Thursday, February 23, 2017

Belief Is Not a Norm of Assertion (but Knowledge Might Be)

Many philosophers have argued that you should only assert what you know to be the case (e.g. Williamson 1996). If you don't know that P is true, you shouldn't go around saying that P is true. Furthermore, to assert what you don't know isn't just bad manners; it violates a constitutive norm, fundamental to what assertion is. To accept this view is to accept what's sometimes called the Knowledge Norm of Assertion.

Most philosophers also accept the view, standard in epistemology, that you cannot know something that you don't believe. Knowing that P implies believing that P. This is sometimes called the Entailment Thesis. From the Knowledge Norm of Assertion and the Entailment Thesis, the Belief Norm of Assertion follows: You shouldn't go around asserting what you don't believe. Asserting what you don't believe violates one of the fundamental rules of the practice of assertion.

However, I reject the Entailment Thesis. This leaves me room to accept the Knowledge Norm of Assertion while rejecting the Belief Norm of Assertion.

Here's a plausible case, I think.

Juliet the implicit racist. Many White people in academia profess that all races are of equal intelligence. Juliet is one such person, a White philosophy professor. She has studied the matter more than most: She has critically examined the literature on racial differences in intelligence, and she finds the case for racial equality compelling. She is prepared to argue coherently, sincerely, and vehemently for equality of intelligence and has argued the point repeatedly in the past. When she considers the matter she feels entirely unambivalent. And yet Juliet is systematically racist in most of her spontaneous reactions, her unguarded behavior, and her judgments about particular cases. When she gazes out on class the first day of each term, she can’t help but think that some students look brighter than others – and to her, the Black students never look bright. When a Black student makes an insightful comment or submits an excellent essay, she feels more surprise than she would were a White or Asian student to do so, even though her Black students make insightful comments and submit excellent essays at the same rate as the others. This bias affects her grading and the way she guides class discussion. She is similarly biased against Black non-students. When Juliet is on the hiring committee for a new office manager, it won’t seem to her that the Black applicants are the most intellectually capable, even if they are; or if she does become convinced of the intelligence of a Black applicant, it will have taken more evidence than if the applicant had been White (adapted from Schwitzgebel 2010, p. 532).

Does Juliet believe that all the races are equally intelligent? On my walk-the-walk view of belief, Juliet is at best an in-between case -- not quite accurately describable as believing it, not quite accurately describable as failing to believe it. (Compare: someone who is extraverted in most ways but introverted in a few ways might be not quite accurately describable as an extravert nor quite accurately describable as failing to be an extravert.) Juliet judges the races to be equally intelligent, but that type of intellectual assent or affirmation is only one piece of what it is believe, and not the most important piece. More important is how you actually live your life, what you spontaneously assume, how you think and reason on the whole, including in your less reflective, unguarded moments. Imagine two Black students talking about Juliet behind her back: "For all her fine talk, she doesn't really believe that Black people are just as intelligent."

But I do think that Juliet can and should assert that all the races are intellectually equal. She has ample justification for believing it, and indeed I'd say she knows it to be the case. If Timothy utters some racist nonsense, Juliet violates no important norm of assertion if she corrects Timothy by saying, "No, the races are intellectually equal. Here's the evidence...."

Suppose Tim responds by saying something like, "Hey, I know you don't really or fully believe that. I've seen how to react to your Black students and others." Juliet can rightly answer: "Those details of my particular psychology are irrelevant to the question. It is still the case that all the races are intellectually equal." Juliet has failed to shape herself into someone who generally lives and thinks and reasons, on the whole, as someone who believes it, but this shouldn't compel her to silence or compel her to always add a self-undermining confessional qualification to such statements ("P, but admittedly I don't live that way myself"). If she wants, she can just baldly assert it without violating any norm constitutive of good assertion practice. Her assertion has not gone wrong in a way that an assertion goes wrong if it is false or unjustified or intentionally misleading.

Jennifer Lackey (2007) presents some related cases. One is her well-known creationist teacher case: a fourth-grade teacher who knows the good scientific evidence for human evolution and teaches it to her students, despite accepting the truth of creationism personally as a matter of religious faith. Lackey uses this case to argue against the Knowledge Norm of Assertion, as well as (in passing) against a Belief Norm of Assertion, in favor of a Reasonable-To-Believe Norm of Assertion.

