Thursday, August 12, 2010

Enoch on The Epistemological Challenge to Metanormative Realism (Part 2)

David Enoch, on the left

This post is part of a brief series on David Enoch's article "The Epistemological Challenge to Metanormative Realism". Part one is here.

The epistemological challenge in question is roughly the following: non-natural moral realists (or Robust Realists) owe us some account of how our moral beliefs could be true, given the abstract nature of moral properties. The goal of Enoch's article is to give the best possible articulation of this challenge and then respond to it from a robust realist perspective.

In part one, we went through how not to think about the challenge. At the end, we came up with a list of desiderata for a good version of the epistemological challenge. I would invite you to check back on those before reading the remainder of this entry, which is going to present a "good" version of the challenge.

1. The Epistemological Challenge Formulated
Enoch begins by asking us to imagine the following case. Bill has beliefs about a remote village in Nepal. As it happens, most of Bill's beliefs about the village are true. In other words, there is a coincidence between Bill's beliefs and the truth-about-the-village.

Surely this coincidence must be explained? Enoch thinks so. And he thinks the route to a satisfactory explanation is well-known: we tell some causal story about how Bill got his true beliefs. So, for example, either he lived in the village for a period of time, or he knew somebody who lived there, or he read some accurate account of it.

Using this example, some have presented the following problem for mathematical Platonists. The Platonist thinks that mathematical truths are abstract and mind-independent. Nevertheless, they also think that mathematicians can have true beliefs about this abstract domain. But how did this happen? How did the true beliefs get into the mathematicians head?

There is no easy answer for the Platonist. They do not think that the mathematician's judgments constitute or create mathematical truth; they think mathematical truth is mind-independent. Nor do they think that mathematical truths have causal properties; indeed, they think they are causally inert.

So the coincidence seems too good to be true. Notice how the exact same problem faces the Robust moral realist. They think we can have true moral beliefs, but they do not think (i) that moral truths have causal properties; or (ii) that moral truths are constituted by our judgments.

This, then, is the epistemological challenge.

2. Some Comments
This version of the challenge meets the criteria set down in part one. First, because it is not expressed in terms of other controversial epistemological concepts such as "access", "justification" or "knowledge".

Second, because it is not applicable to other metaethical theories. Naturalistic moral realists can sidestep the challenge by granting that moral truths have causal properties. And antirealist positions -- such as constructivism -- can sidestep the challenge by claiming that moral truths are constituted by our own judgments.

The challenge does touch upon the externalist/internalist debate in contemporary epistemology. It is very clearly about the external conditions of knowledge, i.e. the external conditions that must be met in order for us to have reliable, truth-apt cognitive faculties.

Because it is about these external conditions, a robust realist might think they can avoid the challenge by sticking with an internalist account of justification. In other words, by showing how their moral beliefs have been soundly deduced or inferred from other more foundational beliefs.

Enoch doesn't think this will work. Why? Because once doubt has been raised about the reliability of the external conditions of belief-formation, there is a defeater for the internal account of justification. So the realist cannot avoid the challenge.

And the problem for Enoch is that -- as of when he was writing -- no realist had dealt with the challenge. He wanted to fix that.

3. Street's Darwinian Dilemma
Before moving on to his own solution to the challenge, Enoch notes that Sharon Street's Darwinian Dilemma -- which I've covered in abbreviated form -- is a particular version of the challenge he has formulated.

Briefly, Street says that a realist must think that evolutionary processes just happened to stumble upon cognitive faculties that were attuned to a causally inert moral reality. This is clearly implausible since evolutionary processes are causal through-and-through.

Okay that's it for now. In the next part we will see how Enoch responds to the epistemological challenge.

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