Epistemic conservatism and bare beliefs


My subject is the kind of Epistemic Conservatism (EC) that says that an agent is in some measure justified in maintaining a belief simply in virtue of the fact that the agent has that belief. Quine’s alternative to positivist foundationalism, Chisholmian particularism, Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, and Bayesianism all seem to rely on EC. I argue that, in order to evaluate EC, we must consider an agent holding a bare belief, that is, a belief stripped of all personal memory and epistemic context. Taking a stylistic cue from Peter Strawson, I argue that, though it does not seem to be self-contradictory to suppose that someone has a bare belief, and so it is not absolutely inconceivable that bare beliefs exist, it is, for us as we are, practically inconceivable that bare beliefs exist. It does not seem practically feasible, then, to evaluate EC on its own terms.

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  1. 1.

    Other formulations of EC include: anything we find ourselves believing may be said to have some presumption in its favor (Chisholm 1980, p. 551); and if a subject S believes that p, the retention of that belief has some positive epistemic status for S, at least prima facie (McGrath 2005, p. 1). Vahid (2004) argues that there are several non-equivalent principles being discussed in the literature, all being called EC. This might seem to make it more difficult to discuss EC in an unambiguous way. But it seems to me that my target is the core of most standard formulations of EC, namely, the claim that S gets justification for believing that p simply in virtue of S’s holding that belief. Indeed, Vahid (p. 98) writes, “Epistemic conservatism comes in many forms, the most basic of which asserts that the mere possession of a belief confers justification on that belief. So any agent is justified in holding a belief simply in virtue of the fact of holding it.”.

  2. 2.

    In addition, in Bayesian accounts of justification, there are rules of “conditionalization” for updating our beliefs in response to new experiences. Those conditionalization principles require the agent to hold fixed certain conditional degrees of belief, such as: my degree of belief that the next card will be a spade on the condition that I have two spades in my hand and there are two spades that have already turned up will typically be (for instance) 1/7. But, despite Carnap’s ambitions, Bayesians seem to have accepted that we must preserve certain aspects of the belief systems we happen to have at the time. So, in an important sense, Bayesians seem to rely on EC. But I cannot do justice here to the complexity of this issue; for further discussion of these and related claims see, for example, Christensen (1994) and Kvanvig (1989). There are several other prominent theories that seem to rely on EC in one way or another. For instance, Hare (1976) and Lyons (1976) seem to think this is true of Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium.

  3. 3.

    Indeed, later on, Christensen concedes that this belief of his is not a bare belief: “in the case of my belief about the population of India, I suspect that I originally formed this belief (like most of my geographical beliefs) based on the testimony of my mother, or some other generally reliable source. Furthermore, since India is a common topic of conversation in my family, I would have a good chance of discovering an erroneous belief on this topic if I had one. Thus although I cannot remember my justification for beginning to have the belief, I have general reasons to think that beliefs I now have about the population of India are accurate. And these reasons provide me with a justification for maintaining the belief” (1994, pp. 74–75).

  4. 4.

    An anonymous reviewer gave this interesting suggestion, prompting me to think more carefully about the strength and scope of my claim.

  5. 5.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this helpful concern.

  6. 6.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection. It prompted me to address an important implication of my argument.

  7. 7.

    Of course, I do not mean to assume that this explanation is the only plausible one, and nor do I need that assumption (or any argument for that claim). For instance, one might argue that acquisition of the concepts of good and bad, as well as the formation of specific judgments about which things are good and bad, are, for humans, inextricably connected to experiences of consequences. At the same time, some of the most important of such consequences may be phenomenal experiences of pleasure, which might then provide the basis of the concept of something’s being non-instrumentally good. Perhaps this sort of thing is missing in the case of belief. That is, maybe, in the case of intrinsic goodness, the “buck stops” with the experience of pleasure, whereas in the case of belief, there is no analogous phenomenal experience of merely believing. This suggestion doesn’t, however, line up with my distinction above between what’s a part of me and what isn’t. In fact, it suggests the opposite: that if we can think about intrinsic value, it’s because there is something we experience as a part of ourselves as intrinsically good, in contrast to the case of belief (where we always find ourselves casting about for related considerations when asked why we believe something).

  8. 8.

    See footnote 2 and pp. 1–2 of this paper for references to some literature on how accounts such as Bayesianism and Rawls’s reflective equilibrium rely on EC, as well as some brief descriptions of how such accounts seem to rely on EC.

  9. 9.

    For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I am grateful to Mike Huemer, Rob Rupert, Gagan Sapkota, Matthias Steup, Brian Talbot, and two anonymous reviewers for Synthese.


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Coren, D. Epistemic conservatism and bare beliefs. Synthese 198, 743–756 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02059-8

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  • Epistemic conservatism
  • Bare beliefs
  • Beliefs with forgotten justification
  • Connected beliefs
  • Quine
  • Chisholm
  • Rawls
  • Bayesians
  • Intrinsic value
  • Memory