How inference isn’t blind: Self-conscious inference and its role in doxastic agency

Dissertation, King’s College London (2019)
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This thesis brings together two concerns. The first is the nature of inference—what it is to infer—where inference is understood as a distinctive kind of conscious and self-conscious occurrence. The second concern is the possibility of doxastic agency. To be capable of doxastic agency is to be such that one is capable of directly exercising agency over one’s beliefs. It is to be capable of exercising agency over one’s beliefs in a way which does not amount to mere self-manipulation. Subjects who can exercise doxastic agency can settle questions for themselves. A challenge to the possibility of doxastic agency stems from the fact that we cannot believe or come to believe “at will”, where this in turn seems to be so because belief “aims at truth”. It must be explained how we are capable of doxastic agency despite that we cannot believe or come to believe at will. On the orthodox ‘causalist’ conception of inference for an inference to occur is for one act of acceptance to cause another in some specifiable “right way”. This conception of inference prevents its advocates from adequately seeing how reasoning could be a means to exercise doxastic agency, as it is natural to think it is. Suppose, for instance, that one reasons and concludes by inferring where one’s inference yields belief in what one infers. Such an inference cannot be performed at will. We cannot infer at will when inference yields belief any more than we can believe or come to believe at will. When it comes to understanding the extent to which one could be exercising agency in such a case the causalist conception of inference suggests that we must look to the causal history of one’s concluding act of acceptance, the nature of the act’s being determined by the way in which it is caused. What results is a picture on which such reasoning as a whole cannot be action. We are at best capable of actions of a kind which lead causally to belief fixation through “mental ballistics”. The causalist account of inference, I argue, is in fact either inadequate or unmotivated. It either fails to accommodate the self-consciousness of inference or is not best placed to play the very explanatory role which it is put forward to play. On the alternative I develop when one infers one’s inference is the conscious event which is one’s act of accepting that which one is inferring. The act’s being an inference is determined, not by the way it is caused, but by the self-knowledge which it constitutively involves. This corrected understanding of inference renders the move from the challenge to the possibility of doxastic agency to the above ballistics picture no longer tempting. It also yields an account of how we are capable of exercising doxastic agency by reasoning despite being unable to believe or come to believe at will. In order to see how such reasoning could amount to the exercise of doxastic agency it needs to be conceived of appropriately. I suggest that paradigm reasoning which potentially amounts the exercise of doxastic agency ought to be conceived of as primarily epistemic agency—agency the aim of which is knowledge. With inference conceived as suggested, I argue, it can be seen how to engage in such reasoning can just be to successfully exercise such agency.

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David Jenkins
King's College London (PhD)


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