Monday, March 13, 2017

Priors, justification and rationalism

The rationalism of Leibniz and Spinoza worked like this: We figure out fundamental necessary metaphysical principles, and these principles determine everything else of necessity (with some qualifications on the Leibniz side as to the type of necessity).

But another rationalism is possible: We figure out fundamental necessary metaphysical principles, and these principles determine the basic probabilistic structure of reality. In Bayesian terms, the fundamental metaphysical principles yield the prior probabilities. A version of this was Descartes’ project in the Meditations.

And there is reason to engage in this probabilistic rationalist project. We cannot get out of the need to have something like prior probabilities. Moreover, priors need epistemic justification. Consider an empirical claim p that we assign a high enough credence for belief to, say 0.99, on the basis of total evidence e. Thus, P(p|e)=0.99. It follows by the axioms of probability that P(p ∨ ¬e)≥0.99. Hence we have a high enough prior credence for belief in p ∨ ¬e. Surely assigning a credence of 0.99 to something requires epistemic justification. Moreover, surely (though people who don’t like closure arguments may not like it) if we have posterior justification when we believe p, we have posterior justification when we believe the obviously entailed claim p ∨ ¬e. But this justification did not come from e. For P(p ∨ ¬e|e)=P(p|e)=0.99 and we have seen that P(p ∨ ¬e)≥0.99, so e is not evidence for p ∨ ¬e (in face, typically e will be evidence against this disjunction). Since e is our total evidence, the justification had to be there in the first place.

Thus we need epistemic justification for our priors. The priors encode genuine information about our world, information that we are justified in possessing. Where do we justifiedly get this information from? We don’t get it through logic, pace logical probability accounts. Metaphysics is one potential answer to this question and exploring this answer gives us good reason to engage in the probabilistic rationalist project. Another option is that the priors are a kind of innate knowledge built into our nature—my Aristotelian Bayesianism is a version of this.

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