The explanatory role of consistency requirements

Abstract

Is epistemic inconsistency a mere symptom of having violated other requirements of rationality—notably, reasons-responsiveness requirements? Or is inconsistency irrational on its own? This question has important implications for the debate on the normativity of epistemic rationality. In this paper, I defend a new account of the explanatory role of the requirement of epistemic consistency. Roughly, I will argue that, in cases where an epistemically rational agent is permitted to believe P and also permitted to disbelieve P (relative to a body of epistemic reasons), the consistency requirement plays a distinct explanatory role. I will also argue that such a type of permissiveness is a live possibility when it comes to rational epistemic standards.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Broome (2013, Chapter 5) denies that rationality consists in responding to reasons that there are or that one has. Worsnip (2015, 2016) argues that, since requirements of epistemic coherence and requirements of reasons-responsiveness can conflict, they should be theorized independently of each other.

  2. 2.

    This strategy has been pursued by Way (2009), McHugh and Way (2017), Kiesewetter (2017, Chapter 7) and Lord (2017). From an “internalist” perspective, such a view amounts to substantive internal coherence requirements between (i) a priori knowledge and phenomenal experiences and (ii) beliefs or credences—see Wedgwood (2017, sec. 0.5). See also Schroeder (2008, 2011). In the practical realm, the view that rationality consists in responding to reasons one has is often associated with Raz (1999, 2005).

  3. 3.

    Specifically, much of the debate has to do with the fact that Consistency is not “truth-conducive” (see Sect. 1.2). Naturally, such an objection is pointless in cases where believing P guarantees that P will be true.

  4. 4.

    I discuss recent arguments for and against permissiveness in Daoust (2017, 2018b, Forthcoming).

  5. 5.

    The rational status of Intra-Level Coherence is contentious. Specifically, some solutions to the Lottery Paradox entail that Intra-Level Coherence is not a genuine requirement of epistemic rationality. See notably Demey (2013), Foley (2009) and Sturgeon (2008). See Daoust (2018b) for discussion of the relationship between Intra-Level and Inter-Level Coherence.

  6. 6.

    As with Intra-Level Coherence, the rational status of Inter-Level Coherence is also contentious. For example, Coates (2012) and Lasonen-Aarnio (2014, 2015, m.s.) have argued that responding correctly to one’s reasons sometimes entail believing “P, but I have sufficient epistemic reason not to believe P”, which is an incoherent combination of attitudes. They conclude that such incoherence is not necessarily irrational. See Greco (2014), Horowitz (2014a), Kiesewetter (2016), Littlejohn (2015), Titelbaum (2015) and Worsnip (2015) for various responses to this view. See also Daoust (2018b).

  7. 7.

    See Way (2009), McHugh and Way (2017), Kiesewetter (2017, chap. 7) or Lord (2017).

  8. 8.

    I wish to remain neutral towards these interpretations of what epistemic reasons are. See Sylvan (2016a, b) for an overview of this debate.

    I am glossing over many other subtleties here. Agents might be required to respond correctly to their epistemic reasons insofar as other conditions are fulfilled, such as caring about P, explicitly wondering whether P, considering that P is not a pointless proposition, and the like. For the sake of simplicity, I will assume in the remainder of this paper that such conditions are always fulfilled. There is also an important debate about what it means to have a reason. This is an orthogonal issue that I do not wish to address here. See notably Schroeder (2008, 2011) and Lord (2010) for various responses to this problem.

  9. 9.

    Broome (2005, 2007a, b, 2013, Chapter 5) and Worsnip (2015) reject Elimination. Kolodny (2005, 2007a, b) rejects Elimination insofar as rationality does not consist in responding to reasons one has. However, Kolodny thinks that reasonable agents are necessarily consistent. See Buchak and Pettit (2015), Guindon (2014, 2016) and Reisner (2011) for discussion. See also Kolodny (2008a, b) and Raz (2005, p. 6) for discussion related to the practical realm.

  10. 10.

    Fogal (m.s.) endorses such a view.

  11. 11.

    Some deny that epistemic norms have to do with the goals of getting true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. See the debate between Berker (2013a, b, 2015) and Goldman (1986, 2015). Others admit that explaining the normativity of Consistency is an important challenge. See, for instance, Broome (2008, 2013, Chapter 11) and Way (2009, 2010).

  12. 12.

    See Scanlon (1998, pp. 23–30) on a similar point.

  13. 13.

    Alternatively, perhaps Rick believes that the arguments he has heard are inconclusive. In such a case, one could argue that his belief “screens the epistemic reasons,” in the sense that such a higher-order belief defeats or undermines the arguments he has heard.

  14. 14.

    As noted by Kiesewetter (2017, pp. 161–62), Broome sometimes conflate (i) responding to reasons there are with (ii) responding to reasons one has. I here assume that Broome means “responding to reasons one has”.

  15. 15.

    A quick clarificatory remark: it is still unclear whether Broome’s argument is compatible with the claim that if an agent is rational, then he or she has responded correctly to his or her attitudinal reasons (this is what he calls “Limited Entailment”). On page 79, he claims that his objection from bootstrapping does not affect Limited Entailment, but on page 82 he claims to have shown that Limited Entailment is empty.

