Friday, July 19, 2019

Practical Reasons, Belief, and Suspension of Judgment

Selim Berker, in "A Combinatorial Argument against Practical Reasons for Belief" (Analytic Philosophy [2018] 59: 427–70; a preprint of it is available here), argues (as you would expect from the title) that there are no practical reasons for or against believing. There are reasons to doubt the tenability of such a claim. The most obvious is that pretty much all reasonable people occasionally give as reasons for or against belief things that are most easily characterized as practical reasons (simplicity, fruitfulness for theory, experimental falsifiability or confirmability, usefulness in practice). A much more subtle and controversial one is that it's at least not clear that 'practical reasons' and 'epistemic reasons' are non-overlapping categories; that is, despite the tendency to talk as if they were different kinds of reasons, there is room on the evidence to consider them instead different kinds of functions for reasons. The most obvious example of something that seems to function simultaneously as an epistemic reason and a practical reason is the principle of noncontradiction. But I think Berker is quite right that his argument is founded on things that are widely believed by people studying reasons; I don't think it suffices to establish that there are no practical reasons for or against believing, but that's because I am inclined to go tollens where he goes ponens. That is, the argument is based on things widely believed that I think shouldn't be widely believed. And it's valuable to look at some features of his argument (I can't do full justice to it here) to highlight what those things are, and why they are problematic.

(1) Berker holds that there is nothing corresponding in matters of action to suspension of judgment in matters of belief. This, however, I think is certainly false. Suspension of judgment is committed neutrality on whether p is true or not true; the corresponding state in action is committed neutrality on whether an action is to be done or not done, suspension of decision. It is a common feature in plan-designing and decision-making.

(2) Suspension of judgment is not a thing that just happens; it is a practical action, not an epistemic status. (Committed neutrality requires actually committing, unlike neither believing p nor disbelieving p.) Thus, if practical reasons and epistemic reasons are taken to be distinct kinds of reasons, the reasons that are relevant to suspension of judgment are practical reasons, not epistemic reasons. Significant portions of Berker's argument, however, depend on the assumptions, first, that we have three alternatives, believing, disbelieving, suspending judgment, and, second, that epistemic reasons balance to suspension of judgment. These are both quite common assumptions. But, if anything, it is practical reasons that should balance to suspension; epistemic reasons, if not also practical reasons, should just -- balance. Isosthenia, equal strength of arguments, is not itself suspension of judgment, and nothing about isosthenia on its own strictly requires committed neutrality; we have to decide to suspend judgment, as a practical matter. The old Pyrrhonists, for instance, had very practical reasons for suspending judgment in cases of isosthenia.

(3) This has bearing on a more fundamental point. It is widely held that practical reasons for action exhibit what Berker calls 'permissive balancing': if I have no practical reason to do anything but A or B, which conflict, and I have good reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is allowable to do either A or B. It is also widely held that epistemic reasons for belief exhibit what Berker calls 'prohibitive balancing': if I have no reason to think that anything is true but A or B, which conflict, and I have goo reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is not allowable to believe either A or B.

The metaphor of balancing reasons (or arguments, or justifications, etc.) is one that should probably not be taken over-seriously; for one thing, we do not compare reasons (or arguments...) in only one way, which means that it's harder to find a genuine balancing of reasons, rather than balancing-if-we-only-focus-on-this-aspect, than applications of metaphor usually make it sound. (And, in fact, we do not only suspend judgment in matters of isosthenia, which in practice would make it a very rare phenomenon for most people, but for all sorts of close cases, limited contexts, and partial inquiries. Suspending judgment in response to isosthenia itself is not, as it is often presented, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment. If anything, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment is doing so on recognition that there is more information coming, as in the case of the committed neutrality of a scientist waiting for the experiment to finish.) But even if we consider cases in which we are only considering one aspect, the norms in question, while perhaps common, do not seem to be universal. There are practical situations in which you should not be acting without a definite preponderance of reason, however that is defined. If, for instance, we have practical reason to use a weapon and practical reason not to use it, it's not generally true that equality means you can make whichever decision you please; one can equally say that you are, stuck in a practical quandary that prevents you from making a decision until something changes (suspension of decision). Similarly, I think one should resist the notion that epistemic reasons always and everywhere exhibit prohibitive balancing; from isosthenia alone no conclusions about one should not believe follow. And there are cases where assuming permissive balancing would seem at least to be coherent -- for instance, if the reasons underdetermine whether A or B is true, tentatively picking a side to assume doesn't make the mind explode or anything. It seems that practical and epistemic reasons could each have either permissive balancing or prohibitive balancing, even if each tends to favor one over the other.

(4) Berker addresses the idea that the norms could be rejected in considering a different position -- the view that all reasons are practical -- and mostly just insists that "we" are very strongly inclined to believe them. But it is worth pointing out that even if there is a sharp distinction between epistemic and practical reasons, the only reasons that could be given for believing that epistemic reasons should exhibit prohibitive balancing are practical reasons. Prohibitive balancing is normative; the reasons for accepting norms are recognizably practical on most accounts of norms.

(5) The usual reason for insisting that we need practical reasons as well as epistemic reasons is that the former sometimes seem to serve as an 'epistemic tie-breaker'. Berker considers this at some length, but his response, I think, makes the serious (although I think common) assumption that if practical reasons aren't breaking the tie independently of the epistemic reasons, they aren't breaking the tie. But this is certainly too strong. Consider a case in which the epistemic reasons balance between two theories, A and B, which can't both be true; a hypothetical scientist, faced with this, accepts A because it allows further experiment and B doesn't, so A is more beneficial in the pursuit of scientific discovery. That is very definitely a practical reason; it's definitely being used to break the tie. But the whole point of the practical reason is that it takes into account the epistemic reasons -- it has to do so in order to take into account their practical implications if accepted. What is relevant, though, is that the epistemic reasons do not yield the result, 'accept A', without the additional practical reason.

(6) This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to some of the features of Berker's argument; I have only touched on points where it is true both (a) that I think Berker is right that he is building on things widely held; and (b) that I think there is positive reason to doubt these things.

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