Thursday 13 March 2014

Workshop on Belief in Birmingham

Scott Sturgeon, Rae Langton, and Susanna Siegel
On 12th March, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham held a workshop on Belief, as part of the Birmingham workshops in philosophy series. Papers were given by Scott Sturgeon (Birmingham), Rae Langton (Cambridge), and Susanna Siegel (Birmingham/Harvard). 

Sturgeon opened the workshop with his paper ‘Epistemic Attitudes: the Tale of Bella and Creda’. He was interested in three questions. First: which are our epistemic attitudes? Second: Do elements of a given attitudinal space reduce to others in that space? Third: Do elements of a given attitudinal space reduce to others in a different space? Focus was on this third question, more specifically: the Belief-first view (credences reduce to beliefs) versus the Credence-first view (beliefs reduce to credences).

Sturgeon introduced two creatures: Bella, for whom credence-as-belief was true, and Creda, for whom belief-as-credence was true. He argued that Bella and Creda were not both possible, and so at least one of them was impossible. He finished by suggesting some reasons for preferring the possibility of Creda over Bella.

Next was Rae Langton giving a paper entitled ‘Moral Realism and the Plasticity of Mind’. Langton was interested in whether projective perception is compatible with moral realism. Projective perception is our bringing something to perception which alters perception itself. Examples of projective perception include the radiologist seeing that a bone is broken from looking at an X-ray, the botanist visually distinguishing an Elm from a Beech, and the implicit racist seeing an ambiguous object as a gun (Eberhardt et al 2004), where if one were not a radiologist, botanist, or implicit racist, one would not have the same visual experience, even when presented with the same visual stimuli.

If our moral perception is projective in these ways, is this compatible with moral realism? Langton suggested that it is. She claimed that just as projective perception is compatible with scientific realism, so too is it compatible with realism in the moral sphere. She claimed that there is an epistemic benefit to having perceptions and beliefs in harmony. Consider the radiologist, her projective perception is epistemically enabling, her perception being projective in this way does not give us reason to be irrealist about broken bones. Similarly, consider the implicit racist, who outwardly believes in equality. She has the correct normative theory, but this theory does not saturate her perception. Her perception needs training such that the correct theory saturates her perception, and not her implicit bias. This is compatible with moral realism. 

Finally, Susanna Siegel gave her paper ‘When Can Expertise Influence Perceptual Experience?’ Siegel’s aim in the paper was to clarify, develop, and defend the Rational Evaluability Thesis. The thesis states that some routes to perceptual experience are rationally assessable. Siegel noted that most discussions of perceptual epistemology are focused on the route from perceptual experience to belief. Here, she was interested in the route to experience. She wanted to include in the domain of rational assessibility phenomena previously considered as a-rational.

She considered the following case: a subject is asked which tastes sweeter, a pink drink or a clear drink. The subject may respond that the pink drink tastes sweeter (even when both are water, and the pink drink is coloured with food colouring). If we suppose that the subject’s knowledge of pink drinks tending to be sweet influences how the drinks tastes to her, we might have the following intuition:

If your belief based on seeing the glass of pink liquid that it will taste sweet influences how the pink liquid tastes to you, then the taste experience does not give you an additional reason to believe that pink drinks are sweet.

We can explain this intuition by what Siegel called the Inferential Hypothesis according to which the antecedent belief stands in an inference-like relation of rational dependence to the experience. If this is right, it follows that some routes to perceptual experience are rationally assessable (i.e., the Rational Evaluability Thesis is true).

There are two more workshops in the Birmingham Workshops in Philosophy series, one on Capacities on 21st March, and one on Metaethics on 16th May. Enquires should be sent to Scott Sturgeon ( 

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