Dilemmic Epistemology


This article argues that there can be epistemic dilemmas: situations in which one faces conflicting epistemic requirements with the result that whatever one does, one is doomed to do wrong from the epistemic point of view. Accepting this view, I argue, may enable us to solve several epistemological puzzles.

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  1. 1.

    Little, but not none. Ross (2010) argues that there can be certain kinds of epistemic dilemmas. Srinivasan (2015), Christensen (2016), and (tentatively) Hawthorne and Srinivasan (2013), endorse views that come quite close to the idea. Moss (2013) argues that there can be epistemic dilemmas, but not of the sort that I am interested in here. Her view is that there are cases in which nothing speaks in favour of adopting one epistemic attitude over another incompatible one, but not that one is required to take each attitude. Moss’s view can be thought of as a kind of Permissivism.

  2. 2.

    I have in mind here the kind of rationality associated with reasonableness, rather than means-end coherence. On a different note, some philosophers treat ‘it is rational for you to \(\upvarphi \)’ as synonymous with ‘you ought to \(\upvarphi \)’. I think this is a mistake. The question whether you ought to always be rational cannot be settled by definitional fiat.

  3. 3.

    Gibbons (2013). I also think that the norm K, according to which one ought (epistemically) to only believe that P if one would thereby come to know that P, is genuine and non-optional (Unge 1975; Williamson 2000; Adler 2002; Sutton 2005, 2007; Littlejohn 2013). I won’t discuss it here because it is superfluous to our concerns. Given the factivity of knowledge, anyone who endorses K is committed to T, and K and T cannot conflict with one another in the way that I’ll be arguing T and R can. The reader is welcome to extend everything I say about T to K if they are also inclined accept it.

  4. 4.

    You might think that since it is irrational to believe that which one knows to be false, only R is needed to explain what is wrong with each kind of belief, and so the wrongness of believing them does not motivate T. I disagree. If T were false, or merely optional, then it would be a mystery just why it is irrational to believe known falsehoods in the first place.

  5. 5.

    Gibbons (2013).

  6. 6.

    A referee has pointed out that in the MUG case the fact that P is false is not part of your evidence. They ask: in what epistemic sense ought you not believe it, then? Perhaps we could say that there are alethic grounds on which you ought not believe it, but epistemic? I suspect that the worry here is partly a terminological one. Some philosophers take phrases like ‘epistemically, you ought to believe that...’ to essentially make reference to what one ought to believe on the assumption that one ought to believe what the evidence supports. They take the phrase ‘epistemically, you ought to believe that...’ to be synonymous with ‘in order to conform to your evidence, you ought to believe that...’. Other use the phrase more broadly—to pick out a particular domain of normativity; roughly, that domain of normativity which is neither moral nor practical, but rather (putting it roughly) involved in acquiring an accurate picture of the world. On this usage it is not assumed that only your evidence bears on what you ought to do, epistemically speaking (though that remains a possibility). Here I use the phrase ‘epistemically, you ought to belief that...’ in the latter sense. One may prefer to use it in the former sense, but any dispute about how it should be used would be merely verbal – it would not concern what one ought to believe, but rather what words we should use in articulating a theory of belief formation. Of course, it might be argued that we should reject T on evidentialist grounds, but to assume a form of evidentialism incompatible with T at this point would be to rule out the view that I will be developing by prior to giving it the chance at a hearing.

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of all-things-considered requirements to believe, see Booth (2012) and, contra Booth,Stapleford (2015).

  8. 8.

    Or at least, so say I. I don’t deny that this is controversial.

  9. 9.

    ‘Hypological’ is a rarely used term. It comes from the Greek hypologos: ‘to hold accountable or liable’ (Srinivasan 2015). The deontic realm covers things like requirements, obligations, and permissions. The hypological realm covers things like blameworthiness, criticisability, and praiseworthiness.

  10. 10.

    If you suspend judgement on P, on the other hand, then you are, intuitively, epistemically blameworthy for doing so, even though you did the right thing by T. At this point you might think that I’m identifying rationality with blamelessness and irrationality with blameworthiness. I’m not. Whilst I think that you are rational and blameless if you believe that P in MUG, and irrational and—excuses notwithstanding—blameworthy if you suspend judgement on P or disbelieve it, I also think that there can be cases of blameless irrationality. My reasons will become apparent later.

