«Noninferentialism and testimonial belief fixation Tim Kenyon, University of Waterloo Uncorrected draft; this paper appears in Episteme,Volume 10, ...»
The examples on offer, as well as the positive descriptions of noninferential belief formation and justification, are typically very sparsely detailed. Certainly both Audi’s remarks and Pritchard’s presuppose a great deal about the cognitive underpinnings of testimony-relevant information processing, without really making clear how these cognitive mechanisms or types could perform as advertised. As we have seen, Audi and
and unconscious. While this is fairly standard talk among epistemologists in describing noninferential belief in any domain, the cash value of these characterizations is doubtful.
For example, in Audi’s hands, the view that inferences cannot be unconscious is advanced merely on the strength of a rhetorical question: “[I]n what sense can an inference, as opposed to a mental process, be unconscious? This is unclear” (2003, p.
135). To be sure, I am inclined to agree that it is unclear. But it’s fair to say that whether some inferences can be conscious is equally unclear. Consider inferences over many premises, conducted over a substantial period of time; or inferences among whose premises are stunningly obvious propositions like ‘You can see things better during daylight hours’. Do we consciously entertain these thoughts in drawing inferences; and is consciousness of thoughts the same as consciousness of the inference over the thoughts?
Indeed, it’s unclear whether inferences even comprise a robust psychological kind, or, if they do, how they are psychologically implemented.
In any case, the conviction that inference cannot be unconscious or automatic is not especially shared by cognitive scientists and psychologists, and has not been for some time. As psychologist John Kihlstrom observes, Experiments on automaticity are important because they indicate that a great deal of complex cognitive activity can go on outside of conscious awareness, provided that the skills, rules, and strategies required by the task have been automatized. They expand the scope of unconscious
perceptual analyses of the physical features of environmental stimuli.
Now it is clear that there are circumstances under which the meanings and implications of events can be unconsciously analyzed as well. Thus, people may reach conclusions about events-for example, their emotional valence – and act on these judgments without being able to articulate the reasoning by which they were reached. This does not mean that cognitive activity is not involved in such judgments and inferences; it only means that the cognitive activity, being automatized, is unconscious in the strict sense of that term and thus unavailable to introspective awareness (Kihlstrom 1987, p. 1447, footnotes elided).
It is possible that Kihlstrom and Audi don’t mean quite the same thing by ‘inferences’ here; for better or worse, this can happen when empirical work meets a (differently) idealized discourse. But Kihlstrom is summarizing the results and interpretations of a great deal of work in cognitive science and psychology. 6 Even were there a subtle equivocation in play, this in itself would be reason enough to doubt that inference has a transparent interpretation locating it clearly in the realm of the conscious.
Finally, Audi’s rhetorical question is surprising by his own lights, given that he distinguishes between two kinds of inferential belief. Episodically inferential belief “arises from a process or episode of inferring, of explicitly drawing a conclusion from something one believes,” while structurally inferential belief formation occurs when a
causally co-determined by those other beliefs, but “is not at the time episodically inferential, because it arises, not from my drawing an inference, but in an automatic way not requiring a process of reasoning (2003, p. 160). The structurally inferential case is explained, “presumably in a causal sense of ‘explain’,” by the fact that “something happens in me – a belief arises on the basis of one or more other beliefs I hold” (2003, p.160; italics in original). Suppose we granted that reasoning itself is an inherently conscious and non-automatic process, as the quoted passages presuppose. Even so, if structurally inferential belief is, a fortiori, inferential, then it’s unclear why Audi thinks that inferential belief formation cannot be unconscious or implicit. That’s just what structurally inferential belief seems to be.7 Naturally, Audi can use his own distinctions as he sees fit, and I do not claim to have captured the subtleties of his treatment of them. But to both make the episodicstructural distinction and not exploit it looks like acknowledging the fuzzy categories of inference and consciousness, yet perhaps without giving the fuzziness its due significance. In any case, it does seem to count still further against the thought that BFT’s causal noninferentiality follows from the claimed unconsciousness or automaticity of BFT fixation. The notions of inference and consciousness are not particularly welldefined, it is true, and their intersection perhaps contains the product of their unclarities;
but placing a negation operator in front of ‘inferential’ does not remedy that.
Nor is there much to recommend claims of the relative unmediatedness or directness of noninferential belief. As Pritchard and Audi have it, an agent’s recognizing
memories, or observations playing an essential causal role. Yet BFT fixation is surely mediated by the influence of lots of other psychological or neurological states and processes. Presumably, the idea that we “just believe” testimony isn’t meant to be the claim that we believe testimony without the influence of any mediating psychological processes! But then, if the claim is really to be understood just in terms of directness with respect to inferential processes, we are at risk of turning the claim that noninferential beliefs are direct into the claim that noninferential beliefs are noninferential. Again the illumination offered by the informal characterization is low; the background assumptions signficant; the level of cognitive detail minimal.
With little cognitive or theoretical detail supporting the claimed ubiquity of noninferential BFT formation and justification, there is a particular importance to the examples invoked to illustrate the causal inferential-noninferential distinction for testimony. I argue that these come to grief on just the sort of contextual factors that influence one’s dispositions to accept testimony by default, as Audi himself notes.
