Thursday, 12 April 2007

Causal vs. Rational Explanations (Part 3)

In my post Causal vs Rational Explanations (Part1) I suggest that the 'Fanatical Tom' objection seems to pose a problem of causal theorists regarding justification. There are two strategies, available to the causal theorist, for responding to this objection :
STRATEGY1: Accept that the Tom has a justified belief, and tweak the causal requirement to reflect this fact.

STRATEGY2: Reject the assumption that Tom has a justified belief.

I believe the considerations presented in my previous post on this topic, Causal vs. Rational Explanations (Part 2), represent a genuine difficulty for attempts to defend causal theories along the lines of strategy1. More specifically, I regard all attempts to argue that the spyware causally sustains Alvin’s believe via an appeal to the notion of a counterfactual cause are moribund.

I now wish to propose an alternative reply, along the lines of STRATEGY2, for arguing that Tom’s belief is not justified. We begin with a few distinctions. First, we must differentiate between the justification of a proposition in the abstract, whether or not anyone holds it, and the justification of a particular subject’s, S’s, belief of a specific proposition p. The first refers to justification of a certain type, what we may call impersonal justification, and the second is justification of a token belief, or personal justification. Impersonal justification does not require any particular believer of p, nor does it presuppose that anyone holds the belief or has expressed it. Thus, what impersonally justifies a belief need not itself be believed by a certain subject. The distinction between impersonal and personal justification is that between general justifiability of the belief that p and S’s being justified in believing that p on some given occasion.
Second, there are several kinds of reasons one may have for holding a proposition as true. Here are four:
(R1) Objective reason is a reason there is for holding a proposition as true. This is a reason whose status as a reason is independent of any subject being aware of it or of its epistemic status. For example, the fact that the thermometer says that temperature of Bob’s son is above normal’ is a reason (in this sense) to believe that ‘Bob’s son has a fever’, whether or not anyone has bothered to consult the thermometer.

(R2) Person-relative objective reason is a reason there is for S, the subject in question, to believe that p. For example, the fact that the thermometer reads 200 is a reason for Bob, but not for Bob’s two year old son who is too young to understand thermometers—to believe that he has a fever. Again, Bob need not actually be aware of this reason.

(R3) Subjective reason is a reason the subject actually possesses for believing that p. Bob possesses a reason to believe his son has a fever when he takes in the fact that the thermometer says his son’s temperature is above normal.

(R4) Operative reason is the reason on the basis of which S believes that p. For example, if Bob came to believe his son had a fever because of his burning forehead, and only then bothered to consult the thermometer, then it would be his son’s burning forehead rather than his thermometer that constitutes his grounding reason.
The first two kinds of reasons provide a subject with propositional justification, or makes some proposition p justifiable. Some proposition or piece of evidence need not be known by anyone in particular in order to constitute a reason in the sense of (R1) and (R2). Although (R1) and (R2) fall short of having a reason, they are both prerequisites for having a reason. (R3) introduces the requirement that the reason be subjectively available and represent the minimal sense in which one may have a reason. (R4) takes this idea one step further by stipulating that the subject base his belief on the reason in question. Signficantly, (R4) captures what is known as doxastic justification, and I believe it is Tom’s failure to fulfil (R4) that accounts for his belief being unjustified.

As the thermometer example illustrates, one and the same reason can instantiate all of (R1)-(R4). Moreover, (R1)-(R4) seems to represent a plausible requirement for a reason to constitute a justifying reason for believing that p. Tom clearly has a reason for believing SPY in the sense of (R1)-(R3). Given the existence of the spyware, there is a normative reason for Tom to believe SPY. The spyware is also a reason for Tom, since he recognises that the spyware constitutes conclusive evidence for the proposition, ‘the NSA is spying on US citizens’. Third, Tom possesses the spyware evidence in the sense that he has it at his disposal.

However, Tom does not have a reason in the sense of (R4). Tom’s belief is not based on the spyware evidence. In short, Tom’s belief is not doxastically justified. This point can also be put in terms of the distinction between impersonal and personal justification described earlier. Tom’s belief that SPY is impersonally justified or justifiable. However, at present we are not merely concerned with whether his belief is justifiable. Rather, we want to ascertain if Tom’s belief is actually justified—to wit, whether Tom is justified in holding his belief. In short, we want to know if Tom is personally justified. Given the doxastically inappropriate basing of his belief, the answer seems to be no.

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