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IT’S NOT THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS

Clayton Littlejohn
cmlittlejohn@yahoo.com
(Eastern APA 2010)

Abstract: Mentalists say that two subjects have the same evidence if these subjects are in the same
non-factive mental states. Mentalism doesn’t tell us what evidence is. Mentalism doesn’t tell us it
is to have evidence. The mentalist could say that evidence consists of facts or true propositions.
The mentalist could say that our evidence will include any proposition that we know by means of
observation. Mentalism could say either of these things, but it cannot say both of these things.
That’s why we know that the mentalist is mistaken. Or, so I argue. After showing that we have
evidence the mentalist says we cannot, I offer an argument for externalism about justified belief. I
argue that our experiential beliefs can be non-inferentially justified only if they are true.
Paper word count: 2996
Abstract word count: 129

INTRODUCTION
The mentalist says that subjects in the same non-factive mental states share the same evidence:
(M) If A and B are in the same non-factive mental states from the
cradle to the grave, p is part of S’s evidence iff p is part of B’s
evidence.1
The mentalist view is mistaken:
(1) We have non-inferential knowledge of the external world
including the proposition that p is the case (LF).2
(2) If we know p non-inferentially, p is part of our evidence (IKSE).3
(3) If ~p, p is not part of our evidence (EST).4
(4) It is possible for someone to be in just the same non-factive mental
states as any one of us and believe mistakenly that p.
(C) It is possible for someone to be in just the same non-factive mental
states as any one of us and while p will not be part of their
evidence, p will be part of ours.
Mentalists will give me (1), but mentalists won’t stay mentalists unless they give up (2) or (3).5 In
this paper, I shall argue that a piece of evidence is a fact or a true proposition and if you have non-
inferential knowledge you have what you need (if not more) to possess that evidence. Thus, you
can have evidence that some possible non-factive mental duplicate of yours cannot.

1. KNOWING AND HAVING


According to IKSE, if S knows p non-inferentially, p is part of S’s evidence. I’m not entirely sure
what it means to ‘have’ some evidence, but I think if you have evidence then there’s a piece of
evidence and it’s yours. If you think of having evidence in non-normative terms, perhaps the idea is
that p is part of your evidence when p is evidence and it is part of your perspective, something you
can rely on when trying to settle a question. If that’s all it takes to have evidence, then it should
not take more than non-inferential knowledge. There is a normative way of understanding this talk
of ‘having’ evidence. You have a piece of evidence when you can properly use that piece of evidence
to settle a question. On this normative reading, I think IKSE must be true.
Consider:
(IJSE) If p is a piece of evidence and S’s belief that p is non-
inferentially justified, p is part of S’s evidence.
The rationale behind IJSE is straightforward. If S is non-inferentially justified in believing p, it is
proper for S to treat p as a reason for belief. But, if it is proper for S to treat p as a reason for belief
and p is a reason or piece of evidence, it cannot be that p is evidence S does not have if have means
something like ‘has the right to treat as a reason’. Since S knows p non-inferentially only if S
justifiably believes p non-inferentially, IJSE entails IKSE.6

2. IT’S NOT THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS


I’ll offer two independent arguments for EST.

2.1 LINGUISTIC EVIDENCE


In this section, I shall present the linguistic evidence I think is best explained by EST. To begin,
consider two exchanges concerning an upcoming trial.
I.
Scarlet: Does the prosecution have solid evidence against Mustard?
Green: The prosecution thinks it does. Here’s the evidence they have:
that he was the last one to see the victim alive, that he lied about
his whereabouts on the night of the crime, that his fingerprints
were on the murder weapon, and that he wrote a letter containing
details the police think only the killer could have known. Having
said that, Mustard wasn’t the last one to see the victim alive, he
did not lie about his whereabouts, and his fingerprints weren’t on
the murder weapon.