[O]ne might be habituated to taking intonation and facial features into account. These elements are important constraints on acceptance of much oral testimony, but no specific beliefs need express fully the way such elements constrain the formation of testimony-based beliefs. At least for non-skeptics, a critical stance is possible without reasoning from any of its standards to the acceptability of the testimony, and indeed without inference
in propositions we believe (2006, p.28).
In other words, Audi quite reasonably recognizes the belief fixation role of what is sometimes called subdoxastic information processing. In distinguishing between strictly inferential operations and the mere “taking into account” of information that constrains testimonial acceptance, Audi alludes to the inferential case as involving specific beliefs and propositions, and to the notion of a mental representation’s fully expressing a critical standard. The apparent upshot is that inferential belief fixation depends on cognitive operations over structured representations of a very particular sort: fully-fledged doxastic propositional attitudes.
This is not an understanding unique to any one epistemologist or philosopher of mind, to be sure. Yet the example provided in order to clarify the causal distinction in fact has the opposite effect. It is supposed to show us what (per impossibile, perhaps) inferential BFT would look like, on the view in question. Audi conjectures that [t]he idea that beliefs based on testimony arise by inference from one or more premises is probably a natural result of concentration on formal testimony. When I hear courtroom testimony, I appraise the witness, place the testimony in the context of the trial and my general knowledge, and accept what is said only if, on the basis of this broad perspective, it seems
of testimonial evidence. By contrast, Audi holds that “[i]n the case of informal testimony – the most common kind – the beliefs it produces are surely not inferential” (2003, p.
134).8 Rather, we “just believe” testimony when we hear it, provided that it does not trigger a skeptical response from background beliefs that act to “filter” it. Testimony in formal contexts is properly accepted only if the acceptance is supported by one’s inferential reasoning, as we are now using the term, about the speaker and the claim (among other things). But this presupposes a fair bit about the cognitive underpinnings of BFT fixation in formal contexts, and the example of formal testimony bears out neither these presuppositions. There are at least two reasons for this failure.
First, there is a double dissociation between the use of conscious critical evaluation standards and formal testimonial contexts. On one hand, intuitively, we may justifiedly believe many things that a witness says in a court of law without any conscious or deliberate appraisal of the sort Audi describes. Indeed, justified default acceptance seems every bit as likely to be the rule as to be the exception in a courtroom, precisely because much of what a witness testifies under oath may be utterly mundane and uncontroversial.9 When the courtroom witness states her name and address, for example, the audience hardly goes to palpable inferential lengths in order to “appraise the witness, place the testimony in the context of the trial and [their] general knowledge, and accept what is said only if, on the basis of this broad perspective, it seems true.” On the other hand, critical standards of appraisal and evaluation are deployed in innumerable
others who generally have a relationship they would characterize as trusting. When a friendly discussion turns to certain topics, or when the claims made on any topic seem worthy of scrutiny, critical evaluative standards come online as a matter of course. If the deployment of these standards is inferential when it occurs in courtroom contexts, then its occurrences in the broad sweep of non-courtroom contexts are every bit as inferential;
and if they are not inferential in broader contexts, then it is hard to see why the courtroom case should not also be noninferential. Here too we have a characterization that fails to distinguish inferential from noninferential cases.
The foregoing point about the courtroom example would follow even if we thought of BFT fixation more generally as either inferential or noninferential in some
sharply discrete sense. Yet this thought is doubly fraught. Because:
(A) seemingly canonical inferential BFT formation plausibly incorporates much subdoxastic and implicit information-processing; and (B) seemingly canonical noninferential BFT formation plausibly incorporates much doxastic information-processing – “background” and “foreground.”
to be a very blurry one. While (A) and (B) do not prove it, they suggest that the inferential-noninferential distinction may simply collapse altogether. What they do show, though, is that conceiving of the divide in terms of causal or historical purity is a nonstarter.
We can see this by reviewing a bit of psychological boilerplate. Cognitive actions like appraising a witness’s credibility are demonstrably shot through with the processing of such contextual factors as Audi mentions – the audience is sensitive to the speaker’s facial expression and tone of voice, along with many other facts involving dress, race, gender, age, confidence, and social status. Even in a formal setting, this information processing is inextricably linked to one’s appraisal of a witness. To choose just one dimension of evaluation: the extent to which an audience perceives that a witness is confident in her own claims is often a significant determinant of how they perceive her credibility (Cutler et al. 1988). Yet the process of assessing a witness’s confidence in her own claims, in turn, is an unlikely candidate for explicit, conscious, purely and fully propositional inference. A hearer is unlikely to calculate a speaker’s confidence in her claims by consciously considering some explicitly articulated beliefs.
Notice that this point is quite independent of how it seems to hearers that they go about making such assessments, moreover. Well-meaning observers who would deny holding racist views are nevertheless subject to racial stereotype biases when judging the credibility of witnesses (Blair 2001); yet, when this happens, it surely does not seem to them that they reach their credibility judgements on no basis whatever. In such
or distrust the speaker. This sort of story may well include claims to the effect that we reasoned from premises and conclusions in settling on our judgements. Modern cognitive and social psychology has as one of its most heavily repeated themes that implicit heuristic reasoning, activated by feature detection and followed by the confabulation of rationally amenable inferential explanations, is a staple of human mental life.
Nevertheless, observation (A) might seem like grist for the noninferentialist mill: