Category: epistemology

Lehrer’s Epistemic Justification and the Appropriateness of Acceptance


Presented in April 2007 at the Goucher College Philosophy Conference (VERITAS) w/keynote speaker John Carvalho, Villanova University

Abstract: In this paper I treat Keith Lehrer’s characterization of knowledge and epistemic justification as presented “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence.” (1999) In doing so, I delineate the appropriateness of Lehrer’s notion of the ‘personal acceptance system’ and advance cases in which one would not require the kind of justificatory mechanism Lehrer ascribes but nevertheless be quick to ascribe knowledge to. At a more general level, this paper attempts to refine certain presumptions and delineations characteristic in epistemology and philosophy of mind so as to arrive at a more complete and provocative conception of certain mental (intentional) phenomena.

Keith Lehrer, in “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence”[1] develops a coherence theory of justification so that the following objectives can be met: (a) setup replies to some traditional skeptical arguments, (b) admit fallibilism in knowledge, and (c) orient the constitution of knowledge around “an adequate match between coherence and truth.”[2] Justification, according to Lehrer, is the key to epistemic responsibility: the avoidance of error and the pursuit of knowledge. However, Lehrer’s theory seems to disallow that some of the things we purport to know need not be processed through some system consisting of states of acceptance. I shall proceed to articulate this assertion through recent work on the philosophy of mind, especially by Searle and Chalmers, as well as through recourse to the distinction between sense and reference. Specifically, Lehrer’s theory of coherence fails to acknowledge the distinction of the ‘psychological conception of mind’ and the ‘phenomenal conception of mind’, which ultimately renders his theory incomplete in an important sense.[3] According to Searle,[4] failure to grasp this distinction correspondingly means a failure to grasp the experiential nature of a belief, which he maintains is necessary for something to be called a belief in the first place. The ‘phenomenal mind’ is conceived of as conscious experience, and “of a mental state as a consciously experienced mental state.” Quite distinctly, the ‘psychological mind’ is concerned with the mind insofar as it is relevant to, produces, causes, or may be affected by human behavior. It will be demonstrated that Lehrer’s epistemology, as articulated in this article, fails to explain this important distinction of mind, one that we should not be so quick to dismiss.

As distinct from my central criticism noted above, I must indicate that throughout my examination of Lehrer’s theory I will partake in a degree of chiding. At various points throughout this essay, I find considerable dilemmas which I must bring to the fore at the time they are approached in the analysis. As these criticisms do not collectively join into one category which I may set aside and treat later, I must acknowledge them as they occur. However, these immediate criticisms depart from what is centrally at stake. After a synopsis of the relevant parts of Lehrer’s theory, I will propose just what I mean by this in more profound and specific ways.

Lehrer begins by positing that coherence produces justification, not truth, but that an adequate matching of the two yields knowledge. Thus, it is clear that Lehrer will not partake in defining knowledge per se, but rather will invoke a conception of knowledge via recourse to the relationship between justification (of a coherence theory) and truth. He then proposes (albeit somewhat confusedly), “Knowledge is based on what we accept as true and on the truth of what we accept.”[5] He further clarifies that it is not sufficient that we accept a true proposition for knowledge, because our reasons, or the way in which we arrive at a true proposition, may be irrational, unwarranted, or perhaps accidental. Acceptance in this respect differs from belief: “acceptance is [different] from belief in [that it constitutes] a positive evaluation of belief at a metamental level of evaluation.”[6] This “metamental level of evaluation” implies to me that the evaluation and subsequent rejection or acceptance of a belief requires conscious awareness, so that we may examine and judge a particular belief, whereas our entertainment of something may be relegated to both the conscious and the unconscious mind; that is, we may entertain something we are completely aware of, or we may entertain something we are completely unaware of. Justification, according to Lehrer, is the method by which accepted beliefs may be converted to knowledge.

Justification is “the place where the sceptic dwells,” according to Lehrer. I find reason to fault this attribution. Justification is something certainly relevant to skepticism, but it is not primary to its condition. Rather, “the sceptic dwells” in conceivability. Whereas there may be several conditions one must satisfy for one to be justified in believing something, that it is conceivable in the first place requires only that its entertainment be epistemically possible. What is epistemic possibility? The answer: namely, anything that is not immediately contradictory in conception. The Cartesian dream argument, which says that we cannot be sure of our ability to distinguish the waking world from the dreaming world, is a position contingent on the fact that to entertain as much does not involve contradiction. With this in mind, it seems evident that, at the very least, metaphysical skepticism resides in conceivability. While it is true that “The sceptic raises objections to what we accept, whether it concerns tables, persons, galaxies or neutrinos,”[7] it is clearer that these objections reside in conceivability, and thus affect justification. Lehrer acknowledges only the latter.

