The Problem of the Criterion

I keep finding cause to discuss the problem of the criterion, so I figured I’d try my hand at writing up a post explaining it. I don’t have a great track record on writing clear explanations, but I’ll do my best and include lots of links you can follow to make up for any inadequacy on my part.


Before we get to the problem itself, let’s talk about why it matters.

Let’s say you want to know something. Doesn’t really matter what. Maybe you just want to know something seemingly benign, like what is a sandwich?

At first this might seem pretty easy: you know a sandwich when you see it! But just to be sure you ask a bunch of people what they think a sandwich is and if particular things are sandwiches are not.

Uh oh...

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You’ve run headlong into the classic problem of how to carve up reality into categories and assign those categories to words. I’ll skip over this part because it’s been addressed to death already.

So now you’ve come out the other side accepting that “sandwich”, like almost all categories, has nebulous boundaries, and that there is no true sandwich of which you can speak.

Fine, but being not one easily deterred, you come up with a very precise, that is a mathematically and physically precise, definition of a sandwich-like object you call an FPS, a Finely Precise Sandwich. Now you want to know whether or not something is an FPS.

You check the conditions and it all seems good. You have an FPS. But wait! How do you know each condition is true? Maybe one of your conditions is that the FPS is exactly 3 inches tall. How do you know that it’s really 3 inches tall?

Oh, you used a ruler? How do you know the ruler is accurately measuring 3 inches? And furthermore, how do you know your eyes and brain can be trusted to read the ruler correctly to assess the height of the would-be FPS? For that matter, how do you even know what an inch is, and why was 3 inches the true height of an FPS anyway?

Heck, what does it even mean to “know” that something is “true”?

If you keep reducing like this, you’ll eventually hit bottom and run into this question: how do you know that something is true? Now you’ve encountered the problem of the criterion!

The Problem

How do you know something is true? To know if something is true, you have some method, a criterion, by which you assess its veracity. But how do you know this criterion is itself true? Oh, you have a method, i.e. a criterion, by which you assess its veracity.

Oops! Infinite recursion detected!

The problem of the criterion is commonly attested to originate with the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho. Since then interest in it has come in and out of favor. Roderick Chisholm, the modern philosopher who rejuvenated interest in the problem, often phrases it as a pair of questions:

  • What do we know? What is the extent of our knowledge?

  • How are we to decide whether we know? What are the criteria of knowledge?

This creates a kind of epistemic circularity where we go round in circles trying to justify our knowledge with our knowledge yet are never able to grab hold of something that itself need not be justified by something already known. If you’re familiar with the symbol grounding problem, it’s essentially the same problem, generalized (cf. SEP on metaphysical grounding).

To that point, the problem of the criterion is really more a category of related epistemological problems that take slightly different forms depending on how they manifest the core problem of grounding justification knowledge. Some other problems that are just the problem of the criterion in disguise:

Really any kind of fundamental uncertainty about what is true, what is known, what can be trusted, etc. is rooted in the problem of the criterion. Thus how we respond to it impacts nearly any endeavor that seeks to make use of information.

Okay, so we have this problem. What to do about it?

Possible Responses

First up, there are no known solutions to the problem of the criterion, and it appears, properly speaking, unsolvable. Ultimately all responses either beg the question or unask, dissolve, or reframe the question in whole or in part. Nonetheless, we can learn something from considering all the ways we might address it.

Chisholm argues that there are only three possible responses to the problem: particularism, methodism, and skepticism. I’d instead say there are only three ways to try to solve the problem of the criterion, and other responses are possible if we give up finding a proper solution. As mentioned, all these attempts at solutions ultimately beg the question and so none actually resolve the problem—hence why it’s argued that the problem is unsolvable—but they are popular responses and deserve consideration to better understand why the problem of the criterion is so pernicious.

Particularism is an attempt to resolve the problem of the criterion by picking particular things and declaring them true, trusted, etc. by fiat. If you’ve ever dealt with axioms in a formal system, you’ve engaged in a particularist solution to the problem of the criterion. If you’re familiar with Wittgenstein’s notion of hinge propositions, that’s an example of particularism. My impression is that this is widely considered the best solution since, although it leaves us with some number of unverified things we must trust on faith, in practice it works well enough by simply stopping the infinite regress of justifications at some point past which it doesn’t matter (more on the pragmatism of when to stop shortly). To paraphrase Chisholm, the primary merit of particularism is that the problem of the criterion exists yet we know things anyway.

