Friday, December 28, 2007

Rational Pluralism

I'm inclined towards the view that necessary/a priori truths lack worldly truthmakers, and are instead constituted by the epistemic facts of what it would be ideally rational to believe (truth as the end of inquiry, and all that). One common response people make at this point is to raise the possibility that there is no uniquely rational end-point to philosophical inquiry. Maybe the disputes between Kantians and Consequentialists, mereological universalists and nihilists, etc., would persist even under conditions of ideal rationality. There could be two (or more) equally maximally coherent belief sets. What then?

If the reasons in favour of either view are perfectly balanced, i.e. there really are no possible arguments that would decide the issue one way or another, then it seems intuitively right to me to say that there is no objective fact of the matter which of them is true. Right? (It's not as though we're just incurably ignorant about some contingent matter of fact. The matter under dispute is supposed to be logically necessary, true no matter how the world might turn out, so it really ought to be knowable by reason alone.) So constructivism yields precisely the right result here, it seems to me. It's independently plausible to think that a determinately true philosophical view ought to be determinately rationally superior. So if a philosophical question has no uniquely rational answer, nor does it have any uniquely true answer.

Matters become more complicated if we imagine, not a plurality of views that equally qualify against the standards of ideal rationality, but a plurality of rational standards (each of which leads to a different view, let's say). I'm not sure I can even make sense of this idea. But supposing it were true, should we conclude that there are likewise multiple truth predicates, one for each form of ideal rationality? P is true1 iff P is ideally rational1, true2 iff ideally rational2, etc. It all sounds a bit crazy, but I guess it wouldn't be so bad if there was a large amount of overlap between all the rationalities. We could then supervaluate and say that P is true, simpliciter, iff it qualifies according to all the ideal rationalities. Otherwise, it is just relatively true, depending on which form of rationality you assess it against.

Is that the best way to interpret these scenarios, do you think?


  1. This is an interesting topic Richard. But I think there might be a more productive response to these problems than admitting the possibility of relativism. Why not claim that the standards of rationality that enquiry should follow are so constructed that they guarantee a single outcome?

    One very ad hoc way to do this would be to claim that one rational axiom is to always flip a coin between views whenever neither view has greater evidence. The addition of this axiom would guarantee the truth of only one view.

    As I say, that's horribly ad hoc, but I wonder if there might be a more sensible possible feature of rationality that has the same effect in terms of defeating the relativistic implications of this view.

  2. Very interesting. It does sound a bit crazy, but at the same time it sounds just about right. If all the standards of rationality come up with a common truth, then we'd have to say that truth is objectively true. But then we can't expect all standards to lead us in the right direction. I don't think that's a problem; it merely suggests that whatever is objectively true can be compared with a "bad cousin" of sorts, born by those faulty standards. "That big rock over there" has got to correspond to our rationality at some point (we can't just deny it to uphold our standard), so when a standard stops corresponding to actualities, or loses its overlap with other rationalities, then it might be time to drop it.

  3. Sounds all right.

    I guess where one gets a conflict betwentwo equally vlaid views then the value of chosing the "correct one" tends towards zero compared to the cost of debating it.

    So one would just allow one of them to win whilst keeping the other on the books (if it was required to clearly choose).

    Anyway even with equal truth value views I imaginethat the two possibilities would fall out of equality as research into one outstripped the other (ie one world view was more complete and thus in a sense more valuable).

  4. But how would we ever know that it's logically impossible to come up with an argument to mediate between, say, deontology and utilitarianism? What kind of argument, beyond some kind of patently insufficient inductive "nobody's come up with anything yet" would one make to show that "there really are no possible arguments that would decide the issue one way or another?"

  5. Paul - do we need to be able to show it? I'm just considering what to make of the scenario in which that's how things are.

    Mind you, my view implies that in order for this to be true, it must be a priori justifiable. But I think we can build it into the idealization that the ideal agent has the self-knowledge that they are ideal, such that their inability to find a compelling argument is proof that there's none to be had.

    Alex - I like your suggestion that we may construct rationality in such a way as to "guarantee a single outcome". But I'd need to hear more about how that may be achieved (in a non-ad-hoc way).


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