Lehrer, in response to the objections of “the sceptic,” proposes that he can only appeal to what he accepts, and what he accepts is that which is more reasonable. Lehrer may see it this way, but I am not so sure others do. When S accepts a particular belief p, does he do so because he has more reasons for accepting it compared to those for not accepting it? If so, then acceptance of belief is merely a quantitative act. If not, then Lehrer forgets something important. Is it not the case that S sometimes accepts a particular belief p not because S has more reasons for acceptance, but rather because the reasons S has for acceptance, while perhaps comparatively fewer, are nonetheless better reasons for S. S may accept the particular belief that it rained yesterday merely because when he woke up and looked out the window he saw rain marks on the driveway. Suppose that that is the only reason why S accepts such a belief. Suppose too that S looked at the and read that yesterday’s forecast, which indicated a 0% chance of rain, and suppose too that S talked with a local friend who said that yesterday they had gone swimming all day and all night, and that it was beautiful outside. In this instance, S has more reasons to reject the belief that it rained yesterday, but for S, perhaps these reasons are simply not as good as the fact that when S woke up he saw water marks on the driveway.

Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. Perhaps that, because Lehrer is only referring to what he accepts, then it is unwarranted that I attack his own view of what he accepts. However, I am not entirely too sure of this position, either. It is at least conceivable and at most probable that people, myself included, go about accepting beliefs merely because they feel that the reasons they have for accepting these beliefs are simply better than the alternatives, which may be greater in number. I am now playing the role of the “sceptic”, and it does not seem Lehrer can adequately respond to my position, so we seem to be at a divergence that lacks simple resolution.

I move now to Lehrer’s discussion of the nature of coherence and of the acceptance system. Personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system, which itself is made up states of acceptance. Lehrer’s response to the skeptic’s objections of what he accepts instantiates these general terms: first, Lehrer reasons that it is more reasonable to believe there is a chair than it is to believe that there may not, or is not a chair. This has to do with personal acceptance. Now, according to Lehrer, if this particular case of acceptance coheres with his personal acceptance system, then Lehrer is justified in accepting this belief over the skeptical alternative. Okay, so the definition of personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system. Lehrer intelligibly but insubstantially claims that the personal acceptance system is a system consisting of states of acceptance, that is, cases which instantiate the general form of “I accept that p.” “Thus, the acceptance system does not consist of the thing accepted, namely, p, but instead my acceptance of it, of p.”[8] If acceptance is at a metamental level, then what level is the acceptance system at? Lehrer does not explicitly provide an answer, but seeing as how the acceptance system is constructed from states of particular acceptances, it is reasonable to infer that it is at a ‘meta-metalevel’. And what exactly does this level tell us about an epistemic situation? I pose the question only because I do not know. Lehrer’s hierarchical method brings the reader so high he is liable to forget from where he came. This is another one of my gripes.

At last, Lehrer posits that if his acceptance coheres with (the peculiar) acceptance system, and thus achieves justification, the last condition for knowledge is undefeated justification. He posits,

“Justification defeated by error is useless to convert anything into knowledge. If, however, what I accept to meet the skeptical objections is true, then my justification is undefeated by error. Undefeated justification of something I accept is what is required for the conversion of knowledge. It exhibits the need match of coherence and truth.”[9]

So whereas justification requires only coherence of states of acceptance, undefeated justification requires that there be no proposition which contradicts the justification of the set of coherently-linked accepted beliefs. Lehrer posits that the link between a coherent acceptance system and undefeated justification exhibits the match of coherence and truth. I suppose this makes some sense: whereas S’s personal justification is somewhat subjective and does not necessitate that what he is personally justified in is true, if his justification is undefeated then it would be reasonable to say that his personal justification is something he can claim to know, as well. So it is here that Lehrer moves from subjective or personal justification to an objective justification, one that provides the match to truth. Lehrer goes on to qualify this match, but seeing as how he fails to bring up the notion of t-acceptances and the ‘ultrasystem’ later on, it seems trivial to the basic course of his paper. Thus, I will not treat it but simply move past it.

