Is Consistency Overrated?

Conventional wisdom–where I come from, at least–tells us that we should ferret out inconsistencies in our beliefs and eliminate these inconsistencies.  That’s a big part of what it means to be a reasonable person.  So, to take just one particularly stark example, I should not complacently accept an epistemic situation in which I believe that P and I believe that not-P.  As a matter of consistency, I need to make up my mind.

Not so fast, according to Brandon Fitelson, a professor of Philosophy at Rutgers.  I recently heard Fitelson explain, in an interview, why he believes that self-consciously maintaining inconsistent beliefs is not always evidence of irrationality/unreasonableness.  He made his case by appealing to the Lottery Paradox and the Preface Paradox.  Consider the following two cases (I hope I’m not screwing them up!):

Lottery:  I am playing a lottery in which I know that one million tickets will be sold and that one and only one of these one million tickets will be the winner.  Now suppose I buy all one million tickets.  With respect to each and every one of these tickets {t1, t2, t3….t1,000,000}, I will, insofar as I am reasonable, it seems, form the following beliefs:

B1.  Neither t1, nor t2, nor t3….nor t1,000,000 is the winning ticket.

B2. Either t1, or t2, or t3….or t1,000,000 is the winning ticket.

B1 and B2 look like inconsistent beliefs.  And yet: each seems like a reasonable belief for me to have, and, more importantly, it’s not clear that it’s unreasonable for me to simply acknowledge without feeling the need to eliminate the inconsistency between B1 and B2.

Preface:  I’m ready to publish a long, complex book that I’ve worked on assiduously for years.  I’m a hyper-scrupulous scholar–as those closest to me know well–so I’ve checked the evidence for my claims {C1, C2, ….C100} a dozen times, crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s, etc., etc.  I then write the preface, wherein I acknowledge that the book undoubtedly contains errors despite my vigilance.  I seem to have the following beliefs:

B3.  None of my claims, C1 through C100, is false.

B4.  One of my claims, C1 through C100, is false.

Again, B3 and B4 appear to be inconsistent.  And yet: each seems like a reasonable belief for me to have, and, more importantly, it’s not clear that it’s unreasonable for me to simply acknowledge without feeling the need to eliminate the inconsistency between B3 and B4.

There are three main ways to respond to cases like Lottery and Preface. First, you might claim that the belief pairs only appear inconsistent.  Suitably analyzed or explained, we’ll see that they are not inconsistent.  Second, you might say that well, yes, insofar as we complacently accept belief pairs like the ones mentioned above we are being unreasonable or irrational.  Third–and this is Fitelson’s preference, I think–you might say that the examples show what they appear to show–viz., that holding inconsistent beliefs is not necessarily unreasonable.

So what do you think?

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2 Responses to Is Consistency Overrated?

  1. Nates says:

    Given the problems we seem likely to take on if we say that it can be reasonable to hold inconsistent beliefs–you know, stuff like destroying logic!–could you explain why Fitelson is reluctant to go the route of re-analyzing these statements to remove the consistency?

    For example, I’m tempted to say that the beliefs in the Preface case are just shorthand for:
    B3. For any particular claim, an error is extremely unlikely.
    B4. For the book as a whole, an error is extremely likely.
    These claims are perfectly consistent–at least assuming the book contains many claims!

    Why does Fitelson prefer the alternate explanation?

    • David says:

      Hi Nates,

      It’s best at this point, I think, if Fitelson speaks for himself. Go to the web page for u of c’s ‘elucidations’ podcast and you’ll find Fitelson’s interview under recent episodes (‘paradoxes of consistency’). Let us know what you think!

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