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2. Reference and Justification

In my first post I sketched an argument for a principle connecting aboutness and justification. Here is the sketch version again as a little graphic:

The resulting principle, which I call in the book ‘Reference and Justification’, brings out the significance for accounts of aboutness of the fact that justification is truth conducive.

Today I’ll say a bit to cash out the argument, and try to give an idea of how the account of aboutness-fixing built around Reference and Justification works.

Imogen Dickie, Fixing Reference (Oxford, 2016)

Let’s start with the argument. Suppose that subject S has a belief about object o (we’re going to show that, in that case, if the belief is justified, S will be unlucky if it does not match what o is like):

1 S’s belief that <a is F> is about o [Assumption]

Add the aboutness and truth principle:

2 An <a is F> belief is true iff the object it is about is F.

1 and 2 entail 3:

3 S’s belief that <a is F> is true iff o is F.

Now add the truth and justification principle

4 If S’s belief that <a is F> is justified, S will be unlucky if it is not true.

Feeding the account of what it takes for the belief to be true at 3 into 4, we get 5:

5 If S’s belief that <a is F> is justified, S will be unlucky if o is not F.

Now, Reference and Justification is a biconditional. It says that there is aboutness iff there is cognitive focus. The 1-5 argument gets us one direction of the biconditional: where a justified belief is about an object, the belief will match what the object is like unless some unlucky spoiler intervenes. Of course, to prove a biconditional you have to prove both directions, but the argument for the other direction – from cognitive focus to aboutness – is a bit of a mouthful, so I won’t try to present it here. (It’s in Ch 2 §2 of the book.) Instead I’ll use the case of perceptual demonstrative thoughts – the kind of thoughts about ordinary things standardly made available by perceptual links with them – to show how the account of aboutness-fixing built around Reference and Justification works.

Suppose you are looking at a grapefruit rolling along the table in front of you and forming beliefs by uptake from perception in the ordinary way. <That is round>; <It’s rolling>; <It’s about to fall> you think. I take it that your beliefs in this case are about the grapefruit, and that you’re in a position to think about the grapefruit because it is the thing at the other end of your perceptual link. But to say this much is to leave the question of how the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit completely unaddressed.

To be clear about exactly what the question is here, it’s useful to bear in mind some extant answers. Searle said that the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit by providing you with a descriptive means of identifying it (as the satisfier of the description ‘the cause of these experiences’). Evans said that the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit by putting you in a position to discover its location and kind. Campbell noted that a perceptual link that enables perceptual demonstrative thought is attentional; argued that attention to an object makes the object the target of downstream information-processing; and suggested that an attentional perceptual link secures aboutness by performing this target-setting role.

In the Fixing Reference framework, the suggestion is that the perceptual links which underpin perceptual demonstrative thought do their aboutness-fixing work by making available a means of justification for a body of beliefs – justification by uptake from the perceptual channel – which (as I say) ‘converges’ on the object: a means of justification such that you will be unlucky if beliefs justified in this way do not match the object, and not merely lucky if they do.

If I’ve succeeded in making myself clear, some readers will be thinking ‘OK. But how are the beliefs justified. And why isn’t there just a circle here – she’s explaining aboutness in terms of justification, but justification has to be explained in terms of truth (a belief is justified only if formed by truth conducive means), and truth has to be explained in terms of aboutness (an <a is F> belief is true iff the thing it is about is F).’ That’s where I’ll start next time.

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