Epistemology

Reasons, Regresses, and Tragedy: The Epistemic Regress Problem and the Problem of the Criterion, American Philosophical Quarterly, forthcoming

The epistemic regress problem is akin to the problem of the criterion. Each is posed by propositions that are independently plausible but jointly inconsistent. Each problem makes assumptions that imply (i) that belief in a proposition P can have an epistemically valuable relational property—being supported by evidence or being authorized by a criterion of truth—only if P is the first member of an endless sequence of propositions each of which stands in that relationship to its successor, and (ii) that this prevents any proposition from having that property. The best explanation for these similarities is that each problem is a special case of a general problem about reasons: it seems that we can have reasons for belief, that reasons must be based on reasons, but that this requires an endless regress that is incompatible with having reasons. This problem is especially acute for reasons that are non-arbitrary from our own point of view and for reasons that are required for rational intellectual autonomy, for these kinds of reasons must be based on reasons. To respond to the problem we must either accept the idea that endless regresses are required for reasons, or recognize, in a tragic spirit, that having fully satisfactory reasons is a worthy but impossible ideal.

The Epistemic Regress Problem, Philosophical Studies 140:3 (2008) [penultimate version PDF]

The best extant statement of the epistemic regress problem makes assumptions that are too strong. An improved version assumes only that that reasons require support, that no proposition is supported only by endless regresses of reasons, and that some proposition is supported. These assumptions are individually plausible but jointly inconsistent. Attempts to explain support by means of unconceptualized sensations, contextually immunized propositions, endless regresses, and holistic coherence all require either additional reasons or an external condition on support that is arbitrary from the believer’s own point of view.

The Trouble with Infinitism, Synthese 138:1 (2004)

One way to solve the epistemic regress problem would be to show that we can acquire justification by means of an infinite regress. This is infinitism. This view has not been popular, but Peter Klein has developed a sophisticated version of infinitism according to which all justified beliefs depend upon an infinite regress of reasons. Klein's argument for infinitism is unpersuasive, but he successfully responds to the most compelling extant objections to the view. A key component of his position is his claim that an infinite regress is necessary, but not sufficient, for justified belief. This enables infinitism to avoid a number of otherwise compelling objections. However, it commits infinitism to the existence of an additional feature of reasons that is necessary and, together with the regress condition, sufficient for justified belief. The trouble with infinitism is that any such condition could account for the connection between justification and truth only by undermining the rationale for the regress condition itself.

Self-Supporting Arguments, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66:2 (2003)

Deductive and inductive logic confront this skeptical challenge: we can justify any logical principle only by means of an argument but we can acquire justification by means of an argument only if we are already justified in believing some logical principle. We could solve this problem if probative arguments do not require justified belief in their corresponding conditionals. For if not, then inferential justification would not require justified belief in any logical principle. So even arguments whose corresponding conditionals are epistemically dependent upon their conclusions—epistemically self-supporting arguments—need not be viciously circular. R.B. Braithwaite and James Van Cleve use internalist and externalist versions of this strategy in their proposed solutions to the problem of induction. Unfortunately, their arguments for self-support are unsound and any theory of inferential justification that does not require justified belief in the corresponding conditionals of justification-affording arguments is unacceptably arbitrary. So self-supporting arguments cannot be justification-creating.

Justification-Affording Circular Arguments, Philosophical Studies 111:3 (2002)

An argument whose conclusion C is essential evidence for one of its premises can provide its target audience with justification for believing C. This is possible because we can enhance our justification for believing a proposition C by integrating it into an explanatory network of beliefs for which C itself provides essential evidence. I argue for this in light of relevant features of doxastic circularity, epistemic circularity, and explanatory inferences. Finally, I confirm my argument with an example and respond to objections.

Epistemic Levels and the Problem of the Criterion, Philosophical Studies 88:2 (1997)

The problem of the criterion is the ancient skeptical paradox of the wheel: in order to know any proposition we must first know a criterion, but in order to know a criterion we must already know some proposition, thus we cannot know any proposition or any criterion.  Roderick Chisholm and James Van Cleve have responded to this paradox by claiming that knowledge does not require knowledge of a criterion.  According to these philosophers, knowledge would require knowledge of a criterion only if knowledge required knowledge about knowledge.  But since knowledge does not require higher-level knowledge, knowledge does not require knowledge of a criterion.  This is the epistemic levels response to the problem of the criterion.

