The Evidence of Narrative

Been reading Miriam Shleifer McCormick's book on epistemic responsibility the past few days, and really enjoying it. One of her main contentions is: (PB) it is possible, and rational, to form a belief for purely practical, non-evidential reasons in certain circumstances.

PB echoes William James's classic claim (against Clifford and the evidentialists) that "Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds." 

According to McCormick, there are really just three conditions that define circumstances in which the formation of practical beliefs are acceptable: (a) the evidence on the matter is silent or neutral, (b) the beliefs in question would contribute to the agent's sense of meaning in her life, and (c) the formation of the belief does not rely on practices that undermine truth. McCormick thinks these conditions define acceptable circumstances in which to form practical beliefs because:

  1. The norms of belief are ultimately grounded in human flourishing (and connected with truth insofar as true beliefs are generally what our proper functioning belief-forming mechanisms will produce)
  2. Meaning-making practical beliefs can contribute to human flourishing without undermining the truth
  3. Therefore, if formed in the right circumstances, we have no normative basis on which to repudiate practical beliefs

Something like that.

I agree with much of what McCormick is up to in her project. However, I want to consider a possibility that she quickly (too quickly in my mind) passes over. That is: that meaning-making beliefs are truth-conducive in a way that can go beyond the consideration of evidence available at a particular time. Consider the following case:

The Night Of: Nasir Khan has been accused of murder, and the evidence is damning. He was captured on film with the victim hours before her death, he admitted to taking drugs with her at her house just before the murder, he was found with a bloody knife (the victim was stabbed) just blocks away from the crime scene. And yet, he insists that he's innocent. After deliberating for a few days, the jury cannot come to a consensus and is finally dismissed. When asked why they failed to convict, one of the jurors who held out on the possibility of Khan's innocence puts it this way: "All the evidence was there, but something didn't seem right. Why would a kid with so much potential, and no real motivation to kill that young lady, just go berserk and randomly start stabbing her? It didn't make sense to me. He had to be framed or something."

Here, we have what I would think of as a "meaning-making" belief, but not one that is potentially justified in terms of its role in the flourishing of an individual or community. The belief seems to serve as a framework for interpreting the available evidence, rather than as the sum of all the individual bits of evidence. And this is where I think the real challenge for evidentialism lies.

When it comes to belief formation, we have at least two separable categories to consider. We have the data -- what's often called the evidence -- and the framework that makes that data intelligible (both as data, and as data potentially supporting one or another particular conclusion). Now, a lot of folks would like to see the evidential relation as going just one way -- [data --> state of affairs] -- but this ignores the crucial fact that the plausibility of the state of affairs in question, the conclusion to one's deliberation, can itself influence what appears to a subject to be data in the first place. That is to say: evidentialism within a paradigm or framework may well be true, but the foundations of that paradigm or framework are themselves in need of supporting reasons that we cannot conceive of as evidence -- at least so long as our conception of evidence depends on the paradigm or framework in question.

So what could possibly fill the gap here?

This is where narrative comes in. Narratives are complex, highly structured descriptions of events that are typically unified in terms of the exercise of individual or collective agency. They make sense of -- or render intelligible -- otherwise disparate phenomena, unifying them into a single whole with reference to a core framework that is able to explain the various constituent parts.

So narratives are not evidentially neutral, or simple "meaning-making" mechanisms, that can contribute to our overall wellbeing but are otherwise unrelated to the truth. It's not that we are simply story-telling creatures by accident, and that our flourishing depends on narratives in the same way that it depends on having spices available capable of exciting our tastebuds in various ways. Rather: our identity as believers depends crucially on our ability to "make-sense" of the world around us, to organize the disparate elements of experience into data, and to sort that data into evidence, that all of this is possible only by drawing on our capacity to narrate our (individual and collective) life.

Hopefully, it'll become clear where this general sort of view will (and where it will not) dovetail with McCormick's. On the one hand, I agree with her central claim, (PB), but this is not because I see practical reasons for belief as separable from (but normatively unified with) evidential reasons. It's because I see evidential reasons as ultimately dependent on practical reasons. The main cost of my amendment is that it radicalizes and otherwise merely odd view. But the benefit of my account is enormous: it allows the rationally permissible practical beliefs to be normatively unified with evidential beliefs at a deeper level, one that does not require us to give up their truth-conducivity, at least when considered more globally. 

Good Guys // Bad Guys

When dealing with human beings it's important to remember that absolutes, terms like "good" and "bad," or "helpful" and "unhelpful," "collaborative" and "uncooperative" are unlikely to have unambiguous application. The truth lies in a gray space. None of us our perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't assume the best of each other -- at least so long as this helps us do right by the city we live in, and by the members of our community.... 

When dealing with human beings it's important to remember that absolutes, terms like "good" and "bad," or "helpful" and "unhelpful," "collaborative" and "uncooperative" are unlikely to have unambiguous application. The truth lies in a gray space. None of us our perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't assume the best of each other -- at least so long as this helps us do right by the city we live in, and by the members of our community.... 

Over the past month or so, I've been in touch with several Common Council members, the Chief of the SBPD, and the mayor and his office. I've also been working closely with some leaders in our community who have asked, over and over, for the city to take action on issues that are entrenched in our city, and that constrain or even wholly oppress the constitutional rights of large portions of residents in our city. These requests have been reasonable, actionable, and concrete. For instance, a few weeks back, some of us sent an email to the mayor's office, common council members, and the clerk's office. We asked that $50,000 in the SBPD budget that was already being set aside for "ongoing education" and training (I was told that this would include things like "implicit bias training") be spent to bring in a group from Chicago who does just this sort of thing, in the context of broader needs assessments. 

We were told that residents weren't allowed to decide where (specifically) money in the city's budget got spent. Confusing, since that's literally our money...

Still, we backed off. Asked if we could set up a residents advisory committee or board who would make a recommendation on how that money should be spent, or who could comment on the particular ways in which that money was spent. 

This is nothing new. In fact, the formation of such an oversight committee was part of a resolution passed in the Common Council years ago.

But the administration still didn't like this idea. They refused, and refused to meet to discuss other options -- other ways of building resident-based accountability mechanisms into the way that SBPD spends taxpayer money.  

Essentially they ghosted us. 

So we proposed a new meeting. A dialogue focused on big picture goals. A place where we could get all the relevant parties in the same room (the mayor's office, CC, SBPD, concerned residents) simply to dialogue about the problems of city is facing. The proposal was made in the spirit of the mayor's own pronouncement: "I knew this was going to be tough, but that's why the community needed it. I'm not naïve — I know one conversation isn't going to solve everything, but at least we've started the conversation."

Perhaps naively, we assumed that this conversation was one the mayor was interested in continuing. 


When we sent the proposal, we gave two weeks notice, and opened up a poll that listed times between something like 7am and 8pm for an entire week. We said that we'd be willing to meet wherever it made most sense for us all to get together.


But the administration was worried. They demanded "proof" that all parties to the dialogue were "acting in good faith" -- they said that they believed that some (including yours truly) had it out for the administration, and just wanted to embarrass the mayor and his staff. 

The meeting never happened. 

I tell this story, because there are so many reasons why it's problematic.

Some included on the list have been opposed to some of the policies of the administration, some have been vocal and outspoken about issues that they saw as deeply important for our community. But -- so far as I know -- none of those included had made any personal attacks on the mayor or his administration, at least not publicly, not in print. It seems that this administration is unable to distinguish disagreement and criticism from bad-faith attempts to undermine the administration. This is an astonishing (and dangerous) shortcoming of the current administration.

