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«Noninferentialism and testimonial belief fixation Tim Kenyon, University of Waterloo Uncorrected draft; this paper appears in Episteme,Volume 10, ...»

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it says that even seemingly inferential belief fixation is partly driven by subdoxastic processes. By dint of being (arguendo) non-propositional, this sort of information processing is not apt to be inferential; hence, even inferential beliefs are also significantly noninferential. Isn’t the point of testimonial noninferentialism just supposed to be that inferential justification for BFT, when it occasionally exists, is additional to the more general phenomenon of noninferential justification? So the involvement of subdoxastic information-processing even in inferential cases may seem neither surprising nor problematic for the noninferentialist. But (A) is not as innocuous as one might think, since it underscores the lack of detail available to characterize just what inferential doxastic fixation is supposed to be in the first place.

This is a large and recalcitrant matter that will not be resolved in a few words. It is enough to convey the obscurity of the notion of an inferential pedigree, understood as contrasting sharply with some different form of belief fixation. This implicates the issues that arose in considering Audi’s suggestion that inference must be conscious; it turns out

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not just to explicit and articulated logical operations over propositions, but to unconscious processes, to operations like feature detection and classification at the common boundaries of perception and cognition, and even into perceptual processing itself, as with Bayesian inference models of object perception (Kersten et al 2004). It may be up to philosophers, in part, to determine what ought to count as sound, cogent, or rational inference. But epistemologists appealing to a causal notion of inference simpliciter that is dramatically sharper and more limited than the notion of inference actually employed in empirical work surely owe an explication of their own concept.

Without that explication, again, we do not create a well-defined phenomenon by negating ‘inferential.’ Still, the more obvious problem for noninferentialism is (B). We might think of this in terms of the deeply influential notion of belief-independent belief-formation.

Belief-independence looks like a way of spelling out what causal noninferentialism might amount to; (B) is effectively a denial of belief-independence as applied to BFT.

Goldman posits belief-independence as a particular mode of doxastic fixation, characterizing it as a process “none of whose inputs are belief-states” (1992, p. 117). As a refinement on the notion of noninferential belief fixation, this has the virtue of greater clarity. But that such a doxastic fixation process-type is the rule in BFT formation is hard to motivate with psychological evidence, it seems to me.10 Indeed, if one thinks about the psychologically complex causal histories of BFTs, and the propensity for those histories to implicate beliefs about persons, about assertions, about intentions, about contexts,

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doxastic contributing causes seems implausible on its face.

Perhaps Goldman is tapping into something like Fred Dretske’s (1988) intuition about the distinction between triggering causes and structuring causes in cognition;

arguably it is more plausible to think of belief-forming processes that have no beliefs among their immediate triggering causes, even if they output TBBs only because of structuring causal conditions involving beliefs. (Certainly Audi employs the terminology of triggering causes (2006, p. 26) in sketching his own causal noninferentialism.) But the triggering/structuring distinction does not track the dependent/independent distinction; a BFT-forming process structured (in part) by beliefs clearly has beliefs among its inputs in the causal sense relevant to whether its output is belief-independent.

Indeed, it is surely through one’s “general knowledge” (or in any case one’s general beliefs and other attitudes, explicit or implicit) that the links we noted earlier will typically hold between observations of the speaker’s facial expression, tone of voice, dress, age, and eye gaze, on one hand, and the acceptance of testimony on the other hand.

What explanatory role exists for the notion of, say, my implicit sexism, if not to mediate between my basic feature detection or information-processing regarding sex, and my dispositions to accept or reject testimony offered by people of one (perceived) sex or another? The point applies equally to frequently unarticulated beliefs about race, age, disability, and many other socially freighted properties. Recognizing the effects of such cognitive representations on our social judgements, including our judgements of speaker credibility, is a hallmark of empirically informed epistemic responsibility and social

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when the relevant representations are unwarrantedly negative regarding some oppressed group. Such effects don’t arise because one intends them to, nor because one calculates them, but because, as a brute fact, the relevant beliefs, attitudes, memories, and collateral information mediate the cognitive transitions from feature detection to judgement. And while the point is sharpest when we consider the pernicious cases of beliefs and attitudes mediating between feature detection and bigoted judgements, the effect in question is entirely general.

