Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Meta-Coherence vs. Humble Convictions

G.A. Cohen points out that Oxford-trained philosophers tend to believe in the analytic/synthetic distinction, whereas Harvard-trained philosophers tend not to. As an Oxfordian himself, he believes in the distinction. But he could have gone to Harvard instead, and so ended up a Quinean. Should this fact undermine his belief?

More detail is required. Here are two possibilities:
(1) The reasons upon which the Harvardians' beliefs rest are, impartially considered, no less weighty than the reasons behind the Oxfordian view. (The difference in their beliefs is merely explained by the fact that each side is more familiar with their own reasons.) If you think this is the situation, then this should immediately undermine your belief. It's [meta-]incoherent to believe that P whilst also believing that the weight of evidence fails to support P, since this is just to judge both [on the lower level] that P is true and [on the higher level] that P is probably not true after all.

(2) Alternatively, you might judge that, all things considered, the weight of reasons really does support the Oxfordian view here. So you're lucky you didn't go to Harvard, in much the same way that it's lucky you weren't born into a society of Flat Earthers (or a religious cult). If you'd been raised and trained differently, you would have been less sensitive to where the weight of reasons truly lies.

As a reflective agent, to truly believe something you must consider it to be epistemically superior to its negation. You must therefore hold that anyone who believes otherwise is ipso facto your epistemic inferior in this respect. (They are failing to believe what is best supported by reasons.)

Conversely: humility + metacoherence = agnosticism.

One might initially be tempted to retain one's convictions even whilst modestly admitting that others' views are equally well supported (all things considered). Cohen thinks this is a fairly common stance (e.g. between Protestant and Catholic friends). But you cannot coherently maintain this combination of first-order belief and higher-order humility. Which you should give up will of course depend on the details of the case.

For example, it seems plausible to me that a proper appreciation of religious pluralism should undermine common grounds for religious belief (e.g. 'religious experience' -- why think that yours is any more reliable than Akbar's?). But this is arguably just because there are independent grounds for skepticism, which actual pluralism makes more salient. The existence of geocentrist cults, by contrast, does nothing whatsoever to undermine heliocentrism.

16 comments:

  1. At risk of sounding dense or snarky: what's your argument? I've been doing a fair amount of reading recently about these kind of issues, and it sounds like you're appealing to assumptions that would be disputed by many philosophers today. However, it isn't even clear exactly what principles you mean to adhere to. For example: what's "metacoherence"? What aspects of epistemic superiority do you have in mind? Truth? Justification? Neither of those seem to actually work for your purposes.

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  2. I might be off-mark here, but doesn't this entail that we all must believe that we had perfect epistemological luck?

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  3. Let me hone this: since presumebly no one has the exact combination of beliefs you do, wouldn't your argument entail that you must believe yourself to be the single most epistemologically lucky person in the world?

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  4. So religious pluralism should undermine religious belief but shape of Earth pluralism should not undermine your Earth shape belief, because why? Because Earth shape arguments are strong and religions arguments are weak?

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  5. Hallq - metacoherence is the principle that your credence in P should reflect the degree to which you believe that belief in P is warranted or epistemically superior. The sort of 'epistemic superiority' I have in mind is that of being 'best supported by [all the] reasons/evidence', at the end of the day, impartially considered. My argument from metacoherence to the dilemma was as follows:

    "It's [meta-]incoherent to believe that P whilst also believing that the weight of evidence fails to support P, since this is just to judge both [on the lower level] that P is true and [on the higher level] that P is probably not true after all."

    Which of my assumptions do you think is most controversial?

    Peli - No, as per the preface paradox, we may have general beliefs about our own fallibility, compatibly with being reasonably confident in each particular case that our belief is correct (and so anyone who believes otherwise is mistaken).

    Robin - pretty much. (Though it depends what side you start on, of course. Flat Earthers should have their shape belief undermined. But again, the fact of pluralism plays no essential role. Rather, what matters is that the weight of evidence, all things considered, fails to support their view.)

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  6. I know very little about astronomy or cosmology, but I affirm heliocentrism. However, I'm told that given suitable amendments (epicycles), a geocentric picture of our solar system can account for the same observable phenomena as heliocentrism. It seems to me that if you're right, then the existence of a geocentric cult would undermine my basis for belief (this doesn't hold for the Flat Earth Society because that theory can't account for all of the observable phenomena whereas by hypothesis, geocentrism can).

    Moreover, for any scientific theory T, there is some other theory T* that explains all the observable phenomena equally well (in most cases T* hasn't been thought of yet). If the principle you're suggesting is correct, then we should never believe T because there is some possible group that holds T* on the basis of the same evidence. It seems that it's not actual pluralism that's doing the work here but the possibility of pluralism.

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  7. Richard -- That's a great answer, I feel silly for not seeing that to begin with.
    It seems that there's an interesting, though not necessarily problematic implication to it though: we can be less sure about beliefs that logically follow from the conjunction of several other beliefs of which we are sure. So for example I can, if you ask me of each given second in my life, be 99.99% sure that in that particular second I did not see a vampire, yet hold that's it is reasonably likely that I had once seen a vampire.

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  8. Richard, are you drawing on a specific paper of Cohen's here? If so, could you pass along the cite? I'm in this territory in some of my own work at the moment...