According to Lehrer, his theory allows him to solve all problems of knowledge. I suppose that would include the isolation argument, seeing as how that is an objection to his theory of knowledge. According to this objection, given that personal justification and the acceptance system are inherently subjective notions (i.e., Lehrer’s acceptance system is probably wholly distinct from S’s acceptance system), then it is possible that any acceptance system could be systemically erroneous. Lehrer acknowledges this:

“…but the recognition of fallibilism, which says, in effect, our most fully justified acceptances may be false, reveals that the problem is a problem for any theory of knowledge and is not specific to the coherence theory…so every theory of knowledge, not simply the coherence theory, must face the isolation argument.”[10]

Lehrer’s answer to the isolation argument comes in the first-person singular form, so I suppose such is consistent with the basic nature of his theory. Lehrer maintains that every specific thing he accepts, that is, every state of acceptance, goes towards the undefeated justification that he is not isolated from reality, that he is not deceived, and that his faculties “are connected with reality and are not fallacious.”[11] Lehrer’s response does not presuppose truth, but it personally defeats the isolation argument because the justification of the above is instantiated in every state of acceptance that has to do with something about reality, so Lehrer says. It goes towards undefeated justification, which is, at the least, in the vicinity of truth. I have now finished what is immediately relevant to the proper articulation of the central pursuit of this paper: to see primarily why and how some types of knowledge claims are not at all handled by his theory but that nevertheless should be treated in any complete theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind.

Something immediately wrong with Lehrer’s response is the claim that “it is part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world that I am not isolated from the world and that my evidence about the world is not deceptive.”[12] Without qualification, this response seems entirely too inclusive. What exactly constitutes an acceptance about the world? There are clear-cut instances (e.g. the proposition “The thing in front of me is presented as a tree to me so it is a tree.”), but this generality says nothing certain, I think, about propositions like “I am aware of the way in which my perception of a tree is presented to my conscious mind .” In cases such as these, the subject is predicating conscious awareness of awareness about a tree; if S accepts this, would this instantiate the justification for a conclusion against skeptical arguments? Lehrer may say yes, because perhaps he would think too that ‘consciousness’ is something based on reality, or created from reality, and I suppose reality in this sense denotes objective reality, though he never explicitly states so (at the least I think it is reasonable to assume as much given his notion of truth). But the direct object pronoun in this assertion, namely the awareness of a certain experience of consciousness, does not purport the existence of something in ‘objective reality’, but rather something global about subjective consciousness. In cases such as these, it would prove difficult, I think, for Lehrer to explain this proposition in terms of its instantiation of a more general justification pertaining to the ontological independence of objective reality, even if he would maintain that the proposition is only possible because of objective reality (which is something I think he would maintain).

More importantly, I do not think it necessary that such a judgment go through some personal acceptance system. If I say I am aware of the way in which a tree is presented in this state of consciousness, such implies that I am positing a distinct, specific, and phenomenal experience instantiating what may be called a second-order phenomenal judgment.[13] Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments one makes about conscious experiences, not necessarily about sense-datum. It is immediately evident to me that I am phenomenally aware of things in this way and not that way, that the world is presented to my conscious mind in discrete ways; further, this is not something I at all need to justify through some acceptance system I am conscious of…the whole endeavor seems useless, for if one were to claim that it was possible that I am actually phenomenally conscious in another way, I would respond that he does not understand the notion of phenomenal consciousness, and tell him to go look it up in a philosophy of mind dictionary. As distinct from empirical experience, which is reproducible and subject to more objective methods which function to verify (and thus justify) empirical claims, phenomenal consciousness is irreproducible but undeniable; I may linguistically present the fact that in instance A I saw a tree, and that now, in instance B, I see the same tree. However, my conscious mind was different in A compared to B, because the phenomenal presentation of the tree, from A to B, is probably distinct enough for me to notice so long as I attend to, say, the leafs of the tree instead of the bark, in instance B. If I were to form a comparative proposition denoting the phenomenal distinction between A and B, I should not have to go through some acceptance system that coheres with my acceptance of this comparison, which purports that, although I maintain both experiences denote the same object (in the empirical sense), it is not the case that they both were present in my mind in the same way. Language may be ill-equipped to make clear exactly how the two were different, but suppose I say that the senses of A and B were different, because they were presented differently, yet they both denote the same object (the tree); this perhaps would go towards the claim that, within my conscious experiences, two events can denote the same object but present distinctly. To go back to Lehrer, I may say that each case is “part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world,” only with respect to object denotation, and not at all with the phenomenal content of each assertion. But according to Lehrer, I could not claim to know that my phenomenal experience was different from A to B, because the content is not essential to the state of acceptance. If I cannot instantiate this claim in a state of acceptance, then I cannot, on Lehrer’s account, proceed to undefeated justification and then finally to knowledge. Clearly though, I would want to maintain that I know both A and B may denote the same object, and yet in fact were phenomenally distinct to my mind!