The upshot is that BFTs have complex psychological histories that preclude causal noninferentialism when understood as psychological belief-independence. When I am speaking with someone on my doorstep, my disposition to accept her testimony is without question colored by such details as whether she has just knocked on my door;

whether she is a stranger or a neighbor; what I might have experienced or inferred about her reliability as an asserter; what she is carrying; how she is dressed; her hygiene; where she looks while speaking; the company she is keeping, if any; the sort of vehicle, if any, she has arrived in; what day of the week and what time of day or night it is; and whether she is sweating and nervous or seems cool and calm.

Consider also how the content of the speaker’s assertions, and its interactions with these contextual details, bears on the plausibility of causal noninferentialism. Does the person on my doorstep claim to be selling something, or distributing religious literature, or canvassing for a charity? Does she express a wish to buy my car? Does she express a wish to buy my children? Imagine someone who claims to be canvassing for a charity

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a receipt book on his person. Now imagine someone who rings the doorbell at 10:30 p.m., dressed as if for a nightclub and claiming to have discount golf coupons for sale.

Surely my settling on judgements about the credibility of such claims psychologically implicates my beliefs and theoretical commitments about that very speaker, persons in general, society, etiquette, times of day, salespersons, companies, charities, hygeine, and clothing, inter alia.

In short, BFT fixation prima facie implicates other beliefs all over the place. At a minimum, then, ‘belief-independent’ is not a plausible description of BFT when the expression is understood causally, in Goldman’s sense of inputs to a formation process.


I am not here concerned to deny that there could be a useful distinction between inferential and noninferential belief fixation in the domains of self-knowledge and perceptual knowledge. But it would be disingenuous to deny that I harbor some skepticism. Indeed, some of my reasoning against the causal inferential-noninferential distinction when it comes to testimony might be recast as objections to that distinction in any domain. The apparent fact that the causal notion of inference is something quite different for at least some epistemologists than it is for psychologists and cognitive scientists (or, worse, that some epistemologists are just getting the causal notion wrong) does not seem idiosyncratic to issues of testimony, after all.

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distinction, though – not because I think that such a case is hopeless, but because the strongest argument for my position regarding BFT is the argument on which noninferentialism fails as an account of BFT even if it succeeds in other domains.11 Hence I grant, for current purposes, that causal noninferentialism is well-suited to characterize the epistemically relevant cognitive etiology of coming to believe, for example, that one is in pain, or that one is perceiving a cup. On this assumption, the foregoing remarks show that self-belief and perceptual belief cases are importantly different from cases of coming to believe that a particular speaker in a particular context of assertion, producing an utterance with a particular linguistic content and set of pragmatic overtones, has spoken truly. This strikes me as unsurprising, though.

Paying attention to the typical details of testimonial uptake and belief fixation makes a difference to how we most plausibly characterize the epistemology of testimony.

For now, I submit, the reasonable conclusion is that BFT is not plausibly characterized as causally noninferential, but that this should not lead us to characterize it as inferential in some straightforward sense. Causal noninferentialism gives short shrift to the massive overlap of doxastic and subdoxastic cognition in fixing such high-level, complex, socially-inflected beliefs. Yet the assumption of a robust inferential-noninferential distinction for BFT is also dubious in the face of that overlap.12

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(2007), among others.

2 That is, basing has been variously characterized in terms of non-deviant causal connections (Moser 1989); in terms of non-deviant causal connection under further metacognitive constraints (Audi 1993); in terms of counterfactual causal (over)determination (Swain 1981); and in various combinations thereof, inter alia.

3 Some authors use ‘epistemic’ only as the adjectival form of ‘knowledge.’ I will use it to apply to knowledge and justification. For the most part my focus is on justification.