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  9. Paul - its the chapter 'Paradoxes of Conviction' in his If You're An Egalitarian... (See also George Sher, 'But I Could Be Wrong'.)

    Justin - I agree that actual disagreement plays no essential role here. The mere fact that there's another possible view, apparently just as coherent as your own, is the real source of the skeptical worries. But nothing I've said here suggests that we should always choose the 'humble' route. For example, even if an empirically equivalent form of geocentrism could be offered, I would still reject it on other grounds, e.g. that all those epicycles violate simplicity conditions, or some such.

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  10. e.g. 'religious experience' -- why think that yours is any more reliable than Akbar's?

    I don't; but that isn't be what would be in dispute between me and Akbar, any more than what is in dispute between Flat Earthers and the rest of us is whether the Flat Earther's eyes are more reliable than mine.

    But that's by the by. With regard to your argument, you assume that there is something answering to the description "what is best supported by reasons". But someone who takes the position you are criticizing obviously will deny that -- she'll say that there are cases where there is no clear and definitive candidate for "what is best supported by reasons"; the best you can get is "what is sufficiently supported by reasons to be reasonably believed". That needn't preclude there being other positions, excluded by that one, which fit that description. That is, you assume optimization; but someone who holds that you can coherently combine the first-order belief and higher-order humility is not assuming this, and so, it would seem, eludes your criticism, at least as stated here.

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  11. At a high level one could easily be faced with the dilemma of being a very good Oxford style philosopher or being a poor Harvard style philosopher.

    So one might know that there is a 50.001:49.999 chance of being wrong and yet still stay with ones current position. And that might be the right decision from a collective perspective.

    There may even be wider objectives where let's say the Oxfordian (let's say) provides a back door for incorrect justification of good behavior (like how one might argue for some religion).

    Having said that, I'm happy to let other people do the "being wrong" for society.

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  12. Richard:

    I think what most philosophers who would deny your conclusion would say is that epistemic superiority is agent-relative, that sometimes we have private, incommunicable insight that prevents epistemic superiority for us from resting entirely on public evidence. Some might want to deny that metacoherence is necessary for belief, though I'm less sure about that.

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  13. actually I can imagine a hypothetical situation where I might hold a belief and that belief might, in combination with other evidence, justify other beliefs that are true (in as far as it is a minority view under reasonable assumptions they are false) in my mind.

    however that belief might have a reasonable likelyhood of being false - but to reject it, and to remain in this truth seeking mode, would mean I would have to rebuild my belief structure and accept that until I had rebuilt it that I have very little defense against the minority view that those subsequent truths are false. If I was a truly inquisitive person I might forever be behind the alternate me in terms of understanding despite being marginally more likely to be right on one issue because I would be drawn back to reexamining those things which have know moved to an unknown level of truth value.

    One could say for most viewpoints
    1) I truly believe X because it fundamentally underlines basic assumptions of how I talk.
    2) I believe that People who believe Y have as must justification and possibly slightly more than I do.
    3) I believe that belief is justified due to transaction costs mentioned above and in certain perspectives (for example the collective without ideal knowledge one).

    And that that might be a very common position to find oneself in where an high level assumption has a reasonable apparent probability of being true or false.

    In theory only such facts should be a matter of debate at an academic level and therefore almost all major debaters should have that defense (or at least almost all of the ones who are wrong).

    BTW I judge my chances of being right on this issue as much better than 50% but I can imagine saying it even if they were less or in the absence of assessing their probability.

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  14. Hallq: private evidence is compatible with my view. If you think you have private, incommunicable evidence that settles the question, then ipso facto you think that you are in an epistemically superior position to those who lack this evidence. (Of course you can grant that others who are non-culpably ignorant of all the reasons, perhaps because some are essentially private to you, may nonetheless have reasonable or justified beliefs relative to their position of ignorance. But my point is that you cannot believe that P whilst also holding that others who deny it are just as likely as you to be right.)

    The only way out I can see is to follow Brandon's suggestion: 'there are cases where there is no clear and definitive candidate for "what is best supported by reasons"; the best you can get is "what is sufficiently supported by reasons to be reasonably believed". That needn't preclude there being other positions, excluded by that one, which fit that description.'

    But that sounds very odd to me. If there are multiple competing possibilities which are, for all you can tell, equally well-supported, then surely you should split your credence between them. There is no "permissible to believe either P or not-P". There is only "rational to believe P (not-P) to degree 0.5". Or so I would think.

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  15. If there are multiple competing possibilities which are, for all you can tell, equally well-supported, then surely you should split your credence between them. There is no "permissible to believe either P or not-P". There is only "rational to believe P (not-P) to degree 0.5". Or so I would think.

    On the first sentence, perhaps, if you think credences can actually be split like that. Not everyone does; those of us who don't believe in degrees of credence think it can't be split at all, and many who think it can would be skeptical of any suggestion that they could ever do it sufficiently precisely to meet the above standard. So I think there's wiggle-room here. On the rest, it really isn't, "permissible to believe either P or not-P" but "permissible to believe P (if you don't already believe not-P) and permissible to believe not-P (if you don't already believe P)". And in most cases people aren't simply new to the subject, deciding P or not-P, but already believing one or the other and asking if their reasons for believing it are good enough that believing it is reasonable.

    But I can see how it would sound odd.

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