A Problem for Intellectual Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cheering-concert-crowd-john-revitteDisagreement is a pervasive feature of our ordinary lives. We disagree with family members over what would make for a good Tuesday night dinner, with colleagues over how to solve some thorny problem, and with neighbors over whether the new highway off-ramp is a good or bad thing for the neighborhood. News stories are often about disagreements, and their online comments sections are sites where the disagreements may continue to be aired.

In some cases of disagreement, we may know more about the issue than the other person. And in some cases, the other person may know more. Call these asymmetric disagreements, and a regular thought is that in these cases, the less knowledgeable person ought to defer to the more. However, it's possible for there to be symmetric disagreements, where both sides are roughly as knowledgeable of and capable with the evidence on the issue. The individuals in these instances, then, are peers, at least epistemically.

In these symmetric cases, how should these peers view their own and their disagreeing interlocutors' commitments? By hypothesis, the two opposing views are based on the same evidence, so it's not that one can view one side as better informed or less knowledgeable than the other. And it seems dogmatic, or at least unfounded, to say that one just knows (without more evidence) that one's view is better off than one's opposition.

A background question to this matter is whether it's possible for a set of evidence to justify more than one view about an issue. One take on the question is that, given a set of evidence, there is only one attitude a person may take about it – one may accept a proposition as justified, one may reject it and hold its denial as justified by the evidence, or one may be justified only in suspending judgment on the matter. Of these three options, only one of them would be rationally responsible. Call this view the Uniqueness Thesis – that there is only one attitude that any set of evidence justifies.

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Why Epistemology Matters

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Western_PhilosophyEpistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. Its main questions are: What do we know?; How do we know it?; and What distinguishes knowledge from lucky guesses, sheer dogmatism, and simple ignorance? The application of this discipline seems pretty obvious in the sense that our answers to these questions will then allow us the means to sort out many of the factual questions before us. A model for knowledge yields a model for inquiry, which, when put in to practice, resolves our disagreements. This is the old school story of the relevance of epistemology. It goes back to Xenophanes, who held in the hymn to progress that even though the gods didn't give us all the truths, we are better off inquiring. This thought runs from the ancient through the modern period to Descartes, who held that his exercises were for the sake of providing a means for philosophy and science to proceed with powerful criteria for progress. And this thought is alive even now with the applications of epistemology by Michael Lynch in his recent In Praise of Reason and Paul Boghossian in his Fear of Knowledge. The Cato Institute's Juan Sanchez's use of the term “epistemic closure” to criticize conservatives for their bad intellectual habits of know-nothingism, too, is in this tradition.

We think the old school story is right, at least in its broad outline. An epistemology is a useful thing to to sort nonsense from the things worth deliberating about; an epistemology is also useful as a guide for deliberation. But there's a problem in the background, and it's one that's regularly been pointed out about a number of high points in the Western tradition. It runs like this: Often, these epistemologies, for all their promise of being deployments of critical thinking, end up being merely dressed-up apologetics for the authors' preferred beliefs. Descartes is regularly the prime target for this criticism – his method was to doubt everything in order to find criteria for truth that could not be doubted; and once he found those criteria, they were used to endorse the core commitments of the Catholic Christianity to which Descartes had ascribed. How convenient, says the critic. And reasonably so.

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Democracy and Ignorance

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Man-yelling-1Citizens in the United States generally cannot explain the fundamental workings of the Constitution, and cannot explicate the American jurisprudential tradition regarding the freedom of expression. Few citizens can recite the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. Indeed, research routinely reveals stunningly high levels of ignorance regarding even the most basic facts about our government; citizens generally cannot distinguish the branches of government and cannot describe the division of power among them. Many of us would prove unable to pass the Civics Test required for naturalization. If there’s anything that one can know for sure about US citizens, it’s this: our political ignorance is nearly boundless.

We see an increase of concern about public ignorance around, and especially after, elections. From the losing party, the complaint is all too regularly that the voting populace was misled by a campaign, failed to appreciate an important fact, or was simply ignorant of what democracy is all about. Witness the Republican post-mortems this year in the United States in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Mark Steyn at National Review Online darkly intones, “If this is the way America wants to go off the cliff, so be it.” Robert Stacy-McCain at The American Spectator puts it in the clearest terms by declaring, “The cretins and dimwits have become an effective governing majority.”

Public ignorance is disconcerting. But it also poses a serious challenge to democracy. According to the most popular theories of democracy, the government’s legitimacy depends upon the freely given and informed consent of its people. So democracy requires there to be regular free elections; such episodes are supposed to reveal the Popular Will, which provides government with clear directives for the exercise of power, thereby ensuring political legitimacy.

But if ignorance is as extensive as the data suggest (and losing parties comlain), elections could not possibly serve the function of expressing informed consent. Lacking adequate knowledge of how government works, citizens are unable correctly to assign responsibility to particular office holders for public policies enacted in their name, and consequently are unable to provide the necessary directives. That is, under conditions of widespread citizen ignorance, elections do not express the Popular Will; rather, they simply place some in office and remove others, willy-nilly. Elections, then, are exceedingly costly public events that achieve nothing more than what could be accomplished by a coin-toss.

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The Dignity of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Empiricus

Being a responsible believer requires one to have reasons for one’s beliefs. In fact, it seems that having reasons for one’s beliefs is a requirement for seeing them as beliefs at all. Consider the conflict in thought that arises with assertions like the following:

I believe I live in Nebraska, but I have no idea why I believe that.

I hold firmly that there are jellybeans in that dish, but I have no reason for doing so.

I’m confident that it will not rain on the picnic, but I have no evidence for that.

I support a flat-tax system, but all of my information concerning economic matters is highly unreliable.

Statements like these are conflicted because in each the but-clause seems to retract the grounds for asserting what came before. To affirm, for example, that one lives in Nebraska is often to affirm also that that one has reasons that are sufficient to support that claim. Statements of the kind above, then, don’t look like they could be beliefs at all; they rather something else – perhaps a cognitive symptom, an obsession, a queer dogmatism.

We may say that beliefs are supposed to be not only reason-responsive, but reason-reflective. Our beliefs should be based on our evidence and proportioned to the force of our evidence. And so, when we hold beliefs, we take ourselves to be entitled to reason to and from them. So beliefs must be backed by reasons.

Reason-backing has a curious pattern, however. Each belief must be backed by reasons. But those backing reasons must themselves be backed by still further reasons. And so on. It seems, then, that every belief must be supported by a long chain of supporting reasons.

This is a point familiar to anyone who has spent time with children. Why? is a question that can be (and often is) asked indefinitely. The child’s game of incessantly asking why? may not be particularly serious, but it calls attention to the fact that, for every belief you hold, you ought to be able to say why you hold it.

These rough observations give rise to a deep problem, one that has been at the core of the philosophical sub-discipline of epistemology since its inception.

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