stove’s gem as epistemic circularity

Suppose you doubt my testimony that p, i.e. you think I might be lying or misleading you about p, but you’re not sure. I then say to you “Hey, don’t worry, trust me…” You then, solely on the basis of this additional testimony, come to believe that I am not misleading you with regard to p. Call this second proposition q. Are you justified in believing that q? 

Something like this example was used by Thomas Reid. Here is a contemporary example, from James Pryor (2000: 525-6). My reasons for believing that the butler is the murderer depend crucially on the premise that the murderer is left-handed. That is, were I not in a position to justify the premise that the murderer is left-handed, I would not be justified in believing that the butler is the murderer. However, suppose that my reason for believing that the murderer is left-handed is that the butler is left-handed and that the butler is the murderer. This seems clearly circular and question-begging.

One final, more illustrious example: it is prima facie dubious to give an inductive defence of the veracity or reliability of induction.

The basic phenomenon here is called epistemic circularity, the use of a particular faculty or source of warrant as sole justification for belief in the veracity of that faculty or source of warrant. In general, epistemic circularity is held by many to be incompatible with knowledge or even justified belief. That is, it is held by many that if the basis of my belief that p, its ground, justification, warrant, etc., is infected by epistemic circularity, i.e. if it exhibits the sort of structure characteristic of my examples above, then that basis of belief does not suffice for my knowing, or perhaps even being justified, in believing that p.

The interesting thing about epistemic circularity is that it can be described in very general and basic terms, such that it seems to affect any possible belief I may have. To see this, consider the following passage from Baron Reed (2006: 186-7):

Let F1, F2, F3, etc., be a subject S’s cognitive faculties, of which S has a finite number. In order to know that F1 is a reliable source of knowledge, S will have to use either F1, or another faculty. But if S uses F1 his belief that F1 is reliable will be epistemically circular. So S must instead use (say) F2. But S should not use F2 unless S knows that it is a reliable source of knowledge itself. In order to come to know this, S will have to use F1, F2, or some other faculty. But S cannot use F2, on pain of epistemic circularity. And S cannot use F1, without first knowing that it is a reliable source of knowledge, which is still in question. So S must use some other source – say, F3. But it should be clear that the same issues will arise with respect to F3, and that S will eventually run out of faculties to which she has not already appealed. Epistemic circularity is inescapable.

The connection with Stove’s Gem is this: consider the case where you are being asked to believe yourself. We can think of the basis of any belief you could have as being indexed in part to you, i.e. that believing anything at all requires trusting your own ‘reason’. Now, having fallen out of the Humean side of the bed one morning, you are feeling a touch diffident towards your own truth-discerning abilities. The point is this: it does not seem possible to remove this doubt in any epistemically non-circular manner. Indeed, even my belief that I presently exist or am conscious is seemingly affected by this sort of epistemic circularity, as illustrated by the following exchange:

Descartes: If I doubt then I exist, hence I exist.

Sceptic: But what if that is part of the deception?

Descartes: Well, since I am deceived, I must exist.

Sceptic: But what if that is part of the deception?

etc…

What the phenomenon of epistemic circularity shows us, or at any rate makes plausible, is that mere perspectivity (i.e. the fact that a given faculty or conceptual scheme is my faculty or conceptual scheme) suffices for uncertainty.

References

  • James Pryor, ‘The Skeptic and the Dogmatist’, Noûs, 34/4 (2000), pp. 517-49.
  • Baron Reed, ‘Epistemic Circularity Squared? Skepticism about Common Sense’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 73/1 (2006), pp. 186-97. 
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One Response to stove’s gem as epistemic circularity

  1. Pingback: the desire for certainty | atheology: a blog about nothing

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