Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sosa and the Pyramid or the Raft

Philosopher Ernest Sosa thinks that Sellars' and the coherentists' view of knowledge does not really account for our beliefs and knowledge. But he also wants to suggest that the foundationalist view doesn't fair too much better either.

In his essay, "The Raft and the Pyramid," Sosa writes that we must choose between one view or the other: foundationalism or coherentism. Foundationalism is the the idea that for some beliefs there is no other belief but that belief itself which could be a reason for believing it. To say that "I'm looking at a brown table" and to think of a reason for believing why I'm looking at a brown table is just the belief that I'm looking at a brown table.

Coherentism, on the other hand, is the view that there are always other reasons a person could give for believing whatever they believe. For example, to say that "I'm looking at a brown table" and to ask what reason I have for believing this, I could make mention that "I believe that I am seeing it under the right conditions," "I believe that I understand how certain concepts apply to certain situations when I want to make observations," etc etc. So our beliefs fit in with our other beliefs and that's the kind of structure of our beliefs.

Sosa gives this argument for why coherentism is not a tenable position. Imagine this: You have a headache. You think: Oh, I have a headache. Now, think about your beliefs in the coherentist theory. Sosa writes:
Let everything remain constant, including the splitting headache, except the following: replace the belief that I have a headache with the belief that I do not have a headache, the belief that I am in pain with the belief that I am not in pain, the belief that someone is in pain with the belief that someone is not in pain, and so on. I contend that my resulting hypothetical system of beliefs would cohere as fully as does my actual system of beliefs, and yet my hypothetical belief that I do not have a headache would not therefore be justified.
I'm going to do my best to understand this argument of Sosa's. It seems to amount to this in short form. Coherentism can't be true because if it were true, then I could have one true belief that is inconsistent with a bunch of false beliefs and because it wouldn't cohere with, for example, an entire system of false beliefs I could have connected to it, then there would be no reason to believe the true belief. But if this were the case, then it would make it impossible to reiterate a true belief to support the belief itself. That's equivalent to saying there would be no way to justify true beliefs.

If I don't criticize this view now, then I'll forget to. I hope I'm not being unfair to the argument or making of it a strawman but it looks as though the argument is, put more simply, coherentism can't be true because the conclusion is repugnant: "I don't like the conclusion, so boo, can't be true." Maybe I just don't understand the argument. But anyway, ultimately, Sosa believes that the system of knowledge or the system of beliefs can't just be a set of logical relations, otherwise it could just generate a bunch of false explanations. Couldn't that be true, though?

I'll just assume that Sosa is correct about coherentism as a set of logical relations to continue the story. He thinks foundationalism looks good but it has problems. (This is also confusing to me, by the way.) The big problem for him seems to be that if we think of some beliefs as being basic or without other explanation than those beliefs themselves, we could always ask if there is itself some basic belief that grounds that or general principle. But if so, those beliefs are no longer basic. If not, then there could be several of these but then what is to stop it from being an infinite possibility of basic beliefs. So how much of a foundation is there, really? he asks.

Again, I think this so-called argument looks a little fishy. It looks something like this: "If we accept that there are too many basic beliefs, then that's not very pretty, is it? So, that has to be false." Of course, maybe I don't understand the argument correctly. Or maybe he's just trying to provide Occam's razor, the simplest explanation, saying instead that it would be unlikely for the structure of beliefs or our system of knowledge to be only a matter of several beliefs being foundational.

Whatever the case, Sosa wants to get to his view, which is virtue epistemology. Sosa considers himself a kind of foundationalist but in the sense that we could accept that there is a general principle that underlies all other belief or general belief that we have or should accept, namely that the system of beliefs is a system that is explained by the the intellectual virtues we have.

If you ask me, this doesn't seem a more coherent view, because there is no consensus on what an intellectual virtue is. Furthermore, there are not independent reasons, reasons apart from dismissing traditional foundationalism and coherentism, that support this kind of view.

I will try to provide a basic assessment of Sosa's work in the next post. But I'll just go ahead and tease and say that it doesn't make much sense to me at all. This could be my shortcoming, and if so, so much the worse for my thinking. If not, so much the worse for him.

Greco, John and Turri, John, "Virtue Epistemology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/epistemology-virtue/.

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