This response is unsound, for the problem of the criterion does not presuppose that knowledge requires higher-level knowledge.  The claim that it does is based on a failure to understand the challenge raised by the problem of the criterion and on a corresponding failure to appreciate the distinction between epistemic principles and criteria of truth.  In effect, these philosophers have confused the problem of the criterion with a related, but distinct, argument for skepticism I call the epistemic principles argument.  In fact, neither Chilsholm nor Van Cleve has shown that the epistemic principles argument or the problem of the criterion is unsound.

Posing the Problem of the Criterion, Philosophical Studies 75:3 (1994)

Although it has been largely neglected in contemporary philosophy, the problem of the criterion raises questions which must be addressed by any complete account of knowledge.  But the problem of the criterion suffers not only from neglect but also from the lack of a clear, comprehensive, and complete statement of the problem itself.  As a result, it has been unclear what must be done to solve it.  

Discussions of the problem of the criterion rightly begin with the work of Roderick Chisholm for he is virtually the only major contemporary epistemologist who has given sustained attention to this ancient skeptical paradox.  Chisholm provides an important formulation of the problem itself and an influential description of the range of possible responses.  Unfortunately, Chisholm's statement of the problem of the criterion is seriously flawed for it is unclear and incomplete in several important respects.  As a result, Chisholm's account of the range of possible solutions to the problem,his own proposed solution, and his account of what is necessary to solve the problem are all deficient.

To address the important questions raised by the problem of the criterion we need a new formulation of the problem itself, a different understanding of the range of possible responses, and a fresh account of the conditions which must be met by a satisfactory solution.  I aim to provide all three, using Chisholm's important work as a jumping-off point and foil.

Disappearance and Knowledge, Philosophy of Science 57:2 (1990) [PDF via JSTOR]

Paul Churchland argues that the continuity of human intellectual development provides evidence against folk psychology and traditional epistemology, since these latter find purchase only at the later stages of intellectual development. He supports this contention with an analogy from the history of thermodynamics. Careful attention to the thermodynamics analogy shows that the argument from continuity does not provide independent support for eliminative materialism. The argument also rests upon claims about continuity which do not support the claim that the continuity of intellectual development is evidence for the elimination of folk psychology. Traditional epistemology and folk psychology should not yet be abandoned.

Love's Logic Lost: The Couplet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 (with Jeffrey Nelson), American Notes and Queries 13 (2000)

An understanding of the form and function of the couplet to Shakespeare's Sonnet 116--"If this be error and upon me prov'd, / I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd"--depends on an understanding of the logic of conditional statements. Yet while numerous critics have referred to such conditional statements, no one has provided a rigorous analysis. To correct the erroneous interpretations that result from this oversight, we shall analyze the couplet in light of four key logical notions: form, validity, soundness, and truth.


Memory and Psychology

Do Prophylactics Prevent Inflation? Post-Identification Feedback and the Effectiveness of Procedures to Protect Against Confidence-Inflation in Earwitnesses (with DS Quinlivan, JS Neuschatz, A Jiminez, AB Douglass, and CA Goodsell), Law and Human Behaviorforthcoming

After viewing or hearing a recorded simulated crime, participants were asked to identify the offender's voice from a target-absent audio lineup. After making their voice identification, some participants were either given confirming feedback or no feedback. The feedback manipulation in experiment 1 led to higher ratings of participants' identification certainty, as well as higher ratings on retrospective confidence reports, in both the immediate and delay groups. Earwitnesses who were asked about their identification certainty prior to the feedback manipulation (experiment 2) did not demonstrate the typical confidence-inflation associated with confirming feedback if they were questioned about the witnessing experience immediately; however, the effects returned after a week-long retention interval. The implications for the differential forgetting and internal-cues hypotheses are discussed.


Philosophy of Mind

The Empirical Virtues of Belief, Philosophical Psychology 4:3 (1991) [HTML via ASP at UAH]

Meeting the eliminativist challenge to folk psychology requires showing that beliefs have explanatory virtues unlikely to be duplicated by non-cognitive accounts of behavior. The explanatory power of beliefs is rooted in their intentionality. That beliefs have a distinctive kind of intentionality is shown by the distinctive intensionality of the sentences which report them. Contrary to Fodor, the fundamental explanatory virtues of beliefs are not to be found in their capacity to make causally inactive properties relevant to the explanation of behavior. Rather, the distinctive intentionality of beliefs provides the best explanation of the fact that fully intelligent behavior displays a selectivity of response to properties of the perceptual environment.

Eliminative Materialism and Self-Referential Inconsistency, Philosophical Studies 56:1 (1989)

Unbelief in belief is not incoherent.