Function-first approach to doubt
Doubt is a much-maligned state. We are racked by doubts, tormented by doubts, plagued by them, paralysed. Doubts can be troubling, consuming, agonising. But however ill-regarded is doubt, anxiety is more so. We recognise the significance of doubting in certain contexts, and allow ourselves to be guided by our doubts. For example, the criminal standard of proof operative in the U.K., U.S., as well as in most other anglophone countries, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Israel, requires for conviction to be permissible that the defendant’s guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt; to feel a doubt about a defendant’s guilt, so long as it is reasonable, is reason to refrain from convicting. But our folk understanding of anxiety ascribes no value to that state. Anxiety is inherently unpleasant and irrational; it prevents us from being able to perform well when it is most important to us that we do; it is an emotion that, if we could, we’d eliminate from our emotional toolbox. Yet in this thesis, I offer a vindication of doubt – a defence of doubt in terms of what it does for us – on which it ultimately turns out to be a kind of anxiety. The basic idea is that the concept of doubt serves a function for us that we couldn’t do without: it signals when we should begin inquiry. I will argue that the concept doubt is able to serve this function because the state it picks out, the state of doubt, is a kind of anxiety: epistemic anxiety. I develop a picture of epistemic anxiety as an emotional response to epistemic risk: potential disvalue in the epistemic realm. Because doubt is a kind of anxiety, it has the right kind of representational and motivational profile to track epistemic risk in our environments, and motivate us to reduce or avoid that risk. This makes it hugely valuable for us, as knowledge-seeking creatures, given the incompatibility of knowledge with high levels of epistemic risk.