II.
Scarlet: Does the prosecution have solid evidence against Mustard?
Green: People seem to think they do. Here’s the evidence they have: that
he was the last one to see the victim alive, that he lied about his
whereabouts on the night of the crime, that his fingerprints were
on the murder weapon, and that he wrote a letter containing
details the police think only the killer could have known. That
being said, I don’t know if he’s the last one who saw the victim
alive, I don’t know if he lied, I don’t know if his fingerprints were
on the murder weapon, and I don’t know if he wrote a letter
containing any details about the crime.
It seems to me that in (I), Green contradicts himself. I cannot see how Green could manage to
contradict himself if EST weren’t true. In (I), Green asserts that the negations of the propositions
that he says are included in the prosecution’s evidence. If assertions like Green’s of the form ‘S’s
evidence includes p, but ~p’ are contradictory in the way that ‘S knows p, but ~p’ is, that seems
like a good reason to think that evidence ascriptions are factive. In turn, that seems like a good
reason to think that the evidence ascribed by true ascriptions of evidence must be true.
As for (II), it seems that Green either contradicts himself or says something that seems
contradictory in the way that Moorean absurd assertions are. If Green’s remarks are contradictory,
EST is true. Someone could try to deny this and say that Green’s remarks in (II) do not contain a
contradiction. Green’s remarks, they say, only seem contradictory. Perhaps Green’s remark is an
instance of a Moorean absurd assertion. Just to be clear, the explanation I would offer cites EST.
The thing to be explained here is the appearance of contradiction. I take it that it is uncontroversial
that there is something amiss with Green’s remark, the controversy concerns the proper
explanation of that appearance.
I don’t think we can explain the appearance of the contradiction without positing a
contradiction. This is because Green’s remarks in (II) would be absurd in the way that Moorean
absurd assertions are if EST weren’t true. Consider four things Green could say:
(1) p but I do not believe p [omissive Moorean absurdity].
(2) The prosecution is justified in believing p, but ~p.
(3) p is part of the prosecution’s evidence, but ~p [commissive].
(4) p is part of the prosecution’s evidence, but I don’t believe p [omissive].
There are two things to note. First, if EST were not true, a natural view might be that someone’s
evidence consists of those things justifiably believed or rationally believed. There is nothing at all
odd about asserting (2). So, the views that deny EST seem incapable of explaining why (3) and (4)
seem contradictory since they likely take (2) and (3) to amount to the same thing. Second, on the
response we’re considering, (1)-(4) could be true, but (3) and (4) seem contradictory for the sort
of reasons that (1) does. If you want to explain why (1) seems contradictory, you could say that in
asserting the first conjunct the speaker expresses a commitment to p being true and then takes that
commitment back in asserting the second conjunct. If EST is not true and evidence ascriptions are
not factive, there is no reason to think that Green would commit himself to p being true in asserting
‘p is part of the prosecution’s evidence’ and so no clash would arise in expressing a commitment to
p being false and no clash would arise if he expressed that he was not committed to p being true.
So, you can tell a Moorean story about (4), but that story commits you to saying that (3) expresses
a contradiction.

2.2 EVIDENCE AND EXPLANATION


Here is a second argument for EST. Think about the role that evidence plays in explanatory
inference. We gather evidence and judge that it is r rather than q that best explains the evidence, p,
and at this point if we know this we are in a position to knowingly judge that p is true because r is
true.7 If we know that p is part of our evidence, there is not some further step of reasoning or
epistemic evaluation that needs to be completed to know that p can figure in inferences like
inference to the best explanation. I am not saying that every piece of evidence can be explained.
Some facts may well be brute facts that cannot be explained in terms of anything. What I’m saying
is that when we know that p is true, we can safely infer that there will either be an explanation as to
why p is true or p will be a brute fact. Note that if p is a brute fact, p is a fact. If, however, we can
rule out somehow that p is a brute fact, we would know that there would be some considerations
or some propositions that would explain p. If we were to discover that r is what would explain p,
we would know that p was true because r was true. Just as ‘It is a brute fact that p’ entails p, ‘p
because r’ entails p as well. So, you know that if p is part of your evidence, you know that p is true.
So, we can argue for EST as follows. When you know that p is part of your evidence, you
are thereby in a position to know a disjunction that has p as a consequence because both disjuncts
have p as a consequence. When you know that p is part of your evidence, you either know that
there is no explanation as to why p and so know p is a brute fact or you know that there is some
explanation or other as to why p, but then you know that p is true because claims of the form ‘p
because r’ entail that p and r are true. Strictly speaking, it does not follow from the (alleged) fact
that ‘S knows p is part of S’s evidence’ entails p that ‘S’s evidence includes p’ entails p.8
We can run an argument for EST by focusing on normative explanations rather than non-
normative explanations. By normative explanation, I have in mind explanations of normative facts
and explanatory claims of the form ‘You shouldn’t believe p because q’ or ‘There is nothing wrong
with believing p because q’.9 I would imagine that someone sympathetic to an evidentialist
approach to the epistemic ‘ought’ or ‘should’ would think that when we gather evidence that
strongly disconfirms some proposition, we can say things like, ‘You shouldn’t think that the
intruder forced his way in because the window was broken from the inside’. Here, we cite a piece
of evidence to explain why it is that a proposition shouldn’t be believed. This explanatory claim
claim, if true, entails that the person addressed shouldn’t believe that the intruder forced his way in
and that the window was broken from the inside. So, owing to the factivity of explanation, it
seems that someone sympathetic to evidentialist views and thinks that facts about evidence explain
facts about the normative status of various beliefs will be committed to saying that evidence consists
of truths. At the very least, those pieces of evidence that figure in normative explanations will have
to be true if those normative explanations are correct.