I like the creationist teacher case, but it's importantly different from the case of Juliet. Juliet feels unambivalently committed to the truth of what she asserts; she feels no doubt; she confidently judges it to be so. Lackey's creationist teacher is not naturally read as unambivalently committed to the evolutionary theory she asserts. (Similarly for Lackey's other related examples.)

Also, in presenting the case, Lackey appears to commit to the Entailment Thesis (p. 598: "he does not believe, and hence does not know"). Although it is minority opinion in the field, I think it's not outrageous to suggest that both Juliet and the creationist teacher do know the truth of what they assert (cf. the geocentrist in Murray, Sytsma & Livengood 2013). If the creationist teacher knows but does not believe, then her case is not a counterexample to the Knowledge Norm of Assertion.

A related set of cases -- not quite the same, I think, and introducing further complications -- are ethicists who espouse ethical views without being much motivated to try to govern their own behavior accordingly.

[image from Helen De Cruz]


Daniel said...

I'd think that the same considerations that motivate you to believe in "in between belief" should also motivate you to believe in "in between knowledge". Just take a case of in between belief that P, but make sure it's true that P, and make sure there's some non-accidental connection between P's truth, and the subject having those dispositions she has that are characteristic of belief that P.

E.g., suppose Fred is not a good friend, and Selma has picked up on this to some degree; the straw that broke the camel's back was when he broke a promise to water her plants while she was traveling. Since then, she doesn't rely on him when it counts. But she's self-deceived--she'll sincerely say he's a good friend when asked, and if pressed to come up with examples in which wronged her, she won't be able to (though if reminded, she'll say "oh yes there was that...and that..."). Does Selma know Fred is a good friend? I guess you could give an unequivocal "yes" here, but that seems like a weird combination with your view about belief. I'd want to say it's an in between case. Moreover, it's an in between case in which it would seem odd for Selma to just go right ahead and assert that Fred is not a good friend--while she knows it in some sense (as manifested in her asking other people to water her plants from now on), I want to say she hasn't yet had the insight/realization that would make it permissible to assert it.

So in sum, I think you should be just as queasy about an unqualified knowledge norm of assertion as an unqualified belief norm, and for essentially the same reasons.

Callan S. said...

As I evaluate it, Juliet is rather like an alchoholic who can say 'Uncontrolled drinking is bad', but may acknowledge this even as they do it.

But the creationist teacher - it would seem to require some quarantining 'These groups have come to some conclusions in regard to the origin of man, their conclusions are...'. The way it'd make sense is if it is like she is reporting the news, like you might report that there are climate change deniers without actually believing that position yourself.

Knowing someone else's belief and reporting this information isn't the same as knowing but not believing. I can't really imagine someone being a creationist but teaching evolutionary theory as if its the real deal - it'd be like me teaching that climate change isn't real and that's an absolute fact, when I do believe it's real (side note: Though I grant it's minutely possible it could be incorrect)

Anonymous said...

The case you proposed puzzles me. Let’s say that Juliet is correcting Jamal’s paper. Could she believe something like “Jamal’s remarks are unexpectedly insightful for a black guy” without being aware she believes so? If she is aware she believes so, I don’t understand why you call her an implicit racist. If she is not aware she believes so, that means there are beliefs people hold without being aware of it. Could you make me some other examples of unconscious beliefs? I keep thinking about the following case. Let’s say I’m scared of Mr X because I was molested by him as a kid, but the experience was so traumatic that I forgot about it. When he is around, I usually tremble, sweat and feel uncomfortable. Do I believe he is dangerous? I believe I’m scared for some reason, or that he looks somehow scary. Maybe I have the feeling he is dangerous. But how can I believe that? Shouldn’t I believe p only when I have some reasons (maybe not conclusive, but still some relevant reasons) to believe p is true? Either I consciously believe he is dangerous because, for example, I trust my feelings or, it seems to me, I just feel like he is dangerous. But feeling like p isn’t believing that p, is it?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Daniel: I accept in-between knowledge too, but I don't think it maps neatly onto in-between belief. One case I find intuitive is Juliet: She knows, but she only in-between believes. The theoretical architecture I steal from Ryle: knowledge is a capacity, belief is a tendency. You can have the capacity but not the tendency. Juliet has the capacity to deploy her justified true representation that P to guide her behavior, but she does not have a reliable enough tendency to do so to count as a straight-up believer.