Several times during the email exchanges, the phrase "good guys and bad guys" was used. Good guys and bad guys. "We'll work with good guys," we were told, "but not with the bad guys."  Two thoughts here:

 Firstly: The odd thing is, I never told the mayor that I wouldn't meet with him until he proved to me that he was more interested in South Bend than in his own political career...I mean this honestly. He said in an email that his time is just too scarce to meet with our group. I could have pointed out that an easy fix for this would be to stop taking long weekends to Washington D. C. To fundraise for the establishment. I could have asked him to justify those trips (and that time out of South Bend) in terms of concern for our city.  

But I didn't. 

Because I don't need people to prove themselves to me before I sit down to listen to them. I don't need a guarantee of intentions and good faith before I sit down to listen to what they have to say. 

I guess you could say I just give them the "benefit of the doubt."

Secondly: As someone who was officially labeled a "bad guy," let me see if I can shed a bit of light on why someone might be awarded this label. ..

We live in a representative democracy. That means something to me. It means that I get to vote for people who I believe will represent me and my interests, as well as those of the community, in their policy and legislation making, executive decision-making. It also means that when I feel like those elected to represent me are failing at this job in any way, I -- along with all the members of my community -- am entitled to hold them accountable. 

Now, ideally, elected officials will be sensitive to these considerations. They'll make it easy for residents to provide feedback, they'll responsibly gather data and information from those feedback mechanisms, and they will justify their action, at least partly, in terms of that feedback. 

In short: they answer to us. They work for us.

But the mayor doesn't seem to appreciate this model. For whatever reason (maybe because he spent too much time in the UK? A joke...), he seems to think that his election (and then re-election) was tantamount to a coronation. He seems to think that he is the king, and that we are (and ought to be) his loyal subjects. 

That's not the world we live in. 

And to be perfectly honest, being treated like it is the world we live in is a bit crazy making. 

 *          *          *           *

During the Elbel campaign, we sought simple meetings with elected officials and their representatives. The Common Council was (for the most part) open to such meetings. They were professional and responsive. The parks board and the parks department were a bit more difficult to get a hold of, but that was -- in large part -- because they are unelected; because they answer to the mayor. 

The mayor was impossible to get a hold of.  

I reached out to him first thing when we started the campaign and received no response. I reached out mid-campaign. No response. After gross procedural irregularities were made public (e.g. our group's presentation had been scrubbed from the minutes of the park's board meeting) -- the mayor finally answered an email and agreed to meet the very next day.

At this meeting, he made it clear that he had no intention of keeping Elbel. No intention of running it as a municipal golf course. No intention of looking into options like turning it into a nature preserve. He just didn't care. 

So we left that meeting and put some more pressure on. Eventually, the Council and the Park's Board forced him to withdraw (unhappily). Nowadays, Elbel sits in a precarious position, run by the city, but under constant threat and with no safe-guards in place. 

I mention this to illustrate something. The mayor and his administration has a pattern of behavior. They ignore residents who disagree (in any way) with their chosen course of action. They try and distract them, divide them, create increasingly obscure and ineffective processes so that those who want to be a part of the process are cut out entirely. 

 *          *           *          *

It's easy to see why this behavior might frustrate someone. When a resident -- exhausted and exasperated -- realizes that the structures are set up against her, when she realizes that the mayor doesn't care to represent her interests or the interests of her community, and decides not to show up for bullshit committee meetings that changed locations at the last second and that will be moderated through three channels of ineffective and unelected officials, or worse: when she decides to speak out against the unfair way in which local political power is being wielded against her...

She turns into a "bad guy."

Someone with whom the mayor is unwilling to engage. 

Someone with "behavior problems" who needs to "prove to the administration" that she is worthy of engaging with them directly. 

That's oppressive. 

It's enough to make someone want to disengage. To give up on the whole system. Amazingly, though, not everyone has.


There are those who fight passionately for justice in our city. 

There are those who resist the powers that be; who refuse to be kept down.

