“You only believe that because…” -Thoughts on the Etiological Challenge

It is uncontroversial that at least many of our beliefs are influenced by factors that are irrelevant to the actual proposition in question. Let’s imagine a guy named Mark. He is a 22 year old, white college student from the U.S.. Let’s imagine that he has a lot of nasty things to say about feminism and  one day claims something along these lines: “There is no inequality between the sexes. Females have the exact same chances that men have. Actually, when I think about it, they have it way better than men, because companies will hire them, even though they are less competent than other male applicants.” His friend Jenny overhears him saying that and responds: “You only think that, because you are a white male.”

The situation is a common one, but what epistemic significance should we reasonably ascribe to Jenny’s accusation? Should Mark lower the confidence in his belief in case he realizes that his attitude has actually been influenced by factors that are irrelevant to the truth of the proposition (women have it better than men) or can it be reasonable for him to disregard his friend’s comment and remain as convinced as before?

The question posed above can and does occur in a variety of situations: Chris has grown up in an extremely religious family and as a result he develops a strong belief in God as well. Katie’s parents are politically liberal and she has been exposed to many of their arguments. As a result, she shares a lot of typically liberal beliefs. Luka comes from Germany and is proud of the many breweries in the area. They* develop the firm belief that German beer is the best beer ever.

It might be tempting to claim that irrelevant influences of beliefs are just that: irrelevant. We should not take them into account at all, because only our reasons for and against the given proposition determine if we are justified or not. The problem with this line of thought is that we are epistemically imperfect. Humans are prone to making errors and in many cases an unreasonable argument seems very reasonable to the person that brings it forward. In other words: the phenomenology of justified and non-justified beliefs is the same. Considering this, it seems like the only rational decision is to include higher order evidences, evidences about our reasoning, into the assessment of our rational credence. As we can see, it is not so easy to dismiss Jenny’s accusation.

In the following paragraphs, I want to introduce a few views on what could be epistemically worrisome about the cases described above:

Roger White suggest that the described cases point to epistemic issues that we are already familiar with. Sometimes it simply raises awareness of general skeptical worries. If beliefs that are gained while influenced by irrelevant factors would be un- or even anti-reliable, we could not be justified in any of our positions. Other times, the assumption that I only believe p, because I went to that specific school raises problems related to the epistemic significance of  disagreement. Knowing that I would have believed not p, if I had studied at a different school and knowing that there are reasonable individuals that disagree with my belief while being familiar with the same evidence can give me a reason to decrease the confidence in my previous belief (especially if these others are epistemic peers or even superiors).

Schoenfield offers the idea that the etiological challenge is only epistemically significant when it comes to cases whose assessment only allows for one (ideally) rational response. It can be reasonable to stick with our beliefs in certain permissive cases. Permissivism describes the idea that two different doxastic attitudes  (i.e. degrees of belief) towards a proposition can be equally justified. On a first glance, this might seem counter intuitive, but consider the following. Kevin and Lisa have different cognitive goals: Kevin wants to acquire as many true beliefs as possible. He is not very worried about accidentally  adopting a false belief. Lisa on the other hand prioritizes to avoid acquiring false beliefs. As a result, she is more careful than Kevin and only adopts a belief if the evidences seem very good to her. Now imagine that the evidences for the proposition P are barely strong enough to justify believing P on their grounds. In this case, it would be rational for Kevin to adopt the belief while it would be rational for Lisa to not accept it. In such a way, permissivism can arise as a result of the existence of different epistemic standards. According to Schoenfeld, we only need to be worried by the etiological challenge, if we find out that the irrelevant influences have caused us to reason irrationally. If it is possible to be rational when believing p and non-p, we have no reason to be worried. The view is an interesting one, but it must be noted that it requires a great deal of epistemic tolerance and in many instances such an attitude would be very unsatisfying for most of us.