3. EVIDENCE AND JUSTIFICATION


Williamson is an externalist about evidence, but not as externalist about justification as he is
evidence. In this final section, I want to argue from evidential externalism to externalism about
justified belief. Critics of Williamson’s account of evidence have observed that subjects in the same
non-factive mental states will have the same disposition to form the same beliefs if they have the
same subjectively indistinguishable experiences and this is thought to cause trouble for
Williamson’s account of evidence. In the good case, the subject knows non-inferentially that p is
the case because it looks as if p is the case. What’s the subject’s evidence for believing p? I would
say that it is p itself. What about the bad case? The subject’s evidence for believing p cannot be p
because in the bad case, p is false. Is there something available to the subject in the bad case that
justifies believing p? Sure—that is seems/appears that p is the case. The problem is that it seems
that this will be the subject’s basis for believing p iff it is the subject’s basis for believing p in the
good case. But, the subject’s basis for believing p in the good case is not limited to p-neutral
propositions. So, it seems that Williamson should say that the subject in the bad case forms a belief
that isn’t based on evidence. But, then how can Williamson say that this subject is as justified in his
belief as the subject in the good case is justified?
The objection seems to assume that justifiably believing p requires not just adequate
evidence but also that this evidence is the basis for the belief. Then the thought is that Williamson’s
view cannot provide the right sort of basis for belief in the bad case. The thing that is part of the
subject’s evidence could be that subject’s evidence only if there was some difference in dispositions
between the good case and bad but it’s implausible to think there’s this difference here. The
argument assumes:
Basing: S’s belief that p is justified only if it is based on
(appropriate) evidence.
Same Basis: The contentful states or contents that provide the
basis for the subject’s belief in the good case are
the same in good case and bad.
Let me introduce some jargon. An e-proposition is one that is true in the good case but not the
bad. An i-proposition is true in both the good case and bad. The problem with Williamson’s view
is that he wants to say that an e-proposition can serve as the basis of our beliefs, but then it seems he
has to deny Basing or Same Basis since he says that the belief in the bad case is justified.
The problem for the internalist is that using Basing and Same Basis, they seem committed
to the view that our evidence for beliefs in e-propositions consists entirely of i-propositions. But,
we know that e-propositions are part of the content of perceptual experience. Indeed, taking
experience at face value typically involves believing an e-proposition that is part of the content of
experience. I’d say that we base our beliefs in e-propositions in the good and bad case, it’s just that
e-propositions don’t satisfy the conditions necessary for being evidence in both the good and bad
cases.
Here’s an argument against justificatory internalism:
(1) We could not form beliefs about the external world in the way
that we actually do simply by forming beliefs in e-propositions on
a basis consisting entirely of i-propositions.
(2) This is true for the good case and bad.
(3) If the subject did not treat the false e-propositions as reasons for
believing e-propositions, the subject would not believe on the
basis that we believe in the good case.
(4) There’s a reason for the subject in the bad case not to form beliefs
in that way.
(5) There’s no overriding reason for the subject to form beliefs in that
way that demands, inter alia, treating the e-proposition as a reason
to believe some e-proposition.
(6) If there’s a reason not to treat some basis as a basis and no reason
that requires you to treat some basis for belief as a basis for that
belief, you shouldn’t believe on that basis.
(7) If you believe p on a basis that you shouldn’t believe p on, your
belief that p is true is not justified.
In support of (1), let me say this. When we form beliefs about the external world, it is typically a
matter of taking experience at face value and believing e-propositions on the basis of some e-
propositions. Our beliefs about the external world are not based purely on i-propositions,
propositions that we could know without observation but on the basis of introspection alone. As
for (2) and (3), they seem to follow from (1) and Same Basis. In support of (4), let me say this. If p
is not a genuine normative reason, there is a reason not to treat it as if it were a genuine reason. If
the facts about what the genuine reasons are don’t have normative significance, reasons don’t have
normative significance. I’ve argued above that no false proposition is a genuine normative reason
by arguing that no false proposition constitutes a piece of evidence. In support of (5), let me say
this. If (5) were false, there would have to be a reason to believe p on the basis of non-reasons that
makes it prima facie wrongful not to do that. But, there aren’t reasons like this. Such reasons
would have to show that there could be epistemic sins of omission (there aren’t) and they would
have to be overriding. There are no overriding reasons that demand believing propositions on
falsehoods because there are no true propositions that make it wrongful not to believe much less
wrongful not to believe on the basis of falsehoods.
I haven’t said that there’s no way to come to have a false, justified belief about the external
world. You could do that by reasoning from none of the false e-propositions, but that you could
have arrived at a justified belief by some means other than the means by which you formed your
belief is irrelevant. What Basing and Same Basis tells us is that the justificatory status of your beliefs
depends on what your basis for believing is, not what it could have been if things had been
different. Or, so say the internalists that keep picking on poor Williamson.

