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II. Warrant: The Sober Truth

I’ve said most185185   The rest is to be found in my reply to Alston, Ginet, Steup, Swinburne, and Taylor in “Reliabilism, Analyses and Defeaters,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55/2 (1995), pp. 427ff.; “Respondeo,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge, ed. J. Kvanvig (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); “Warrant and Accidentally True Belief,” Analysis 57, n. 2 (April 1, 1997), p. 140; and pp. 156ff., below. of what I have to say about the nature of warrant in Warrant: The Current Debate (WCD) and WPF. To spare the reader a trip to the library, however, I will briefly recapitulate; readers who want more depth and detail should consult those volumes (although on pp. 156ff. below I make a correction to what is said in WCD and WPF). The question is as old as Plato’s Theaetetus: what is it that distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief? What further quality or quantity must a true belief have, if it is to constitute knowledge? This is one of the main questions of epistemology. (No doubt that is why it is called ‘theory of knowledge’.) Along with nearly all subsequent thinkers, Plato takes it for granted that knowledge is at least true belief: you know a proposition p only if you believe it, and only if it is true. But Plato goes on to point out that true belief, while necessary for knowledge, is clearly not sufficient: it is entirely possible to believe something that is true without knowing it. You are congenitally given to pessimism; you believe that the stock market will plunge tomorrow, even though you have no evidence; even if you turn out to be right, you didn’t know. You have traveled two thousand miles to the North Cascades for a climbing trip; you are desperately eager to climb. Being an incurable optimist, you believe it will be bright, sunny, and warm tomorrow, despite the forecast, which calls for high winds and a nasty mixture of rain, sleet, and snow. As it turns out, the forecasters were wrong, and tomorrow turns out sunny and beautiful: your belief was true, but didn’t constitute knowledge.

Suppose we use the term ‘warrant’ to denote that further quality or quantity (perhaps it comes in degrees), whatever precisely it may be, enough of which distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief. Then our question (the subject of WPF): what is warrant? My suggestion (WPF, chapters 1 and 2) begins with the idea that a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as 154including absence of impedance as well as pathology. The notion of proper function is fundamental to our central ways of thinking about knowledge.

But that notion is inextricably bound with another: that of a design plan.186186   See WPF, pp. 11ff. Human beings and their organs are so constructed that there is a way they should work, a way they are supposed to work, a way they work when they work right; this is the way they work when there is no malfunction. There is a way in which your heart is supposed to work: for example, your pulse rate should be about 50 to 80 beats per minute when you are at rest and (if you are under age forty) achieve a maximum rate of some 180 to 200 beats per minute when you are exercising really hard. If your resting pulse is 160, or if you can’t get your pulse above 60 beats per minute no matter how hard you work, then your heart isn’t functioning properly. (Then again, a bird whose resting heart rate is 160 might be perfectly healthy.) We needn’t initially take the notions of design plan and way in which a thing is supposed to work to entail conscious design or purpose. I don’t here mean to claim that organisms are created by a conscious agent (God) according to a design plan, in something like the way in which human artifacts are constructed and designed (although in fact I think something like that is true). I am not supposing, initially at least, that having a design plan implies having been created by God or some other conscious agent; it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans.187187   Although in WPF, chapter 11, I argue that there is no viable naturalistic account of proper function. I mean, instead, to point to something nearly all of us, theists or not, believe: there is a way in which a human organ or system works when it works properly, works as it is supposed to work; and this way of working is given by its design or design plan.