Di Paolo and Simpson suggest a third view: The etiological challenge poses a new epistemological problem. I might only belief something, because I’ve been indoctrinated by my environment. If someone tells Chris that he only beliefs in God, because he has grown up in a very religious environment, the person might be pointing to the fact that Chris’ beliefs have been manipulated in a systematic way (intentionally or unintentionally). Because beliefs that have been acquired in such a way are unreliable, he should be less secure in the truth of his formerly held belief.

There are many ways to explain the epistemic significance of the etiological challenge such as connecting it with the implication and influence of desire on belief, a view that might very well be applicable to Jenny’s and Markus’ case.  How do you respond when someone challenges you in the above way. When and how do you deem the accusation significant? Do you maybe only read this blog post, because….?

* “They” is used as a gender neutral pronoun to include individuals that don’t fit into the gender binary


DiPaolo, J. & Simpson, R.M. Synthese (2016) 193: 3079. doi:10.1007/s11229-015-0919-6.

Schoenfield, M. (2012) “Permission to Believe: Why Permissivism is True and What It Tells Us About Irrelevant Influences on Belief” in No^us, 48(2): 193–218.

White, Roger. “You just believe that because….” Philosophical Perspectives Volume 24, Issue 1, pages 573–615, December 2010.


Upcoming Video Series on Nonbinary Issues

Hello everyone,

it’s been a while and this blog’s content is a little different from usual, but I’m starting a youtube series on my experiences as a nonbinary person on their way to getting testosterone.

I just uploaded my first entry:

 Nonbinary Transition

so check that out if you are interested. As I’m making part of my transition a public issue, you can of course ask me related questions and I’ll try to answer them appropriately.

Footnote: I do study philosophy, but social constructivism or gender studies are not my main focus and my insight in the interdisciplinary field of gender and sex research is too minimal to offer you an expert opinion. However, I obviously have a unique access to the issue and I am able to address the topic making use of my not completely unrelated educational background, so yeah… I’ll try my best.

Have a good day!

Ontology and Social Construction

This is a translated and slightly altered version of a handout I prepared for my class on “Analytical Feminism”. As the caption suggest, the basis is Sally Haslanger’s chapter on “Ontology and Social Construction”. I really love her clear and organized way of writing and she gives a plausible account on some different understandings of the idea of social construction. If you are looking for a great way to start thinking about debates that discuss the notion of social construction or independent reality, these notes (and the original text) might be a great starting point. 

Note: If you would like a summary of the full argument (not only theses) just ask and I’ll deliver ;).

I. What is social construction?

Causal construction: Iff* social factors play a role in the generation of a thing, or iff something is substantially altered by social factors.
e.g. discursive construction: Iff something is substantially altered through (self-)ascription. (The child that’s always told they are a bad student and starts acting like one).

Constitutive Construction (operational concept): Iff we have to make reference to social factors when defining it.

Pragmatic Construction:
weak: If social factors only partly determine our use of a distinction.
strong: If social factors wholly determine our use of a distinction (it does not represent any “real” fact).

Is there an independent reality?

Thesis 1: The distinction between real and unreal is weakly pragmatically constructed (dependence on language and historical and cultural facts).
-> compatible with the assumption that we can discover independent facts.

Thesis 2: Arguments for a strong pragmatic construction of reality fail.

Argument 1: Paradigmatic examples of the attempted description of the world exhibit a pattern of strong pragmatic construction.

Argument 2:  The distinction between real and unreal itself is strongly pragmatically constructed.

*if and only if


Haslanger, Sally: “Ontology and Social Construction”. In: Resisting Reality. New York, 2012, 84-112.

Social Construction

I construe our world.

by loudly projecting my fantasies onto you,
and accepting the role I have
unknowingly told myself to take.

by indulging the view of man’s nature for you,
and contrasting my own feelings with the presumed opposite
that has been passed on to me.

We struggle with
and suffer from
strongly created illusions in a weakly constructed reality.