There are those in South Bend who care enough to fight against the pattern of abuses and injustices that the mayor and other city officials have allowed to stand (or who actively ensure that they do). 


Many of these folks are several steps beyond "polite." They aren't interested in "proving themselves" to the mayor, if that means proving that they won't challenge or disagree with his approach to the things in the city they have much greater stake in than does he. Like the mayor (and every other human on planet earth) these folks aren't perfect. They make mistakes, they make rash judgments and sometimes lash out in anger or pain on Facebook (I'm looking at me here...) -- but being a flawed human person doesn't mean you lose your right to engage. It doesn't mean that it's okay for the administration to capitalize on those flaws to discredit, undercut, and dismiss people like us.

So I guess these are the kinds of folks the administration wants to label "bad guys." I guess I'm among them.

You know what? I couldn't care less what the mayor wants to call us.

I couldn't, at this point, care any less about what the mayor wants... 

The Story of (Epistemic) Justice in South Bend

An interesting juxtaposition on the front page of today's South Bend Tribune...

Interesting for a number of reasons. Here's one.

The title of the article above the fold -- "Protests disrupt panel discussion" -- suggests the following narrative: City Admin and SBPD set up a panel as a gesture of good will, activists unwilling to engage civilly. The title of the article below the fold -- "Court: Video, police conflict" -- tells us virtually nothing about that story. It's an almost non-narrative story. The online version of the story better captures the narrative in its title:

To be totally fair to the author of both articles, this phrase is included as a pull out in the print version -- and I get it, space is limited, etc. I'm critiquing subtle and systemic phenomena, not Christian Sheckler's reporting (which I think is very good). 

To be totally fair to the author of both articles, this phrase is included as a pull out in the print version -- and I get it, space is limited, etc. I'm critiquing subtle and systemic phenomena, not Christian Sheckler's reporting (which I think is very good). 

So it's not just that a court somewhere has ruled that some video "conflicts with" SBPD (in some abstract way). An appeals court has ruled that the video "indisputably contradicts" SBPD testimony.

These are important details!

Return, once more, to the top story: protestors "disrupt" dialogue -- protestors behave badly. Panel is held back by protestors.

That's not what I saw.

I saw, first of all, a group of protestors who disputed the very terms of the "dialogue" -- who rightly asked why -- in addition to the phenomenal panelists who participated -- some voices were conspicuously left out. Who wanted to know why the concerns and requests that they have made clear are collected on index cards rather than aired publicly. Why they can't get a straight answer to the simple question: Why is an officer with a pattern of abusive behavior still in a position of authority?

I also saw some exasperated cops. And fair enough.

For a great overview of some of the extreme challenges of modern policing, see  this excellent documentary from Frontline .  

For a great overview of some of the extreme challenges of modern policing, see this excellent documentary from Frontline.  

No one can dispute that being police in America is a thankless, difficult, essential job. No one can dispute that police are being asked to solve problems way beyond the scope of their office. No one can dispute that there are police in the SBPD who are good, honest, hard-working and motivated individuals. Who believe in justice, and who put the common good before their personal well-being. 

But it's also hard to miss today's headline. Video indisputably contradicts SBPD testimony. And think of the parallels between this case and the case that activists are asking the City and SBPD to adequately address: 

  • SBPD acts unlawfully  
  • Members of the SBPD dept refuse to take responsibility for their actions
  • The City does nothing 
  • A jury finds that this unlawful conduct has no meaningful consequences for SBPD

Now, the only difference between the DF case and the RL case (that I can see) is that the latter has gone through an appeals process. It's been resolved by a higher court. Perhaps we'll see the same in the DF case -- perhaps a judge will take some sort of additional action on behalf of the DF family.  

Regardless. It's not at all difficult to imagine that some in the South Bend community don't find the idea of a one-time panel (without any panelists chosen by organizers or activists)  -- an hour long, one-time panel -- to be a fair venue to begin this dialogue.