  11. 11.

    That there is a distinction to be drawn between permissible behaviour and merely excusable behaviour is by now widely recognised (see Austin 1957; Gardner 1997, amongst others). In epistemology, it is often invoked by those who accept various knowledge norms (Williamson 2000; Hawthorne and Stanley 2008, for instance). Feldman (2008) also discusses the distinction.

  12. 12.

    If we endorse K along with T and R, this will have to be revised slightly, since the combination of R and T permits belief in Gettier cases, but K doesn’t.

  13. 13.

    Some of those with whom I have discussed the view have suggested that, whilst it shouldn’t be discarded out of hand, it should nevertheless be thought of as a last resort—a view to be adopted only if all else fails—on the grounds that it is somehow pessimistic. I find this mentality puzzling. I see no reason to rank potential solutions to the puzzle prior to investigating their pros and cons, and given what I judge to be the pros and cons of dilemmism, I think it should be very far from the last resort.

  14. 14.

    A referee has asked: do I take the dilemmic view to provide an argument for T and R? I do not. Rather, I take them to be data that must be accommodated by an epistemology of belief. The dilemmic view accommodates them, and that is something that speaks in its favour. The same goes for the fact that T and R are both non-optional. This is data that likewise must be accommodated, and in virtue of interpreting them as both issuing requirements the dilemmic view accommodates it, since whenever one is required to \(\upvarphi \), \(\upvarphi \)-ing is not optional in the way that it would be if it were supererogatory or merely permissible. This is what I mean when I say that dilemmism ‘vindicates’ the non-optionality of T and R. Arguments for T and R abound in the literature. See, for instance, Unge (1975), Williamson (2000), Wedgwood (2002), Shah (2003), Gibbons (2013), and Whiting (2013), amongst others, for arguments for T. See Wedgwood (2002), Gibbons (2013), Cohen & Comesana (forthcoming) and Hughes (forthcoming), amongst others, for arguments for R. The observation that conformity with each of T and R is non-optional is due to Gibbons (2013).

  15. 15.

    For good discussions of the idea that belief aims at truth see Williams (1973), Velleman (2000), Wedgwood (2002), Boghossian (2003), Shah (2003), Shah and Velleman (2005) and the essays collected in Chan (2013). (Note: I don’t mean to suggest that these authors all reject the idea that T expresses a requirement—one might think that belief aims at truth and that one is required to only believe truths).

  16. 16.

    The reason they think that T expresses a genuine requirement is because they think that Kdoes, and T follows from K.

  17. 17.

    Nelson (2010), Littlejohn (2013). For a reply to Nelson, see Stapleford (2013).

  18. 18.

    Although he doesn’t propose it as a solution to the puzzle I am interested in here, Feldman (2000) is an example of someone who thinks that the question of what you ought to believe all-things-considered is ill-formed and has no answer.

  19. 19.

    McConnell (1978), Marcus (1980) make this point about moral dilemmas.

  20. 20.

    The reader is free to substitute in here whatever logic they think is most robust.

  21. 21.

    My impression is that this is the general consensus in ethical theory.

  22. 22.

    Here’s how the explosion occurs:

    1. 1.

      OBP       (assump.)

    2. 2.

      O \(\lnot \) BP       (assump.)

    3. 3.

      O(BP & \(\lnot \) BP)       (by AGG)

    4. 4.

      O(BP & \(\lnot \) BP) \(\rightarrow \) O\(\varphi \)       (by OE and EFQ)

    5. 5.

      O\(\upvarphi \) (from 3 and 4)

      (1) and (2) describe the dilemmic view. (3) follows from (1) and (2), given AND. (4) follows from (3), given OE and EFQ, and (5) follows from (3) and (4).

  23. 23.

    Here’s how the contradiction arises:

    1. 1.

      OBP      (assump.)

    2. 2.

      O \(\lnot \)BP       (assump.)

    3. 3.

      OBP \(\rightarrow \)\(\lnot \)O \(\lnot \)BP       (by PC)

    4. 4.

      \(\lnot \)O \(\lnot \)BP       (from 1 and 3)

      (1) and (2) describe the dilemmic view. (3) applies PC. (4) follows from (1) and (3), and (2) and (4) contradict one another.

  24. 24.

    McConnell (2014).

  25. 25.