This poem is inspired by Sally Haslanger’s Essay “Ontology and Social Construction”. She differentiates between different forms of social construction and – among others – explains them with respect to gender.



Haslanger, Sally:”Ontology and Social Construction”. In: Resisting Reality. New York, 2012, 84-112.






A New Conception of Meaning

This text is a (very short) summary of my seminar paper on the understanding of the term “meaning” in the context of the debate about meaning in (human) lives. I’ll discuss some difficulties and further problems with my teacher next week and possibly update my position after that. I’d be curious about your ideas when it comes to the meaning of “meaning”.



There are two sub-types of meaning:

a) psychological meaning: We ascribe (subjective) meaning to actions, if we are able to integrate them into our network of beliefs and if they are coherent with the (desired) perception of ourself. This can happen consciously or subconsciously. In that sense humans create meaning (among others supported by Baumeister et. al. and A. Markus).

b) social meaning: Our actions are (objectively) meaningful, if they create, support, or protect projects of (commonly shared / acknowledged) value (among others supported by S. Wolf).

Both types are important in different ways as they affect the individuals’ lives in different ways and because they are useful tools in different sciences (psychology / sociology).



There is a great variety  in perspectives and “answers” when it comes to the discussion of the possibility and existence of meaning in an individual’s life. Those range from theories about god-given meaning (supernaturalistic), deity-independent intrinsic meaning, different relativistic positions, to completely subjectivist accounts (naturalistic) (Metz, Stanford).

It is obvious that those conceptions lead to tremendous theoretic and content relative differences, which increase the danger of misunderstanding when it comes to a discourse about this subject. There is a huge amount of (mostly non-academic) essays proclaiming that the absence of a god would necessarily lead to a meaningless or absurd life on the one hand. There is an equally big amount of writers discussing possibilities of increasing the meaning of ones own life without assuming the necessity of such a connection either by reference to intrinsic (as opposed to instrumental) value or to the phenomenology (quality of experience) of meaningfulness.

This essay tries to answer the following questions: “What are we talking about, when we theorize about meaning in an individual’s life?” and “How can we distinguish theories about meaning from theories about other values that are usually associated with it (happiness, purpose)?



I aim to take academic and everyday conceptions of meaning in an individual’s life into account to fully understand what we mean, when we talk about “meaning”. The evidence for the use of the term in the first setting is derived from essays that can be categorized as belonging to contemporary (mostly Anglo-Americanan) analytical philosophy. The data used for the understanding of the everyday conception is taken from the psychological study “Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life” by Baumeister et. al. (it is obvious that the amount of information that has been analyzed and evaluated is too small to grant a secure basis to form a commonly used conception. Further (dis-)confirmation would be needed for a sensible decision).


On the Relation Between Happiness and Meaning:

There are two apparently contradictory notions when it comes to the relation of happiness (in a hedonic sense / understood as a pleasurable mental state) and meaning:

a) Happiness and Meaning can be conceptually separable

b) Meaning consists in the phenomenology of happiness / fulfillment

The first notion is based on Baumeister et.al.’s study. Although there is a general positive relation between happiness and meaning, there is no direct connection between the two. Instead, the correlation results from a shared factor: engagement in social relations. However, participants considered their actions as more meaningful (with no increase in happiness) when they were in the position of giving or helping, while receiving goods was associated with increased happiness (but not with meaning). They describe the meaningful but unhappy life in the following way:

“Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.”(Baumeister et. al., 515)

The second notion stems from the most discussed essay in the field (Metz, 19): Richard Taylor’ s “The Meaning of Life”. He uses an additive thought experiment – the myth of Sisyphus – to discover necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of meaning in an individuals life.

