Thursday, December 20, 2007

Unjustified true belief

Suppose a supernatural being tells me, and I know that he is speaking truthfully, that if I so choose, he can make sure that over the next year I will unjustifiedly acquire a lot of true beliefs about all kinds of topics that are important and interesting, and, moreover, I will adhere to these beliefs quite firmly even though they will remain unjustified and will not constitute knowledge. Moreover, he promises that the true beliefs will not be misleading[note 1], and that in the process, I will not acquire any false beliefs that I wouldn't have otherwise acquired. Furthermore, if I accept the offer, I will forget that I have accepted it.

Should I accept the offer?

On the one hand, truth is worth having. On the other hand, it seems that my acquiring these beliefs will involve epistemic vice. If I agree to the offer, I am acting like a doxastic consequentialist: getting things right justifies what might be thought by some to be inappropriate means.

I don't for sure know the answer to the question. But I want to observe one thing. The answer to the question does not seem to lie within epistemology as it is usually practiced. I already know the beliefs wouldn't be knowledge. I also know they wouldn't be epistemically justified. But now that I know all that, I need to decide whether or not to allow myself to gain these beliefs. And this, I think, is a question about what a good human life is like, about what virtue and vice are. It seems to me to be a moral question.

If this is right, then ultimately the question how one should act in the doxastic sphere is a moral question. For although this case is contrived so as to make the questions it raises more obvious, I think similar issues of value are present in any decision on a course of doxastic action.

This isn't an argument that epistemic norms, insofar as they have normative force, are a species of moral norms (something that I also think is true), but rather it is an argument that any guidance we get from epistemic norms is subordinated to moral norms, even when the doxastic life is all that is relevantly in view.


Mike said...

Suppose a supernatural being tells me, and I know that he is speaking truthfully, that if I so choose, he can make sure that over the next year I will unjustifiedly acquire a lot of true beliefs about all kinds of topics

Alex, I don't think what you describe here is possible. If this supernatural being can guarantee that I acquire true beliefs, and arranges things so that I do, then I am justified in my beliefs. What he can do is arrange things so that I do not recall my justification. He can make me forget the discussion I had with him and his offer and my acceptance. But I'm still justified. Note that you don't need to assume some form of externalism about justification here either. Matters might be different if he also causes me to forget that I forgot the justification or makes me permanently forget that I'm justified. In that case I'd need to assume some sort of externalism.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I was assuming that I will forget the conversation before the true beliefs are induced, so I never have the beliefs together with an internal justification.

Maybe there is an external justification here. I am worried, however, that at least by some standards, one will be "epistemically vicious" to hold on to the beliefs absent any kind of a story as to where one got them (compare the person who has faith who likely has a story about divine inspiration) or even a meta-story that there is a first-order story to be told there, but one has forgotten what it is, or hasn't yet figured out what it is, vel cetera. This might not bother an externalist.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Trent D wrote:

"... suppose a genie says that if we have an unjustified attitude at t, then forever there after we will know the truth of any proposition about which we wonder.

Clearly the epistemically best action is to have the unjustified belief at t (as if that were really possible).

So in some sense that unjustified belief is in fact justified by a higher rule (yet one still totally grounded in the nature of rational persuit). ...

I don't think it's ordinarily possible to believe something at will. However, there is such great epistemic good in this particular case of believing contrary to the evidnece (at t) that I would try hypnosis or something to try to get me to believe it. That would be, on balance, the epistemically best thing to do."


Do you agree with Trent? His scenario differs: the subsequent beliefs would be known, thus justified.

If you agree with Trent, would you believe the unjustified proposition advised by the genie even if you had some overwhelming evidence contrary to the proposition? Would you say that believing such a proposition even in such circumstances is epistemically good?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I love Trent's example--it's much better than mine for my purposes because it escapes Mike's objection. Anyway, it's pretty clear to me that in Trent's original case, and in your modification, the question has to be resolved on non-epistemic grounds, namely moral ones. These moral ones will include consideration of how much deontology there is in the life of the mind.

I don't know for sure the answers to these questions--my point is that whatever the answers are, they come from morality.

Anyway, if you'd like my intuitions, then:
1. In Trent's original case, I don't know.
2. In your modified case, with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, probably not.
3. In a modified case where the genie also lets you know that the proposition to believe is false (so you need to hypnotize yourself to forget what the genie told you!), I am pretty sure the answer is negative.

In cases 2 and 3, the reasoning for a negative answer is that the action would seem to be perverse--contrary to the nature of the intellect--in much the way that regurgitating food you've eaten (as the Romans did at orgies) or contracepting are.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's an interesting case that mixes the epistemic and the non-epistemic. The genie tells you that unless you get yourself to believe within two weeks that the earth is flat, you will die a painful death.