Saturday, May 26, 2012

Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?
Date: 8 October 2007 12:29

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 30 September, with your University of London Epistemology essay in response to the question, 'Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?'

After reading your email message, I was not prepared for what is, in many respects, a model answer to the question. This is a very good essay.

After offering working definitions of 'rational' and 'reliable', you give an explanation of what it means for the two to be 'the same', in terms of the truth of a biconditional. You then look at alleged counterexamples to the necessity and sufficiency of the biconditional, giving appropriate references to the literature. You conclude with speculations about the aetiology of a 'two-headed' concept of knowledge, which I would regard as fully relevant to the question, although I agree that the right place for this is at the end after you have stated your main conclusions.

In an examination, the last part of your essay would suffice to push it over the edge into the first-class bracket. The examiners are looking for something more than just the 'model' answer, evidence that you have thought about this problem for yourself and are not merely reproducing what you have read in an epistemology text book.

How can the essay be improved?

As you have raised my expectations, my general advice would simply be to do as much reading as you can. Get a subscription to one of the general philosophy journals, or at least take the time to look at the latest issues in a university library. I don't see it as my job to spoonfeed students with things they 'ought' to read. This is part of the research aspect of a degree, something you should be doing for yourself. However, as a general rule you should take time to do things like reading reviews of the latest books ,and avoid relying too much on potted accounts in encyclopedia articles. If you can take the opportunity to attend some philosophy seminars where visiting academics give presentations at a university near you that would be a great bonus.

What I am going to do is try to respond to your arguments, suggesting lines of thought which you might not have considered.

One thing that occurred to me is that you have assumed, in your answer, that the question is about knowledge involving rational belief and knowledge involving reliable belief. Even if we did conclude that in this case knowledge reliably produced is also rationally produced and vice versa, it might seem that we still have to consider the logical possibility that reliable belief and rational belief might diverge in cases where the belief is false.

A reliable belief which is false is still reliable. I have just said that it is. As it happens, I have received essays from two different UoL students both arguing that truth is not a necessary condition for knowledge, which is a pretty radical claim. The argument is that if a belief is truly reliable, who cares whether it is, 'in fact', true or not? Before the two essays, it had never occurred to me that this is a question that one can sensibly raise.

On the other hand, what use is a rational belief which is false? You can reason to all sorts of wrong conclusions. All it shows is that in addition to rationality, we count on the fact that we are not given misleading evidence. So this seems at first sight to be a clear case where reliable belief is very different, by definition, from rational belief.

A point to make against this, however, that we are dealing here with two different concepts of 'reliable'. The above counterexample relies on a 'pragmatic' definition of 'reliable' as enabling the agent to successfully accomplish his/her purposes, insofar as the belief in question is implicated. Whereas, arguably, the sense of 'reliable' assumed in the question concerns what you dub 'truth-conduciveness'. In this sense, a 'reliable' belief cannot be false, by definition. The very fact that it turned out to be false shows (from an externalist perspective) that it was not reliable.

The other point I wanted to make concerns your very useful account of the evolution of two different concepts of knowledge. I would like to ad to this considerations about why we have a concept of 'knowledge' at all. In any particular case where I am raising the question whether P, my only interest is whether P is in fact true. If I have satisfied myself that P is true, then asserting that I 'know' that P seems little more than a way of adding extra emphasis: P is true, believe me!

Just asserting P, however, is doing something which is tantamount to the same thing: I am setting myself up as a source of information on the question whether P. If I wasn't sufficiently sure whether P, then I have no right to make the assertion.

This suggests an explanation of the 'two-headed' phenomenon in terms of a performative-type analysis of knowledge. We are interested in determining who 'knows' and who merely has beliefs which happen to be true (howsoever produced) because we are interested in identifying those whose testimony carries 'authority'. However, it turns out that there are two different ways in which one can have one's authority established in the eyes of others, either by one's skill in offering rational explanations, or simply judging from successful results.

All the best,

Geoffrey