Higher-Order Evidence: Its Nature and Epistemic Significance

Dissertation, University of Rochester (2016)
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Higher-order evidence is, roughly, evidence of evidence. The idea is that evidence comes in levels. At the first, or lowest, evidential level is evidence of the familiar type—evidence concerning some proposition that is not itself about evidence. At a higher evidential level the evidence concerns some proposition about the evidence at a lower level. Only in relatively recent years has this less familiar type of evidence been explicitly identified as a subject of epistemological focus, and the work on it remains relegated to a small circle of authors and a short stack of published articles—far disproportionate to the attention it deserves. It deserves to occupy center stage for several reasons. First, higher-order evidence frequently arises in a strikingly diverse range of epistemic contexts, including testimony, disagreement, empirical observation, introspection, and memory, among others. Second, in many of the contexts in which it arises, such evidence plays a crucial epistemic role. Third, the precise role it plays is complex, gives rise to a number of interesting epistemological puzzles, and for these reasons remains controversial and is not yet fully understood. As such, higher-order evidence merits systematic investigation. This thesis undertakes such an investigation. It aims to produce a thorough account of higher-order evidence—what it is, how it works, and its epistemic consequences. Chapter 1 serves as a general introduction to the topic and an overview of the existing literature, but primarily aims to further elucidate the concept of higher-order evidence and build a theoretical framework for later chapters. Chapter 2 develops an account of what I call “higher-order support”: the bearing higher-order evidence has, not on corresponding “lower-order evidence” (roughly, the evidence the higher-order evidence is about), but on corresponding “object-level propositions” (roughly, the propositions the higher-order evidence alleges the lower-order evidence to be about). Chapter 3 develops an account of “levels interaction”: the effect on overall support when the different evidential levels combine. Chapter 4 identifies important consequences of the theoretical results of the previous two chapters and applies the theory to four select cases of current epistemological controversy—testimony, memory, the closure of inquiry, and disagreement.

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Brian C. Barnett
St. John Fisher University


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