    Williams (1965).

  26. 26.

    To avoid confusion I should be clear that A-OIC should not be read as only claiming that if you have two conflicting requirements, they are jointly satisfiable. The number of requirements may be arbitrarily large. So A-OIC says that when you have 10, or 100, or 1000...and so on, requirements, they are jointly satisfiable. Here’s why dilemmism is incompatible with A-OIC:

    1. 1.

      OBP       (assump.)

    2. 2.

      O \(\lnot \)BP      (assump.)

    3. 3.

      \(\lnot \)C (BP & \(\lnot \)BP)       (assump.)

    4. 4.

      (OBP & O \(\lnot \)BP) \(\rightarrow \) C (BP & \(\lnot \)BP) (by OIC*)

    5. 5.

      C (BP & \(\lnot \)BP)       (by 1, 2, and 4)

      (1) and (2) describe the dilemmic view. (3) follows from the fact that BP and \(\lnot \)BP are logically incompossible. (4) follows from (1) and (2), given A-OIC, and (5) contradicts (3).

  27. 27.

    A number of logicians have already developed dilemma-permitting logics. Goble (2005) and Horty (2003) are two recent examples.

  28. 28.

    Rinard (forthcoming). The same objection is often made against the possibility of moral dilemmas.

  29. 29.

    A notable exception is Smith (2012).

  30. 30.

    See also Gibbard (1990), and Jackson (1991), amongst others.

  31. 31.

    Philosophers who have argued that an adequately guiding theory must not violate OIC include Hare (1963), Driver (1983), Griffin (1992), Copp (2003), and Andric (2015).

  32. 32.

    A condition is luminous just in case whenever it obtains one is in a position to know that it obtains.

  33. 33.

    See Williamson (2000), Chap. 4.

  34. 34.

    Readers who are on the fence about the anti-luminosity argument are welcome to read much of the argument that follows as conditional: if no non-trivial condition is luminous, then (as we will see) many of the objections one might have to dilemmism lack bite.

  35. 35.

    Thus, access internalism is an untenable position.

  36. 36.

    Srinivasan (2015) also makes this point.

  37. 37.

    Smith (2012)also makes this point.

  38. 38.

    Might it be said that even if you don’t know that you’re required to \(\upvarphi \), but you believe that you are, and so you \(\upvarphi \) anyway, then you have still been guided by the requirement? I don’t think so. What you’ve been guided by is your belief that you are subject to the requirement. And this is still the case even if it turns out to be true that you are required to \(\upvarphi \). Perhaps instead it could be argued that even if it isn’t a desideratum on adequate guidance that whenever one is required to \(\upvarphi \) one is in a position to know about it, it is nevertheless a desideratum that one is in a position to truly believe it? I’m skeptical, but even if it were, dilemmism would satisfy this desideratum, for when you are in a conflict case you are in a position to truly believe that you both ought to believe that P and ought not believe that P. You have no reason to believe that, of course, but that’s a different matter; you can still do it. Perhaps instead could it be argued that even if it is not a desideratum on adequate guidance that you know that you are required to \(\upvarphi \), it is nevertheless a desideratum that it is probable on your evidence (to some degree n) that you are required to \(\upvarphi \)? I’m still skeptical. Williamson (2014) argues—again, convincingly in my view—that one can know that P even though it is arbitrarily improbable short of 0 on one’s evidence that one knows that P. And as Hawthorne and Srinivasan (2013) point out, this argument will extend to all non-trivial conditions. For any non-trivial condition C, it can obtain even though it is arbitrarily improbable short of 0 on one’s evidence that it obtains.

  39. 39.

    I don’t mean to suggest that only dilemmism instructs you to avoid misleading evidence. Any view on which T expresses a requirement will also do so. All the same, it is to the credit of dilemmism that it does too.

  40. 40.

    Cohen and Comesana (forthcoming).

  41. 41.

    For more discussion of these kinds of cases see Siegel (2013). Srinivasan (2015) makes a similar point to the one I’m making here.

  42. 42.

    I have in mind here dispositional rather than occurrent beliefs.

  43. 43.

