Avoiding Epistemic Hell: Levi on Observation and Inconsistency
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Isaac Levi has claimed that our reliance on the testimony of others, and on the testimony of the senses, commonly produces inconsistency in our set of full beliefs. This happens if what is reported is inconsistent with what we believe to be the case. Drawing on a conception of the role of beliefs in inquiry going back to Dewey, Levi has maintained that the inconsistent belief corpus is a state of ``epistemic hell'': it is useless as a basis for inquiry and deliberation. As he has also noticed, the compatibility of these two elements of his pragmatist epistemology could be called into question. For if inconsistency means hell, how can it ever be rational to enter that state, and on what basis could we attempt to regain consistency? Levi, nonetheless, has tried to show that the conflict is only apparent and that no changes of his theory are necessary. In the main part of the paper I argue, by contrast, that his attempts to reconcile these components of his view are unsuccessful.The conflict is real andthus presents a genuine threat to Deweyan pragmatism, as understood by Levi. After an attempt to pinpoint exactly where the source of the problem lies, I explore some possibilities for how to come to grips with it. I conclude that Levi can keep his fundamental thesis concerning the role of beliefs in inquiry and deliberation, provided that he (i) gives up the view that the agent can legitimately escape from inconsistency, and (ii) modifies his account of prediction alias deliberate expansion by acknowledging a third desideratum, besides probability and informational value, namely, not to cause permanent breakdown further down the line of inquiry. The result is a position which is more similar to Peter Gärdenfors's than is Levi's original theory, while retaining the basic insights of the latter.