Callan: There are various ways to spin out the creationist case, but one that's compatible with knowledge and only in-between belief, in my view, is if she is ready and able to think and reason on evolutionist grounds, in that sincere-seeming way that most of us feel sincere when we do so (and its true and justified and what she epistemically should believe given her evidence), but when she stops and reflects and thinks about her faith she judges that evolutionary theory is false. I'm not confident of all of the details -- but something like that.

Nora: The way you set it up is too on/off yes/no to capture the way I'm thinking about the case. To have a belief, on my view, is like having a personality trait, like extraversion. To believe all the races are intellectually equal is to have a wide range of behavioral, cognitive, and phenomenal dispositions characteristic of that belief -- like tending to assume certain things about people, tending to advance certain theoretical positions, tending to feel surprised in certain cases. Juliet has a mixed dispositional profile, like someone might have a mixed dispositional profile regarding extraversion. She might or might not realize that her profile is mixed in this way: self-knowledge doesn't map neatly into the picture one way or the other. Feeling like P is part of the dispositional profile constitutive of believing P, but it by itself is not sufficient. So that's the picture I have in mind!

Daniel said...

Got it, though I don't see how that leaves you in a position to think the knowledge norm of assertion might be in good shape. If yo uhave the capacity to deploy your true representation that P to guide your behavior, but it's only some of your behavior (and in particular, not the broadly linguistic stuff), shouldn't it be weird for you to nevertheless assert that P?

Callan S. said...


Sounds akratic? Even though I'd prefer her going over to evolution, in many ways I'd prefer her going over to her faith than sincerely teaching something she doesn't believe in. I'd get speculatively teaching something 'Maybe this is real, somehow?', but sincerely??

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Daniel: Yes, there is something normatively amiss in Juliet. But I wouldn't locate the problem in her *assertion*.

Callan: I'm not thinking of these as akrasia cases exactly -- although people mean different things by "akrasia". I'm not sure that term has been helpful, on the whole, for philosophers in thinking about the dissonance between judgment and behavior.

Callan S. said...

I have to say, I'm having trouble modeling what is supposed to be going on.

chinaphil said...

WRT the teacher case, I'm not sure that teaching something is the same as asserting it. Usually teachers present themselves to children as if they were asserting their propositions, but that can be read as a kind of performance. (I was struck by this today as a kind of
Your Juliet example still seems a bit problematic to me. You say her assertion has not gone wrong, but if she makes her assertion to Timothy, and Timothy has observed her behaviour over the years, he might well ignore her. Her assertion has gone wrong in that it cannot be appropriately understood by anyone familiar with her, because they just think, "Who on earth does she think she is, lecturing me on race, when everyone knows she treats her own students differently depending on the colour of their skin." And if anyone has pointed out to Juliet that her actions do not match her rhetoric, then she is in a position where she knows she should not make her assertion; or she ought to know.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

John Turri writes:

I think that we can go beyond saying that knowledge "might be" a norm of assertion and, instead, just flat-out say that knowledge is a norm of assertion. All the evidence is presented in detail here and a brief overview can be found here Part of the evidence consists in work that directly tests how cases of "selfless assertion" are actually judged, which can be found here Basically, people overwhelmingly judge that the teacher believes, knows, and should assert that humans evolved.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks John!

I don't want to commit on the knowledge norm claim (hence the "might"), though I am inclined to agree. (Part of my hesitation is the size and complexity of the literature on this topic, which I haven't mastered.)

On whether the teacher believes -- well, that's complicated! As I know you know I believe, folk judgment about belief does not consistently respect the K -> B entailment relation, so I think there are cases in which a substantial portion of respondents will ascribe knowledge but not belief. Separably from that, I don't think we need to follow the folk in considering what the best way is to conceptualize belief and knowledge.

John Turri said...

Hi Eric,

Fair enough on the knowledge norm claim — the literature is pretty large.

I think your work on K -> B entailment is great and I can definitely see the appeal of applying those insights to these sorts of cases.