  16. 16.

    See Kopec and Titelbaum (2016), White (2005, 2014) and Kelly (2014) and for an overview of the debate surrounding the evidential interpretations of Permissiveness. A quick clarificatory remark: Evidential Permissiveness can also apply to situations where multiple epistemically rational agents who share the same evidence are permitted to take distinct incompatible attitudes towards P. But as I indicated in the introduction, this paper will be concerned with intrapersonal cases only.

  17. 17.

    See Littlejohn (2012) or Owens (2002) on why there could be a distinction between epistemic reasons and evidence. I here remain neutral on whether such a distinction is correct. And again, in this paper, I leave aside the debate surrounding the nature of epistemic reasons. As I indicated in Sect. 1, there must be at least one understanding of reasons that has something to do with rationality.

  18. 18.

    Obviously, since evidence appears to be the main type of epistemic reason, there is a close connection between Reasons Permissiveness and Evidential Permissiveness. Specifically, if epistemic reasons are permissive, this probably means that evidence is permissive. Nevertheless, I prefer to distinguish the two views and focus on the former.

  19. 19.

    Some authors take such a line of reasoning to be obvious. See notably Lord (2017, p. 9), Kiesewetter (2017, Chapter 7), Matheson (2011) or Sylvan (2015). See also Foley’s (1987, Chapter 6.2) argument against the epistemic rationality of believing contradictory propositions.

  20. 20.

    There are two reasons why I here offer an extended version of the argument. First, Kolodny’s original argument is stated very quickly. Second, since the publication of Kolodny’s argument, Easwaran (2015), Pettigrew (2016) and Dorst (2017) have developed similar frameworks that are much more comprehensive. In such a context, I prefer to develop an extended reconstruction of Kolodny’s argument. This allows me to consider the strongest interpretation of his view.

  21. 21.

    The expected value is sometimes called the weighted mean value. For example, suppose that, in a fair lottery, 10 participants each have 1 chance in 10 of winning a single prize of $20. In that lottery, 9 participants won't win anything, and 1 participant will win $20. Since (9·0 +1·20)/10 = 2, the weighted mean value of this lottery is $2. This means $2 is the expected prize for each participant. See Buchak (2013) for alternatives to expected utility theory.

  22. 22.

    Kolodny’s argument has to do with epistemic probabilities (2007b, p. 233). However, under the assumption that rational credences track epistemic probabilities, these two notions can be used nearly interchangeably. .

  23. 23.

    Kolodny considers the epistemic value of truly believing P and the epistemic value of avoiding a false belief concerning P. Following Easwaran (2015), Pettigrew (2016) and Dorst (2017), I take my framework to be more intuitive. In any case, nothing hinges on this small difference.

  24. 24.

    Zero is simply a reference point. Suppose that, in order to decide whether to believe P, an agent calculates the expected utility to believe that P. Suppose that the result is -10. Since the epistemic value of not believing that P is 0 by reference, this means that there are 10 utiles associated with not believing that P. When the expected value of forming a belief that P is under 0, this means that not believing that P is a better epistemic option with reference to an epistemic value of 0. Dorst (2017, pp. 9–12) makes similar remarks.

  25. 25.

    It should be noted that similar principles have been developed elsewhere since the publication of Kolodny’s argument. See, for instance, Easwaran (2015), Pettigrew (2016) and Dorst (2017). Following Kolodny, I here assume that rational beliefs are determined by epistemic probabilities or rational credences. By contrast, Easwaran uses these principles to argue that rational credences are determined by rational beliefs.

  26. 26.

    See notably Dorst (2017, p. 11). Easwaran (2015, p. 824) reaches a very similar conclusion.

  27. 27.

    It should be noted that such a claim is not uncontroversial. For example, Jamesian pragmatists think that there is no uniquely rational epistemic value of true beliefs and epistemic disvalue of false beliefs. See Kelly (2014, sec. 2), Pettigrew (2016) and Dorst (2017) for discussion.

  28. 28.

    Two sets of standards can lead one to the right answer 90% of the time without being compatible. While they might warrant the same proportion of true propositions, they might not warrant the exact same propositions. See Titelbaum and Kopec (forthcoming). I raise an objection against Titelbaum and Kopec’s argument in Daoust (2018a), but my strategy merely applies to ideal theories of epistemic rationality. So, even if my argument is correct, this leaves open the possibility that Titelbaum and Kopec’s argument succeeds for non-ideal theories of epistemic rationality.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Samuel Dishaw, Lidal Dror, Caitlin Fitchett, Daniel Fogal, Jens Gillessen, Bruno Guindon, Daniel Laurier, Samuel Montplaisir, Andrew Reisner, Rémi Tison and two anonymous referees for invaluable comments and suggestions. This research was financed by the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire sur la Normativité (GRIN) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Grant #767-2016-1771).

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Daoust, M. The explanatory role of consistency requirements. Synthese (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-01942-8

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Keywords

  • Rationality
  • Consistency
  • Epistemic reasons
  • Requirements
  • Permissiveness