Monday, October 8, 2018

Evidentialism, and self-defeating and self-guaranteeing beliefs

Consider this modified version of William James’ mountaineer case: The mountaineer’s survival depends on his jumping over a crevasse, and the mountaineer knows that he will succeed in jumping over the crevasse if he believes he will succeed, but doesn’t know that he will succeed as he doesn’t know whether he will come to believe that he will succeed.

James used his version of the case to argue that pragmatic reasons can legitimately override lack of epistemic reasons.

But what is interesting to me in my variant is the way it provides a counterexample to evidentialism. Evidentialists say that you epistemically should form your beliefs only on the basis of evidence. But notice that although the belief that he will succeed at the jump needs to be formed in the absence of evidence for its truth, as soon as it is formed, the belief itself becomes its own evidence to the point that it turns into knowledge. The belief is self-guaranteeing. So there seems to be nothing to criticize epistemically about the formation of the belief, even though the formation is independent of evidence. In fact, it seems, there is a good epistemic reason to believe, since by believing the mountaineer increases the stock of his knowledge.

Moreover, we can even make the case be one where the evidence on balance points against the proposition. Perhaps the mountaineer has attempted, in safer circumstances, to get himself to believe that he can make such a jump, and seven times out of ten he has failed at both self-induction of belief, and also at the jump. But in the remaining three times out of ten, he succeeded at both. So, then, the mountaineer has non-conclusive evidence that he won’t manage to believe that he will succeed (and that he won’t succeed). If he comes to believe that he will succeed, he comes to believe this against the evidence—but, still, in doing, he increases his stock of knowledge, since the belief, once believed, is self-guaranteeing.

(This phenomenon of self-guaranteeing belief reminds me of things that Kierkegaard says about faith, where faith itself is a miracle that hence is evidence for its truth.)

Interestingly, we might also be able to construct cases of well-evidenced but self-defeating beliefs. Consider a jeweler who has noticed that she is successful at cutting a diamond if and only if she believes she will be unsuccessful. Her theory is that belief in her success makes her insufficiently careful. Over time, she has learned to suspend judgment in her success, and hence to be successful. But now she reflects on her history, and she finds herself with evidence that he will be successful in cutting the next diamond. Yet if she believes on this evidence, this will render her overconfident, and hence render the belief false!

This is related to the examples in this paper on lying.

So perhaps what the evidentialist needs to say is that you epistemically may believe p if and only if the evidence says that if you believe p, p is true?

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