The Gods punished Sisyphus by making him roll a huge rock up a mountain for eternity. As soon as he reaches the top, the rock rolls down and he has to move it up again. Taylor discusses two possibilities to bring meaning into this life: One could add a lasting result to the task (he could build a temple on the top of the mountain) or one could change Sisyphus’s attitude towards the task. He decides that the latter option makes more sense for two reasons: It is impossible to create something that lasts forever and, even if it was possible to do so, the completion of the task would leave Sisyphus in a state of utter boredom, which is claimed to be incompatible with meaning. Thus, he concludes that the only way to make such a life meaningful lies in the change of attitude. He imagines that the Gods show mercy by doing just that and therewith help Sisyphus live a fulfilled and, therewith, meaningful life.


The conceptual separation of psychological and social meaning:

As we can see there are two similarly plausible and supported perspective when it comes to the relation of meaning and happiness in the described sense. Taylor’s view seems attractive when looking at the vast variety of activities that people perceive as meaningful and there is a huge trend in the everyday perception of this value – “Take your life into your own hands”, “Make your life meaningful”, “How to create (not find) meaning in your life” (derived from google search on “meaning (of life)”).

On the other hand, there is no necessary connection between happiness and meaning and a subjectivist position (such as Taylor’s) leads to severe consequences. Smuts points out that subjectivist positions makes it impossible to claim that any individual’s life is more meaningful than another. He amusingly demonstrates that with the thought experiment about the fulfilled excrement-eater whose life would have to be considered just as, or even more, meaningful as the life of a doctor who does not feel as fulfilled and happy (Smuts, 343f).

We can plausibly defend a conceptual differentiation along the lines of the distinction of a more private, subjective (=psychological) and an apparently more objective (social) understanding of meaning. Both of them gain importance in two ways:

a) they offer rather precise conceptual tools for psychological / sociological research

b) psychological meaning is of great importance for a human’s well-being (Tay et.al., 364). Social meaning is important, because it arises as a result of rationally shared values.



I’d be very happy to clarify and / or discuss some of the points I basically only named briefly. I’m also interested in your position: What would you answer if someone asked you for a concept of “meaning” in the context of “meaning” in life?



Baumeister, Roy F., Vohs, Kathleen D., Aaker, Jennifer L. und Garbinsky, Emily N.:
Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. In: The Journal
of Positive Psychology, 2013, Vol. 8, No. 6, 505–516, doi:10.1080/17439760.2013.830764.

Markus, Arjan: Assesing Views of Life: A Subjective Affair?. In: Religious Studies, 39
(2013), 125-43.

Metz, Thaddeus: The Concept of Meaning. In: Meaning in Life, 2013, 17-36,

Metz, Thaddeus, “The Meaning of Life”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.), URL =

Smuts, Aaron: The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life. In: The Southern
Journey of Philosophy. Vol. 51, No. 4 (2013), 536-52.

Taylor, Richard: The Meaning of Life. In: Good and Evil, N.Y., Prometheus Books.
2000. 31934, 19-28.

Tay, Louis und Diener, Ed: Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World. In:
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, 101:2, 354-365.

Creative Obligation

I must create.
Raise myself into the depths of hearts,
but I am so tired.
My legs can’t jump
and my thoughts won’t carry me further.

I can only move slowly in my sleep,
but time falls down ever so steadily.
The sand grains become mountains
and my dreams won’t carry me further.

I am so tired,
but I need to quicken my pace
for I can only be creative until I’m surrounded by my desert.


This poem is inspired by the feeling of being driven by the kind of anxiousness I get when I think about the  multitude of (demanding) goals I still want to reach in my life.

It also reminds me of this hilarious web comic from Existential Comics:



Robert Sapolsky on the Evolution of Behavior

A great way to learn about animal (including human) cognition is to develop a greater understanding of their behaviors from the point of view of different sciences. As I wish to work in an interdisciplinary environment, I’m required to be aware of the different perspectives those fields offer. Stumbling across Robert Sapolsky’s lecture about Behavioral Biology, I felt inclined to take some notes for my future work and decided to share those notes with you.

