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Belief, Deliberation and Practical Interests


Jens Dam Ziska

Oxford University,


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Much recent theorising about the nature of belief has revolved around the idea that it is somehow constitutive of belief that it aims at truth. As one author has put it, “[t]ruth is not an optional end for first-personal doxastic deliberation, providing an instrumental or extrinsic reason that an agent may take or leave at will.” This idea receives different formulations from the two most prominent candidate accounts of belief. Thus, according to the teleological account of belief, a subject believing a certain proposition p not only regards p as true, but also aims to regard p as true if and only if p is true. According to the normativist account of belief, belief is transparent not because we aim only to believe true propositions, but because when we believe some proposition p we thereby commit ourselves to a norm only to believe p if p is true. Despite their differences, both the teleological and normativist accounts of belief seem to imply that the only considerations that count as reasons for belief are those considerations that are indication or evidence of the truth. In other words, the implication seems to be that there can be no pragmatic reasons for belief, since being pragmatic they are not first and foremost responsive to the truth of the proposition in question. The aim of my dissertation is to resist this implication and to develop an alternative account of belief – one that acknowledges the existence of pragmatic reasons for belief to a fuller extent than either of the teleological and normativist theories of belief. One feature often cited in support of the view that only evidential considerations can justify belief is the transparency of belief. That is, when we deliberate whether to believe that p, we are invariably led to consider whether p is true. Subjecting the alleged transparency of belief to a critical examination, I argue that transparency is not a general feature of belief and so cannot be used to show that only evidential considerations can be reasons for belief. Instead, I argue that there are several cases where transparency fails such that our forming of beliefs must rely on pragmatic considerations.

Modern philosophy is often said to privilege rationality over received wisdom, but to some extent this is an ideal which we must pursue with a measure of uncertainty. It is not always obvious what rationality requires. Nor is it clear how rationality is to be traded against other ideals. This dissertation seeks to clarify both questions as they pertain to the rationality of belief. The choice of topic is apposite, since many argue that the case of belief illustrates that what is rational and what there is most reason to do is one and the same thing. In particular, so-called evidentialists often argue that to believe what the evidence indicates is both to believe rationally and to believe what one has most reason to believe, since (i) rationality consists in responding to reasons, and (ii) only evidence that p can be a reason to believe that p.

My first objective is to challenge this thesis. I do so by arguing that the class of reasons that rationalise a belief does not coincide with the class of reasons there are to have the belief all things considered. To equate the two classes would be to conflate the psychological issue of how we respond to reasons with the ontological issue of what reasons there are. My case against evidentialism does not depend on pragmatism being true, however. Even if Pascal was wrong to claim that the expected benefit of believing can be a reason to believe, it does not follow that evidentialism is true. Some non-pragmatic form of anti-evidentialism may still be true.

The latter half of the dissertation explores this possibility in greater detail. There I argue that there is at least one class of beliefs which is not subject to common evidentiary strictures. When we use practical reasoning to form intentions about what to do in the future, we typically also form beliefs about what we will do. Yet, those beliefs are not based on evidence about what we will do, I argue. Typically, we do not predict what we do based on what we intend to do. Nor should we. When it is up to us whether we will perform an action, our intentions do to not carry enough weight as evidence that we must use them to predict what we will do. In the last part of the dissertation, I use this point to elucidate how we acquire self-knowledge and how belief relates to truth.


Scientific articles, books, thesis etc.
2016 “Deliberation and the First-Person Perspective”, Teorema, Vol. XXXV/1, pp. 35-57.
This paper was selected as one of three finalist papers for the 2014 Teorema Essay Prize for Young Scholars.

Other results, such as unpublished articles, patents, computer systems, original models and new procedures
The following papers are all based on contents from my thesis and are currently under review or about to be submitted to journals: “Non-Pragmatic Anti-Evidentialism”, “A Dilemma for Evidentialists”, “Against Normative Reductionism”, “Reason without Rationalisation”.

27/11/14 “On Doxastic Deliberation”, Higher Seminar, Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University.
18/6/14 “Deliberation and the First-Person Perspective”, Research Programme for Philosophy and Intellectual History, Aarhus University.
28/4/14 “Against Normative Reductionism”, Graduate Seminar in Philosophy, Stockholm University. Comments by Olle Torpman (Stockholm).
21/5/13 “Why Epistemic Akrasia is Possible but Irrational”, D.Phil Work in Progress Seminar, Oxford. Comments by Jane Friedman (NYU).
8/7/12 “Skorupski on Pragmatic Reasons for Belief”, CRNAP workshop, Institut Jean Nicod. Comments by Andrew Huddleston (Princeton).

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