Ram Neta writes:
Dandelet’s paper presents a novel puzzle – what she calls “The Puzzle of Self-Gaslighting”. She introduces the puzzle by describing a story in which a 16-year old girl “C” and her friend were on an empty beach when suddently they
“noticed a naked man some ways off, steadily moving in their direction. In that moment [C] believed that the man ‘had stripped nude and was approaching… waving his erect penis,’ with obviously malicious intentions.”
But soon after the incident had passed, C
“began to second-guess this original impression, prompted in some way by the worry that others would not believe her version of events if she were to share it with them.”
Although C’s second-guessing is prompted by the aforementioned worry, C experiences the doubt as a rational response to her inability to rule out various alternative hypotheses:
“C … gives up her original belief about the beach incident as she considers alternative possibilities consistent with the broad outline of her experience. Back on the beach, she believed that the naked man was a sexual predator, and she had compelling reasons for thinking this. But as she reflects on the matter afterwards, she starts to feel that her first impression could, after all, have been mistaken. She decides that there are certain possibilities she needs to rule out if she is to be justified in sticking to it. First, there is the general possibility that her memory of the event “distorts reality.” This happens all the time, so why couldn’t it be true this time? There are also more specific possibilities that C considers—ways reality could have been, that her memory might have distorted. Maybe the man was just trying to skinny-dip. Maybe walking around naked on beaches is just a relaxing activity for him. Maybe he was scratching himself at the moment C saw him, and she happened to see him from an unfortunate angle which, for the very brief duration of the encounter, made it look as if he were waving his erect penis. Maybe he had not even seen her and her friend until they started running away. And so on. [In short,] by taking certain possibilities seriously, C puts herself in a frame of mind in which it seems to her that she should not stick to her original belief after all, and she gives it up.”
Dandelet follows others in using the phrase “self-gaslighting” to refer to C’s self-doubt concerning the accuracy of her own perceptual beliefs concerning the stranger’s behavior. She says, however, that the phrase is less than fully apt, since gaslighting involves deception, and C is not – or at least not obviously – deceiving herself: the fallibility considerations to which she appeals are all true. Is there some other sense, then, in which C’s second-guessing her initial judgment is somehow inappropriate? In addressing this question, Dandelet writes:
“When she gives up her original belief because she realizes that there are various open hypotheses incompatible with it, she is exhibiting a kind of reasoning that in general seems perfectly correct from an epistemic point of view. To make this vivid, consider a variation of C’s case: You are standing on an apparently empty beach when, like C, you see a man some ways off. Fortunately this man is not naked, but wearing a blue and white striped towel around his waist—a towel that looks very much like the one that you left on the sand earlier, further along the beach in the direction from which the man is now approaching. You can even see the distinctive wine stain that you left on the towel last week, or at any rate this is how it seems to you in the moment. Immediately, you are filled with indignation. “That man stole my towel!” you think to yourself. … But later … you start to second-guess yourself. Memory is sometimes unreliable. Mightn’t it have been a different towel, after all? Blue and white stripes is not such an uncommon pattern, and as for the stain, it might have been a trick of the light. Even if it was your towel, couldn’t the man have picked it up before he saw you, in which case he might have thought that someone had forgotten it there a while ago? It would hardly be stealing in that case. As you reflect on these possibilities, you realize that you cannot rule them out, and so you give up your original belief.”
In these circumstances, there seems to be nothing at all inappropriate about your second-guessing yourself. And yet your evidential situation is closely analogous to C’s. Why, then, would it be any less appropriate for C to doubt her judgment in the first case than in the second? This question is what Dandelet calls “the Puzzle of Self-Gaslighting.”
Dandelet’s response to the puzzle has the following form: Although both cases involve the agent forming a belief on the basis of equally good visible evidence, and then coming to doubt her original belief by reflecting on equally likely possibilities of error, the cases differ from each other with respect to the reasons for which the agent reflects on those possibilities of error. In the former case, the agent reflects on possibilities of error because she worries that others won’t believe her version of events, whereas in the latter case, the agent reflects on possibilities of error in an effort to (let’s say) adopt a more generous attitude towards other people. If we suppose – as Dandelet does – that the agent’s original belief in each case is a rational response to her evidence, and that the agent’s subsequent doubt in each case is a rational response to her reflection on error-possibilities, we can then state Dandelet’s response to the puzzle by saying that what varies across the two cases is not the rationality of the agent’s belief, or of the agent’s doubt, but rather her motives for reflecting on the error-possibilities that rationally pressure her to doubt. The motivation for such reflection in the latter case is generosity, but the motivation for it in the former case is an effort to comply with a set of unjust social expectations. The pervasiveness of these expectations is, Dandelet says, a form of coercion, exercised upon C’s own reflective agency, and unfairly constricting her exercises of that agency. More specifically, the value of avoiding others’ skepticism concerning her version of events makes it reasonable, Dandelet says, for C to reflect on reasons to doubt her own version of events, even though it is morally problematic that C is subject to this pressure towards self-doubt.
This kind of coercion is what Dandelet calls “epistemic coercion”. Remember that phrase: it will soon become a standard part of the epistemologist’s toolkit, like “testimonial injustice” or “pragmatic encroachment”.
I hope that what I’ve said so far makes clear what epistemic coercion is, and how appeal to such coercion is supposed to solve the puzzle of self-gaslighting. In the balance of this blog entry, I want to take issue with just one thing in Dandelet’s paper. On her view, epistemic coercion involves an unfair restriction imposed upon how an agent “structures inquiry”. But what does “structuring inquiry” amount to? Although she doesn’t give an explicit answer to this question, Dandelet’s examples all suggest that structuring inquiry is a matter of employing certain rules or policies to guide one in drawing conclusions from one’s body of evidence. Two people structure inquiry differently if, for instance, despite having all the same relevant background knowledge, one of them needs to see 100,000 green emeralds before concluding that all emeralds are green while the other needs to see 110,000 green emeralds before drawing that same conclusion. For one of these emerald-researching agents to be subject to epistemic coercion would be for them to be subject to unfair pressure to adopt one rather than another of these inductive rules or policies – e.g., for them to be subject to unfair pressure to adopt an inductive rule that made, say, the affirmation of some conclusions require an especially large amount of evidence, while also making the affirmation of other conclusions require very little evidence, in comparison.
Maybe some cases of epistemic coercion operate in this way. But not all cases operate in this way – in particular, as it’s described, Dandelet’s original case involving C doesn’t operate in this way. C’s self-doubt needn’t involve the thought that her original view of events was based on insufficient evidence, e.g.., not getting a good enough look at what the stranger was doing. What C doubts is not the degree to which her body of evidence supports her original view of events; it’s rather that she doubts her original view of what evidence she possesses. But the question of what evidence one possesses is a question about the points from which one can begin one’s inquiry. It’s not – at least, not so far as I can see – a question of how to structure the inquisitive activity that begins from those points.
Why does this matter? As Dandelet sees it, the puzzle of self-gaslighting is the question of what could be wrong with C’s self-doubt, given that there’s nothing irrational about it. But I wonder if we should accept the presupposition of the puzzle, viz., that there’s nothing irrational about C’s self-doubt. People sometimes have good reasons to doubt their own view of what evidence they have – e.g., poor visual acuity, bad lighting, lack of attention – but these are not C’s reasons. It’s not clear to me just how the story of C could be plausibly elaborated so that C ends up having good reasons to doubt her own view of what evidence she has. But if C doubts her own view of what evidence she has, and does so without having any good reason to do so, then her doubt goes against her evidence, and for no good reason: how could this be rational?