4 Here too note the causal inflection of basing.

5 As far as I can tell, Audi means more or less the same things by “belief produced by testimony,” “beliefs acquired through testimony,”, and “belief from testimony” (2006, pp.

26-7). Since he explicitly uses the first expression (at least, without further qualification) to include cases of belief that causally depend only on the manner of utterance, I am not borrowing Audi’s definition of BFT – just the convenient phrase itself, with the refinements of meaning I explain below.

6 For parallel remarks of a similar vintage, see also Gigerenzer and Murray (1987): “The idea that unconscious inferences is a self-contradicting explanation now appears as semantic inertia” (p.103).

7 This distinction is another example of fairly open traffic between causal and epistemic considerations. Both notions are defined causally, as can be gleaned from the quotes already noted. But the use immediately made of the notions is justificatory. Audi writes

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one develops another belief that evidentially supports it. “The addition of this support can justify the belief it supports. If that belief is already justified, it is now doubly so” (2003, p. 161).

8 In this passage Audi again suggests that BFT is usually noninferential.

9 C.A.J. Coady (1992, pp. 269-270) makes this point.

10 Goldman himself does not claim that BFT fixation is belief-independent, to be clear.

In fact, he takes it that (what I call) a BFT with propositional content P is typically the output of belief-forming process that causally implicates another belief – specifically, the belief that the speaker has reported that P (1999, p. 129). My argument here is aimed at the idea that belief-independence, regarded in other domains as a refinement or clarification of noninferentialism, could rescue noninferentialism regarding BFT.

11 And, of course, because making such a case would be a much larger and far less tractable task.

12 For very helpful comments, my thanks to David DeVidi, Masashi Kasaki, Rachel McKinnon, John Turri, the members of my 2012 seminar on testimony at the University of Waterloo, and two anonymous referees for this journal. This research was funded in part by Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada Grant 410-2011-1737.

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Audi, R. 2006. ‘Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity.’ In J. Lackey and E. Sosa (eds.) The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 25-49.

Audi, R. 2003. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge.

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Audi, R. 1993. ‘Belief, Reason, and Inference.’ In The Structure of Justification.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 233–73.

Blair, I. 2001. ‘Implicit Stereotypes and Prejudice.’ In Moskowitz, G. (ed), Cognitive

social psychology: On the tenure and future of social cognition. Mahwah, NJ:

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Cutler, B. L., Penrod, D. S., and Stuve, T. E. 1988. ‘Juror Decision Making in Eyewitness Identification Cases.’ Law and Human Behavior. 12: 41-56.

Dretske, F. 1988. Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes. Cambridge MA:

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Gigerenzer, G. and Murray, D. 1987. Cognition as Intuitive Statistics. London:

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Goldman, A. 1999. Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, A. 1992. ‘What is Justified Belief?’ Liaisons. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

105-26. Originally published in Pappas, G. (ed), Justification and Knowledge.

Dordrecht-Holland: D. Reidel. 1979.

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Phenomenological Research 74: 30–55.

Kersten, D., Mamassian, P., Yuille, A. 2004. ‘Object Perception as Bayesian Inference.’ Annual Review of Psychology 55: 271-304.

Kihlstrom, J. 1987. ‘The Cognitive Unconscious.’ Science 237: 1445-52.

Kripke, S. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lackey, J. 2008. Learning from Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moser, P. 1989. Knowledge and Evidence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pappas, G. 1982. ‘Noninferential Knowledge.’ Philosophia 12: 81-98.

Pritchard, D. 2004. ‘The Epistemology of Testimony.’ Philosophical Issues 14: 326-48.

Pryor, J. 2005. ‘There is Immediate Justification.’ In Steup, M. and Sosa, E. (eds), Contemporary Debates in Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell. 181-201.

Swain, M. 1981. Reasons and Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Weiner, M. 2003. ‘Accepting Testimony.’ The Philosophical Quarterly 53: 256-64.


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