Proper function and design go hand in hand with the notion of purpose or function. The various organs and systems of the body (and the ways in which they work) have their functions, their purposes: the function or purpose of the heart is to pump the blood; of the immune system, to fight off disease; of the lungs to provide oxygen; of peristalsis, to move nutrients along the intestinal tract, and so on. If the design is a good design, then when the organ or system functions properly (i.e., according to its design plan), that purpose will be achieved. The design plan specifies a particular way of working that subserves that purpose. Of course, the design plan for human beings will include specifications for our cognitive system or faculties, as well as for noncognitive systems and organs. Like the rest of our organs and systems, our cognitive faculties can work well or ill; they can malfunction 155or function properly. They too work in a certain way when they are functioning properly—and work in a certain way to accomplish their purpose. Accordingly, the first element in our conception of warrant (so I say) is that a belief has warrant for someone only if her faculties are functioning properly, are subject to no dysfunction, in producing that belief.188188   For necessary qualifications, see WPF, pp. 9ff. and 22–42.

But that’s not enough. Many systems of your body, obviously, are designed to work in a certain kind of environment. You can’t breathe under water; your muscles atrophy in zero gravity; you can’t get enough oxygen at the top of Mount Everest. Clearly, the same goes for your cognitive faculties; they too will achieve their purpose only if functioning in an environment much like the one for which they were designed (by God or evolution). Thus they won’t work well in an environment (on some other planet, for example) in which a certain subtle radiation impedes the function of memory.

And this is still not enough. It is clearly possible that a belief be produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly in an environment for which they were designed, but nonetheless lack warrant; the above two conditions are not sufficient. We think that the purpose or function of our belief-producing faculties is to furnish us with true (or verisimilitudinous) belief. As we saw above in connection with the F&M complaint, however, it is clearly possible that the purpose or function of some belief-producing faculties or mechanisms is the production of beliefs with some other virtue—perhaps that of enabling us to get along in this cold, cruel, threatening world, or of enabling us to survive a dangerous situation or a life-threatening disease. So we must add that the belief in question is produced by cognitive faculties such that the purpose of those faculties is that of producing true belief. More exactly, we must add that the portion of the design plan governing the production of the belief in question is aimed at the production of true belief (rather than survival, or psychological comfort, or the possibility of loyalty, or something else).

Even this isn’t sufficient. We can see why by reflecting on a fantasy of David Hume’s:

This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant Deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior Deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated Deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him.189189   Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), p. 53.


So imagine that a young and untutored apprentice deity sets out to build cognitive beings, beings capable of belief and knowledge. Immaturity and incompetence triumph; the design contains serious glitches. In fact, in some areas of the design, when the faculties work just as they were designed to, the result is ludicrously false belief: thus when the cognitive faculties of these beings are working according to their design plan, they constantly confuse horses and hearses, forming the odd beliefs that cowboys in the old West rode hearses and that corpses are usually transported in horses. These beliefs are then produced by cognitive faculties working properly in the right sort of environment according to a design plan aimed at truth, but they still lack warrant. What is missing? Clearly enough, what must be added is that the design plan in question is a good one, one that is successfully aimed at truth, one such that there is a high (objective) probability that a belief produced according to that plan will be true (or nearly true).

Put in a nutshell, then, a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth. We must add, furthermore, that when a belief meets these conditions and does enjoy warrant, the degree of warrant it enjoys depends on the strength of the belief, the firmness with which S holds it. This is intended as an account of the central core of our concept of warrant; there is a penumbral area surrounding the central core where there are many analogical extensions of that central core; and beyond the penumbral area, still another belt of vagueness and imprecision, a host of possible cases and circumstances where there is really no answer to the question whether a given case is or isn’t a case of warrant.190190   As I argue in WPF, pp. 212–13. This means that the sort of classical analysis in which necessary and sufficient conditions are set out in a stylishly austere clause or two is of limited value here. What we need, instead, is an explanation and description of how the account works in the main areas of our cognitive life; that was the task of WPF.

