Small Steps and Great Leaps in Thought: The Epistemology of Basic Deductive Rules

In Magdalena Balcerak Jackson & Brendan Balcerak Jackson (eds.), Reasoning: New Essays on Theoretical and Practical Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2019)
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We are justified in employing the rule of inference Modus Ponens (or one much like it) as basic in our reasoning. By contrast, we are not justified in employing a rule of inference that permits inferring to some difficult mathematical theorem from the relevant axioms in a single step. Such an inferential step is intuitively “too large” to count as justified. What accounts for this difference? In this paper, I canvass several possible explanations. I argue that the most promising approach is to appeal to features like usefulness or indispensability to important or required cognitive projects. On the resulting view, whether an inferential step counts as large or small depends on the importance of the relevant rule of inference in our thought.

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Joshua Schechter
Brown University


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