Skip to main content

Competence and Success in Epistemology and Beyond

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - EpComp (Competence and Success in Epistemology and Beyond)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

Competence is neither necessary nor sufficient for most of the successes we care about. Good outcomes can come about as a result of good luck, and the best, most expert efforts can be thwarted by bad luck. But what about successes like knowledge, rational belief, understanding, and morally right action? Could one, for instance, believe competently, while failing to believe rationally? Or, is there such a thing as incompetent knowing? A core hypothesis of this project is that there is: cases of both competent failure and incompetent success arise for any success we might care about. In any normative domain, we must distinguish between evaluations focused on a valuable success and those focused on competence.

The project demonstrates how this recognition can solve a cluster of key problems in epistemology relating to so-called higher-order evidence, and how it allows accommodating internalist evaluations in more externalist frameworks, thus bridging perhaps the most significant divide in epistemology. By furthering our understanding of the structure of epistemic normativity, the project helps answer fundamental questions about how we ought to form and revise our beliefs, what the point of a distinctively epistemic kind of criticism is, and how knowledge fits into the picture. The starting point of the project is an externalist outlook in epistemology, which is well-placed to make sense of problems created by hostile epistemic environments such as those containing fake news or biased evidence.

The project generalizes some of the lessons learnt in epistemology to the study of normativity more generally, including morality. Ultimately, what emerges is a view of the nature and structure of normativity.

The objectives of the project are:

(O1) To develop the theoretical foundations of the so-called dual evaluations approach.
(O2) To put forth a novel view in epistemology that demonstrates how recognizing both cases of competent failure and of incompetent success solves highly current problems and puzzles, reconciling two opposing theoretical starting points.
(O3) To investigate and ultimately reject as theoretically important the notion of structural rationality, offering an alternative, competence-based explanation of verdicts that seem to show the need for such a notion.
(O4) To explore generalizations of the results of the previous parts of the project to the practical and moral domains, thereby a general theory of the structure of normativity.
So far the main progress of the project has been on its first two objectives, though there are also promoising results relating to the latter two objectives. Work on each objective has happened, as planned, in accordance with the work packages corresponding to each objective:

(W1) The Dual Evaluations Approach--Task 1: The metaphysics of competence; Task 2: General support for the dual-evaluations approach; Special task 1: Virtue epistemology
(W2) A reorientation in epistemology--Task 3: Internalism within externalism; Task 4--Higher-order evidence; Special task 2--The ideology of reasons

The PI has made significant progress on the first objective (Task 1 and 2), developing the foundations of the dual evaluations approach in the first two chapters of her book manuscript. Her forthcoming articles “Perspectives and Good Dispositions” and “Guidance, Epistemic Filtering, and Non-Accidental Ought-Doing” apply the approach not only to show how it can make sense of more internalist evaluations within an externalist framework (Task 3), but to debates in normative ethics concerning subjectivist and objectivist theories and oughts. Her forthcoming articles “Dispositional Evaluations and Defeat” and “Higher-Order Defeat and Evincibility” apply the approach to higher-order evidence (Task 4), while “Coherence as Competence” pilots a new approach to requirements of structural rationality, thereby already building the foundation for addressing the third objective of the project.

Against this tenet, Hirvelä’s “Knowing Without Having the Competence To Do So” argues that knowledge isn’t always gained through the exercise of competences to know (Task 2, Special Task 1). This goes against a core tenet of the virtue reliabilist view, and supports one of the very core hypotheses of the project.

Paterson’s work on the metaphysics of dispositions (in particular, his “Dispositions and Token Identity”) contributes to Task 1. Hirvelä and Paterson have a joint paper (“Need Knowing and Acting be SSS-Safe”) arguing that an influential, virtue theoretic notion of competence defended by Ernest Sosa does not apply to knowing or acting (Task 2, Special task 1). Drucker’s work (“The Attitudes We Can Have”) addresses foundational questions about the nature of belief and how it relates to other attitudes (Task 1).

Hirvelä’s paper “Justification and the Knowledge Connection” (under review) takes on some of the central work of Task 3, stating a theory of justification in terms of knowledge. One of the chapters in Lasonen-Aarnio’s book (Deceit and Good Dispositions) tackles one of the hardest problems for a knowledge first epistemology, the so-called new evil demon problem (Task 3). Frantantonio’s “Evidential Internalism and Evidential Externalism” spells out the internalism-externalism divide in epistemology (Task 3). Her paper “Foundational Evidentialism” takes on the core research question of (Special Task 2). According to a dominant view, we should think of justified belief in terms of responsiveness to reasons. Frantantonio argues that paradigm cases of perceptual knowledge cannot be thought of in terms of responsiveness to reasons.

Some of the broader applications of the dual evaluations approach have only emerged over the course of the first half of the project, and there are some promising results relating to objetives 3 and 4. The PI’s “Perspectives and Good Dispositions” takes on the question of how we should think of the more “subjective” kind of evaluative perspective applying not only to beliefs, but also to choices and actions, arguing that we need dispositional evaluations in order to make sense of it. The kind of evaluative framework that emerges unifies the practical and theoretical/epistemic domains. Daniel Drucker’s paper “The Attitudes We Can Have” tackles some of the research questions of T7 regarding the relationship between theoretical and practical rationality. He develops a hairetic theory of belief formation: just like choice, we should see belief formation as a choice among alternatives.

We have organized all of our planned workshops, apart from one schedule for April 2020, which was rescheduled because of the global pandemic. We have brought in philosophers doing important work on topics relating to the project, including Carlotta Pavese, Susanna Siegel, Mona Simion, Chris Kelp, Martin Smith, Nick Hughes, Lilian O’Brien, Lisa Miracchi, Jim Pryor, Patrick Shireff, and Jennifer Nagel. Project members have been extremely active giving talks at workshops and conferences: they have given a total of over 40 talks on three continents during the reporting period.
The project will has wide ramifications for how we think of normativity:

• Recognizing the categories of competent failure and incompetent success transforms our understanding of a large range of challenges and problems in epistemology, the study of rationality, and meta-ethics. The project pioneers a novel, systematic study of competence or virtue, drawing on cutting-edge work on the metaphysics of dispositions – something that current virtue ethicists or epistemologists have not yet extensively done.
• The project shows how various evaluations that appear internalist can be explained and accommodated from more externalist starting points using the notion of success-conducive competence. In addition to undercutting core support for a justification-based picture, this overcomes the most pressing challenges for externalist views (e.g. new evil demon problem). In particular, the project shows how some of the most serious objections raised for a knowledge first epistemology can be answered by focusing on knowledge-conducive competences.
• The project challenges contemporary trends in epistemology by uncovering deep problems with attempts to accommodate systematic defeat, particularly acute in connection with higher-order evidence. An alternative, competence-based account of the epistemic failure involved in ignoring higher-order evidence is developed.
• The project offers a systematic study of structural requirements of rationality across theoretical and practical domains. Such requirements have had enormous influence, and are often presented as self-evident first principles. The project puts forth a completely novel view rejecting such requirements, which changes the way we look at the notion of rationality.
• The project puts forth a novel framework unifying the norms of theoretical reason, practical reason, and morality. For instance, it is not at all atypical for philosophers to be drawn to a coherentist view of practical rationality (“maximize subjective expected utility!”), while rejecting coherentism at least when it comes to epistemic norms (“proportion your beliefs to your evidence”). The dual-evaluations approach rejects coherentism across the board, while accommodating more internal kinds of evaluations, including ones appealing to coherence, from an externalist starting point. The result is a unified take on questions regarding what we ought to do and believe.