Responses to the above account of warrant have made it abundantly clear that it needs a certain kind of supplementation and fine tuning.191191   By Robert Shope in “Gettier Problems,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (London: Routledge, 1998), and his forthcoming book Knowledge as Power; Richard Feldman in “Plantinga, Gettier, and Warrant,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge, ed. Jonathan Kvanvig (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), p. 216; and Peter Klein, “Warrant, Proper Function, Reliabilism, and Defeasibility,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology, p. 105. I am grateful to all three for instruction and enlightenment. For my reply and an effort at repair, see “Respondeo,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology. To see this, consider the following kind of Gettier example. I own a Chevrolet van, drive to Notre Dame on a football Saturday, and unthinkingly park in one of the many spaces reserved for the football coach. Naturally, his minions tow my van away and, as befits such lèse-majesté, destroy it. By a splendid piece of good luck, however, I have won the 157Varsity Club’s Win-a-Chevrolet-Van contest, although I haven’t yet heard the good news. You ask me what sort of automobile I own; I reply, both honestly and truthfully, “A Chevrolet van.” My belief that I own such a van is true, but ‘just by accident’ (more accurately, it is only by accident that I happen to form a true belief); hence it does not constitute knowledge. All of the nonenvironmental conditions for warrant, furthermore, are met. It also looks as if the environmental condition is met: after all, isn’t the cognitive environment here on earth and in South Bend just the one for which our faculties were designed? What is important about the example is this: it is clear that if the coach’s minions had been a bit less zealous and had not destroyed my van, the conditions for warrant outlined above would have obtained and I would have known that I owned a Chevrolet van. In the actual situation, however, the one in which the van is destroyed, my belief is produced by the very same processes functioning the very same way in (apparently) the same cognitive environment. Hence, on my account, either both of these situations are ones in which I know that I own a Chevrolet van, or neither is. But clearly one is, and the other isn’t. Therefore my account is apparently defective.192192   For fuller development here, see “Respondeo,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology, pp. 314ff.

Consider another Gettier example, this one antedating Gettier’s birth (it was proposed by Bertrand Russell). I glance at a clock, forming the opinion that it is 3:43 p.m.; as luck would have it, the clock stopped precisely twenty-four hours ago. The belief I form is indeed true; again, however, it is true ‘just by accident’ (the clock could just as well have stopped an hour earlier or later); it does not constitute knowledge. As in the previous case, if the clock had been running properly and I had formed the same belief by the same exercise of cognitive powers, I would have known; here, therefore, we have another example that apparently refutes my account. Still another example: I am not aware that Paul’s look-alike brother Peter is staying at his house; if I’m across the street, take a quick look, and form the belief that Paul is emerging from his house, I don’t know that it’s Paul, even if in fact it is (it could just as well have been Peter emerging); again, if Peter hadn’t been in the neighborhood, I would have known.

What is crucial, in each of these cases, is that my cognitive faculties display a certain lack of resolution. I am unable, by a quick glance, to distinguish the state of affairs in which the clock is running properly and 158 telling the right time from a state of affairs in which it stopped just twelve or twenty-four hours earlier. I cannot distinguish Paul from Peter just by a quick look from across the street. Of course, this lack of resolution is in each case relative to the particular exercise of cognitive powers in question. If I had watched the clock for ten minutes, say, I would have known that it isn’t running, and if I had walked across the street and taken a good look, I’d have known that it wasn’t Paul but Peter at the door.

What I can’t distinguish by those exercises of my epistemic powers are different cognitive minienvironments. In “Respondeo,” there is a fuller development of the distinction between cognitive maxienvironments and cognitive minienvironments; here the following will suffice. First, a cognitive maxienvironment is more general and more global than a cognitive minienvironment. Our cognitive maxienvironment here on earth would include such macroscopic features as the presence and properties of light and air, the presence of visible objects, of other objects detectable by cognitive systems of our kind, of some objects not so detectable, of the regularities of nature, of the existence and general nature of other people, and so on. Our cognitive faculties are designed (by God or evolution) to function in this maxienvironment, or one like it. They are not designed for a maxienvironment in which, for example, there is constant darkness, or where everything is in a state of constant random flux, or where the only food available contains a substance that destroys short-term memory, or where there aren’t any distinguishable objects, or no regularities of a kind we can detect; in such an environment, our faculties will not fulfill their function of providing us with true beliefs. Now a given cognitive maxienvironment can contain many different minienvironments—for example, the one where the clock stops, but also one where it doesn’t; the one where Peter is visiting Paul, but also one where he isn’t; the one where the coach’s minions destroy my van, but also one where they magnanimously temper the punishment I so richly deserve, contenting themselves with painting the windshield black.

