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by Jonathan Adler
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Mark Owen Webb on Nov 22nd 2002

Belief's Own Ethics

            Jonathan Adler has written an ambitious book.  He has set himself the task of rehabilitating the epistemological view called ‘evidentialism,’ by conceptual analysis.  Evidentialism is the view that, in order for a belief to be properly held, it must be supported by adequate reasons.  This view, famously propounded by W. Clifford[1] and just as famously criticized by William James[2], has been unpopular in recent times.

            Adler’s strategy is to show that, in order for something to count as a belief in the first place, it must be held for what the believer takes to be adequate reasons.  This is a constraint imposed by the concept of belief, which can be seen in the fact that sentences like “It is raining, but I don’t have adequate reason to believe it is raining” sound paradoxical.  The book begins with an Introduction, distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to the subject matter.  An approach is intrinsic if it finds the criteria for appropriate belief in the concept of belief itself; it is extrinsic if it locates the source of those demands anywhere else.  This is similar to, but distinct from, the internalist/externalist distinction in epistemology.  The first chapter takes up this distinction to argue that the twentieth century move to extrinsic theories has been a mistake, and that therefore much of contemporary epistemology is misguided.

            Chapter two purports to show that one of the reasons philosophers have given for abandoning the intrinsic approach is an inadequate reason, based on a misunderstanding of what evidentialism requires.  Many have thought that if we say that we should believe only in proportion to our evidence for the belief, then we are committed to the view that our beliefs are under our direct voluntary control.  After all, we can be obliged to do something that we can’t do; ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’  Here Adler makes a case for a distinction between obligation and responsibility, which nicely solves the problem; we can be responsible for our beliefs even we can’t voluntarily adopt or abandon them.

            If evidentialism is true, it follows that we can talk about epistemic responsibilities in a substantively normative way.  Chapter three explores some of the ramifications of that fact.  The fourth chapter continues the theme of answering the critics of evidentialism by exposing fallacies in various particular arguments.  Chapter five is devoted to testimony, a topic of current interest, and one to which Adler has already made an important contribution.[3]  Chapter six addresses another popular criticism of evidentialism, that it is committed to foundationalism.  Foundationalism is the view that, in order to avoid either circularity or infinite regress, we must admit that some beliefs get their justification (or warrant, or other positive epistemic status) from something other than evidence.  Here Adler invokes the notion of background belief to show that one can reject foundationalism without circularity or infinite regress.  Any given belief, even ones that seem to be held without support from other beliefs, will be supported by masses of background evidence.

            Chapter seven shows the virtues of Adler’s evidentialism by showing how it can be used to solve three paradoxes of belief, one of which—the Preface Paradox—has vexed epistemologists for some time.  Here Adler invokes, besides his evidentialism, a distinction between partial belief and full belief (a distinction already familiar in the literature).  The idea is that in many cases of apparently paradoxical belief, one or more of the beliefs in question, if believed at all, is believed only partially.  Full belief is typically expressed by simple declarative sentences, such as “It is raining”; partial beliefs are typically expressed as qualified sentences, such as “I believe it is raining” or “I’m fairly sure it is raining.”  Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten address various concerns about this distinction and how it fits into Adler’s project.  Chapter Eight argues that on many occasions, we are constrained to believe fully, so it can’t be that all we have is degrees of partial belief; Nine discusses a useful distinction between degree of belief (which would necessarily be partial belief) and degree of confidence in a belief (which could apply to full belief).  Ten then invokes this distinction to defend the compatibility of full belief with doubt.  The final chapter explores ways we might, on this view, be able to control and correct our belief systems.

            Adler’s book is impressive both for its ambitious project and the scope of its application.  He clearly has a good grasp on a wide range of epistemological issues and theories.  There are places where he admits his theory is less than comprehensive, but this lack is by design.  For example, he says nothing about the various views of belief discussed in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.  This is because a good theory of ordinary, everyday belief should not presuppose any substantive views on these matters.  Whatever belief is, we have been wielding the concept since long before cognitive science was born.

            Some gaps are not so easy to forgive.  Adler has little to say about what is meant by “adequate evidence” for a belief, beyond that it should be conclusive.  However, this notion cries out for explication.  One natural way to understand conclusive evidence is that the evidence logically entails the belief, but Adler rightly disavows this interpretation as too strong.  But what does it take, then?  The reason this matters is that we must know what the evidential requirement amounts to before we can decide if it is credible.  This much Adler gives us: Conclusive reasons need not rule out all logically possible alternatives; that is, I can have conclusive reasons for believing it is raining even if I cannot rule out, on my own resources, that I am a brain in a vat.  Moreover, what counts as conclusive evidence is sensitive to context; in some context, where the stakes are high (say, lives are at stake), I must meet a higher standard of evidence.  But he can’t leave it at that.  When he discusses background evidence to answer the foundationalist regress argument, he allows that ordinary inductive evidence, and even coherence, can give support to beliefs that can contribute to their grounding (180-181).  But when he discusses the compatibility of full belief and doubt, he denies that inductive reasons against a belief count as evidence against it (259).  Likewise, in chapter five, in his discussion of testimony, Adler allows judgments of probabilty to be evidence for beliefs (148-149), but in his discussion of the lottery paradox (188-189), probability judgments are contrasted with evidence.  But these are problems that may well be resolved with further inquiry.

            On the whole, Adler’s book is an impressive contribution to epistemology.  I recommend it to academics that wish to clarify their thinking on belief, assertion, and evidence.  It should be especially useful in the upper-level or graduate classroom, as a way to bring together many different strands of contemporary epistemology.



[1]  In “The Ethics of Belief,” in Lectures and Essays, vol II, (London: Macmillan, 1879).  Adler’s title is a reference to that influential essay.

[2]  In “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe, (New York: Dover, 1956).

[3]  See his “Testimony, Trust, Knowing,” Journal of Philosophy 91 (1994), 264-275.


© 2002 Mark Owen Webb


Mark Owen Webb, Texas Tech University