Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hornsby's Paper : Section 2

I work myself through section 2 of Jennifer Hornsby's paper 'Knowledge, Belief and Reasons for Acting'. Here I remain fairly sympathetic to what she thinks is the connection between reasons, actions, beliefs, and knowledge. I conclude by summing up some of the problems we encountered in section 1 and indicate where one should go in future work to fix these problems and thereby be able to defend all the things that I'm sympathetic to in section 2.

As readers may recall Hornsby not only requires that we give an account of the objective and subjective sense in which someone can be provided with a reason for acting; one also needs to show how to connect these accounts. That is the topic for section 2 of her paper. To bring home such a story Hornsby starts out from the disjunctive principle (D) (which she claims is an analogous principle in action theory to McDowell’s (1982) disjunctivism in the philosophy of perception, a view she has discussed in further detail elsewhere (see ‘A Disjunctive Conception of Acting for Reasons’)):

(D) If A F-d because A believed that P, then EITHER A F-d because A knew that P (and (thus) A F-d because P) OR A F-d because A merely believed that P.

The first thing to notice about (D) is that it is a conditional and thus is consistent with a failure of the antecedent. For instance, it might be possible to act from knowing P and yet fail to believe P if knowledge does not entail belief (e.g. the unconfident student). In other words, (D) does not claim that one couldn’t act on knowledge without at the same time acting on belief. It is a problem that (D) fails to account for cases where an agent acts for knowledge without belief? Well, that depends on one’s views about the relationship between knowledge and belief. However, Hornsby is quite willing to admit the failure of accounting for such cases saying that (D) was never supposed to account for them: “(D) is designed to bring a wide range of cases of acting from knowledge under the head of acting from belief. And there is no need to deal with every possible case of acting from knowledge in order to do this.” That is, of course, a legitimate move since one is always allowed to restrict one’s own explanatory ambitions. Thereby she risks losing something that would be worth lumping under the same general account or principle but it might also be the case that no such phenomena is at hand here or; alternatively, one could contend that (D) takes care of all cases of acting from knowledge since it is arguable that intuitions concerning the unconfident student’s lack of belief vary greatly and that, at any rate, whatever state the agent is in when acting from knowledge it is one that is cognitively complex or belief-like enough to count as believing (Williamson 2000, p. 42). I won’t pursue the issue any further here.

Another thing worth noting about (D) is that EITHER is a conjunction. It says that A acts from knowing that P AND that A acts because of P. The reason is that the equation (E) from section 1 governs cases of acting from knowledge. When one does the latter one also acts from the objective reason that P given the equation between the two. In fact, knowing P is the only way one could act for the objective reason that P, according to Hornsby. (For problems about (E) I refer you to the previous blog post on section 1 of this paper).

An advantage of (D) is that it can accommodate cases like the following: A, who is neurotic, turns of the light and shuts the door. He now knows that the light is off and the door is shut. Still his belief that the light might still be on torments him so much that he reopens the door in order to turn it off. Such a case can be relegated to the second horn of the disjunction where the neurotic acts from a mere belief despite the fact that this belief conflicts with what he knows.

The connection between knowledge and belief that (D) relies on—and what it tries to keep track of—is the sense in which “knowledge sets the standard of appropriateness for belief” (Williamson 2000, p. 47). As Hornsby notes, the above cases (unconfident student and neurotic man) point to this appropriateness of believing only what one knows by displaying their agents as being somewhat less rational than what is optimal. Mere believing is, in Williamson’s words, “a kind of botched knowing” (2000, p. 47). To act on mere belief in the absence of knowledge or in the face of it could therefore be looked upon as a kind of botched rationality, which is an idea that Stanley, Hawthorne and Williamson explore in several places. After all, one who acts without knowledge, like our aforementioned skater, fails to act for the objective reasons there are—this holds, as we saw above, even when the skater skates at the edge of the pond for the Gettierized but true belief that the ice is thin in the middle—whereas the neurotic man has no objective reason for reopening the door and checking the light: on the contrary! Finally, there is a sense in which the unconfident student should behave as if he believed his answers; after all, he knows them and is thereby licensed by standards of appropriateness to believe them. The second horn of (D) therefore takes care of any number of cases where belief is found responsible for an act either in the absence of knowledge or in cases where beliefs are held and acted upon in the face of what one knows.

Let that suffice as a commentary of the advantages we get from holding (D) and let us turn to whether (D) also suffices to display the connection between the objective sense in which one acts for reasons and the subjective. Hornsby underlines the important role of beliefs in explaining actions. It is crucial that we attribute the neurotic with a belief to explain why he reopens the door whereas there are plenty of cases where agents act on the basis of mere appearances and false belief that could never be explained by applying only the objective sense in which one acts for reasons. These roles—acting in absence and in the face of knowledge—crucially rely on some fallible, non-factive state like belief so the extent to which reason-giving explanations or rationalizations are out to explain such everyday behaviour is the extent to which beliefs are needed in action theory. Some might object to this being within the scope of reason-giving explanations and they may argue as follows: that someone act because she believes P is no more the agent’s reason to F than the fact that a bridge collapses because it had a structural flaw is the bridge’s reason to collapse. Believing P is a mere psychological state, they may go on to argue, that may or may not cause the agent to act whereas the agent’s reasons—the reason they had for F-ing—is something different.

