In previous posts, I discussed the problem generated by the case of Jack and Jill. When Jill’s fear influences her visual experience that presents Jack as angry, does Jill get as much reason from her experience to believe her eyes, as she could if her fear didn’t influence her experience? The problem is that both Yes and No can seem plausible. In this post I focus on potential reasons for answering No.
If the answer is No, then something about the relationship between Jill’s fear and her experience has to explain what weakens the epistemic power of Jill’s experience. In answering a question raised by John, I noted two potential explanations.
Defeat: The influence on Jill’s experience gives her a defeater, where a defeater is a consideration Jill has access to, and that reduces the experience’s power. For instance, Jill is in a position to notice that her experience is congruent with her fear, so perhaps that should give her pause.
Reliabilism: Jill’s experience is formed in an unreliable way, on the assumption that it’s not generally truth-preserving to believe that what you fear is actual.
A more subtle explanation distinguishes between two kinds of epistemic power. First, there’s the power an experience (perhaps together with other factors) might have to provide a reason for a belief. An experience (and its helpers) might harbor this power, independently of whether the subject ever forms a belief on their basis. We can call this kind of power ‘reason-giving power’.
Second, there’s a power the experience might have to (help) make it the case that a belief formed on the basis of that experience is ill-founded (or well-founded). We can call this second kind ‘forward-looking power’, since it is defined in terms of the epistemic status of a belief formed in response to the experience.
The subtle explanation for answering No then says that Jill’s experience retains its reason-giving power but loses (only) its forward-looking power. The influence of her fear renders the reason-power un-usable.
Un-usable reason-power: Jill’s experience retains its power to provide a reason for subsequent beliefs, but this power can’t be used to make subsequent beliefs well-founded.
In think there are strong objections to all three of these explanations. As I mentioned in replying to John’s question on the previous post, the idea that the cases must always generate a defeater has the consequence that every time you notice that an experience is congruent with what you antecedently wanted, feared, or suspected, it would lose epistemic power. And the proposal that reason-power is un-usable waters down the notion of reason-giving power so much that it seems fair to question whether there is any epistemic property the notion is meant to be tracking.
Reliabilist proposals seem to lack the resources to identify the problem with Jill’s confirming her suspicion that Jack is angry. (To keep things simple, let’s consider a case where her fear goes with a suspicion). Compare a case where Jill starts out with belief X, and then infers belief Y. Then she uses belief Y to strengthen her original belief X. Although this process of strengthening belief X is circular, it seems just as truth-conducive as the process by which belief X was formed originally.
Inferentialism is a fourth potential explanation. The three other explanations outlined here challenge inferentialism indirectly, by providing alternatives to it. But I find challenges to the very coherence of inferentialism much more powerful than the objections to it inherent in alternatives. That’s why I devote more time in the book to making sense of what inferentialism could be. How could experiences be conclusions of epistemically appraisable inferences? And how could inferences issue in epistemically appraisable experiences?