Dr. Wunder added some further comments to “Must properly basic beliefs have universal sanction? A reply to James F. Sennett (Part 2)”. Given their length, clarity and quality, I have taken the liberty of adding them here to complement his guest post. It may be a couple days before I respond given the start of the semester tomorrow, but in the interim I invite others to join in the discussion.
And now without further ado, Tyler Wunder.
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Presently I would like to address your next two sections: “Universal Sanction” and “Universality and the Nuclear Strike” (most of what I’ll say will concern the latter). I must thank you for the opportunity to think about these things again, and for the very interesting thought experiment to consider!
From my recollection (I haven’t yet dug out my copy of Sennett’s article) your explication of universal sanction is largely accurate, although there are potentially important nuances that don’t come over in your account. For example, the third item on the list, the inconceivable scepticism component of universal sanction, is the most important of the three: it drives the other two. And it’s worth noting that the inconceivability at issue is pragmatic in nature: it may be possible to theoretically entertain scepticism regarding such belief kinds (say in a philosophy class or in one’s own private musings), but this scepticism cannot be acted upon, cannot be lived. Finding food (even if it’s just in your refrigerator), finding anything come to think of it, interacting with other people as people with their own thoughts and feelings; none of these can be done by one who is seriously sceptical of all their memories, all their beliefs about the contents of other people’s minds, all their perceptual (and inferred) beliefs about the external world. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest (and this will be relevant below) that for any belief kind, x, the fact that we can, here and now, get along in our normal everyday lives either without any of the beliefs of x or while being sincerely sceptical of all x-type beliefs wholesale, should be taken as evidence that belief kind x is not one about which scepticism is pragmatically inconceivable.
Onto “Universality and the Nuclear Strike”. I’ll restrict myself to four general comments.
First, my initial reaction to the spontaneous generation of Jeb’s clairvoyance, and the way this belief-forming mechanism becomes universal, is to suspect that this narrative won’t qualify as a paradigm case under any useful sense of the term. Plantinga defines paradigm cases (in epistemology) as unambiguous, clear and central case of warrant and/or knowledge; I think the general idea should be expanded to encompass whatever epistemic concept is under discussion, not just knowledge and warrant. And Plantinga is quite clear when defending his own theory (unfortunately the same cannot be said when he critiques the theories of others – I’m thinking specifically here of the methodological shift that occurs right at the end of Warrant: The Current Debate and carries through Warrant and Proper Function) that epistemological analysis, when it comes to necessary and sufficient conditions and their attendant counterexamples, should be carried on in the realm of the paradigm cases. Of course, my suspicion is not an argument, and I don’t plan (presently, anyway) to argue that your case isn’t paradigmatic. My less ambitious goal here is to suggest that if we’re following Plantinga’s lead, epistemologically-speaking, then the concern of whether the case is paradigmatic is highly relevant.
For the sake of argument, let’s waive that issue: perhaps assume either your case is relevantly paradigmatic, or that (contrary to Plantinga) counterexamples needn’t be paradigmatic to show an epistemological criterion is either insufficient or unnecessary for whatever it is supposed to be a criterion of. Whatever the case, your example seems aimed at showing that universal sanction for a belief kind can be switched on or off (as we cull the population by nuclear strike); adding this to the premise that “it doesn’t seem right to say that a nuclear strike should be adequate to render a source of belief properly basic”, we get the (suggested?) conclusion that there is “a crucial defect in Sennett’s proposal.”
A preliminary response to this argument, and my second point on this section, is to wonder aloud if one could launch a similar objection at the pre-warrant inductive method proposed by Plantinga (the one Sennett criticizes as excessively relativistic). Let’s say we’re members of the doxastic population of theists, and we wish to figure out what we should think about theism’s properly basicality. Let’s further say this is ultimately a ‘closed-shop’ issue: we can listen politely to outsiders, and maybe even change our minds about theological matters on the basis of things they say, but really it’s just the theists’ opinions that decide the issue of what theists should think on the matter of theism’s proper basicality (the O’Hairs and Russells of the world can be summarily dismissed in this regard).
Unfortunately, some of the theists don’t agree that theistic belief is the sort of thing that can be properly basic for intellectually sophisticated theists living in today’s world. Whatever their exact reasons for dissent, stipulate there are enough of them to prevent anything approaching community consensus on the issue of theism’s proper basicality within the theistic community. By Plantinga’s (pre-warrant) inductive method, this seems to count against allowing theism to be properly basic for the theistic community at large. But we can change this result by culling the appropriate population. Granted, we could non-genocidally restrict the population by just stipulating that only the opinions of theists who are sympathetic to Reformed epistemology are relevant to these considerations; but it also seems that making all the (living) theists agree with us (by killing dissenters) would have a similar result. Seen in this way, Plantinga’s early methodology might also be one according to which a nuclear strike could lead to a change in proper basicality (or at least a change in what was acceptable for a group to judge as properly basic). If it is a crucial defect in an epistemological theory that ‘population culling’ can have epistemic consequences, this may be a defect shared by Plantinga’s pre-warrant epistemic methodology.
My third point comes back to universal sanction. Regarding your example involving clairvoyant Jeb and the ‘descendants’ of his mutation, I am not confident these clairvoyant beliefs satisfy the inconceivable pragmatic scepticism condition of universal sanction (before or after culling). Why not? Because the Malagasies are doing fine without such beliefs (and even once they’re dead, they _were_doing fine without them); prior to mutation, Jeb was doing fine without them. If Jeb and his ‘descendants’ live in a world anything like ours, they have access to a history which makes it clear that a normal human life can do without clairvoyance (unless we specifically make clairvoyance a requirement of normal human life, although that might invite the complaint that we were obviously no longer discussing a paradigmatic case). Even if Jeb’s post-holocaust descendants forget all about the possibility of life without clairvoyance, their judgment that they cannot conceivably get on having a normal human life without clairvoyance will be incorrect (it will be as incorrect as the judgment of those who might think they cannot get by without colour vision, or vision at all, because they have neither met nor heard of anyone doing so; although Sennett doesn’t specifically say so to my recollection, I would think it is the general category of sense perception of the external world that is universally sanctioned, not particular sense modalities like sight, hearing, etc.; presumably he would not mean to exclude the blind and deaf from normal human life).
Lastly, even if there is a defect of some sort in Sennett’s proposal, it doesn’t automatically follow that universal sanction fails to provide a necessary condition for proper basicality. The straightforward way to argue against such necessity via counterexample would be to produce an acceptable case involving a belief that was: 1) properly basic; but 2) not a member of a universally sanctioned belief kind. But none of the stages of your thought experiment seem to obviously provide such a case. Admittedly I am not always confident I can guess what you think is being shown at the various stages of the case: for example, on the two occasions you declare the clairvoyant beliefs in question are not properly basic, it is not clear to me that you actually agree with universal sanction that those beliefs are not properly basic; rather it seems you may just be drawing out universal sanction’s implications for the presence (and absence) of proper basicality. So maybe there are stages of the thought experiment that you think provide such a case (i.e., a case of properly basic belief that is not universally sanctioned), but I am not sure what they are.