Philosophy 290-2

Spring 2024

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-2 Graduate Seminar: Belief MacFarlane Tu 12-2 Philosophy 234

We can describe an agent’s doxastic state by saying which propositions the agent believes. Alternatively, we can assign credences or confidence levels between 0 and 1 to each proposition. The first approach is “digital,” positing a binary, on/off relation of belief, while the second is “analog,” recognizing continuous variation in the strength of belief. What is the relation between these two ways of describing a doxastic state? Is one of them fundamental, and the other derivative? Are they competing or complementary descriptions? If they are complementary, what are their distinctive roles? If they are competing, which should we prefer, and what should we make of the other?

In this seminar we will mostly be assuming that the analog description of cognitive states in terms of credences is useful, and asking whether any important theoretical role remains for the digital description in terms of beliefs. Many have thought not. Richard Jeffrey writes that he is “inclined to think that Ramsey sucked the marrow out of the ordinary notion, and used it to nourish a more adequate view,” and David Christensen argues that “believes” is like “large” or “warm”—a useful word in everyday life, but not one that plays a role in useful scientific or epistemological theories. We will see if we can resist these conclusions. Casting a broad net, we will consider a number of different approaches to making sense of belief: in terms of its role in psychological explanation, in terms of credence, as a cognitive heuristic, and in terms of its relations to cognitive norms, knowledge, assertion, reactive attitudes, reasons, guesses, and inquiry.

Readings will be drawn from the recent literature on this topic. This course is aimed at graduate students in philosophy. Others who are interested in the seminar should request the permission of the instructor.