A forum for VE lucubration

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Intellectual Virtue of Originality and the New Evil Demon Problem

I just recently read a post of Jon Kvanvig’s over at Certain Doubts which, I think, highlights a thus-far under-addressed aspect of VE, which is how to reconcile our intuitions that some virtues are proper intellectual virtues, whilst admitting that these virtues are not likely to lead possessors to a propensity of true beliefs over false ones. Kvanvig addresses a particular virtue of this sort (note: I admit I can’t think of many others), “originality,” and stipulates at the outset that it is an important intellectual virtue; however, he notes, it is not the case that a belief is more likely to be true if it has arisen out of originality than if it did not arise from originality. Kvanvig gives some suggestions for how we might be able to reconcile apparently conflicting intuitions that (1) the non-truth-conducive “virtue” of originality is an intellectual virtue, while (2) virtues are intellectual virtues only if a relationship holds between possessing the virtue and (at least to some extent) raising the probability that beliefs arising out of that virtue are more likely to be true than if they did not arise out of that virtue. Kvanvig concludes that there is a dearth of literature on (specifically) originality as an intellectual virtue, and I agree. I think a good place to begin such a project would be to try to isolate just what properties one has when one has the character trait of “originality” that leads us to want to say it falls within the domain of intellectual virtue, a domain we reserve for character traits that (unlike originality) do lead possessors to engender a higher propensity of true beliefs to false ones (than would be the case if the virtue weren’t possessed).
Rather than to attempt to address that (a question well worth addressing, I think) in this post, I want to offer some other thoughts I’ve been having about originality as an intellectual virtue—some thoughts related to aspects of originality that have nothing to do with whether the virtue is truth-conducive, but rather, whether beliefs arising out of that particular trait must, in fact, be original.
These thoughts arose while I was reading Sosa’s 1991 paper “Reliabilism and Intellectual Virtue” (reprinted in Axtell “Knowledge, Belief and Character” 2000). Sosa begins that paper with what he takes to be the three most significant problems faced by generic reliabilism, which he defines as: “S’s belief that p at t is justified if it is the outcome of a process of belief acquisition or retention that is reliable, or leads to a sufficiently high preponderance of true beliefs over false beliefs” (19).
The three problems he mentions are: (1) the generality problem, (2) the new evil-demon problem, (3) the meta-incoherence problem.
What I think has some interesting consequences for the issue of accepting originality as an intellectual virtue pertains specifically to what Sosa mentions about the New Evil Demon problem. He explicates the problem as follows:

“The evil-demon problem for reliabilism is not Descartes’ problem, of course, but it is a relative. What if twins of ours in another possible world were given mental lives just like ours down to the most minute detail of experience or thought, etc., though they were also totally in error about the nature of their surroundings, and their perceptual and inferential processes of belief acquisition accomplished very little except to sink them more and more deeply and systematically into error? Shall we say that we are justified in our beliefs and our twins are not? They are quite wrong in their beliefs, of course, but it seems somehow very implausible to suppose that they are unjustified” (20).
The thought here which drives Sosa’s (I think correct) assessment that it’s not the case that our twins aren’t justified even though they’re in the same mental state as we are whilst being justified, suggests that Sosa accepts something (I offer) like the following, on which the force of the New Evil Demon problem rests:

If A and B have lead identical mental lives, then it cannot be the case that at any time t, A is justified in a belief P at t whilst B (holding the same belief p) is unjustified at t.

The extent to which the above maxim is forceful is the extent to which it threatens reliabilism, which bestows justification on a belief by virtue of external conditions (i.e. is the belief in fact reliable) which depend on features of the world (i.e. does the world fit the belief) that can be outside the control of the epistemic agent. And in the New Evil Demon case, it is precisely because there are features outside of our twin’s control (i.e. they are, whilst mentally identical to us, being deceived while we aren’t) that lead some reliabilists to say that the twins’ beliefs aren’t justified. While there have been attempts to circumvent this problem—such as Goldman’s historical reliabilism--there are others, such as Fairweather, who find reliabilism abject for the reason that it has no good way of accounting for our intuitions that our twin is justified.

Rather than to address here different ways reliabilists have tried to answer the New Evil Demon Problem, I want to (finally!) draw what I think is a key analogy between New Evil Problem for reliabilism, and a parallel problem that crops up when we begin to consider “originality” as a candidate for intellectual virtue. The parallel is not perfectly isomorphic, but it illuminates an important feature of originality that might pose problems (not necessarily just for reliabilist minded VE theorists) for its candidacy as a proper intellectual virtue.

Consider, again, what it was that drives us to say, in the New Evil Demon case that the twins’ beliefs, though false, are nonetheless justified:

Maxim A: If A and B have lead identical mental lives, then it cannot be the case that at any time t, A is justified in a belief P at t whilst B (holding the same belief p) is unjustified at t.

Those who accept the New Evil Demon problem as problematic for reliaibilism, and do so because they accept something like Maxim A, will probably be receptive to a slightly different maxim, which has as its focus not justificatory conditions, per se, but conditions of being in a particular state of virtue:

Maxim B: If A and B have lead identical mental lives and identical dispositions of character, then it cannot be the case that at any time t, A possesses an intellectual virtue V at t whilst B (whilst possessing an identical mental life of a as well as identical dispositions of character as A possesses) does not possess intellectual virtue V at t.

