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«[Penultimate draft of a paper forthcoming in Philosophical Studies.] Abstract. This paper argues that there is a problem for the justificatory ...»

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Perceptual Justification and Assertively

Representing the World∗

Jochen Briesen, University of Konstanz


[Penultimate draft of a paper forthcoming in Philosophical Studies.]

Abstract. This paper argues that there is a problem for the justificatory significance of perceptions that has been overlooked thus far. Assuming that perceptual

experiences are propositional attitudes and that only propositional attitudes which

assertively represent the world can function as justifiers, the problem consists in specifying what it means for a propositional attitude to assertively represent the world without losing the justificatory significance of perceptions—a challenge that is harder to meet than might first be thought. That there is such a problem can be seen by reconsidering and modifying a well-known argument to the conclusion that beliefs cannot be justified by perceptions but only by other beliefs. Nevertheless, the aim of the paper is not to conclude that perceptions are actually incapable of justifying our beliefs but rather to highlight an overlooked problem that needs to be solved in order to properly understand the justificatory relationship between perceptions and beliefs.

1 Introduction There is an interesting and well-known argument to the conclusion that our beliefs cannot be justified by perceptions. The argument roughly states that all justification by evidence is inferential, and that inferential justification presupI would like to thank Dina Emundts, Wolfgang Spohn, and all the members of their Research Colloquia at the University of Konstanz, as well as the Philosophy Department Colloquium at the University of Konstanz, for their helpful discussions on this material.

I have also benefited from discussions with Brendan Balcerak Jackson, Lars D¨nzer, and a Wolfgang Freitag. Their comments on earlier drafts of the paper have led to direct and significant improvements. I especially want to thank Amber Griffioen, who has read and critically commented on the text in various stages of its development. Her comments and suggestions have always been very helpful. I am also grateful to anonymous reviewers of this paper for their comments.

poses that the justifying evidence has propositional content. Furthermore, it states that perceptual experiences lack propositional content and that therefore perceptual experiences are incapable to evidentially justify our beliefs. Let us call this argument the “incapability argument”.

Even though the incapability argument was highly influential in the latter decades of the 20th century, today many philosophers reject the argument by dismissing one of its premises, namely the premise that perceptual experiences lack propositional content. This paper argues that even if we accept this popular refutation of the argument, the incapability argument still poses a thus far overlooked problem with respect to the justificatory significance of perceptions.

Roughly speaking, the problem can be characterized in the following manner: Many philosophers hold that in order for something to play the role of a justifier it must not only have propositional content but also represent the world assertively, i.e., it must aim to represent the world as actually being a certain way. Unfortunately, as I will show, it is notoriously unclear what that means exactly. And as soon as we try to be more specific about it, it becomes surprisingly questionable whether perceptions ever really are assertive in that sense. Thus, even if we accept that perceptions have propositional content, it becomes questionable whether perceptions can function as evidence. The aim of the paper is to unveil this problem and to argue that it needs to be solved if we are to properly understand how beliefs may be justified by perceptions.

The paper is organized as follows: In section 2, I clarify and discuss the premises of the incapability argument. In section 3, I present the popular refutation of this argument, which is based on the idea that perceptions, like beliefs, have propositional content. I then turn to the above mentioned problem and try specify it to a certain extent. In section 4, I elaborate on the problem in more detail. In doing so I discuss various suggestions for a criterion of assertivity and argue that in the light of this discussion it becomes questionable whether perceptions really are assertive propositional attitudes. Given that it is widely agreed that in order for something to play the role of a justifier it must not only have propositional content but also assertively represent the world, this will lead to a modified version of the incapability argument that calls the justificatory significance of perceptions into doubt. In section 5, I point to possible directions in which a solution to the problem I am going to raise might go. I will end my discussion in section 6 with a short summary.

2 The incapability argument It seems pretheoretically very plausible to assume that perceptions can function as justifiers with respect to our beliefs concerning the world around us. Why am I justified in believing that the door to my office is closed?—because I see it. Why am I justified in believing that there is sugar in my coffee?—because I taste it. More generally, why do we sometimes look, taste, listen, or sniff for a second or third time when a certain belief concerning the world around us, has come into doubt?—because we think that sense experiences can function as justifiers with respect to beliefs of this kind.

Nonetheless, there is a very influential argument to the conclusion that our beliefs cannot be justified by perceptual experiences. The following version of

the argument summarizes the basic idea:1

The incapability argument (hereafter, IA)

(1) In order for some evidence to justify a belief concerning the world around us, it needs to inferentially justify that belief.

(2) In order for some evidence to inferentially justify a belief concerning the world around us, it needs both to have propositional content and to represent the world assertively.

(3) Perceptions have no propositional content.

(4) Hence, perceptions cannot function as evidence capable of justifying our beliefs concerning the world around us.2 This argument is valid, but whether it is convincing depends on the plausibility of the premises. In order to discuss their plausibility we first have to elucidate what the premises actually claim.

Premises (1) and (2) speak about epistemic (here: doxastic) justification, which is distinguished from other forms of justification (e.g., moral, or pragmatic justification) by its truth-conduciveness. And the term evidence in the premises 1 Cf. Pryor (2005: 188) for a comparable argument. For an early version of the argument, cf. Davidson (1983).

