“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.