Methodism tries to solve the problem of the criterion by picking the criterion rather than some axioms or hinge propositions. Descartes is probably the best known epistemic methodist. The trouble, argues Chisholm and others, is that methodism collapses into particularism where the thing taken on faith is the criterion! Therefore we can just ignore methodism as a special case of particularism.

And then there’s skepticism, arguably the only “correct” position of Chisholm’s three in that it’s the only one that seemingly doesn’t require assuming something on faith. Spoiler alert: it does because it still needs some reason to prefer skepticism over the alternatives, thus it still ends up begging the question. Skepticism is also not very useful because even though it might not lead to incorrectly believing that a false thing is true, it does this by not allowing one to believe anything is true! It’s also not clear that humans are capable of true skepticism since we clearly know things, and it seems that perhaps our brains are designed such that we can’t help but know things, even if they are true but believed without properly grounded justification. So, alas, pure skepticism doesn’t seem workable.

Despite Chisholm’s claim to those being the only possible responses, some other responses exist that reject the premise of the problem in some way. Let’s consider a few.

Coherentist responses reject the idea that truth, knowledge, etc. must be grounded and instead seek to find a way of balancing what is known with how it is known to form a self-consistent system. If you’re familiar with the method of reflective equilibrium (SEP), that’s an example of this. Arguably this is what modern science actually does, repeatedly gathering evidence and reconsidering the foundations to produce something like a self-consistent system of knowledge, though at the price of giving up (total) completeness (LW, SEP).

Another way of rejecting the premise is to give up the idea that the problem matters at all via epistemic relativism. In its strongest form, this gives up both any notion of objectivity or intersubjectivity and simply accepts that knowledge is totally subjective and ultimately unverifiable. In practice this is a kind of attractor position for folks burnt out on there-is-only-one-ontology scientism who overcorrect too far in the other direction, and although some of the arguments made for relativism are valid, complete rejection or even heavy devaluing of intersubjectivity makes this position essentially a solipsistic one and thus, like extreme skepticism, not useful for much.

Finally, we come to a special case of particularist responses known as pragmatism, and it’s this kind of response that Yudkowsky offered. The idea of pragmatism is to say that there is some purpose to be served and by serving that purpose we can do an end-run around the problem of the criterion by tolerating unjustified knowledge so long as it works well enough to achieve some end. In Yudkowsky’s case, that end is “winning”. We might summarize his response as “do the best you can in order to win”, where “win” here means something like “live a maximally fulfilling life”. I’d argue this is basically right and in practice what most people do, even if their best is often not very good and their idea of winning is fairly limited.

Yet, I find something lacking in pragmatic responses, and in particular in Yudkowsky’s response, because they too easily turn from pragmatism to motivated stopping of epistemic reduction. If pragmatism becomes a way to sweep the problem of the criterion under the rug, then the lens has failed to see its own flaws. More is possible if we can step back and hold both the problem of the criterion and pragmatism about it simultaneously. I’ll try to sketch out what that means.

Holding the Problem

At its heart, the problem of the criterion is a problem by virtue of being trapped by its own framing. That is, it’s a problem because we want to know about the world and understand it and have that knowledge and understanding fit within some coherent ontological system. If we stopped trying to map and model the world or gave up on that model being true or predictive or otherwise useful and just let it be there would be no problem.

We’re not going to do that, though, because then we’d be rocks. Instead we are optimization processes, and that requires optimizing for something. That something is what we care about, our telos, the things we are motivated to do, the stuff we want, the purposes we have, the things we value, and maybe even the something we have to protect. And instrumental to optimization is building a good enough map to successfully navigate through the territory to a world state where the something optimized for is in fact optimized.

So we’re going to try to understand the world because that’s the kind of beings we are. But the existence of the problem of the criterion suggests we’ve set ourselves an impossible task that we can never fully complete, and we are forced to endeavor in it because the only other option is ceasing to be in the world. Thus we seem inescapably trapped by the tension of wanting to know and not being able to know perfectly.

