Thursday, September 10, 2009

Can one intelligibly deny that one ought to form true beliefs?

It's sometimes said that you can't intelligibly deny that it's ceterus paribus valuable to have true beliefs (i.e. no one who doesn't accept this claim counts as having thoughts at all). The idea is, that in order to count as a thinker at all, you have to tend to have mostly true beliefs (or ones that are mostly reliable, truth preserving or justified). For Davidsonain reasons, we can't interpret people at all, unless we make them out to be mostly true/reliable/justified etc.

But I claim that actually, even if this Davidsonain idea is right (I think it probably is) it doesn't entail that someone can't coherently deny that having true beliefs is valuable.

For, all the Davidsonain considerations mentioned above would seem to require is that a person DOES modify their belief in a way that tends towards truths/matches up with what they would be justified in believing etc. They don't have to BELIEVE it would be GOOD to so modify their beliefs. Thus, I claim, a philosopher who denied that there was such a thing as epistemic normativity, would count denying that it is ceterus paribus valuable to have true beliefs (they don't think anything is valuable). (On the other hand, it is probably not possible for someone to deny that its ceterus paribus good to have true beliefs, but think something else would be ceterus paribus good).

What makes a crucial difference here, is the difference between thinking about whether Obama is a good president and thinking about whether one has reason to think that Obama is a good president. Colloquially we often use the expressions interchangably. But, in fact, in normal deliberation I don't entertain any propositions about what I should believe. I don't think about reasons, or beliefs. I just think about Obama, and then to form beliefs mostly in cases where (in fact) it is reasonable to form such a belief.

All we need to translate someone as having beliefs, is for them to tend revise these beliefs in cases where they should revise them, NOT for them to have any beliefs to the effect that they should revise them. The philosopher who denies epistemic normativity is an example of how you can have one without the other.

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