Suppose I believe that mermaids are real, and this belief brings me joy. Is it okay for me to believe that mermaids are real? On the one hand, it is tempting to think that if my belief doesn’t harm anyone, then it is okay for me to have it. On the other hand, it seems irrational for me to believe that mermaids are real when I don’t have any evidence or proof to support this belief. Are there standards that I ought to abide by when forming and revising my beliefs? If there are such standards, what are they?
Two philosophical views about the standards that govern what we ought to believe are pragmatism and the epistemic view. Pragmatism holds that our individual goals, desires, and interests are relevant to these standards. According to pragmatists, the fact that a belief brings me joy is a good reason for me to have it. The epistemic view holds that all that matters are considerations that speak for or against the truth of the belief; although believing that mermaids are real brings me joy, this is not a good reason because it is not evidence that the belief is true.
Gilbert Harman famously argued for a standard on belief formation and revision that he called ‘The Principle of Clutter Avoidance’:
One should not clutter one’s mind with trivialities (Harman 1986: 12).
For example, suppose that knowing Jupiter’s circumference would not serve any of my goals, desires, or interests. If I end up believing truly that Jupiter’s circumference is 272,946 miles (perhaps I stumble upon this fact while scrolling through TikTok), am I doing something I ought not to do?
According to Harman, I ought not to form this belief because doing so would clutter my mind. Why waste valuable cognitive resources believing things that are irrelevant to one’s own wellbeing? Harman’s view is that our cognitive resources shouldn’t be wasted in this way, and this is his rationale for accepting the Principle of Clutter Avoidance.
Many epistemologists are inclined to accept Harman’s principle, or something like it. This is significant because the principle appears to lend significant weight to pragmatism over the epistemic view. Picking up on Harman’s ideas about avoiding cognitive clutter, Jane Friedman has recently argued that Harman’s principle has the following potential implication:
Evidence alone doesn’t demand belief, and it can’t even, on its own, permit or justify belief (Friedman 2018: 576).
Rather, genuine standards of belief revision must combine considerations about one’s interests with more traditional epistemic sorts of considerations. Friedman argues that the need to avoid clutter implies that evidence can be overridden by consideration of our interests: even if your evidence suggests that some proposition is true, Harman’s principle may prohibit you from believing it. According to Friedman, accepting Harman’s principle leads to a picture of rational belief revision that is highly “interest-driven”, according to which our practical interests have a significant role to play.
These are radical implications, in our view, and so we wonder whether Harman’s principle should be accepted. Is it a genuine principle of rational belief revision? Our aim in “In Defense of Clutter” is to argue that it is not. Moreover, we offer an alternative way to account for clutter avoidance that is consistent with the epistemic view.
Suppose that you believe with very good evidence that it will rain and, with equally good evidence, that if it will rain, then your neighbor will bring an umbrella to work. An obvious logical consequence of these two beliefs—one that we may suppose you are able to appreciate—is that your neighbor will bring an umbrella to work.
This information may well be unimportant for you. It may be that no current interest of yours would be served by settling the question of whether your neighbor will bring an umbrella to work. But suppose that in spite of this you ask the question anyway. Having asked it, isn’t it clear that you ought to answer it in the affirmative? At the very least, isn’t it clear that you are permitted to do so? The question has come up, and you can easily see the answer. How can you be criticized for answering it?
In general, if a question comes up, surely it is okay to answer it in whatever way is best supported by your evidence. According to the Principle of Clutter Avoidance, however, you should not answer the question, because this would be to form a belief that doesn’t serve any of your practical interests. This is implausible. The answer to your question clearly follows from beliefs that are well supported by your evidence.
Can we account for the relevance of clutter avoidance without being led to this implausible result? Here is our proposal. Rather than locating the significance of cognitive clutter at the level of rational belief revision, we locate its significance at earlier stages of inquiry.
Philosophers have written extensively on rational belief revision, but comparably little about earlier stages of inquiry; for example, about asking or considering questions, and about the standards that govern these activities. If we zoom out from rational belief revision and reorient our focus on earlier stages of inquiry, we can bring the significance of cognitive clutter into view.
We propose that clutter considerations play a role in determining how lines of inquiry ought to be opened and pursued over time, but they are irrelevant to closing lines of inquiry by forming beliefs.
It is okay to answer a question in whatever way is best supported by one’s evidence, but a thinker makes a mistake when they ask or consider junk questions—questions whose answers will not serve any of their interests. This enables us to take seriously the considerations of cognitive economy that Harman, Friedman, and many others find compelling, without thereby being led to an interest-driven epistemology.
Read the full article at https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/ergo/article/id/2257/
- Friedman, Jane (2018). “Junk Beliefs and Interest-Driven Epistemology”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 97(3), 568–83.
- Harman, Gilbert (1986). Change in View. MIT Press.
About the authors
Brendan Balcerak Jackson‘s research focuses on natural language semantics and pragmatics, as well as linguistic understanding and communication, and on reasoning and rationality more generally. He has a PhD in philosophy, with a concentration in linguistics, from Cornell University, and he has worked as a researcher and teacher at various universities in the United States, Australia, and Germany. Since April 2023, he is a member of the Semantic Computing Research Group at the University of Bielefeld.
David DiDomenico is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Texas State University. His research interests are in epistemology and the philosophy of mind.
Kenji Lota is a doctoral student at the University of Miami. They are interested in epistemology and the philosophy of language and action.