Tuesday 27 December 2016

Aiming at the Truth and Aiming at Success

In this post, Lubomira Radoilska (pictured above) summarises her paper "Aiming at the Truth and Aiming at Success", which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief. Lubomira has a new project on Reassessing Responsibility which underlies some of the themes in this post.

Are the demands we face as believers compatible with the demands we face as agents? In other words, is our aiming at the truth consistent with our aiming at success? Since our lives as believers and agents are inexorably intertwined, it seems vital to find out whether and how the normative requirements that apply to us as believers relate to the normative requirements that apply to us as agents.

Until very recently, theorists of normativity discussed the spheres of belief and action as though they were governed by two separate sets of norms with no significant overlap. Yet, on closer inspection, if the relationship between these two sets of norms remains unspecified, it is likely to result in practical contradictions for human beings, who are at the same time believers and agents and so are subject to both sets of norms. This is particularly the case when tracking the available evidence is interpreted as the only way of satisfying the most fundamental norm of belief, which is the truth norm.

I propose a new account, which enables us to resolve these contradictions by establishing the significance of believers’ own agency in satisfying the truth norm of belief, in addition to tracking the available evidence. On this account, there is a robust two-way connection between the requirements we are expected to meet as believers and the requirements we are expected to meet as agents. In sum, this means that it is o.k. to get it right by succeeding, i.e. to acquire a true belief in virtue of achieving one’s goal as an agent.

The proposed account has two important advantages. Firstly, it helps address a major obstacle to linking closely the norms of belief to the norms of action. This obstacle derives from the well-established phenomenon of positive illusions where action appears to be successful at the expense of belief being true. Examples include unrealistic optimism and cases of ‘overrating’ one’s abilities that seem to lead to better performance. Secondly, the account on offer is an alternative to an appealing, yet ultimately misleading way of linking up the norms of belief to the norms of action, which is to posit that successful action simply depends on true belief, where only succeeding by getting it right is supposed to make sense.

The proposed solution has direct implications for assessing responsibility in difficult cases, where there seems to be a disconnect between the ways a person goes about vis-à-vis norms of belief and respectively action. This is illustrated with a close analysis of a case involving delusional beliefs.

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