Examination of the Principle of Unlimited Inquiry

In order to further our understanding of the world around us, we must be able to trust that there is a world around us. In Can I Know That I Am Not Dreaming Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld examine multiple arguments aimed to show that we can have knowledge of the external world.  In this paper I will evaluate Michael Slote’s Principle of Unlimited Inquiry. I will first explain Slote’s argument, and then move on to the arguments against it put forth by Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld. Next, I will argue that Slote’s method parallels the modern scientific method and refute the counterexample that Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld use to discount Slote’s argument. Finally, I will conclude that Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld’s line of reasoning fails to show that Slote’s principle cannot be applied to achieve an epistemically reasonable belief in the external world.

In Meditations 1, Descartes ponders the existence of an evil demon who has the power and motive to constantly deceive a person into believing that there is an external world around them (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 250). By considering that our individual experience is comprised solely of sensory experiences, the sensory input would have to come from either an external world, or through the power of the demon. It seems far simpler that a single being was responsible for our sensory experience over a complex system of stimuli external to ourselves. (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 250). Consequentially, accepting the existence of this evil demon would imply that one cannot learn from the world around them, as we would believe our own experiences to be unreliable or dishonest.

A response to this argument is put forth by Michael Slote. His Principle of Unlimited Inquiry, states that it is “unreasonable to accept an inquiry limiting explanation…and there is reason…to reject [that explanation]” (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 251). He argues that if your objective is to seek knowledge, it is unreasonable to accept an explanation (such as a constantly deceiving demon) that does not allow you to gain knowledge (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 252). Therefore, if we want to gain knowledge of the outside world, we must believe that it exists and is not a demonic hallucination. 

However, Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld discuss that this alone is not an epistemic answer, as it does not imply that it is more true that the outside world exists, only that there is a practical reason to believe in it (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 252). Slote then puts forth an argument to show that it is more epistemically reasonable to believe in the existence of the outside world using Chisholm’s definition of epistemic reasonableness;

“P is epistemically reasonable in believing q if p were a rational being, and if his concerns were purely intellectual, it would be reasonable for him to believe q” (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253). As our goal is to attain knowledge of the outside world (an intellectual concern), he concludes that “it is epistemically reasonable to have tentative belief in an external world” (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253).

Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld argue that this is a very broad definition of epistemic reasonableness, as it does not imply that if a belief is more epistemically reasonable, it is more likely to be true (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253). Given this, they discuss a counterexample where in order to enter school (and gain more knowledge) one must accept proposition c, which one have no reason to believe to be true or false (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253). Given Slote’s argument, it is epistemically reasonable to accept c, as one will gain more knowledge, but that does not mean that c is more likely to be true, only that it will lead to the acquisition of more knowledge. Therefore, they find that Slote’s argument fails to give any epistemic justification to accept the existence of the external world (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253).

I agree with Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld that Slote’s version of epistemic reasonableness does not imply that a more reasonable belief is more likely to be true. However, I believe that it is important to highlight that Slote believed that his method led to justification of a reasonable tentative belief (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 253). In this way, I believe that Slote’s method is one that can lead to a true belief about the outside world in an intuitive way.

Slote’s method mirrors the modern scientific method, which is a commonly-trusted and accepted method of reasoning. When one looks to gain more knowledge about a given area, they develop a hypothesis, which is a tentative belief that they can then test. The result of their observations and experience provides them with evidence to accept or refute their belief. For example, if one wanted to know what the weather was like, and the forecast said it would be rainy, it would be epistemically irresponsible to say that one was justified in believing it was rainy by simply looking at the forecast. Forecasts are not accurate 100% of the time, and there is always a possibility of being deceived. One could hold the thought ‘it’s raining outside’ as a hypothesis with no truth value and then rely on experience such as feeling the rain or observation of the rainfall through their window to gain knowledge to support that claim. I argue that tentatively holding an idea and looking for evidence to support it is an intuitive way that we use to gain knowledge.

If we consider Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld’s counterexample, the individual does not have epistemic justification for accepting proposition c because they are unable to gain more knowledge until they do. However, it is epistemically reasonable to tentatively accept c in order to access the information needed to find the truth of c.

A critic can accept this tentative justification and argue that this has simply pushed epistemic justification back a step, as once one has access to information, they still must use evidence to support or refute proposition c.

If we consider this problem in the context of the existence of the external world, we then have to examine the evidence we would be using. Foremost would be empirical evidence, given by our senses. Descartes wrote in Meditations 1 that he has had “dreams that were indistinguishable from waking experiences” and he could therefore not conclusively say that he was not dreaming (Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld 2). We can extend this to the argument that one’s senses can be deceptive, or even the result of an evil demon. It seems that we should follow Descartes’ lead and disregard the evidence presented to us by our senses. 

However, in order to avoid skepticism, we can once again apply the Principle of Unlimited Inquiry because accepting that our senses are 100% faulty limits our ability to learn anything of the external world. If we are tentatively justified in believing there is an outside world and that we can gain evidence from our senses, our sensory experience falsifies the hypothesis of being asleep or being deceived by a demon. We cannot be having true sense experiences at the same time that we are not. 

This line of reasoning is open to criticism that merely accepting the truth of our sensory experiences does not mean that they are in fact truthful. Despite being incompatible with the idea of being fooled by a demon, the tentative belief does not give us justification for believing that the senses we experience are accurate. Therefore, Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld are correct in their assertion that Slote’s use of epistemic reasonableness does not by itself provide evidence to the truth of the external world. However, I believe I have shown that the Principle of Unlimited Inquiry does give justification in holding a tentative belief when it will lead to the knowledge that will confirm or disprove that belief. 

To study something, it follows that one must first accept that it exists. Therefore, if we hope to gain knowledge of the outside world, it is epistemically reasonable to believe that it exists. Although Slote’s principle does not give epistemic justification in the sense that it is more true that an external world exists, I have shown that it does provide justification for holding a tentative belief. In conclusion, I have shown that Blumenfeld and Blumenfeld’s argument does not succeed in undermining Slote’s principle of Unlimited Inquiry and that one can utilize it to hold a tentative justified belief. Therefore, Slote’s method or an alternative of it could succeed at offering an epistemically justified belief in the external world.

Works Cited

Blumenfeld, David, and Jean Beer Blumenfeld. Can I Know That I Am Not Dreaming?

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