Belief Revision: Part 2

(Belief Revision continued…)

1.2 Moorean Facts and Belief Revision

When should Mooreans change their beliefs?  Many potential norms of belief revision are available.  The first idea is to treat Moorean facts as special propositions immune to skeptical arguments.  The second is to treat them as being known better than the premises of any argument to the contrary (as stated earlier).  And since it would be unreasonable to abandon a belief known better than its alternative, this has intuitive appeal.  On this view Moorean facts are not special by rule, but by fact.  Kelly builds on this line of argument to formulate a clearer notion of what “knowing better” means.  If a belief is known better than another perhaps it is more plausible.  This sounds good at first blush, but even false beliefs can be plausible, thus plausibility is not the best candidate for belief revision.  We have to figure out a stronger notion of “knowing better” or something relevantly similar.

Perhaps a Moorean fact could be a belief that one is more certain of than other beliefs.  Psychological certainty is confidence in the truth of a belief.[i] Kelly uses this notion of certainty and calls it confidence.  On this view, Moorean facts are beliefs which one is more confident in than other beliefs.  If two beliefs conflict, one should drop the belief that they are less confident in as soon as possible.  However, Kelly criticizes this view because one’s confidence that a belief is true is linked with the perception of the strength (or weakness) of evidence that could be brought against it.  He suggests that waiting for the outcome of belief conflict for resolution is not the issue, but rather what one thinks the outcome should be.  He states the problem as being about the reasonableness of holding a belief after all relevant arguments and evidence have been examined.  This is evidential certainty.  Maintaining belief in a Moorean fact is always more reasonable than conceding to the skeptic.  However, Kelly concedes that this is just a restatement of the Moorean thesis itself.  So where do we go from here?  Something is wrong with the skeptic.

Kelly muses that the skeptic is using a bankrupt philosophical methodology.  G.E. Moore is cast as a particularist[ii] while the skeptic is committed to a type of methodism[iii].  A good method should not destroy our knowledge claims in particular cases the way skepticism does.  Kelly summarizes three possible methods for approaching knowledge: particularism, methodism, and reflective equilibrium – a balance between the two – and hyper versions of both.  Hyper-particularism gives little or no priority to general rules, while hyper-methodism gives little or none to individual cases.  Reflective equilibrium gives neither greater priority over the other, but uses both to achieve a balance.  When judging cases, the reflective equilibrium theorist would agree with the particularist in rejecting the skeptic’s methodism.

The only option left to the skeptic is hyper-methodism.  Kelly charges the skeptic with giving principles a special priority over our judgment about cases.  This is not special pleading for particularism because this intuition is the same in reflective equilibrium and moderate forms of methodism.  Therefore a Moorean need not be a particularist.  Kelly’s final charge against the skeptic turns the dialectic on its head.  It is the skeptic, not the Moorean, who is devoted to a strong metaphilosophical view (a philosophical thesis on how to do philosophy) that seems unreasonable in light of specific cases that undermine it.

The bottom line is it’s the skeptic who’s being dogmatic and holds to a highly dubious method of doing philosophy. Mooreans are not being unreasonable when holding to their beliefs in light of these kinds of skeptical attacks.  And they shouldn’t allow themselves to be goaded into defending their beliefs when skeptics come squawking.

2 Conclusion

When do we finally revise our beliefs?  If one is an evidentialist, then it’s simply a matter of weighing the evidence for and against a view.  Whichever view passes fifty percent plausibility, that’s the view to adopt (see criteria 1-4 in the intro).  However, if one has other, non-evidential reasons for holding a view, then it might take something more, something like undercutting and rebutting defeaters (a defeater for a belief is another belief that somehow contradicts or undermines the former belief.  I’ll talk about these in the next article).

This last part of the dialectic will be the hardest since it involves our psychological biases the most.  What if I don’t want to give up my belief?  That’s fine.  All of the evidence in the world won’t force you to believe that God does or does not exist, macroevolution by natural selection is true, or that the earth is round.  It really is up to you what to decide when faced with formidable arguments that oppose your position.  There need be no pretense about this.  I’ll be the first to say that it will be very difficult for me to give up my belief that God exists, and that’s mostly due to the fact that evidential considerations make up a very small fraction of the reasons for my belief (however, that doesn’t mean that I won’t give up my belief that God exists.  I’ll talk about this and more in the next article).

This brings up an interesting question which happens to be the focus of the next article: If it is unlikely that people will change their beliefs about God’s existence on the basis of theistic arguments, is natural theology valuable at all?  What can we expect from these arguments?  What should we expect?

What’s at stake in having these kinds of conversations and debates in the first place?  Maybe everything or maybe nothing at all.  But I, like many of you, think it’s important to try and find out.

[i] For example, I have psychological certainty in my belief that God exists.  I’m extraordinarily confident about it.  This should not be confused with epistemic certainty, however.  Epistemic certainty would mean that it’s logically impossible that I be wrong about my belief that God exists.  But surely it’s logically possible that I’m wrong about my belief.)  An example of a belief that I claim to hold with epistemic certainty would be: “I exist,” or “2+2=4”.  It’s impossible to be wrong about such beliefs.

[ii] A particularist is one who picks out particular paradigm cases of knowledge and claims them as such.  For example, I know that the computer in front of me is sitting on my lap, I know what I had for breakfast, and I know that there’s a rumble in my tummy.

[iii] A methodist (no, not John Wesley’s brand of Christianity) starts with general principles for ascertaining cases of knowledge and then judges alleged cases against these principles.  This is roughly the opposite of particularism.


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