Commutativity or Holism? A Dilemma for Conditionalizers

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2009, 60(4): 793–812

Conditionalization and Jeffrey Conditionalization cannot simultaneously satisfy two widely held desiderata on rules for empirical learning. The first desideratum is confirmational holism, which says that the evidential import of an experience is always sensitive to our background assumptions. The second desideratum is commutativity, which says that the order in which one acquires evidence shouldn’t affect what conclusions one draws, provided the same total evidence is gathered in the end. (Jeffrey) Conditionalization cannot satisfy either of these desiderata without violating the other. This is a surprising problem, and I offer a diagnosis of its source. I argue that (Jeffrey) Conditionalization is inherently anti-holistic in a way that is just exacerbated by the requirement of commutativity. The dilemma is thus a superficial manifestation of (Jeffrey) Conditionalization’s fundamentally anti-holistic nature.