regains his justification for believing lemonade.
But—and this is why A’s acquisition of the error theory belief in Lemonade cannot be a no-reason defeater—these kinds of defeater-defeaters cannot defeat A’s error theory belief. In order to bring this point into sharp relief, consider a final twist on Lemonade:
Lemonade**: A student, A, sees what appears to be a glass of lemonade sitting on his meta-ethics professor’s desk. Furthermore, A overhears other students talking about the lemonade on the professor’s desk, and even more, the professor announces that she is drinking lemonade. Over the course of the meta-ethics lecture, A comes to believe that that Jonas Olson’s arguments for epistemic error theory (as outlined during the class by the professor drinking the yellow looking drink) are persuasive, and thus, that there are no reasons for belief. A can on reflection locate what previously she regarded as her reasons for believing lemonade, viz., the perceptual evidence and the student and professor testimony.
Notice that, in Lemonade*, when A’s anxiety subsides and A subsequently recalls the perceptual and testimonial evidence A had acquired for believing lemonade, he was by reflecting on this able to defeat the no-reason defeater acquired during the anxiety attack. But reflecting on these things does not have the same kind of epistemic significance in Lemonade**. Having acquired (in Lemonade**) the belief that Jonas Olson’s arguments for epistemic error theory are persuasive, reflecting on such things as that A’s professor told him she was drinking lemonade does not by A’s own lights furnish A with a reason for believing there is lemonade in the glass.
Here, a quick parallel to scepticism is useful. Ordinarily, a hand-like appearance is evidence that there is a hand. However, as Crispin Wright (2007, pp. 26–27) puts it, if you replace the presumption that there is an external world with reason to believe you are instead a handless brain in a vat, whose experiences are being controlled by a highly sophisticated computer program, then the experience of seeing what appears to be a hand supports not the claim that there is a hand, but instead the claim that:
The computer is right now implementing a phase of its program which requires me to suffer the illusion of having a hand and holding it up in front of my face (2007, p. 27).
Likewise, if you replace the presumption that there are reasons for belief with the belief that (as the epistemic error-theorist tells us) there are not, then appreciating that you believe that the glass looks like it’s full of lemonade, and that a classmate and the professor herself told you it’s filled with lemonade, does not support your believing you have a reason for believing lemonade. Rather, it indicates to you that you have the sort of things that would ordinarily (by others) be called reasons to believe lemonade, but which you (taken in by the professor’s exposition of Olson’s arguments) now believe are not reasons to believe lemonade.
In short, no-reason defeaters are defeated by the production of reasons. A ’s error-theory belief however is not defeated by the production of the very kinds of reasons that defeat paradigmatic no-reason defeaters. And so A’s error-theory belief is not a no-reason defeater.
The line I want to advance, and which I will sharpen in §4, is that A’s acquiring the error theory belief in Lemonade is best understood as a meta-epistemic defeater. As such, it defeats meta-epistemic status, not first-order epistemic status, and it does so on a reflective level, and in a way that is subject to an altogether different form of defeat itself. I’ll unpack these ideas further. But first, it will be helpful to contrast the kind of error-theoretic defeater outlined in this section with a very different kind of meta-epistemic defeater, which is generated via the acquisition of beliefs about relativism and knowledge.