|Theory of Knowledge
Circularity and Stability
ABSTRACT: William Alston argues that there is no way to show that any of our basic sources of belief is reliable without falling into epistemic circularity, i.e. relying at some point on premises that are themselves derived from the very same source. His appeal to practical rationality is an attempt to evaluate our sources of belief without relying on beliefs that are based on the sources under scrutiny and thus without just presupposing their reliability. I argue that this attempt fails and that Ernest Sosas appeal to the coherence theory of justification fails, too, if it is understood as an attempt to find a similar external evaluation of our sources of belief that does not just assume their reliability. I concluded that there is no alternative to taking an internal view to our own reliability and embracing epistemic circularity.
Why suppose that any of the bases on which we regularly and unquestionably form beliefs are reliable? Why suppose that sense perception, in particular, is a reliable source of information of the physical environment? These are questions that William Alston raises in his recent books Perceiving God (1991) and The Reliability of Sense Perception (1993). He argues that there is no way to show that any of our basic sources of belief is reliable without falling into epistemic circularity. There is no way to show that such a source is reliable without relying at some point or another on premises that are themselves derived from that source. So we cannot have any non-circular reasons for supposing that the sources on which we base our beliefs are reliable.
Alston thinks, however, that there is a way of evaluating the reliability of our sources of belief that is independent of the beliefs based on those sources and that does not therefore fall into circularity. I will argue that Alston's attempt to find such an external support for our sources of beliefs fails. I will also consider Ernest Sosa's (1994, 1995) most recent attempt to deal with the problem and argue that if it is understood as a related attempt to find an external standpoint from which to evaluate our sources of belief, it fails, too. I will conclude that there is no alternative to a purely internal approach in which we evaluate our sources of beliefs in terms of the beliefs that derive from the very same sources and thus to embracing epistemic circularity. Finally, I will suggest that this internal approach amounts to acknowledging stability in the belief system as an important epistemic end. It is only by pursuing such stability that we can pursue truth.
Let's follow Alston (1993, pp. 12-15) and take sense perception as our example. If we want to show that sense perception is reliable, the simplest and most fundamental way is to use a track record argument. We collect a suitable sample of beliefs that are based on sense perception and take the proportion of truths in the sample as an estimation of the reliability of that source of belief. We infer inductively from the truth or falsity of particular perceptual beliefs to the conclusion that sense perception is reliable. But how are we to determine whether particular perceptual beliefs are true? It seems to be the only way to form further perceptual beliefs. So the premises of the track record argument for the reliability of sense perception are themselves based on sense perception. The kind of circularity involved in this argument is not logical circularity because the conclusion that sense perception is reliable is not used as one of the premises. Circularity it is nevertheless because we cannot take ourselves to be justified in accepting the premises unless we assume that sense perception is reliable. Since this kind of circularity involves a commitment to the conclusion as a presupposition of our taking ourselves to be justified in accepting the premises, Alston calls it epistemic circularity.
Alston (1993, p. 126) argues also that any attempt to show a source to be reliable by relying on deliverances of some other source does not help. If that other source is in turn shown to be reliable by relying on the first source, we have still a circle that is wider but not less objectionable. And if we think that the reliability of the other source can be taken for granted and does not need any showing, we are vulnerable to a charge of undue partiality. It seems clear that any attempt to show that any of our basic sources of belief is reliable faces this dilemma: it falls either into epistemic circularity or into undue partiality.
However, Alston argued in his earlier paper "Epistemic Circularity" (1989) that epistemic circularity does not prevent our using such an argument to show that sense perception is reliable or to justify the claim that it is. Neither does it prevent our being justified in believing or even knowing that sense perception is reliable. Assuming that reliabilism is the correct account of justification and that sense perception (and inductive reasoning and memory) is in fact reliable, we are quite justified in accepting the premises and we can use the argument to show that sense perception is reliable. In other words, if sense perception is reliable, then we can show that it is. Now, he finds the iffy nature of this conclusion quite intolerable. It is true that epistemic circularity does not prevent us from showing that sense perception is reliable if sense perception is in fact reliable. But the same conditional holds for any other source of belief, however outrageous. If crystal-ball gazing is in fact reliable, we can use a track record argument to show that it is. So epistemically circular arguments do not serve to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources.
Alston's new pessimism seems to derive from his interest in finding some kind of external support for the reliability of our sources of belief, a support that is independent of the outputs of those sources (1991, p. 149, 174; 1993, pp. 122-124, 139). It is clear that epistemically circular arguments fail to give such an independent support. All that they possibly support from this external point of view are hypothetical conclusions: if a given belief source is reliable, we are justified in believing that it is. If we are not allowed to endorse the premises of the argument because they are themselves based on the source the reliability of which is under scrutiny, these hypothetical conclusions seem to be all we can get. (Actually, to get even these hypothetical conclusions, we have to rely on some sources of belief. So it is doubtful that we can even reach such conclusions if we want to evaluate our sources of belief from a point view that is totally independent of those sources and their outputs. I will, however, go along with Alston for the sake of argument and assume that we are entitled to these conditionals.)