2 The feature of assertively representing the world mentioned in premise (2) might seem superfluous in the argument as it now stands. However, since this feature will become important later on, including this feature in the first exposition of the argument will help simplify the subsequent discussion.

refers to cognitive states or episodes of a subject S, which function as potential epistemic justifiers in that they speak in favour of the truth of at least one S’s beliefs.3 Such a piece of evidence for a belief might be too weak to actually justify the belief, but it needs to be somehow positively relevant with respect to the truth of the belief. Thus, a specific piece of evidence is not a justifier as such but merely a potential justifier.

The other term that needs explication in order to properly understand premise (1) is the term “inferential justification”, which is used differently in the literature. According to the way I am using it here, a belief B is inferentially justified by some evidence E if the justificatory relation between E and B involves at least some inferential relation between E and B, where inferential relations may be deductive, inductive, or abductive.

With these clarifications in mind, we can reformulate premise (1) in the following way: In order for some (internallistically construed) potential justifier to justify a belief concerning the world around us, the justificatory relation between the potential justifier and the belief needs to involve either a deductive, inductive, or abductive relation.

Even though this claim is controversial, for the purposes of this paper I will accept it as plausible. It is simply very hard to understand how the relation between some evidence and a belief should bear any justificatory significance, if the relation does not involve any sort of inference. It is important to note that premise (1) is deliberately formulated in a weak way so as not to be in conflict with paradigmatic reliabilist or classical foundationalist views in epistemology (see also fn. 5). It is true that reliabilists think that some beliefs are justified non-inferentially, but usually they do not think that the form of justification where a belief is justified by evidence is non-inferential.4 FoundThis notion of “evidence”, which restricts the term to cognitive states or episodes, does not fit a certain usage of the term, by which a bloody knife or fingerprints on a gun are considered to be evidence. But it is consistent with a wide range of philosophical understandings of the term. For instance, some philosophers think of evidence as sense-data, others maintain that evidence consists in the stimulation of ones sensory receptors (cf. Quine 1968: 75). Still others take evidence to be everything one knows (cf. Williamson 2000) or such diverse things as ones beliefs, feelings, and thoughts (cf. Conee and Feldman 2004: 2 & 219-241).

4 Process-reliabilists, for instance, hold that if a belief is justified, then it has to be formed by a reliable belief-forming mechanism (cf. Goldman 1976). This belief-forming mechanism does not have to involve evidence, but as soon as it does, reliabilists typically agree that there ationalists also hold that there are some non-inferentially justified beliefs, so called “basic beliefs”. However, they usually claim that the class of basic beliefs does not involve beliefs about the world around us, but is restricted to beliefs concerning our own mental states or episodes (cf. BonJour 1999; Fummerton 2001, 2010). So classical foundationalist views are also not in conflict with our formulation of premise (1).5 However, even though premise (1) is very plausible in this weak form, it is rejected by those philosophers who subscribe to certain forms of direct realism or disjunctivism (cf., for example, Putnam 1999; McDowell 1982). For now let me put these positions aside. In section 5 below, I will revisit these views and point to some of their most serious problems.

What about premise (2)? Premise (2) makes two claims that both can be easily motivated. The first claim is that evidence capable of inferentially justifying a belief needs to be propositional, and the second claim is that everything that functions as a potential justifier not only has to be propositional but additionally has to represent the world assertively.

The first claim can be motivated in the following way: We have already noted that inferential justification of a belief B by some evidence E presupposes an inferential relation between B and E that is either deductive, abductive, or inductive. Deductive relations are entailments, and entailments quite obviously can only hold between propositions or—in a derivative sense—between attitudes with propositional content. And as Timothy Williamson (2000: 194-196) has convincingly argued, the same is true for inductive and abductive inferences.

Hence, all three variants of inferential relations seem to be relations between propositions or between attitudes with propositional content. Hence, evidence that is capable of inferentially justifying a belief needs to be propositional: the first claim of premise (2) is plausible.

With respect to the second claim of premise (2), there are obviously some propositional attitudes that cannot function as potential justifiers—take a wish for example. So we need an additional feature that enables a propositional attitude to be a potential justifier. And this additional feature is supposed to is an inferential relation between the evidence and the belief.

5 It is also interesting to note that in the way we have understood “inferential justification”, (1) alone does not preclude that there is something like immediate or direct justification. For a convincing explanation of this point, see Pryor (2005: 189-191).

be the property of assertively representing the world. The term “assertivity” is usually used with respect to utterances, so by transferring this term to propositional attitudes, the term is used in a somewhat metaphorical sense. If somebody utters “p” assertively, then this utterance purports to be saying how the world is; it aims to represents the world as actually being a certain way.

In the same vein, if a propositional attitude of a person assertively represents the world, then this attitude aims to represent the world as actually being a certain way; it purports to be saying how the world is. Thus, a wish does not assertively represent the world—that is, it does not purport to be saying how the world is—and this is why a wish cannot function as evidence. The same is true for hopes, imaginings, mere assumptions, etc. These attitudes cannot inferentially justify a belief concerned with the world around us because none of them satisfies a necessary condition for a propositional attitude’s functioning as inferential evidence, namely that of representing the world assertively (cf.

Pryor 2005, 187-188).

So far we have motivated premises (1) and (2) of IA. However, the most problematic step of the argument is premise (3). And it is this premise which is most often called into question by critics of IA.

3 A refutation of the argument A lot of philosophers agree that perceptions or perceptual experiences have propositional content that represents the world around us to be a certain way.6 Let us call this view “representationalism”. By adopting (a certain version of) representationalism, one can easily accept premises (1) and (2) of IA, but block the argument by dismissing premise (3).7 6 In this paper I use the terms “perception” and “perceptual experience” interchangeably.

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