    That said, unlike with T-centric theories the number of cases in which dilemmism fails to give you guidance can be larger than the number of cases in which R-centric theories fail, because dilemmism fails to give you guidance in all cases in which you don’t know what the rational attitude to take is and in cases in which you know that R requires you to believe that P but (unbeknownst to you) T requires you not to. However, the question is whether the set of cases in which dilemmism fails to give guidance will be so much greater than the set in which R-centric theories fail to give guidance that we are thereby availed of a reason to reject dilemmism and instead opt for R-centric theories. I find it hard to see how such a claim could be substantiated.

  44. 44.

    I don’t mean to suggest that anyone would think that ‘believe whatever you feel like believing’ is a good epistemology; I’m not trying to knock down a strawman here. Rather, I only want to use it to illustrate my point.

  45. 45.

    Though see Ryan (2003, 2015) for critical discussion of various epistemic ought-implies-can principles.

  46. 46.

    Why? Because the consequences of failing to meet one’s moral requirements are usually more serious than the consequences of failing to meet one’s epistemic requirements.

  47. 47.

    A-OIC entails OIC (just replace ‘\(\uppsi \)’ in A-OIC with ‘\(\upvarphi \)’), so we need not worry about the possibility of arguments for A-OIC that are distinct from arguments for OIC. Thanks to Tim Williamson for drawing this to my attention.

  48. 48.

    Though Graham doesn’t endorse the argument.

  49. 49.

    Robin McKenna has suggested to me that the argument could be revised as follows: 1. If one is required to \(\upvarphi \) one has a conclusive reason to \(\upvarphi \). 2. One cannot have a conclusive reason to \(\upvarphi \) and a conclusive reason to not \(\upvarphi \). 3. Therefore, one cannot be required to \(\upvarphi \) and at the same time required to not \(\upvarphi \). My worry about this revised argument is whether we have a sufficiently good grip on how conclusive reasons function to think that (2) is any more plausible than (3).

  50. 50.

    Whatever it is, it is perhaps worth noting that it is clearly not the notion at work in discussions of epistemic injustice such as Fricker (2007).

  51. 51.

    Even that’s not always right. If someone who should know better reads Breitbart so often that they find themselves psychologically incapable of believing that Donald Trump is prone to lying, it is quite natural to think that—excuses notwithstanding—they are criticisable and blameworthy, morally and epistemically for getting themselves into such a mess. Still, to say that someone is epistemically blameworthy in that case is not to say that they are epistemically blameworthy in conflict cases no matter what they do.

  52. 52.

    To my knowledge Hintikka (1969) was the first to present this argument.

  53. 53.

    As I said earlier, some logicians have already made a start on this task

  54. 54.

    Unge (1975) and Williamson (2000), amongst many others. Most of those who endorse T-Assertion do so because they endorse K-Assertion, according to which one ought (epistemically) to assert only what one knows. That includes Unger and Williamson.

  55. 55.

    Douven (2006), Lackey (2007), Kvanvig (2011), amongst others.

  56. 56.

    Hawthorne (2004), Stanley (2005), Hawthorne and Stanley (2008), Littlejohn (2012). As before, we could add a K-Reasoning norm to this list.

  57. 57.

    Brown (2008), Fantl and McGrath (2009), Neta (2009), Gerken (2011).

  58. 58.

    We need to be careful though. How often will the demands of steadfastness and conciliationism pull in opposite directions? The answer might be very often. If so, then a dilemmic epistemology of disagreement may be vulnerable to the objection that it fails to be guiding all too often.

  59. 59.

    But again, we need to be careful. How often will this view fail to be guiding?

  60. 60.

    Thanks to Daniel Greco, Tim Williamson, Jessica Brown, Robin McKenna, Clayton Littlejohn, Torfinn Huvenes, Finnur Dellsen, Michael Hannon, Sebastian Watzl, Peter Fritz, Juhani Yli-Vakkuri, Maria Baghramian, Cameron Boult, Caroline Krager, Olav Gjelsvik, Rowland Stout, Herman Cappelen, Matt McGrath, Adam Carter, Wesley Buckwalter, audiences at University College Dublin, the University of Oslo, the University of St Andrews, and KU Leuven, and two anonymous referees.


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Correspondence to Nick Hughes.

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Hughes, N. Dilemmic Epistemology. Synthese 196, 4059–4090 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1639-x

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  • Epistemic dilemma
  • Truth norm
  • Knowledge norm
  • Epistemic rationality
  • Action guidance
  • Epistemic ought-implies-can
  • Deontic logic