That Lehrer’s theory should fail to make these distinctions reflects his supposition that justification must occur in mental states. Not all knowledge, with the above example in mind, requires justification with appeal to states of acceptances of the form ‘I accept that-p.’ In phenomenal cases such as those characterized above, the general rule can be described via the following: S phenomenally knows p if and only if S is aware of the distinct way in which the object of p is present in his mind at T2 as distinct from another proposition entertained at another time T1, which S thinks denoted the same object, but which S was phenomenally aware of in a different way. Furthermore, I add the following qualification: if S phenomenally knows p, then S need not justify that-p. This qualification is in respect to the notion that knowledge about phenomenal judgments is immediate in the sense that we cannot but help to know immediately that, despite our linguistic denotation of a given object, the sense of the object may be completely distinguishable based on how we attend to it. Propositions that purport distinctions of this kind do not require justification, for they simply are, within the confines of our conscious mind.

It is necessary that I am phenomenally aware in this and not that way about something because it is not possible that I could be phenomenally aware in a different way. Phenomenal awareness, according to Chalmers, Searle, and others,[14] is accessible in only the way in which it is present in the subject. Evidently, the way in which I am conscious of something is contingent on what features I attenuate. The way in which I am aware of my awareness of a tree could be altered if I switched attenuation from the bark of the tree to the color of the tree. Attention instantiates change in the focus of the features of a given object, and while there may be a host of features which would tell someone they are looking at a tree, we can only be aware of a very limited number of these features at once. Thus, if we wish to appreciate and be aware of subtle differences in object perception, we are required to alter our attenuation of which features to delineate. The way which we are conscious changes in response to these attention-shifts, though surely we intend and think it reasonable that our judgments are denoting the same entity. We are knowledgeable of the former, but not the latter. Lehrer’s account of justification, which requires states of acceptance, misses accessible consciousness, and appropriates knowledge claims only insofar as a proposition may be susceptible to states of acceptance which are not concerned with the contents of a given belief but rather that the belief is acceptable.

I would not find reason to fault Lehrer’s account had the essay been published earlier. However, seeing as how such warranted speculation was in circulation at the time in which Lehrer’s piece was published (1999), and taking into account the ‘naturalized epistemology’ attitude of Quine and others following him, I think it reasonable to criticize Lehrer’s on just these grounds. An epistemological theory which fails to account for the most cognitively direct and inevitable attitudes leaves much to be desired as an explanatory device for how we may arrive at justification, and further what may be properly called knowledge.

[1] Lehrer, Keith. “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence,” Philosophical Perspectives, 33:13, 131-139, 1999

[2] Lehrer, 131

[3] Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press: 1996. Chalmers introduces this distinction in chapter 1 of his book on consciousness.

[4] Searle, J.R. “Consciousness, Explanatory Inversion, and cognitive science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13:585-642

[5] Lehrer, 131

[6] Lehrer, 131

[7] Lehrer, 131

[8] Lehrer, 132

[9] Lehrer, 132-133

[10] Lehrer, 134

[11] Lehrer, 134

[12] Lehrer, 134

[13] David Chalmers introduces this term in his book The Conscious Mind: in Search of a Fundamental Theory. The sense I am evoking of it here is similar if not equal to the sense of it in Chalmers’ works. Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments pertaining to the awareness of the way in which the perception of something is distinct in the moment of its presentation. These experiences are not reproducible in the empirical sense, because the qualia involved are not the same.

[14] Again, the work of David Chalmers acknowledges the distinction of phenomenal v. psychological consciousness. Psychological consciousness has to do with the objects of perception, mostly, whereas phenomenal consciousness has to do with the way in which we are conscious of something, the way a judgment is presented in our minds, or perhaps judgments we form about general concepts. I think it is reasonable to claim that we know both forms of consciousness, and can form propositions about them, so I include them here to indicate the limitations of Lehrer’s account.