You can watch the whole lecture here:


On Darwin’s Theory of Evolution


The Logic of the Darwinian Evolution works with four premises:

1. There are traits that are inheritable
2. There is variability in those traits
3. Some versions of those traits are more adaptive than others
4. There is a possibility of mutation

With this in mind, it is important to state that it’s all about reproduction and not about the survival of the individual. The individual’s “goal” or “desire” is to maximize the number of the copies of  its own genes in the next generation. However, speaking in such a way is just a heuristic. There is no intent or plan involved.


How can those principles be applied to behavior?

There are different ways to ensure that the own genes are passed on. Sapolsky explains three possibilities:

  1. Individual selection
  2. Kin selection
  3. Reciprocal altruism

The most direct way to pass on the own genes is quite obvious. The individual itself has to reproduce. The likelihood of being successful in that regard is influenced by the mechanics of natural and sexual selection.

Kin selection comes into play, because we share a certain amount of genes with our relatives. The closer the family relation between the individuals the more genes they share, so there is a mathematic to how this works. J.B.S. Haldane is said to have joked that he would willingly die for two brothers or eight cousins.

Reciprocal altruism describes non-competitive and cooperative behavior towards other non-related individuals and, unsurprisingly, animals engage in it, because it is beneficial to do so. As it is a fairly complex behavior, it requires the individual to have certain properties and abilities: They have to be smart (remember and recognize other individuals and their actions, detect cheating behavior, …), social, and long-lived.



How can an individual optimize its success rate: A short introduction to Game Theory


The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the (forgiving) “Tit for Tat”-strategy:

How is the individual supposed to act to maximize the number of the copies of  its own genes in the next generation? When is it supposed to cheat? When would it be more helpful to cooperate? The Prisoner’s Dilemma (formalized by A. W. Tucker) is one of the more popular examples of game theory and is helpful to illustrate which strategy an individual should adopt to gain the best possible outcome. In the dilemma, the participants are faced with the following outcomes:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison

Looking at this, it is evident that it would be best for A to betray B, while B remains silent. Option 3 would be the second best bet followed by 1 and the inversion of 2. How can we optimize our strategy in this dilemmic play?

In the 1970s, Robert Axelrod programmed the dilemma with different players and strategies and let them have a “tournament”. The outcome was that the “Tit for Tat”-strategy was the most successful and drove the other strategies into extinction. Applying that strategy, the individual starts out cooperatively. After that, s/he copies the other player’s decision (if s/he cheats, I will cheat; if s/he cooperates, I will cooperate).

This strategy is successful for the following reasons:

1. It is nice (starting point)
2. It retaliates if the other player does something negative
3. It is forgiving
4. It’s clear cut in its rules (not probabilistic)

The “Tit for Tat”-approach has a weakness, though. It is vulnerable to signal error. If individual A acts cooperatively, but the cheating signal is passed on, individual B will cheat in response which would lead into a spiral of competitive behavior.

To avoid this problem, the “Forgiving Tit for Tat”-strategy was introduced. It generally works the same way, but if the forgiving individual notices that the behavior has spiraled down to a succession of competitive behaviors, it switches back and decides to act in a cooperative way. This solves the first problem, but leads to a different one: The “Forgiving Tit for Tat”-strategy can easily be exploited.

As a result, scientists found that it is best to start off with the regular “Tit for Tat”-approach and switch to the forgiving version if, and only if, the other person has gone long enough without cheating to earn one’s trust.


How does this translate to animal behavior?

Pretty well, in some cases. Among others, Sapolsky references studies on female vampire bats that share their nests and feed all of the young according to the principle of reciprocal altruism. If one female cheats (or if it seems like it to the others), the other mothers will stop feeding this female’s young.

However, the more research was done and the closer the researchers looked, the more exceptions were found. It can plausibly be said that this is a result of the complexity that comes with real life situations. The individuals are not only engaged in one “game” with one other individual. They are interacting in a multitude of different situations with many individuals and often within a preexisting power structure. Those situations can not (only) be seen as singular events. Instead, one has to recognize that they are intertwined and the actions, reactions, and outcomes influence one another.