A conundrum arises, though, for anyone who wants to accept Maxim B and grant that originality is an intellectual virtue. Consider the following example.
The Case of the Jailed Novelists

Jack and Phil are novelists, who are locked in separate jail cells. Each has a typewriter, a collection of the same books (for inspiration), and similarly motivated to write original novels, and each understands originality as world-relative. Jack lives on Earth, where there are only a couple million serious novelists. Phil, however, lives on planet Malthus, which hosts exactly 8 trillion google serious novelists, each which is, like Phil and Jack, motivated to write original novels. Jack knows of no other worlds but Earth, and Phil knows of no other worlds than Malthus. Additionally, the following counterfactual holds true for Jack and Phil: if Jack and Phil were writing on Earth (with the same motivation and opportunity to write original novels), each would write exactly 10 original novels.
As things unfold, Jack, on Earth, does in fact produce 10 original novels whilst in his jail cell. Phil, who writes the same amount as Jack (and exactly what he (Phil) would have written if his jail cell were on Earth), gets unlucky. The population of Malthus is so great that none of what Phil has written turns out to be original; for each book that Phil wrote, someone else on Malthus had already written a book similar to the extent relevant to preclude it from being original.
If we grant pace Aristotle (and Zagzebski) that virtues have a motivation and a reliable success condition, then we’ll be inclined to say that for both Jack and Phil, the motivation condition is met (each passionately wishes to write original novels), however Jack meets the success condition and Phil fails it. And so, the verdict would seem to be that Jack possesses the intellectual virtue of originality while Phil fails it.

This conclusion, though, is incompatible with Maxim B, which (recall) states:

Maxim B: If A and B have lead identical mental lives and identical dispositions of character, then it cannot be the case that at any time t, A possesses an intellectual virtue V at t whilst B (whilst possessing an identical mental life of a as well as identical dispositions of character as A possesses) does not possess intellectual virtue V at t.

And if we find Maxim B plausible (which, I think, we will if we find Maxim A plausible, as both are similarly motivated), we find ourselves in a stalemate of intuitions quite similar to the stalemate of intuitions that crops up when considering the dilemma of reconciling the unreliability of our twins (who we want to say are justified in their beliefs) in the demon world and Maxim A, which drives the New Evil Demon problem.

What can be learned from these stalemates? Perhaps, a close examination of reliabilist attempts to solve the New Evil Demon problem could shed some light on ways to reconcile Maxim B with the inclination to say that Phil is every bit as original as Jack. Another avenue I think might be profitable to pursue would be to note a certain property that is shared by both originality and reliability: each has an external success condition such that, for agents A and B who have identical mental and dispositional lives, A could meet the success condition (for either originality or reliability) and B could fail to do so.

Also, interestingly, the fact that the “B” analogues in our cases (i.e. our twins in the first case, and Phil in the second) fail the success condition of their respective property (reliability for the twins, originality for Phil) is out of the control of these agents. Put another way: our twins can’t help (or even know) that they are being deceived by an evil demon. And analogously, Phil can’t help (or even know) that the planet in which he desires to write original novels happens to have an astronomical number of aspirant novelists scribing away outside of his jail cell.

Now that we see the resemblance between what is going on in the New Evil Demon case and in the Jack-and-Phil originality case, we seem to be left with some lines in the sand which beg us to pick a side. On one side of the line might be those who are prepared to embrace something like the following:


1. Either both Jack and Phil have the intellectual virtue of originality, or originality isn’t an intellectual virtue.
2. Originality is an intellectual virtue.
3. Therefore, Jack and Phil both have the virtue of originality.
4. If Jack and Phil both have the virtue of originality, then whether one has the virtue of originality does not depend on externalist criteria that could hold outside the agent(s) control or awareness.
5. Therefore, whether one has the virtue of originality does not depend on externalist criteria that could hold outside the agent(s) control or awareness.

On the other side of the line, though, we might encounter the following antithetical argument:

1. If reliability and originality are intellectual virtues, then whether one possesses (either of) them will depend on whether one is, at least generally, reliable or original.
2. Whether one is reliable or original depends, at least in part, on features of the world that could be beyond the agent’s awareness of control.
3. Reliability and originality are intellectual virtues.
4. Therefore, some intellectual virtues (at least reliability and originality) are such that whether one possesses them depends in part on unknown/uncontrollable features of the world.
5. If whether one possesses a virtue depends to any extent on features of the world beyond one’s cognizance/control, then Maxim A and Maxim B are false.
6. Maxim A and Maxim B are false.
7. We have reason to doubt that (in the New Evil Demon case) we are justified and our twins aren’t and in the originality case, that Jack has the virtue of originality and Phil isn’t, only if Maxim A and B (respectively) are true.
8. Therefore, we have no reason to doubt (in the New Evil Demon case) that we are justified and our twins aren’t and in the originality case that Jack has the virtue of originality and Phil doesn’t.

Unfortunately, at this point, I have one leg on both sides of the line.

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Consider Old Camp Guard Problem:
Every time Shlomo the camp inmate shows compassion (generosity, etc.), the SS camp guard, unbeknownst to Shlomo tortures and executes 100 inmates. Shlomo’s compassion is not very helpful, for he has no means, but, due to the guards malice, it “produces” terrible consequences each time it manifests itself.
Morals: with a bit of bad luck, any moral virtue can get counterproductive. So, why wonder about the same thing happening to epistemic virtue?

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