Reliabilism

May 13, 2012

A helpful way to approach Brandom’s inferentialism is to look at some of the positions he takes it to oppose. In this post I will begin to discuss one such position, which Brandom labels ‘reliabilism’.

Recall that the opposition here is between positions that take representation or reference to be explanatorily primitive within semantics, and Brandom’s own position, which argues that representation or reference can be fully explained in terms of inference. For Brandom, inference is a social thing – the language-behaviours with which we attribute and endorse inferences are social behaviours. Reference, by contrast, very much appears to involve something other than social practice – indeed, it is hard to imagine a credible account of reference that does not involve entities and events that would not ordinarily be categorised as social. If I state that the surface temperature of the planet Mercury can reach 700 degrees Kelvin, and that by around 8 billion years from now, by our best estimates, that planet, along perhaps with Earth, will have been destroyed by the expansion of the sun to around 256 times its present radius, I am making claims about entities that do not, in any very narrow sense, participate in our social practices. Neither are the causal mechanisms by which these entities (Mercury; the sun) impact upon our senses and equipment, mechanisms that would ordinarily be called ‘social’

Nevertheless, Brandom believes that representation should be understood in social terms. What does this mean?

We can start to unpack this by contrasting Brandom’s position with a common alternative account of reference, which Brandom (following standard philosophical usage) labels ‘reliabilism’. The issue here, of course, is how we gain empirical knowledge of the world – we are interested for now in language-entry moves (perception), rather than language-exit moves (action).

Recall, then, that Brandom’s account is built up out of reliable differential responsive dispositions (RDRDs). RDRDs are the basic (if you like ‘ontological’) building blocks of Brandom’s account. [Though this is a ‘weak’ rather than a ‘strong’ ontology, in that it does not make any claims about the ‘fundamental’ entities that inhabit our world; merely the kinds of behaviour some entities in our world must be capable of exhibiting if our account is to have any explanatory function.] Given this, it would seem to make sense for Brandom’s system to take reliability of responsiveness to stimuli as the core of its account of representation.

Brandom frames his discussion of reliabilism in relation to the classic definition of knowledge as justified true belief. In his seminal “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Edmund Gettier attributes this position to A.J.Ayer, Roderick M. Chisholm, and, more tentatively, Plato. I need, obviously, to do a more thorough review of the literature here…

A central question for justified true belief accounts of knowledge, is what constitutes justification. Brandom’s overall strategy, in keeping with his normative phenomenalism, is to explain justification in terms of the social practices of taking-as-justified. (Similarly, Brandom will explain truth in terms of taking-true; and he will explain the content of belief – that which makes a belief a belief about something, and thus a belief at all – in terms of the inferential practices of attributing and acknowledging commitments. This is all, for now, a separate set of issues.)

However, the justification of our beliefs does not prima facie have to be accounted for in terms of the activity of justifying them. As Brandom puts it:

It is generally agreed that some sort of entitlement to a claim is required for it to be a candidate for expressing knowledge. But it is not obvious that inferring in the sense of justifying is at all fundamental to that sort of entitlement.

The core point, it appears, is that our beliefs cannot be accidental if they are to be capable of counting as justified. A belief formed by flipping a coin will not (unless, perhaps, we attribute the coin-flip’s outcome to the intervention of a supernatural power) provide justified belief even if (by chance) it provides true belief. An account is needed of the non-fortuitous formation of a belief if it is to be a candidate for knowledge.

‘Reliabilism’ does exactly this, without invoking inferential justification. In Brandom’s words:

[T]he correctness of the belief is not merely fortuitous if it is the outcome of a generally reliable belief-forming mechanism. Epistemological reliabilists claim that this is the sort of entitlement status that must be attributed (besides the status of being a true belief) for attributions of knowledge.

Brandom makes use of Alvin Goldman’s ‘Barn Facade County’ thought experiment (from Goldman’s “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”, Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 20 (1976)) to argue against the reliabilist position. I’ll talk about this next.

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