A Discussion About Epistemic Authority

I’ve been browsing some blogs using the tag “epistemology” for the first time yesterday and immediately found an entry that struck me as interesting and well written. In his post “Trust the Experts? Maybe Not”, Ryan Cook discusses why “we have good reason to doubt that an appeal to relevant authority is always a good bet”.

I felt inclined to make some minor remarks and ended up writing this huge comment, which is substantial enough to make for an own blog post. It can be read on its own, but if you’d like to read the whole discussion you can do so here.


The topic of epistemic authority is an interesting, relevant, and also difficult one. If I understand you correctly, you are imagining the situation of an individual that has just started to learn about a certain scientific topic. Because of this, I assume that the person only has a very basic stock of information and is not yet fully trained in the method of the relevant science either (if one presupposes a more advanced student the situation changes, of course).

You mention one general problem when it comes to making use of another person’s premises. We have to assume quite a lot of things:

a) honesty on their part
b) correctness of reasoning and
c) use of adequate methods and technology

I wish to add two more issues:

d) epistemic security – and, therewith, I describe my knowledge of the track record (the beliefs that are (implicitly) presupposed) and the justification relations that have been used by that person.
e) existing power structures and biases (I realize that you included that point in your text already. I just want to separate it from the second one, because I think it is of greater importance).

I assume that only the fourth (and the last) aspect(s) are of importance in the situation described above and I’ll try to show you why I think that this is the case.

Discussion of b): The expert’s reasoning may be faulty.
The first thing I want to assume is that an authority in a certain scientific field usually makes his argument transparent to the reader, which means that we can analyze it and decide for ourselves. I understand that some of the commonly used premises might be problematic, but considering the situation of the new student, I would still assume that the expert is in a distinctively better position to evaluate the existing premises and theses. This is the case, because the person is simply much more informed and can access a greater amount of data to make their decision.
Additionally, although it is certainly not impossible for anyone to be wrong, the papers that an expert has written are peer reviewed and discussed by his critics. The person would not have the status of an expert for a very long time, if their reasoning had a tendency to be faulty.
On the other hand, there is a student, who is still in training and has not fully developed his argumentative skills. He has a smaller stack of known argumentative structures and common fallacies and is therewith much more likely to make mistakes. Additionally, all problems that you describe for the expert in this section can also be applied to the student.

An analogous argument can be made for problem c).

Problem a): Honesty
My assumption is that dishonesty usually does not occur without any reason (which is mainly an empirical question, but depends on ones conception of a “lie”). Unless there is some benefit for the scientist or some underlying issues of power (point e)), it is unlikely that the expert is lying. Therewith, the problem should be attributed to the last problem mentioned above.
Although people do lie, it is not reasonable to assume that they do so most of the time, because it would render any scientific discourse useless and leave us with the possibility of absolute epistemic egoism, only (this position is problematic, because it only enables us to gain a very limited amount of knowledge about the world).

Problem d): Epistemic security
This reason can even be used to argue for epistemic egoism. Everything else equal, we will always have a better track record of our own beliefs and justification relations, because we can try to access them introspectively. We also have the possibility to try and be sensitive to our own biases and include this self-knowledge in the evaluation of our argument (although this is not successful in many cases).
On the other hand, we can only use the information that another person offers us when we rely on their assumptions. There is also always the difficulty of miscommunication.

You already gave reasons for e) in your post.

Most of my thoughts about this are evidently based on the study of philosophy, because I’m most knowledgeable in that field. There may be differences when focusing on other sciences.


A last note: Although I was arguing for the trust in an expert that I tried to describe as a reasonable epistemic authority, I do not in the least want to encourage people to not read and think critically! Please do so and please keep doing so when you advance in your studies. If you study a lot, there will be the day where you come to be one of the experts and contribute to your field (and maybe even significantly change it).
I hope to see that day soon as well😛.