Justification. By Richard Swinburne.
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. Pp.
viii + 262. Price ???)
[Forthcoming in The Philosophical Quarterly]
of Swinburne’s rewarding book will get a glimpse from the inside of how a
sophisticated doxastic foundationalist understands epistemic justification.
What, you may ask, is doxastic foundationalism? Well,
generic foundationalism, as Swinburne understands it, is the view that some
justified beliefs are basic, i.e., not grounded on or based on other beliefs.
Some versions of foundationalism allow that basic beliefs can be
justified in virtue of their being based on experiences.
But doxastic foundationalism holds that all justified basic beliefs are “ones we are justified in holding without their
needing other beliefs or other mental states as grounds, in the sense that
intrinsically or merely in virtue of our having them, they are probably true”
I say above that this book gives us a
glimpse, rather than a defense, of a sophisticated version of doxastic
foundationalism. It’s not that
Swinburne gives us nothing in defense of his position.
But the tone of the book is expository and conciliatory rather than
polemical. His purpose seems to be
to explain his epistemological views,
not to take on all those who disagree with him, providing knockdown objections
to their positions while defending his own against criticisms.
He does take issue, in some
ways, with coherentist positions and with foundationalist positions (especially
externalist ones) contrary to his own. But
he believes that competing accounts of justification and knowledge are, for the
most part, analyzing different
concepts related to different uses of the words ‘justified’ and
‘knowledge’ (p. 2). Hence, there is not, he thinks, much genuine disagreement
between internalist and externalist foundationalists.
Even so, he does address the question (central in chapters 6 through 8)
of which sorts of justification and knowledge are worth having.
According to Swinburne, most of the various sorts of justification and
knowledge (externalist and internalist) are good things to have (p. 190).
But only objective internalist justification and the sort of knowledge
that requires it are intrinsically
valuable (pp. 163-64,185-86, 219-20). If
the justification and knowledge are of an externalist sort, then, says Swinburne,
justified true belief and knowledge are no more worth having than mere true
belief (pp. 185, 219).
The book divides into two main parts.
The first three fifths of the book (chapters 1 through 5) are devoted to
explaining the concepts to be used in the second part of the book where he
compares various theories of justification and knowledge.
The most important of these concepts is probability,
which takes up about half of that first part of the book (all of chapters 3 and
4). Following Ian Hacking and others, Swinburne notes that since the seventeenth
century, two main kinds of probability have been identified: probability as “a
feature of the physical world”, which Swinburne calls ‘externalist
probability’, and “probability on evidence that something was the case in
the physical world”, which he calls ‘inductive probability’ (pp. 61, 71).
He goes on to distinguish three varieties of externalist probability (actual
statistical, hypothetical statistical and physical) and three varieties of
inductive probability (logical, epistemic and subjective).
Chapter 4 (on the correct criteria of logical probability) is the longest
in the book. Here he pays special attention to the two a priori criteria
for determining the logical probability of one proposition on another, namely,
scope and simplicity (the narrower the scope of the proposition and the simpler
it is, the more likely it is to be true). In
the second and fifth chapters Swinburne focuses on belief and basicality
respectively. According to him, our
beliefs have narrow, not wide, content and we have infallible access to them.
In discussing basicality, he offers accounts of the basing relation and
of what counts as our total available evidence.
Having completed this preliminary
work, Swinburne turns, in the second part of the book, to the task of comparing
and evaluating various internalist and externalist accounts of justification and
knowledge. In chapter 6 he
discusses synchronic justification (the sort of justification that has to do
only with the subject’s response to her current
evidence), in chapter 7 the focus is diachronic justification (the sort that is
determined in part by the adequacy of the investigation that produces the
subject’s current evidence) and in chapter 8 it is knowledge.
As I noted earlier, his main thesis in these chapters is that only
internalist sorts of justification and knowledge are intrinsically valuable.
In order to engage Swinburne’s book
critically, it will be helpful to examine some aspect of it in greater detail.