Alston (1993, pp. 124-140) finds the needed external evaluation in practical considerations. Even though we cannot show without circularity that sense perception is reliable, we can show, in his view, that it is rational to go on forming beliefs on the basis of sense perception and other customary sources of belief and that it is rational to assume that these sources are reliable. Or to use his term "doxastic practice" instead of "source of belief", Alston tries to show that it is rational to engage in doxastic practices that are firmly established, psychologically and socially, and to take them to be reliable. The sort of rationality in question is not epistemic, however. It is not rationality that is necessarily related to truth-conducive or reliable source. It is practical rationality. The argument is that it is practically rational to form beliefs on the basis of sense perception and other customary sources of beliefs because these ways of forming beliefs are firmly established. What other alternative do we have, he asks. We cannot stop forming beliefs altogether. And there seems to be no reason to change those ways of forming beliefs that are already firmly established.
Now, can this argument escape the afore mentioned dilemma. Alston (1991, p. 176) admits that we have to make use of the "standard package" of sense perception, introspection, memory, rational intuition and reasoning to determine the social establishment of doxastic practices. So is not the practical-rationality argument from social establishment vulnerable to the same sort of circularity that the reliability argument suffered from? It must be admitted that it is not. We need not assume the conclusion to take ourselves to be justified in accepting the premises. We can use our doxastic practices to reach the conclusion that these same practices are firmly established without needing to assume that they are firmly established. What we do have to assume is that these practices are reliable. Because this is not, however, the conclusion of Alston's argument, there is no circularity. Still, it is difficult to see how it can offer the desired external evaluation of our sources of beliefs or doxastic practices. Let us look at the crucial steps of the argument:
We cannot take ourselves to be justified in accepting the premises in (1) unless we assume that the "standard package" is reliable. There is no epistemic circularity because the conclusion is not that the "standard package" is reliable but that it is practically rational to assume that the "standard package" is reliable. So we need not assume the conclusion to be able take ourselves to be justified in accepting the premises.
The problem is that if we take this to be an external evaluation of our sources of belief, all we get are hypothetical conclusions, quite similar to those that an epistemically circular reliability argument can give us. Namely, if sense perception (and the other sources in the standard package) is reliable, then it is practically rational for us to assume that sense perception is reliable. How is this better than the conclusion that if sense perception is reliable, then we are (epistemically) justified in believing that sense perception is reliable. Alston's shift to practical rationality offers thus no advantage compared to the arguments that are plainly circular.
So Alston's practical rationality argument does not give the required external evaluation of our sources of belief. Ernest Sosa (1994, pp. 282-285) seems to agree with Alston that epistemically circular arguments fail to distinguish reliable sources of belief from unreliable ones. The lesson that he draws is different, however. He argues that even though epistemically circular arguments do not distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones, they distinguish, like any other arguments, coherent doxastic attitudes from incoherent ones. Suppose that you are given an argument that you accept correctly as valid. Your system of beliefs would be incoherent if you now believed the premises and denied the conclusion of the argument. Many other combinations of attitudes are instead open for you. You may, for example, believe both the premises and the conclusion, but you may also deny one of the premises and believe the conclusion or deny both the premises and the conclusion. So what any valid argument ever does is to raise some combinations of attitudes above others in respect of coherence.
So once we have an epistemically circular argument for the reliability of a belief source with premises which we already believe, we can imbed our belief in the conclusion within a more comprehensively coherent system of beliefs and become thus justified in accepting the conclusion. What this requires, of course, is that the coherence theory of justification is true. If the coherence theory of justification is true, epistemically circular arguments for the reliability of belief sources contribute to our being justified in believing in their reliability. Circularity is no problem for a coherentist.
Sosa's coherentism is qualified, however, and for familiar reasons. Because there can be several incompatible systems of beliefs which are equally coherent and some of which are clearly mad, it would be a mistake to take coherence to exhaust all epistemic value. According to Sosa's (1995, p. 231) proposal,
So coherence have epistemic value only if coherence-seeking reason is combined with externally apt, i.e. reliable, faculties and is itself reliable. For Sosa, reliability is thus a more fundamental epistemic value than coherence. Coherence has value only if it is reliable.
Does Sosa's solution improve the one given by Alston? If we interpret Sosa as searching for a similar external evaluation of our sources of belief, an evaluation that is independent of the beliefs derived from those sources, the results do not essentially diverge from those that Alston is able to give. The final evaluation is bound to be hypothetical. Sosa's conclusion is then that we are (internally) justified in taking our sources of belief to be reliable, but that this justification has epistemic value only if those sources are in fact reliable. So Sosa can at most conclude that if our sources of belief are in fact reliable, then our justification for taking them to be reliable has epistemic value. This does not seem to be, any more than Alston's suggestion, an improvement on the original reliabilist conclusion: if our sources of belief are reliable, then we are justified (in the reliabilist sense) in believing that they are reliable.
