Thursday 21 May 2015

Believing against the Evidence

This post is by Miriam McCormick, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Richmond. Miriam presents her new book, Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief (Routledge, 2015), pictured above.

When I first had a student tell me that she doesn’t believe in evolution I was at a loss of how to respond. To me, that sounded like someone telling me that she didn’t believe in gravity. It seemed both irrational and wrong. Experiences like this are common; we think that one’s actual belief can deviate from how one ought to believe. The dominant view among contemporary philosophers is that any belief formed against the evidence is impermissible. On such a view, which I call “evidentialism,” it is easy to diagnosis what is wrong with my student’s belief. I use the term “pragmatism” to refer to the view that some non-evidentially based beliefs are permissible. A central aim of this book is to defend pragmatism. One challenge to the pragmatist view I defend is to show how we can distinguish pernicious non-evidentially based beliefs from those that are permissible.

Most contemporary theorists think that to appeal to the norms of agency in thinking about how to believe is to make a category mistake. In believing we aim to gain truth or avoid falsehood, so when we believe for reasons that are opposed to these aims, we can be criticized for violating these norms. While there is some disagreement about the precise relationship between belief and truth, very few fundamentally question the view that beliefs require their own separate ethics.

The central contention of this book is that they do not; that, instead the ethics of belief and action are unified. Nonetheless I think that in most cases, we should not deviate from evidentialist principles because following these principles leads us to truth and knowledge. I argue, however, that the value of truth and knowledge is instrumental; having true beliefs helps us achieve our goals, flourish, and be excellent human beings. It is thus possible that some beliefs can help us achieve these goals independently of their truth-value, or of their being evidentially based.

This book is divided into two main parts, “Doxastic Norms” and “Doxastic Responsibility.” In Part I, I review and critique a number of defenses of evidentialism before turning to my argument that the norms for belief are ultimately practical. Those who oppose this pragmatist conception of doxastic norms will point out that, given the involuntary nature of belief, we cannot believe for practical reasons. This is why a discussion of doxastic norms is intertwined with the issue of doxastic control and responsibility.

Part II focuses on these issues; I argue that beliefs are products of our agency, something we have an active role in shaping and maintaining. The two parts of the book are two sides of the same coin. That the norms of agency apply to both belief and action demands that we can make sense of doxastic agency. And that we can exercise control in the doxastic realm naturally leads to the view that the same norms guide both action and belief.

If you are interested in these issues, you will like this podcast!

1 comment:

  1. New review of Believing Against the Evidence on NDPR:


Comments are moderated.