As best I can tell, the only way out is up, as in up to a higher frame of thinking that can hold the problem of the criterion rather than be held by it. That is, to be able to simultaneously acknowledge that the problem exists, accept that you must both address it and by virtue of addressing it your ontology cannot be both universal and everywhere coherent, and also leave yourself enough space between yourself and the map that you can look up from it and notice the territory just as it is.

That’s why I think pragmatism falls short on its own: it’s part of the response, but not the whole response. With only a partial response we’ll continually find ourselves lost and confused when we need to serve a different purpose, when we change what we care about, or when we encounter a part of the world that can’t be made to fit within our existing understanding. Instead, we need to deal with the fundamental uncertainty in our knowledge as best we can while not forgetting we’re limited to doing our best while falling short of achieving perfection because we are bounded beings who are embedded in the world. Doing so cultivates a deep form of epistemic humility that not only acknowledges that we might be mistaken, but that our very notion of what it means to be mistaken or correct is itself not fully knowable even as we get on with living all the same.

NB: Holding the problem of the criterion is hard.

Before we go further, I want to acknowledge that actually holding the problem of the criterion as I describe in this section is hard. It’s hard because successfully doing what I describe is not a purely academic or intellectual pursuit: it requires going out into the world, actually doing things that require you to grapple with the problem of the criterion, often failing, and then learning from that failure. And even after all that there’s a good chance you’ll still make mistakes all the time and get confused about fundamental points that you understand in theory. I know I certainly do!

It’s also not an all at once process to learn to hold the problem. You can find comments and posts of mine over the past few years showing a slowly building better understanding of how to respond to the problem of the criterion, so don’t get too down on yourself if you read the above, aspire to hold the problem of the criterion in the way I describe, and yet find it nearly impossible. Be gentle and just keep trying.

And keep exploring! I’m not convinced I’ve presented some final, ultimate response to the problem, so I expect to learn more and have new things to say in time. What I present is just as far as I’ve gotten in wrangling with it.


Having reached the depths of the problem of the criterion and found a way to respond, let’s consider some places where it touches on the projects of our lives.

A straightforward consequence of holding the problem of criterion and adopting pragmatism about it is that all knowledge becomes ultimately teleological knowledge. That is, there is always some purpose, motivation, or human concern behind what we know and how we know it because that’s the mechanism we’re using to fix the free variable in our ontology and choose among particular hinge propositions to assume, even and especially if those propositions are implicit. Said another way, no knowledge is better or worse without first choosing the purpose by which knowledge can be evaluated.

This is not a license to believe whatever we want, though. For most of us, most of the time, our purpose should probably be to believe that which best predicts what we observe about the world, i.e. we should believe what is true. The key insight is to not get confused and think that a norm in favor of truth is the same thing as truth being the only possible way to face reality. The ground of understanding is not solid, so to speak, and if we don’t choose to make it firm when needed it will crumble away beneath our feet.

Thus, the problem of the criterion is also, as I hope will be clear, a killer of logical positivism. I point this out because logical positivism is perennially appealing, is baked into the way science is taught in schools, and has a way of sneaking back in when one isn’t looking. The problem of the criterion is not the only problem with logical positivism, but it’s a big one. In the same way, the problem of the criterion is also a problem for direct realism about various things because the problem implies that there is a gap between what is perceived and the thing being perceived and suggests the best we can hope for is indirect realism, assuming you think realism about something is the right approach at all.

Finally, all this suggests that dealing with knowledge and truth, whether as humans, AIs, or other beings, is complicated. Thus why we see a certain amount of natural complexity in trying to build formal systems to grapple with knowledge. Real solutions tend to look like a combination of coherentism and pragmatism, and we see this in logical induction, Bayesian inference, and attempts to implement Solomonoff induction. This obviously has implications for building aligned AI that are still being explored.


This post covered a lot of ground, but I think it can be summarized thusly:

  • There is a problem in grounding coherent knowledge because to know something is to already know how to know something.

  • This circularity creates the problem of the criterion.

  • The problem of the criterion cannot be adequately solved, but it can be addressed with pragmatism.

  • Pragmatism is not a complete response because no particular pragmatism is privileged without respect to some purpose.

  • A complete response requires both holding the problem as unsolvable and getting on with knowing things anyway in a state of perpetual epistemic humility.

  • The implications of necessarily grounding knowledge in purpose are vast because the problem of the criterion lurks behind all knowledge-based activity.