It's like a manager taking an employee with a legitimate complaint against a colleague, putting her in a room with that colleague and a couple others, demanding that she express her grievances then and there (on paper, too, so that the manager can vet the content), and then expressing confusion when that employee protests. This isn't a fair. You can't expect me to participate in a process like this completely and in good faith. You need to think more carefully about the venue, the context. You need to be more intentional.

Activists still have a list of unanswered requests out to the Mayor and the Chief of the SBPD. We can still come together to make the Story Police / Community Relations here in South Bend a story of justice, peace, and trust, but it's going to require more from all parties.

  • more discipline
  • more empathy
  • more just modes of engagement
  • more action

And less cheap talk. Fewer promises and sound bites. 

If the Mayor or SBPD can't do all of these things, we need to know what they  can  do -- that's how dialogues work. "I can't do that, but I could do this." "This is good, but can you also do one other thing..."

If the Mayor or SBPD can't do all of these things, we need to know what they can do -- that's how dialogues work. "I can't do that, but I could do this." "This is good, but can you also do one other thing..."


News coverage of last night's panel:


Knowing (How) "to Live" [Well]: or, Building Stories

  • Warning: this post is academic to a stupid degree. I'll be using this blog -- from time to time -- to work out ideas-in-progress that I have for my dissertation. (More than anything, I just need a platform with a tagging feature to organize random thoughts...) That said: you're welcome to read, comment, and ask questions. I'll be trying to make this same point pretty much every day for the next two years...

Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson argue that knowledge-how is a form of propositional knowledge: to know how to Φ is just to know (of some way W) that W is a way to Φ under the practical mode of presentation. If you understand what that means (even after reading everything they've ever written on the subject), congratulations. You've reached enlightenment in the area of academic epistemology to a degree I don't even strive after anymore...

Let's suppose for a moment that this position is false (ironically, it's called "intellectualism" -- so I may have to rename the blog...)

Let's suppose (with well over a generation of philosophers) there's a distinctive type of knowledge that agents acquire when they learn how to do something (like ride a bike, run a marathon, write a book, etc). Now suppose that living is a doing of the relevant kind (that is to say: leading a human life is an action). It follows from this that learning to live well (acquiring knowledge-how...to live) is not the sort of thing we can learn propositionally (whatever exactly that means).

There's something about this conclusion that resonates deeply with me (and, I think, others). We do not learn how to live by academic philosophy. We cannot learn how to live simply be assenting to propositions that experts testify to. We need to discover for ourselves in some important way how to live. (Which -- as Korsgaard incessantly points out -- is the same thing as learning how to "live well" since "Φing" and "Φing well" are not separable actions, but the same action described in some evaluative way.)

Okay, so then how do we (or how can we) acquire knowledge how to live (and live well)?

The answer, I think, is deceptively simple. From stories.

Action, in general, requires us to (a) describe our behavior in a particular, temporally ordered way, (b) structured by reasons for so behaving, and (c) unified by our intention for that description of our behavior to be the authoritative interpretation of what we are doing and why. (And I was giving Stanley a hard time earlier for jargony philosophical conditions...)

The capacity to so describe our behavior is identical (in my thinking) to our capacity for what Anscombe calls "practical knowledge." It is a capacity that allows us to authoritatively apply a certain type of description (I call it "actional description") to our behavior. It's what transforms such behavior into action. It's what -- if it is missing -- makes some movement unintentional.

How do stories fit into this mess?

Well, narratives are sustained descriptions of complex actions (or -- if Aristotle is right -- one, extremely complex action). They are unified by the intentions of an author to offer a comprehensive and authoritative description of those actions (or that action). Successful narratives describe or illustrate (rather than report on) the way in which intentions to act interact with the world (sometimes in frustrating ways). They illustrate, thus, actional descriptions (at a very high level of complexity) that have successfully been applied by agents to their behavior. They also illustrate instances in which attempts to bring behavior under actional description fail. (Consider the case of Walter White, a man who professes to be acting in the interest of his family by cooking and selling meth, when -- all along -- his behavior is ultimately explained by more egoist motives, and more self-centered reasons.)

