Monday, 17 May 2010

On Justification and Explanation: Ben's Reply to Me

The following is Ben's response to my previous post, On Justification and Explanation: My Reply to Ben.

Thanks for the reply. It clears things up for me a bit. Let me offer the following remarks in response.

I intend to be using the terms 'justification' and 'explanation' with respect to reasons for action in a sense that is nicely captured by Raz in 'Reasons: Explanatory and Normative'. I'll quote from that paper:
[Reasons] are both normative and explanatory. They are normative in as much as they guide decision and action, and form a basis for their evaluation. They are explanatory in that when an action for a purpose occurs the purpose for which it is performed, the reason for the action as the agent sees things, explains its performance.
Raz goes on to argue that 'reasons' has two meanings. I agree, but I put the distinction in terms of explanation and justification instead of explanatory and normative.

By the way, I do not claim that these different meanings pick out different considerations. The same fact may both justify and explain--that is, one consideration can be both the purpose that explains an agent's action from that agent's perspective and it can guide performance of the action and serve as a basis for evaluation of that action (and the agent who guided her behavior on its basis). So the distinction between justifying reasons and explanatory reasons is not a distinction between different sorts of considerations.

I don't quite know what you mean to signal by a distinction between the folk psychological concept of explanation and the concept of explanation used by the sciences. But I do not want to make any sort of distinction like this. On my favorite view (cf., e.g., van Fraassen; Wright; Scriven) explanation is a matter of filling gaps in understanding. So a consideration explains when it answers a why-question. I am taken by the fact that explanations are given. And this presupposes that there is someone to give the explanation to. So what counts as a good explanation can depend on the needs of the one it is given to.

Why did the monkey jump into the tree? Because he saw the poacher coming through the bushes. Or: In order to grab the bananas that were in the tree. Why does water turn to steam when it reaches 100 degrees Celsius? Because the movement of the particles … The form of explanation is the same in both cases. I think this is the correct, general account of explanation.

As for justification, perhaps I am thinking of it as a special sort of explanation. It plugs a special sort of gap in the understanding. And in order to have this sort of gap in one’s understanding, one must have certain capacities—e.g., to recognize reasons as such. So where we have someone with these reflective capacities asking why an agent did something we can not only offer a consideration that explains why the agent did what he did but also why the cited consideration shows the behavior to be appropriately responsive to reasons. The why-question that signals a request for justification is situated in a normative context.

Why did the monkey jump into the tree? Because he saw the poacher coming through the bushes. This can both explain and justify. Given background assumptions about the monkey’s motivation to stay alive, the poacher’s goal of killing monkey, etc., it is intelligible in a special sense why the monkey jumped into the tree. This behavior is appropriate given the facts. What I have been insisting on is that the fact that he saw the poacher coming can explain the monkey’s behavior, both to us and to the monkey. But this fact cannot justify the monkey’s behavior to the monkey because the monkey cannot have the relevant sort of gap in the understanding. His perspective is not relevantly normative in that he does not guide his behavior on the basis of reasons as such. No fact can provide a basis for evaluation of behavior for him of the sort that justification involves. But it can for us because we do guide our behavior on the basis of reasons as such.

This brings me to perspective. When I say that we adopt the monkey’s perspective in judging that the fact that the poacher was approaching justified his jumping into the tree, I do not mean either (i) to deny that the monkey has a perspective of his own (this is what we adopt if we do things right) nor (ii) that we import our desires into the monkey’s perspective (again, insofar as we do things right). I mean that we adopt the monkey’s perspective, as we take it to be, which we can be wrong about, and this involves assuming his motivations, which, again, we can be wrong about. Think of this as the relevant background understanding, the gap in which is filled by the fact that is purported to be a reason. The answer to the question why the monkey jumped into the tree is only explanatory (and so also only justificatory) insofar as it fills a gap in understanding. The fact that the poacher was approaching can do this, on the assumption that the monkey represented this fact to himself and also that the monkey had the relevant motivations (e.g., not to be killed by the poacher, which we are assuming he recognized as a threat). If we are assuming that the monkey sees bananas but no poacher, then the fact that the poacher was approaching cannot explain (and so also cannot justify) his jumping into the tree. So my view allows that we can get it wrong and has something to say about what is wrong when things do go wrong.

Notice that my view can agree with you that a transition (e.g., from the representation of the poacher to an intention to jump into the tree) can be rationally assessable even if the agent making the transition cannot assess it. We seem to disagree about whether the transition is reason-providing for the agent. You say it is in that it provides the monkey with an entitlement. I say it depends on what sort of reason you have in mind. It provides the agent with an explanatory reason. But since the monkey cannot receive justifications, it cannot provide him with a justifying reason. Some of the disagreement may be only apparent, depending on how your view of entitlements vs. justifications lines up with my view of explanation vs. justification.

One last point about to-be-doneness and justification. I think it is correct that if there were no reflective creatures than there would be no justifications. There would be no one to receive the justifications if there were no one with the relevant gaps in the understanding. But this does not mean that the same considerations that do justify given the presence of reflective creatures fall out of the picture entirely. They could still explain, supposing that there were creatures that could be given the relevant sorts of explanation. Barring that, they could still motivate behavior in the sense necessary even for them to explain it. The lion can still recognize that eating his paw is not to be done, even if there is no one capable of posing the question why he did not eat his paw. If this amounts to the consideration making the behavior intelligible, in some sense of ‘intelligible’, then I am good with that. But on the assumption that there are no creatures intelligent enough to be given explanations (and so also justifications) then this consideration does not explain (or justify) anything because there is no gap in understanding to be filled by it.



Thanks for the stimulating exchange Ben; you've given me a great deal to think about. I haven't read the Raz paper you cite, but its definitely something I'll have to have a look at. The blog will be on brief hiatus while I do some early summer travel, but when I get back, I will begin to articulate an alternative account to the one adumbrated in your post. I would be quite keen to hear what you think. Looking forward to discussing these questions with you further.

Ben M-Y said...

Safe travels, Avery. I look forward to more discussion. It's been fun and very interesting.