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Naturalness, veritism, and epistemic significance

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A particularly influential thesis about epistemic axiology is veritism: that true belief is the only basic, or fully non-derivative, epistemic value. One recent argument against veritism claims that the naturalness or joint-carvingness of beliefs is also a basic epistemic value. The basic epistemic value of naturalness is held to explain intuitions that true, natural beliefs have greater epistemic value than similar but unnatural beliefs. I argue that epistemic significance, rather than naturalness, can best explain any variations in the value of natural versus unnatural beliefs. Against claims that significance itself undermines veritism, I defend an account of significance that explains why the epistemic value of significance derives entirely from the value of truth. The account also shows how significance can be grounded in multiple features, while still deriving all its value from that of truth. As a result, the epistemic value of natural beliefs offers little reason to abandon veritism, in the absence of stronger arguments favoring the basic epistemic value of naturalness.

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  1. For defenses of this view, see Goldman (1999, 2001, 2015); Pritchard (2014, 2016a, b); and Sylvan (2018, 2020).

  2. See, for example, Hurka (1998, 2001); and Sylvan (2018, 2020), for further discussion of basic value and its distinction from other types of value, including final value. Roughly speaking, final value is the value that something has independently of any further value it may cause or promote; so a feature could be finally valuable but not basically valuable, if that feature derived its value from a non-causal or constitutive relation to a basic source of value.

  3. Very roughly, the idea is that if true belief were the only basic epistemic value, then knowledge and other epistemic goods would not add any value independently of any further true belief they promote, so knowledge is not intrinsically any better than true belief (Pritchard 2011; Zagzebski 1996). Yet it may seem as if knowledge is intrinsically better than true belief; so, assuming the swamping problem can’t be dissolved, veritism would be false.

  4. See, for example, Treanor (2013, 2014); Pritchard and Millar (2010); Pritchard (2011, 2014); Sylvan (2018, 2020); Hu (2017).

  5. Lewis (1986, p. 60) and Sider (2011) understand naturalness (roughly) along the lines of fundamentality, where the most fundamental properties are the most natural. Still, one might think being a biological kind isn’t necessarily less natural than being a chemical or physical kind, even if physical kinds are more fundamental.

  6. What then is the relation between basic and final value? At least in my discussion, the sources of basic value tend to be properties such as being true or being happy, whereas things like beliefs or lives tend to be finally valuable to the extent they instantiate such properties. To be precise, a feature that is basically valuable does not derive its value from any other source, whereas a feature that’s finally valuable could derive its value from a non-causal, constitutive or instantiation relation to a basic source of value. (Of course, basic values like truth are also finally valuable). A feature that’s instrumentally valuable, by contrast, derives its value from a causal or promotional relation to another source of value.

  7. See Treanor (2013, 2018); Joyce (2009); Finocchiaro (2022).

  8. Finocchiaro (2022) raises but dismisses the possibility that significance might account for the greater epistemic value of true, natural beliefs. But Finocchiaro (2022) doesn’t work with the heuristic for significance that I adopt from Treanor (2013) and Pritchard (2014).

  9. At least, this is the case assuming we don’t say that happiness is nothing but being in a certain brain state. And we needn’t say this, even if we invoke grounding explanations, since grounding claims typically imply only necessary conditionals rather than biconditionals. (For example, being scarlet may ground being red, but there are many red things that aren’t scarlet) (Sider 2013). Of course, if a strong reductivism were true and happiness were nothing but being in a certain brain state, then being in that brain state could be basically prudentially valuable. (And it would be the causes of being in that brain state that would be instrumentally valuable).

  10. What about Finocchiaro’s (2022) claim that significance increases the disvalue of false beliefs, while also increasing the value of true beliefs? For example, the false belief that the bracelet is not green would have more disvalue than the belief that it’s not grue, because the former belief is more significant. On significance-as-similarity, however, I don’t think this holds. On the contrary, it seems to me that even the false belief that the bracelet isn’t green is less disvaluable than the false belief that it isn’t grue, insofar as the former belief seems more representationally similar to the world than the latter (especially if one thinks, as I suggest, that there may not be any real property of being grue).


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The author thanks Uriah Kriegel and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful and informative feedback on previous drafts of this article.

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Sass, R. Naturalness, veritism, and epistemic significance. Synthese 203, 190 (2024).

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