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Journal ArticleDOI

Belief and contextual acceptance

01 Nov 2010-Synthese (Springer Netherlands)-Vol. 177, Iss: 1, pp 41-66

TL;DR: A strategy for representing epistemic states and epistemic changes that seeks to be sensitive to the difference between voluntary and involuntary aspects of the authors' epistemic life, as well as to the role of pragmatic factors in epistemology is developed.
Abstract: I develop a strategy for representing epistemic states and epistemic changes that seeks to be sensitive to the difference between voluntary and involuntary aspects of our epistemic life, as well as to the role of pragmatic factors in epistemology. The model relies on a particular understanding of the distinction between full belief and acceptance, which makes room for the idea that our reasoning on both practical and theoretical matters typically proceeds in a contextual way. Within this framework, I discuss how agents can rationally shift their credal probability functions so as to consciously modify some of their contextual acceptances; the present account also allows us to represent how the very set of contexts evolves. Voluntary credal shifts, in turn, might provoke changes in the agent’s beliefs, but I show that this is actually a side effect of performing multiple adjustments in the total lot of the agent’s acceptance sets. In this way we obtain a model that preserves many pre-theoretical intuitions about what counts as adequate rationality constraints on our actual practices—and hence about what counts as an adequate, normative epistemological perspective.
Topics: Formal epistemology (53%), Belief revision (52%)

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BELIEF AND CONTEXTUAL ACCEPTANCE
*
Second version – June 16, 2008
Eleonora Cresto
CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research), Argentina
eleonora.cresto@gmail.com
ABSTRACT
In this paper I develop a strategy for representing epistemic states and epistemic changes that seeks to be
sensitive to the difference between voluntary and involuntary aspects of our epistemic life, as well as to the
role of pragmatic factors in epistemology. The model relies on a particular understanding of the distinction
between full belief and acceptance, which makes room for the idea that our reasoning on both practical and
theoretical matters typically proceeds in a contextual way. Within this framework, I discuss how agents can
rationally shift their credal probability functions so as to consciously modify some of their contextual
acceptances; the present account also allows us to represent how the very set of contexts evolves. Voluntary
credal shifts, in turn, might provoke changes in the agent’s beliefs, but I show that this is actually a side effect
of performing multiple adjustments in the total lot of the agent’s acceptance sets. In this way we obtain a
model that preserves many pre-theoretical intuitions about what counts as adequate rationality constraints on
our actual practices – and hence about what counts as an adequate, normative epistemological perspective.
1. Introduction. The belief/ acceptance distinction
In this paper I propose a strategy for modeling the epistemic state and epistemic changes of
a particular agent at a given time. The model seeks to
(a) illuminate the extent to which there is room for pragmatic factors in epistemology;
*
Part of the material included in this paper benefited from conversations with John Collins, Isaac Levi and
Achille Varzi, all of whom provided useful criticism and advice for improvement. Early drafts have been
presented at the Vth Principia Symposium (Florianopolis, August 2007), and at a discussion session at the
GAF (Grupo de Acción Filosófica, Buenos Aires, September 2007). I am grateful to the participants for very
helpful comments and suggestions, especially to Anjan Chakravartty, Bas van Fraassen and Bradley Monton
(in Florianópolis), and to Eduardo Barrio, Ramiro Caso, Javier Castro Albano, Milton Laufer, Eleonora
Orlando, Federico Pailos, Gonzalo Rodríguez-Pereyra, Florencia Rimoldi, Laura Skerk, and Ezequiel
Zerbudis (in Buenos Aires).
1

(b) be sensitive to the difference between voluntary and involuntary aspects of our
epistemic life; and
(c) explore the extent to which our reasoning about both epistemic and practical matters
proceeds in a contextual way.
I will argue that, insofar as these goals are fulfilled, we obtain a representation tool that
preserves many pre-theoretical intuitions about what counts as adequate rationality
constraints on our actual practices – and hence about what counts as an adequate, normative
epistemological perspective. In addition, I hope to show that the particular account that I
offer here exhibits several technical advantages (to be mentioned in due course) over
alternative ways of proceeding. To carry out this project I shall rely on (some brand of) a
cognitive decision theoretic framework, and I shall suggest a particular way of construing
the distinction between believing a statement (idea, proposition, hypothesis or theory) and
accepting it.
The notion of belief has been credited with incompatible features on different
occasions; in particular, we need to reconcile somehow the Humean intuition that we
cannot believe at will, with the equally strong intuition that agents routinely make non-
deductive inferences and seek to change their minds on the basis of the conclusions of such
inferences, while they also seek to convince others through rational conversation. We might
be tempted to think that part of the problem here is that different authors have embraced
very different conceptions of belief, ontologically speaking. For example, if beliefs are
mainly characterized as epistemic commitments (as in Levi 1980, 1997, 2004 – to mention a
few), involuntarism does not look too promising; the very idea of commitment embodies an
irreducible normative element, and, prima facie, it seems to imply that we can be held
responsible for the beliefs we have. By contrast, if beliefs are understood first and foremost
as dispositions of some sort, involuntarism becomes more plausible: it seems that
dispositions can well be acquired (and maintained) without our willing this to happen; in
general, while it still makes some room for normativity, a conception of beliefs as
dispositions exhibits a more naturalistic bent than one cashed out entirely in terms of
commitments.
1
1
Theories that conceive of beliefs in terms of commitments typically claim that commitments are not fully
reducible to dispositions (cf. again Levi, 1997, ch.1); however, they may well entail that if an agent is, say,
committed to p, then she has all sorts of dispositions to act or feel as if p – depending on the details of the
2