CONCLUSION
I’ve argued here that the mentalist is mistaken. On the assumption that we have immediate
knowledge of the external world, we actually have evidence the mentalist says we cannot possibly
have.

REFERENCES
Audi, R. 2001. An Internalist Theory of Normative Grounds. Philosophical Topics 29: 31–45.
Comesaña, J. Forthcoming. Evidentialist Reliabilism. Nous.
Conee, E. and R. Feldman. 2004. Evidentialism. New York: Oxford University Press.
____. 2008. Evidence. In Q. Smith (ed.) Epistemology: New Essays. New York: Oxford University
Press: 83-104.
Goldman, A. 2009. Williamson on Knowledge and Evidence. In P. Greenough and D. Pritchard
(ed.) Williamson on Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press: 73-92.
Rizzieri, A. Forthcoming. Evidence Does Not Equal Knowledge. Philosophical Studies.
Silins, N. 2005. Deception and Evidence. Philosophical Perspectives 19: 375-404.
Williamson, T. 2000. Knowledge and its Limits. New York: Oxford University Press.

1
Conee and Feldman (2004) defend this view. I believe many of Williamson’s critics have
something like this view in mind. The arguments I develop in this paper apply to the view that
Goldman (2009) defends and Comesaña’s evidentialist reliabilism.
2
LF is liberal foundationalism. It breaks with classical foundationalism insofar as it recognizes the
possibility of non-inferential knowledge of the external world. There are mentalists who endorse
LF. Feldman (2004) is an example. He’s moved by Pyror’s (2000) argument for the claim that it is
possible to have non-inferential knowledge of the external world if it is at all possible to have
knowledge of the external world. Pryor is not unsympathetic to the idea that justifiers supervene
upon a subject’s non-factive mental states.
3
IKSE is the thesis that non-inferential knowledge suffices for evidence.
4
EST is the thesis that evidence is sufficient for knowledge.
5
We could quibble about (1). If you think we’re not warranted in claiming that we have non-
inferential knowledge of the external world, I could run essentially the same argument by helping
myself to the assumption that it is possible for a mental duplicate of ours to have non-inferential
knowledge of the external world. If you think we’re not warranted in claiming that it’s possible for
a mental duplicate of ours to have non-inferential knowledge of the external world, can I help
myself to the premise that we’re non-inferentially justified in beliefs in the external world? If so,
note that you cannot be justified in believing p when you know that it’s impossible for someone
with just your evidence to know that p. So, if you’ll give me something in the neighborhood of (1),
I’ll give you a refutation of mentalism. Take away my first premise I’ll give you the argument from
mentalism to skepticism.
6
If someone were to deny IKSE, they would have to explain the difference between the pieces of
evidence that you can properly treat as your evidence and the evidence you have. A difference that
isn’t a difference. Maybe someone would deny IKSE on the grounds that knowledge does not
entail justification. To that, I would say two things. First, the notion of justification I’m working
with is a normative notion. Basically, justifiably believing p involves having the belief that p and
that belief being proper, permissible, or right to hold. To accept IJSE but deny IKSE, someone
would have to say that someone could know p non-inferentially but it would be improper for the
subject to believe p for purely epistemic reasons. I would think that whatever those reasons would
be, they would explain both why the belief was not justified and why it did not constitute
knowledge, so whatever case purported to be a counterexample to IKSE would be a
counterexample to IJSE. Such cases would not be cases that show that IJSE is not a consequence of
IKSE. Second, we could drop IKSE and argue against M on the grounds that there are propositions
about the external world that are among the propositions we are non-inferentially justified in
believing. We could simply run the argument against M using IJSE. It follows from IKSE and EST
that M is false, and it follows from IJSE and EST that M is false.
7
Assuming, of course, that inference to best explanation can generate knowledge.
8
It could be that p can be evidence even if ~p, but p can only known to be included in a body of
evidence by someone who knows p is true. I see no credible explanation that could explain this. If
p need not be true to be a piece of evidence, why would the falsity of p prevent anyone from
knowing that p is part of someone’s evidence? If p is a piece of evidence that no one could know
belongs to someone’s evidence, is p really a central, important case?
9
If talk of epistemic ‘should’ or ‘ought’ worries you, the points I am about to make could just as
easily be made by focusing on claims about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to believe.