So narrative plays several roles in this picture: (1) acting requires the ability to tell stories to ourselves, (2) making the action of others intelligible (or making our action intelligible to others) requires the ability to locate the agent (ourselves or others) within a narrative (or perhaps set of narratives), and (3) evaluations of actions will require us to ask whether -- and to what extent -- the narrative at issue is coherent, comprehensive, and -- ultimately -- a good one.

So, to recap: learning to live well requires us to acquire knowledge-how to live. Living is an action (or perhaps a complex set of actions, structured in some way). "To live" [well], then, will require us to know (how) to tell "the story of a good life," and to bring our behavior under the actional description of one such story.

The Night Of - Truth in the Adversarial System

The following exchange from HBO's limited series The Night Of (which I can't recommend highly enough) really sticks with me.

"I'm gonna tell you something and it's the most important thing you'll ever hear in your entire life, so don't not hear it: shut it. They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. Now the good news is: we get to hear their story is first, before we have to tell them ours. So we keep our mouth shut, until we know what they're doing."

"You keep saying story -- like I'm making it up. I want to tell you the truth." 

"You really don't. I don't want to be stuck with the truth. Not until I...have to be."

"But you need to know what happened."

"I need...to be flexible."

Ever since reading Jon Krakauer's book detailing (among other things) the trial of a college football player for the drunken rape of a close friend, I've been troubled by the role that truth plays (or perhaps the role it doesn't play) in our justice system. I learned -- from reading that book -- that our justice system is "adversarial," and that the guiding principle behind such a system is the belief that justice is best served when the state attempts to make as strong a case against a defendant as possible, while the defendant's lawyer is supposed to do her best to make the case that she is innocent. While this all sounds fairly intuitive, the above exchange nicely captures what I think would a fairly common reaction to the way that this actually plays out: neither side, in such a case, is particularly committed to the truth -- to what actually happened.

Now, there are many problems with role that the adversarial system assigns truth. One particularly troubling issue is the way in which certain crimes (like rape) are almost impossible to prosecute. Given the standard of proof and the types of evidence that are admissible, only the a small percentage of rapes (with strange features, such as having occurred in the presence of witnesses) end up getting punished. Many equally heinous rapes go un-prosecuted because of contingent features (it happened when the two parties were alone, there are almost always grounds for reasonable doubt regarding the interpretation of uncontested data points). Additionally, many victims choose not to pursue legal action because of the nature of the process itself: being the plaintiff in an adversarial trial is a traumatic experience in itself. Frequently, the character of the victim is subject to as much scrutiny (and seemingly slanderous attacks) as the perpetrator. 

One question, though, that I keep coming back to, is how the epistemic norms that apply to characters in adversarial contexts differ from more ordinary contexts, and whether there are any other, similar contexts in which social (or even non-social) roles or identities have a similar effect on the epistemic norms that apply to an agent. Here's what I mean: John Turturro's character in the clip I posted above expresses the view that he can be a better lawyer (and Naz will be a better defendant) if they -- at least temporarily -- ignore the truth. Given that this role is required (he is, after all, an agent of the court -- with the duty to defend his client to the best of his ability), he is bound by a set of epistemic norms that actually require him to avoid learning what really happened, i.e. to avoid coming into contact with the truth.

Are there other roles (either social roles that we adopt or perhaps more fundamental identities, like being a parent, that are imposed on us externally) that similarly require us to abide by epistemic norms other than "always believe what the evidence rationalizes" or "believe only if you will then believe truly (or only if your belief will constitute knowledge)." 

If so, the ramifications for epistemology (and social epistemology) could be massive.

Now go binge watch all the episodes of The Night Of. It's insanely good television.