Thus, for the remainder of this review, I will focus on something that
plays a pivotal role in Swinburne’s doxastic foundationalism, namely, his
account of what he calls ‘rightly basic beliefs’.
Rightly basic beliefs are basic beliefs in propositions that have a prior
logical probability greater than 0.5 (p. 145).
Two factors affect the prior logical probability of a proposition: its
intrinsic probability (which is its probability on a tautology, determined in
the case of contingent propositions by simplicity and scope) and its
self-probability (which is the probability it gets in virtue of being believed
– the higher the confidence in the belief, the higher the self-probability).
For noncontingent propositions, whatever self-probability they get by
virtue of our believing them is totally overwhelmed by their intrinsic
probability. Thus, no matter how
strongly we believe or disbelieve them, the logical probability of noncontingent
propositions is 1 or 0 (p. 147). The
intrinsic probability of contingent
propositions tends to be very low. But
their self-probability plays a significant role in determining their logical
probability, either lowering it even further or raising it, in some cases close
to 1, as when one is very confident in some basic
belief in a contingent proposition (pp. 148-49).
The reason Swinburne thinks that
self-probability can increase the prior logical probability of contingent
propositions is this. He thinks that justification is determined by logical
probability; yet clearly, memory and perceptual beliefs are justified despite
the fact that their contents have a low intrinsic probability; so they must get
a boost in logical probability from somewhere else (p. 149).
But why does Swinburne think this boost in logical probability comes by
virtue of our believing the propositions? First,
he thinks that if S believes p in the basic way, then S will (if she thinks
about it) believe that her belief that p is forced upon her by the world; and
“the very fact of my believing that some proposition is being forced upon me
by my experience or by the deliverance of reason is as such reason for me to
believe it to be true” (p. 140). Why
think that? Because, says Swinburne,
“[i]f that were not so, I would never have a good reason ... for believing
anything” (p. 141).
This account faces a number of difficulties
that Swinburne doesn’t adequately address.
First, there are the problems that arise from his claim that perceptual
beliefs get none of their justification from experience.
According to Swinburne, their justification comes from the logical
probability they have in virtue of our holding them. If this were right, then our experience could be completely
different or absent altogether and yet the logical probability of the very same
perceptual beliefs (and, therefore, any justification they get in the basic way)
would remain the same so long as we maintained the same high confidence in them.
But that is quite implausible. Second,
Swinburne seems to think it is important, for justification, that our beliefs
have reasons. And in seeking to
identify a reason for the basic belief p, he points to the fact that we would
(if we thought about it) believe that q, where q is the proposition that the belief that p is forced upon me by the world.
But if the belief that p is justified in virtue of our having (or being
able to have) a reason, namely, the belief that q, why think it is a basic
belief? Furthermore, one wants to
ask if the belief that q needs to be justified itself in order to function as a
justification-producing reason. One
would think that it must. But then
we are off on a regress because it too will need a reason that will itself need
a further reason, and so on. Why
not conclude instead, as foundationalists typically do, that a belief can be
justified even if we don’t have a reason for it?
Third, why conclude from the fact that the intrinsic probability of the
contents of our memory and perceptual beliefs is low that there must be some
other source of logical probability for them?
Why not instead take that fact as evidence for thinking that the
justification of basic beliefs is not
determined by the logical probability of their contents?
Finally, why think that Swinburne’s account of justification in terms
of logical probability is an internalist
account? Even if a logically
omniscient person will have privileged access to which of her basic beliefs are
logically probable, most people won’t for, the simple reason that they won’t
always have privileged access to which of their beliefs are in contingent
propositions or to which of their beliefs in noncontingent propositions are
Many more questions than these are raised
by Swinburne’s doxastic foundationalism.
But anyone who, like myself, is inclined to think it very implausible
that all intrinsically valuable justification is determined largely by logical
probabilities can’t simply dismiss the idea without digesting and responding
to Swinburne’s careful and meticulous exposition of a sophisticated version of
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