Properly speaking this is obviously wrong in a great range of cases: someone may come to F for the objective reason that she believes P, i.e. where she knows that she believes P. For instance, if A is asked “do you believe that Schopenhauer was the greatest heir to Kant?” the reason for acting—say, by nodding or exclaiming “yes!”—is precisely the fact that one knows in this case what one believes about the matter. This belief might be false—which it probably is in our case—but the fact needed to be known here is just that the agent believes the thing in question. In this sense beliefs sometimes do operate as objective reasons, as facts to be acted upon by knowing them.

Bracket that and we read that Hornsby agrees with the critics: in ordinary cases (where we’ve bracketed away the cases just mentioned) an agent believing that P is not the reason she has for F-ing. What she goes on to say is that when we ask someone for their reason to F they typically reply with P rather than saying they believed that P (except for cases where they retract their earlier evaluation due to being challenged and safeguards their answer by saying that “I acted on my belief that P”). Since ordinary agents know what their reasons are she suggests that we take their answer at face value. Their reason for F-ing is, in the ordinary case, P as opposed to Bp. Thus, it is the contents of one’s belief—those beliefs that are applied in reason-giving explanation of action—that give the reasons the agent had. But having a reason is not the same as there being a reason. The latter requires an objective reason to exist in order to be true whereas the former says something about what the agent takes to be her reasons for acting. What is crucial for understanding agency is, as Hornsby puts it, that it “is a matter of seeing what reasons they had.” That is in line with Davidson’s earlier contention that rationalizations lead us “to see something the agent saw, or thought he saw, in his action.” (1963, p. 3) [My emphasis] Thus, to understand agents we need also to focus on what agents treat as if they were objective reasons. One way to know what reasons agents have is by knowing what they believe. The point here reinforces something that Williamson thinks about the relationship between knowledge and belief, namely that “to believe p is to treat p as if one knew p” (2000, p. 46). In other words, believing something is a way to populate one’s cognitive landscape with something—a thought or a proposition—that one is disposed to treat as facts or as reasons to act because believing something is treated as if it was knowledge.

Hornsby’s take-home message is therefore that we can understand the role of beliefs in reason-giving explanations because, as she says, “the thought that p plays the role that the fact that p plays for someone who acts because they know that p”. In this sense, we actually revert the scheme since we seem to get a better understanding of what it is to act from beliefs by understanding how an agent acts from knowledge and thereby showing how beliefs are treated as if their contents were known facts. In the same vein Williamson thought that he could illuminate the nature of beliefs in an account of epistemology via the nature of knowledge and the appropriate relation which says that beliefs aim at knowledge (2000, p. 47). So, pace the belief-desire proponents—who think erroneously that beliefs and desires can explain the whole truth about agency whereas they do fail to account for the objective sense in which one acts for reasons—it seems as if we can only understand what it is to act for beliefs when we first understand what it is to act for knowledge. According to Hornsby then, the belief-account is not wrong in the sense that it generates any falsehoods but because it fails to account for the whole truth about reason-explanation.

So where are we? Well, it seems as if all that is said and done in section depends on the truth of the following two claims: (1) that knowledge is sometimes necessary to explain how someone could act for the objective reason that P; and (2) that there is no general way to distinguish between world-involving mental states and internal mental states. We saw that Hornsby fails to establish (1). Moreover, her principle (E) for how knowledge is involved with acting for objective reasons ran into problems of its own. Yet I think we can establish (1) by other arguments, probably drawing on lottery-type considerations where we show how the existence of a lottery-proposition—basically, a propositions that cannot be known despite immensely probably evidence which favours its truth by closing in, but never reaching, probability 1—precludes that the agent acts for this objective reason. When it comes to (2) I think we need to establish in order to preclude the proponents of a belief-desire account to come back and say that the objective kinds of reason-giving explanations fall outside the scope of psychology. Again, I can only refer to Williamson’s and Gibbon’s work on these topics but I do think that this claim is worth pursuing. In addition I think the kind of view that Hornsby is here championing would better suited if it could also prove and provide details from how we can understand the causal relevance of knowing. Basically what I’m asking for is to show how knowledge, as a causally potent mental property, better fits the explanatory goals of reason-giving explanations. In other words, I think pace the internalist belief-desire proponents that knowledge is operative in action. Allow this and we may be on our way towards a naturalistic conception of action, one that allows for externalist or world-involving mental states in psychological explanations.

Final words: as Hornsby notes at the end of this paper, plenty of philosophers and people thinking about actions and mind take it for granted that world-involving states - like knowledge - doesn't belong in a psychological explanation nor in rationalizations of actions. In another paper ('Agency and Actions') Hornsby quotes Strawson's old saying that it takes a really great philosopher to make a really great mistake (1974). Internalist reason-giving explanations seems to me to be such a great mistake. Or, as Hornsby goes on to say, "I can't help thinking that, these days, it takes a really great number of philosophers to contrive in the persistence of a really great mistake." At least Hornsby has by this paper positioned herself strongly on the right side of this divide.

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