Still, taking a stance on the ontological debate does not suffice to settle the issue as
to whether particular putative features should or should not hold. For instance, we might
well be able to offer a theory of beliefs according to which we find ourselves, as it were,
having or lacking certain specific commitments. In other words, the potential
inconsistencies that we may find among alternative characterizations of beliefs are not
guaranteed to go away once we clarify our ontological assumptions.
In the light of this, we might want to stipulate a belief-acceptance distinction in
order to restore consistency and alleviate the tension. As is well known, different variants
of the belief-acceptance distinction have been proposed during recent decades, with the aim
of solving very different problems. Indeed, a quick look at the literature shows that there is
no uniform way of understanding these concepts. Some authors, for instance, have
emphasized that believing that something is the case usually entails being convinced of its
truth, and have pointed out that at times we would like the connection with truth to be
relaxed. Probably the best-known example of this perspective is found in Bas van
Fraassen’s discussion of the difference between being fully convinced of the truth of a
given hypothesis and coming to accept it in order to keep on working along a particular
research line; cf. (van Fraassen, 1989, 2002); similar motivations can be found in (Maher,
1993), although Maher’s and van Fraassen’s accounts do not yield extensionally equivalent
pairs of concepts. In van Fraassen’s case, in addition, the idea of acceptance is meant to
help agents avoid committing themselves to the truth of hypotheses or theories that refer to
unobservable entities. On the other hand, authors such as Jonathan Cohen (Cohen, 1992)
have stressed that beliefs are not voluntary; as opposed to acceptances, they grow in us
passively (similarly, cf. Lehrer, 2000). Still others, such as (Stalnaker, 1984) or (Bratman,
1992), have suggested that acceptances, as opposed to beliefs, refer to those propositions
that we are only willing to assert in particular contexts.
2
view. Similar qualifications may apply to comparisons between theories of belief as
commitments/dispositions and descriptions of beliefs in terms of mental states. In any case, I should warn the
reader that here I am not attempting to draw a complete map of different perspective on the nature of belief,
and this is certainly not the place to dig into the difficulties and potential advantages of alternative positions.
As I shall emphasize below, the model I build in this paper seeks to be neutral among different conceptions of
what beliefs actually are.
2
Cf. also the articles in Engel (2000). For yet other proposals see Kaplan (1996), Tuomela (2000), or Da
Costa and French (2003).
3

Which way shall we go, then? In subsequent pages I shall develop a representation
strategy to model beliefs and acceptances, which seeks to fulfill the goals mentioned at the
beginning of this section.
2. Levels of analysis
Before presenting the structure of the model let me distinguish four possible levels of
analysis; the distinction will help me clarify the scope of the paper. We find, at the very
least:
(A) The level of the agent’s real epistemic state, which may be constituted by epistemic
attitudes such as doubts, beliefs, and acceptances, among others – depending on our
favorite theory.
(B) The level of the agent’s attitudes towards statements of her own language, such as
acceptance, rejection, or suspension of judgment.
3
(C) The level of the agent’s semantic assumptions about statements of her own
language (in a way to be clarified soon).
(D) The representation level.
The agent’s real doubts, beliefs and acceptances, at level (A), are obviously compatible
with more than one linguistic manifestation of (at least part of) such states, at level (B); in
addition, elements at levels (A) and (B) are compatible with more than one modeling
strategy. As for level (C), notice that by merely looking at the level of the agent’s attitudes
towards statements of her own language (level (B)) we do not know whether the agent is, or
is not, committed to bivalence. If the agent is not committed to bivalence, the set of
sentences she rejects [accepts] and the set of sentences she takes to be false [true] may not
coincide, as she might accept or reject statements that she takes to be semantically
undefined. Independently of this problem, an agent might accept [reject] a statement of her
language and suspend judgment on its truth-value. Consequently, a representation
3
Notice that, depending on our favorite theory, this level might involve the identification of at least two
different ways of “accepting” a sentence – in agreement with the identification of different epistemic attitudes
in (A).
4

apparatus could give us all the information we deem relevant about level (B) without
thereby providing enough information about what statements the agent takes to be true,
false, or undefined (in case there are such undefined statements according to her favorite
semantic theory).
4
In this paper I shall focus on level (D), with the aim of capturing some phenomena
(in particular, with the aim of representing a number of distinctions) that are already
intuitively clear at level (A). Let me emphasize, then, that I shall not attempt to develop a
comprehensive, complete theory about the agent’s real epistemic state; in particular, I shall
bypass what we might dub “the ontological question” on beliefs: the analytic tool I offer
here will be compatible with many different approaches on the exact nature (at level (A)) of
the potential epistemic states that are being so represented (such as sets of commitments,
elements of a Boolean algebra, sets of dispositions, or neurological events, to mention a
few – where these options need not be pairwise incompatible). Likewise, I shall not be
particularly concerned with levels (B) or (C). As we shall see, I shall model epistemic
attitudes by means of sentences of a representation language L, such that the sentences of L
(at level (D)) might be taken to be idealizations (or perhaps suitable translations) of
sentences of a language the agent speaks; nevertheless, an analysis of the agent’s attitudes
about sentences of her own language, or of her semantic assumptions, will not be a goal in
itself.
In the next section I shall argue that, according to well-entrenched pre-theoretical
intuitions, there are pragmatic and contextual factors that shape crucial features of the
agent’s epistemic life – at the level of her real epistemic state.
3. Contextual assumptions
Consider an agent who:
(i) tries to convince others about the truth of a particular set of claims, or about the
correctness, or the convenience, of a particular course of action; or
4
In Cresto (2008b) I develop a proposal that relies on the explicit distinction between the agent’s semantic
assumptions and the semantics embedded it the representation tool.
5

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