Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Epistemology and the presumption of (im)permissibility

Normally, our overt behavior has the presumption of moral permissibility: an action is morally permissible unless there is some specific reason why it would be morally impermissible.

Oddly, this is not so in epistemology. Our doxastic behavior seems to come along with a presumption of epistemic impermissibility. A belief or inference is only justified when there is a specific reason for that justification.

In ethics, there are two main ways of losing the presumption of moral permissibility in an area of activity.

The first is that actions falling in that area are prima facie bad, and hence a special justification is needed for them. Violence is an example: a violent action is by default impermissible, unless we have a special reason that makes it permissible. The second family of cases is areas of action that are dangerous. When we go into a nuclear power facility or a functioning temple, we are surrounded by danger—physical or religious—and we should refrain from actions unless we have special reason to think they are safe.

Belief isn’t prima facie bad. But maybe it is prima facie dangerous? But the presumption of impermissibility is not limited to some special areas. There indeed are dangerous areas of our doxastic lives: having the wrong religious beliefs can seriously damage us psychologically and spiritually while having the wrong beliefs about nutrition and medicine can kill us. But there seem to be safe areas of our doxastic lives: whatever I believe about the last digit in the number of hairs on my head or about the generalized continuum hypothesis seems quite safe. Yet, having the unevidenced belief that the last digit in the number of hairs on my head is three is just as impermissible as having the unevidenced belief that milk cures cancer.

Perhaps it is simply that moral and epistemic normativity are not as analogous as they have seemed to some.

But there is another option. Perhaps, despite what I said, our doxastic lives are always dangerous. Here is one way to suggest this. Perhaps truth is sacred, and so dealing with truth is dangerous just as it is dangerous to be in a temple. We need reason to think that the rituals we perform are right when we are in a temple—we should not proceed by whim or by trial and error in religion—and perhaps similarly we need reasons to think that our beliefs are true, precisely because our doxastic lives always, no matter how “secular” the content, concern the sacred. Our beliefs may be practically safe, but the category of the sacred always implicates a danger, and hence a presumption of impermissibility.

I can think of two ways our doxastic lives could always concern the sacred:

  1. God is truth.

  2. All truth is about God: every truth is contingent or necessary; contingent truths tell us about what God did or permitted; necessary truths are all grounded in the nature of God.

All this also fits with an area of our moral lives where there is a presumption of impermissibility: assertion. One should only make assertions when one has reason to think they are true. Otherwise, one is lying or engaging in BS. Yet assertion is not always dangerous in any practical sense of “dangerous”: making unwarranted assertions about the number of hairs one one’s head or the general continuum hypothesis is pretty safe practically speaking. But perhaps assertion also concerns the truth, which is something sacred, and where we are dealing with the sacred, there we have spiritual danger and a presumption of impermissibility.

2 comments:

SMatthewStolte said...

What do you think is going on with people who think that we ought to believe in mythical things like the Loch Ness Monster, and that failure to do so is sort of sad and constitutes an overly constricted way of looking at the world?

No doubt, they are mistaken in this belief, but what gives rise to it? Why is that mistake more tempting than mistakenly believing that you should accept that the last digit in the number of hairs on your head is three?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't really know anything about people like that. Is the idea that they just think we should believe this for non-epistemic reasons, so as to have a more interesting life? Or do they think that in fact the usual scientific way of viewing the world is *incorrect*, and once you reject that, the evidence for cryptozoology will jump out at one?

In any case, I think the presumption of impermissibility is going to be in place even if one thinks there are non-epistemic reasons to believe. For it's still going to be the case that you shouldn't believe p without some good reason--epistemic or not--to believe.