Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Philosophical Pluralism and Modest Dogmatism

Philosophers are sometimes prone to excessive skepticism, especially in the face of persisting disagreement. People often seem really bothered by the lack of consensus in philosophy (including, e.g., Derek Parfit, Jason Brennan, and most recently, Liam Kofi Bright).  But a large portion of such worries seem to stem from a failure to appreciate when actual disagreement is (distinctively) undermining:

In cases of what we might call 'non-ideal' disagreement, there's a presumption that the disagreement is rationally resolvable through the identification of some fallacy or procedural mis-step in the reasoning of either ourselves or our interlocutor. The disagreement is 'non-ideal' in the sense that we're only disagreeing because one of us made a blunder somewhere. We are sufficiently similar in our fundamental epistemic standards and methods that we can generally treat the other's output as a sign of what we (when not malfunctioning) would output. The epistemic significance of the disagreement is thus that the conflicting judgment of a previously-reliable source is some evidence that we have made a blunder by our own lights, though we may not yet have seen it.

Many philosophical disagreements do not have this crucial feature.  This is because "(i) there are many possible internally coherent worldviews, (ii) philosophical argumentation proceeds through a mixture of ironing out incoherence and making us aware of possibilities we had previously neglected." As a result, many philosophical disagreements simply reflect different substantive starting points rather than any purely procedural blunder.  And the fact that somebody exists who holds different substantive starting points than you has zero epistemic import over and above the prior observation that there are coherent alternatives to your own view (which you really should already know!).

Now, it's totally fair to worry about the epistemic significance of coherent alternatives. As I put it previously, it follows that "(iii) even the greatest [philosophical] expertise... will only help you to reach the truth if you start off in roughly the right place. Increasing the coherence of someone who is totally wrong (i.e. closer to one of the many internally coherent worldviews that is objectively incorrect) won't necessarily bring them any closer to the truth."

Good reasoning provides no guarantee of truth. There's a real possibility that we're irreparably mistaken, in which case no amount of procedurally conscientious reasoning would see us right.  Moreover, there's no neutrally-recognizable standard by which we can determine whether we are irreparably mistaken in this way. (If there were, the error wouldn't be so irreparable, after all!)  These facts may be disheartening to those who hoped for a transparent light of Reason to guide our way; but epistemic maturity requires us to recognize that such Cartesian hopes were never really reasonable or realistic in the first place.  We muddle by as best we can, and hope for the best.  If we successfully reach (or at least approximate) an internally-coherent position, it's possible that the one we reached is the one true view of the matter, but we cannot expect to be able to prove this to any who doubt us -- not even ourselves.  The most we can hope for is to be, in a sense, philosophically lucky. (But that's a fine thing to hope for!  Nothing is gained by holding out for unattainable Cartesian certainties.  It remains well worth striving for coherence, since that at least gives us a chance at being right.)

Once the above lessons are properly internalized, viewpoint diversity and philosophical dissensus comes to seem entirely appropriate. We need advocates to work out all the options, after all. (Nothing is gained by having a coherent alternative view be routinely ignored or overlooked: a merely sociological uniformity of opinion is no "consensus" worth having.) And if a view is internally coherent, you shouldn't expect to be able to argue a sophisticated advocate out of that position. Nothing forces them to share your premises!

Rather than seeing this as some deep failure of "analytic philosophy" (as if different training would somehow break the logical symmetry between modus ponens and modus tollens), I'd encourage clear-eyed acceptance of this reality, combined with default trust or optimism about your own philosophical projects. After all, unlike all those fools who disagree with you, YOU'RE beginning from roughly the right starting points, right? ;-)

2 comments:

  1. "Philosophers are sometimes prone to excessive skepticism, especially in the face of persisting disagreement."

    "We muddle by as best we can, and hope for the best. If we successfully reach (or at least approximate) an internally-coherent position, it's possible that the one we reached is the one true view of the matter, but we cannot expect to be able to prove this to any who doubt us -- not even ourselves. The most we can hope for is to be, in a sense, philosophically lucky."

    I'm having trouble squaring these two sets of claims. How are skeptics about philosophy guilty of "excessive skepticism" if (A) philosophers develop vast pluralities of mutually exclusive arguments and theories on philosophical questions, (B) at most one set of answers can be correct, (C) it's ultimately a matter of luck whether any philosopher actually arrives at the true answer, and (D) we can never tell if they do? Skepticism doesn't seem misplaced in response to this state of affairs. Epistemically speaking, it seems like exactly the right attitude to have toward this state of affairs.

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    1. It seems that way because you're prone to excessive skepticism :-)

      Seriously though, see my old post on default trust. One way to resist skepticism here is to accept a principle which says that you should revise your judgments only if you're given some reason to think that an alternative judgment is rationally superior to your existing one. But the mere fact that there are alternative positions that can't be disproven is not in itself any reason to regard any alternative judgment as superior to your existing one. It isn't even any reason to think that your existing judgment is unlikely to be correct. (The relevant -- constitutive -- kind of "luck" is compatible with being objectively reliable.) And if you're not forced to regard your views as unlikely to be true, what exactly is the basis for skepticism? The skeptic truly has no basis (any candidate basis would itself be a disputed philosophical thesis that they would equally have to be skeptical of) -- all they have is a worry. But we shouldn't confuse worries with actual reasons.

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