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Philosophy of Language - Research Seminar - Elisabetta Lalumera "Irresistible Reasons"

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25 Feb 2009 15:00
25 Feb 2009 18:00
Europe/Rome

Irresistible reasons
Elisabetta Lalumera
Università di Milano-Bicocca
abstract

Reasons are what we talk about when we evaluate or justify our own and other people’s beliefs; as standards of correctness they make our beliefs correct or incorrect, justified or not. Reasons are also what makes us believe, or move us to believe when a certain evidence is given; as ingredients of our processes of belief formation, they somehow make beliefs happen. How do reasons make us believe? What is their motivational force? And what is the relationship between their motivational force and their role as standard of correctness? One way to approach these very deep questions is to start by considering a smaller, but closely connected issue, namely the possibility of cases in which reasons seem to fail to exert such motivational force, and we apparently resist them, and believe against them. These are cases of epistemic akrasia, characterized as the state of rationally believing something, while acknowledging that there are no sufficient reasons for so believing (or that there are sufficient reasons for an incompatible belief). Epistemic akrasia is the epistemic analogue of a widely debated phenomenon in the practical domain, namely weakness of will, or acting against one’s own acknowledged best practical or moral reasons. Weakness of will has long been a test of theories of the motivational force of moral and practical reasons. Mutatis mutandis, epistemic akrasia can be a test of theories of the motivational force of epistemic reasons. Philosophers who recently discovered this possibility of inquiry tend to converge on the negative conclusion that epistemic akrasia is not a genuine phenomenon (Owens, 2002, Smith and Pettit 1996, Moran 1997, Adler 2002). In this paper I agree with this. We cannot resist our own best epistemic reasons. This squares well with the phenomenology of belief. It is very difficult to conceive of good examples of believing against one’s epistemic reasons; on the contrary, it seems to us that usually reasons compel us or move us to believe – if I look up out of the window and see the blue sky I cannot but form the belief that the sky is blue, and if I have gathered enough evidence that someone is sincere and reliable, then I cannot but believe that she is sincere and reliable – to see her as such, we would say. The mere difficulty of describing a convincing case, however, is not yet an argument for the impossibility of epistemic akrasia. An argument for such a conclusion ought to explain why there are no convincing cases by pointing to some general and essential characteristics of the concepts involved. Existing arguments may be seen as falling into to two broad kinds. On the one hand there are what I will call ‘external relation arguments’, which start from the consideration that believing according to reasons is a three-step process, involving acknowledgement of reasons, a further motivational state – say, a judgement, or an act of will – and belief, and conclude that such ingredient is inadequate to play the required explanatory role in alleged akratic cases, because of some characteristics of belief or theoretical reasoning. On the other hand there are what I will call ‘internal relation arguments’, which core idea is that there is no intermediate step – no extra motivational state – between acknowledging one’s own best reasons for p and believing p, and that is precisely the reason why epistemic akrasia is not possible. The specific aim of this paper is to defend a version of internal relation argument. In order to do so, I will first assess what I take to be the paradigmatic external relation arguments against akrasia, and say why they are not convincing in the premises they employ, though I agree with their bottom line. Then I will consider internal relation arguments provided so far, and point to some crucial problems they present. Finally I will propose my own version of an internal relation argument, according to which there is an internal but non trivial relation between acknowledging one’s own best reasons for belief and forming the corresponding belief. These are two different kinds of states. My account of the non-trivial internal relation follows from accepting some general characteristics of our conceptual system (Peacocke 2009) and of our status of rational subjects (Burge, 1998, McDowell 1995). So it is germane to those relying on the specific nature of theoretical reasoning (Williams 1973, Adler 2002), but it is arguably more explanatory. The explanatory link with the nature of mind also shows that the problem of the motivational force of reasons in the epistemic domain is not identical to the problem of the motivational force of reasons in the practical and moral domain, where the debate on akrasia started. Though the similarity is striking, the temptation of a general solution should therefore be resisted.

References
Adler, J. (2002) Akratic Believing? Philosophical Studies, 110.
Burge, T. (1998) Reason and the First Person, in C. Wright, B. C. Smith and C. McDonald (eds.) Knowing Our Own Minds, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Heil, J. (1984) Doxastic Incontinence, Mind XCIII, pp. 56 -70.
Hookway, C. (2001) Epistemic Akrasia and Epistemic Virtue, in Fairweather, A. & Zagzebski, L. (eds.), Virtue Epistemology: Essays on Epistemic Virtue and Responsibility, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
McDowell, J. (1995) Might there be external reasons?, in Altham J. and Harrison R. (eds.) World, Mind and Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Moran R. (1997) Self-Knowledge: Discovery, Resolution and Undoing, European Journal of Philosophy, 5, 141-61.
Owens, D. (2002) Epistemic Akrasia, The Monist 85, 3, 381-97.
Peacocke, C. (2009). Understanding and Rule-Following, in A. Coliva (ed.) Wittgenstein, Rule- following and Mind, Festschrift for Crispin Wright, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Pettit, P. and M. Smith (1996). Freedom in Belief and Desire, Journal of Philosophy 93, 429-49.
Williams, B. (1973) Deciding to Believe, in Problems of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 136–51.

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