Thresholds for belief

I’m greatly enjoying reading David Christensen’s Putting logic in its place at the moment. Some remarks he makes about threshold accounts of the relationship between binary and graded beliefs seemed particularly suggestive. I want to use them here to suggest a certain picture of the relationship between binary and graded belief. No claim to novelty here, of course, but I’d be interested to hear about worries about this specific formulation (Christensen himself argues against the threshold account).

One worry about threshold accounts is that they’ll make constraints on binary beliefs look very weird. Consider, for example, the lottery paradox. I am certain that someone will win, but for each individual ticket, I’m almost certain that it’s a loser. Suppose that having belief of degree n sufficed for binary belief. Then, by choosing a big enough lottery, we can make it that I believe a generalization (there will be a winner) while believing the negation of each of its premises. So I believe each of a logically inconsistent set.

This sort of situation is very natural from the graded belief perspective: the beliefs in question meet constraints of probabilistic coherence. But there’s a strong natural thought that binary beliefs should be constrained to be logically consistent. And of course, the threshold account doesn’t deliver this.

What Christensen points to is some observations by Kyburg about limited consistency results that can be derived from the threshold account. Minimally, binary beliefs are required to be weakly consistent: for any threshold above zero, one cannot believe a single contradictory proposition. But there are stronger results too. For example, for any threshold above 0.5, one cannot believe a pair of mutually contradictory propositions. One can see why this is if one remembers the following result: that a logically valid argument is such that the improbability of its conclusion cannot be greater than the sum of the improbabilities of its premises. For the case where the conclusion is absurd (i.e. the premises are contradictory) we get the the sum of the improbabilities of the premises must be less than or equal to 1.

In general, then, what we get is the following: if the threshold for binary belief is at least 1-1/n, then one cannot believe each of an inconsistent set of n propositions.

Here’s one thought. Let’s suppose that the threshold for binary belief is context dependent in some way (I mean here to use this broadly, rather than committing to some particularly potentially controversial semantic analysis of belief attributions). The threshold that marks the shift to binary belief can vary depending on aspects of the context. The thought, crudely put, is that there’ll be the following constraint on what thresholds can be set: in a context where n propositions are being entertained, then the threshold for binary belief must be at least 1-1/n.

There is, of course, lots to clarify about this. But notice that now relative to every context, we’ll get logical consistency as a constraint on the pattern of binary belief (assuming that to belief that p is in part to entertain that p).

[As Christensen emphasises, this is not the same thing as getting closure holding in every context. Suppose we consider the three propositions, A, B, and A&B. Consistency means that we cannot accept the first two and accept the negation of the last. And indeed, with the threshold set at 2/3, we get this result. But closure would tell us that every situation in which we believe the first two, we should believe the last. But it’s quite consistent to believe A and B (say, by having credence 2/3 in each) and to fail to believe A&B (say, by having credence 1/3 in this proposition). Probabilistic coherence isn’t going to save the extendability of beliefs by deduction, for any reasonable choice of threshold.

Of course, if we allow a strong notion of disbelief or rejection, such that someone disbelieves that p iff their uncertainty of p is past the threshold (the same threshold as for belief), then we’ll be able to read off from the consistency constraint that in a valid argument, if one believes the premises, one should abandon disbelief in the conclusion. This is not closure, but perhaps it might sweeten the pill of giving up on closure.]

Without logical consistency being a pro tanto normative constraint on believing, I’m sceptical that we’re really dealing with a notion of binary belief at all. Suppose this is accepted. Then we can use the considerations above to argue (1) that if the threshold account of binary belief is right, then thresholds (if not extreme) must be context dependent, since for no choice of threshold less than 1 will consistency be upheld. (2) that there’s a natural constraint on thresholds in terms of the number of propositions obtained.

The minimal conclusion, for this threshold theorist, is that the more propositions they entertain, the harder it will be for them to count as beliefs. Consider the lottery paradox construed this way:


1 loses

2 loses

N loses

So: everyone loses

Present this as the following puzzle: We can believe all the premises, and disbelieve the conclusion, yet the latter is entailed by the former.

We can answer this version of the lottery paradox using the resources described above. In a context where we’re contemplating this many propositions, the threshold for belief is so high that we won’t count as believing the individual props. But we can explain why it seems so compelling: entertain each individually, and we will believe it (and our credences remain fixed throughout).

Of course, there’s other versions of the lottery paradox that we can formulate, e.g. relying on closure, for which we have no answer. Or at least, our answer is just to reject closure as a constraint on rational binary beliefs. But with a contextually variable threshold account, as opposed to a fixed threshold account, we don’t have to retreat any further.

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