Rational Inference: The Lowest Bounds

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (3):1-28 (2017)
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A surge of empirical research demonstrating flexible cognition in animals and young infants has raised interest in the possibility of rational decision-making in the absence of language. A venerable position, which I here call “Classical Inferentialism”, holds that nonlinguistic agents are incapable of rational inferences. Against this position, I defend a model of nonlinguistic inferences that shows how they could be practically rational. This model vindicates the Lockean idea that we can intuitively grasp rational connections between thoughts by developing the Davidsonian idea that practical inferences are at bottom categorization judgments. From this perspective, we can see how similarity-based categorization processes widely studied in human and animal psychology might count as practically rational. The solution involves a novel hybrid of internalism and externalism: intuitive inferences are psychologically rational (in the explanatory sense) given the intensional sensitivity of the similarity assessment to the internal structure of the agent's reasons for acting, but epistemically rational (in the justificatory sense) given an ecological fit between the features matched by that assessment and the structure of the agent's environment. The essay concludes by exploring empirical results that show how nonlinguistic agents can be sensitive to these similarity assessments in a way that grants them control over their opaque judgments.



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Cameron Buckner
University of Houston

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