And now here’s the point: some cognitive minienvironments—such as those of the Notre Dame van case, the clock that stopped, Peter’s visit to Paul—are misleading for some exercises of cognitive faculties, even when those faculties are functioning properly and even when the maxienvironment is favorable. The maxienvironment is right, but the minienvironment isn’t; in those minienvironments the cognitive faculties in question (more exactly, particular exercises of the cognitive faculties in question) can’t be counted on to produce true beliefs. The basic idea is this: our cognitive faculties have been designed for a certain kind of maxienvironment. Even within that maxienvironment, however, they don’t function perfectly (they sometimes produce false belief), although they do function reliably. (Perhaps perfectly functioning cognitive faculties would require too much brain size, thus interfering with the achievement of other desiderata.) In some minienvironments, therefore, they can’t be counted on to produce a true belief: if they do, it is just by accident and does not constitute knowledge. So even if the maxienvironment is favorable and the other conditions of warrant are met, a belief could still be true ‘just by accident’, thus not constituting knowledge.


It is clear, therefore, that S knows p, on a given occasion, only if S’s cognitive minienvironment, on that occasion, is not misleading—more exactly, not misleading with respect to the particular exercise of cognitive powers producing the belief that p. So the conditions of warrant (i.e., for the degree of warrant sufficient for knowledge193193   The thought is not that a belief produced in an unfavorable minienvironment has no warrant at all, but only that it doesn’t have a degree of warrant sufficient for knowledge. See Trenton Merricks’s “Warrant Entails Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 55, no. 4 (December 1995), p. 841; see also Sharon Ryan’s reply, “Does Warrant Entail Truth?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56, no. 1 (March 1996), p. 183, and Merricks’s rejoinder, “More on Warrant’s Entailing Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57, no. 3 (September 1997), p. 627.) need an addition: the maxienvironment must, indeed, be favorable or appropriate, but so must the cognitive minienvironment. What must then be added to the other conditions of warrant is the resolution condition:

(RC) A belief B produced by an exercise E of cognitive powers has warrant sufficient for knowledge only if MBE (the minienvironment with respect to B and E) is favorable for E.

What does ‘appropriateness’ or ‘favorability’, or ‘nonmisleadingness’, for a cognitive minienvironment, consist in: can we say anything more definite? Intuitively, a minienvironment is favorable, for an exercise of cognitive powers, if that exercise can be counted on to produce a true belief in that minienvironment. Perhaps this is as specific as we can sensibly get; in “Respondeo,” however, I went on to make a tentative suggestion as to how we could say a bit more precisely what this favorability consists in. Where B is a belief, E the exercise of cognitive powers that produces B, and MBE a minienvironment with respect to B and E, say that

(F) MBE is favorable for E if and only if, if S were to form a belief by way of E in MBE, S would form a true belief.194194   Here I am assuming (contrary to the usual semantics for counterfactuals) that truth of antecedent and consequent is not sufficient for truth of the counterfactual (a counterfactual can be false even if it has a true antecedent and a true consequent). What is also required is that there be no sufficiently close possible world in which the counterfactual has a true antecedent and false consequent.