However, this may not be the right interpretation of Sosa's intentions. In another passage of the same paper (1995, p. 233), he puts the matter a little differently:
Here, Sosa appeals to his view that intellectual virtues are to be identified in relation to our actual world. Whether a faculty, like coherence-seeking reason, is a virtue depends on its reliability in our actual environment. So the victim of the cartesian demon would be as virtuous and justified in what she believes as we are because her faculties would be reliable in our world. And, of course, we do not take our world to be such a demon world. We take it to be a world in which perception, memory and inferential reason are reliable. So we take also ourselves to be justified in believing that these sources of belief are reliable, and we take such justification to be intellectually or epistemically valuable. This suggests strongly that Sosa does not look for an external evaluation of our sources of belief. All we can do is to try to evaluate them internally in terms of what we believe about the actual world and ourselves, in terms of the beliefs that are themselves produced by the faculties the reliability of which is under scrutiny.
To sum up, either we evaluate the reliability of our sources of beliefs in terms of our actual beliefs that are themselves derived from those sources, or we try to evaluate it independently of these beliefs and look for some kind of external support for it. In the former case, we embrace epistemic circularity. In the latter case, the most we can get as a conclusion are conditionals, such as "If sense perception is reliable then we are justified in taking it to be reliable", "If sense perception is reliable then it is practically rational for us to take it to be reliable" and "If sense perception is reliable then our justification for taking it to be reliable has epistemic value".
The epicycles via practical rationality and coherence theory suggested by Alston and Sosa do not thus help us to get very far. Indeed, it is not easy to see the advantage of them compared to crude and simple reliabilism. So why not just admit that there is no external support to be found for the reliability of our sources of belief. All we can do is to evaluate them internally in terms of what we already believe about the world and ourselves. This is the option that Alston (1993, pp. 122-124) calls bite-the-bullet approach that he takes to be characteristic of "naturalized epistemology" of Willard Van Quine (1969) and Alvin Goldman (1986). According to it, there is no first philosophy, no external vantage point outside of science or our own system of beliefs from which science or our beliefs could be evaluated. The only thing we can do is to evaluate our science or belief system from within. To use Otto Neurath's famous metaphor, as both Quine and Goldman do, we can rebuild our doxastic ship only at sea while floating on it.
If we decide to bite the bullet and evaluate our sources of belief in terms of our actual beliefs that are themselves derived from those sources, we embrace epistemic circularity. Whether we see this as a problem depends on what we expect of such an evaluation. Of course, we do not get any external support for the reliability of our belief sources. Neither is there any guarantee that the evaluation will be correct, that the sources that we judge to be reliable really are reliable. If our sources of belief were not in fact reliable, we would not, of course, be able to evaluate their reliability in a reliable way. However, if we are initially confident in our beliefs about ourselves and the world, nothing prevents our becoming confident about the reliability of their sources by arguments that uses those same beliefs as premises. Or if we already are confident of their reliability, these epistemically circular arguments may either increase or decrease that confidence. What we get, if all goes well, is a firm and stable system of beliefs that includes, to use Sosa's term, an "epistemic" perspective to our sources of belief and their reliability. This system is stable because by the "epistemic" perspective it includes we are able to resolve conflicts that may arise when we form new beliefs and thereby to preserve its stability.
If we take this kind of firm and stable system of belief as an important end in epistemology, we are not vulnerable to any vicious circularity. Epistemically circular arguments, on the contrary, help to create and maintain such a system. Still, it may be thought that this is an overly modest aim. We want more of our beliefs. We want that they are true rather than false. But, of course, we are not denying this by acknowledging stability as an important end. On the contrary, our desire for truth motivates the whole project of finding reliable sources of belief. The point is that a firm and stable system of beliefs is all we are guaranteed to get if our pursuit of truth is to be successful by our own lights. And these are the only lights there are. (See Bennett, 1990, on how these aims are related in Descartes.) It does not really matter whether we are reliabilists, coherentists or evidentialists. We are very much in the same boat. All we can do in our pursuit of truth is to see that our own beliefs satisfy our standards of justification, whatever they are. And this is a state in which our beliefs, both epistemic and non-epistemic, are in reflective equilibrium, to use John Rawls term. This is not to say that we must fail in our pursuit of truth. It is just to say that there is no guarantee that the beliefs in equilibrium are true or even justified. This does not depend on us, it depends on the world.
So we may conclude that we need not fear epistemic circularity. So far as we realize that we can pursue truth only by pursuing stability, circularity is a friend, not an enemy.
Alston, William P., 1989, Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Alston, William P., 1991, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Alston, William P., 1993, The Reliability of Sense Perception, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Bennett, Jonathan, 1990, "Truth and Stability in Descartes' Meditations", Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Suppl. vol 16, pp. 75-108.
Goldman, Alvin I., 1986, Epistemology and Cognition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Quine, W.V., 1969, "Epistemology Naturalized", Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York: Columbia University Press.
Sosa, Ernest, 1991, Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sosa, Ernest, 1994, "Philosophical Scepticism and Epistemic Circularity", The Aristotelian Society, Suppl. vol. 68, pp. 261-290.
Sosa, Ernest, 1995, "Perspectives in Virtue Epistemology: A Response to Dancy and Bonjour", Philosophical Studies 78, pp. 221-235.