Sadly enough, though, (F) won’t do the trick at all; the relevant counterfactual itself can be true ‘just by accident’—that is, by accident from the point of view of the design plan.195195   As was pointed out to me by Thomas Crisp. There are plenty of possible cases to demonstrate this: here is one. Return to those impecunious Wisconsinites trying to put the best face on things by erecting a lot of fake barns.196196   See WPF, pp. 32–33. Suppose I am driving through the area on an early September morning when there is a good deal of mist and fog. I glance to the right and see a real barn; as it happens, all the nearby fake barns (which outnumber the real ones) are obscured by the morning mist; I 160say to myself, “Now that is a fine barn!” The belief I form is true; the relevant counterfactual is also true because of the way the fake barns are obscured by mist; but the belief does not have warrant sufficient for knowledge.

What to do? Here is another (also tentative) suggestion. Recall that the resolution problem arises because I can’t (for example) distinguish Paul from Peter from across the street just by looking; this particular exercise of cognitive powers displays insufficient resolution for that. So consider a given exercise of cognitive powers E, the belief B formed on that occasion, and a relevant cognitive minienvironment MBE. If the conditions of warrant have been met, B will be probable (ordinarily very probable) with respect to MBE. Of course, MBE is a state of affairs. Among the states of affairs it includes are some that E is competent to detect, that are cognitively accessible to E. Thus in the twin case the appearance of a person, of a man, of someone across the road, and the like, are all detectable by E—that is, just by taking a look. On the other hand, it’s being Paul rather than Peter who appears in the doorway is not thus detectable; they look just alike at this distance, and I know nothing entailing that Peter isn’t there. So consider the conjunction of circumstances C contained in MBE such that C is detectable by E; call this conjunctive state of affairs DMBE. In the case in question, these circumstances will be observable, and observable by way of taking a look from across the road. In the typical case, furthermore (assuming that the general conditions of warrant are met), B will also be probable with respect to DMBE. And now we can say what it is for a minienvironment to be favorable:

MBE is favorable just if there is no state of affairs S included in MBE but not in DMBE such that the objective probability of B with respect to the conjunction of DMBE and S falls below r,

where r is some real number representing a reasonably high probability. In the twin case, for example, a state of affairs S such that B is not probable enough with respect to the conjunction of DMBE and S would be Peter’s being in the house as well as Paul, and being indistinguishable from him from across the street. In the case of the impecunious Wisconsinites, it is that there are more fake barns than real barns in the neighborhood. Also, of course, I don’t specify the requisite level of probability r, which in any case will display a certain contextual character, differing from case to case.

This suggestion seems promising, although induction leads me to be less than wholly confident that it is right. It may be that in the long run we can’t say more than that the minienvironment must be favorable. The overall picture, then, is as follows. Our faculties are designed for a certain kind of cognitive maxienvironment, one that sufficiently resembles the one in which we do, in fact, find ourselves. And when a belief is formed by properly functioning faculties in an environment of that sort (and the bit of the design plan that governs its production is successfully aimed at truth), then the belief in question has some degree of warrant, even if it happens to be false. But our cognitive faculties are not maximally effective—not only in that there is much we aren’t capable of coming 161to know but also in that we are sometimes prone to err, even when the maxienvironment is right and the relevant faculties are functioning properly. Another way to put the same point: within a favorable cognitive maxienvironment, there can be minienvironments for a given exercise of our faculties, in which it is just by accident, dumb luck, that a true belief is formed, if one is indeed formed. A true belief formed in such a minienvironment doesn’t have warrant sufficient for knowledge, even if it has some degree of warrant. To achieve that more exalted degree of warrant, the belief must be formed in a minienvironment such that the exercise of the cognitive powers producing it can be counted on to produce a true belief. Hence the resolution condition. Beliefs that meet all of the conditions will then constitute knowledge (provided they are accepted with sufficient firmness).

I have neglected several important components of our epistemic establishment. First, I have said nothing here about defeaters; in chapter 11, I’ll address this topic. Another very important topic ignored here197197   But treated in WPF, chapter 9. is that of epistemic probability. Further, knowledge or warrant seems to have a contextual character; the degree of warrant necessary for knowledge seems to depend, to some extent, on circumstances and context. I don’t have the space to go into these matters here.

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