Philosopher Urges Epistemological Conciliation

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

It is a tendency of academics to defend their positions on controversial topics with conviction despite the existence of many similarly talented thinkers who argue differently. David Christensen, an epistemologist at the Brown University Department of Philosophy, challenged this tendency last Friday to a packed Papazian 324 during his lecture, “Why You Should Not Believe the Conclusion of this Talk.”

Professor Christensen began his talk with a statement of the question motivating his enquiry: “If I’m confident that P, and my friend is confident that not-P, yet my friend seems equally well-positioned to pronounce on P, to what extent (if any) must I decrease my confidence in P?”, where P is taken to denote a given position on an issue, philosophical or otherwise. To this question there are two broad categories of response, the non-conciliatory, in which the actor need not reduce confidence in P based on disagreement, and the conciliatory, in which the actor should reduce, perhaps dramatically, his confidence in P upon knowing of his friend’s disagreement.

Christensen advocates the second category of response. Describing a situation in which he and a friend are at a restaurant and achieve different mathematical results when attempting to figure out through mental math how to split the check, he explored the implications of this position. Simply dismissing the friend’s opinion on the basis that is different is merely begging the question and an invalid response.

Rather, Christensen offered his formulation of a conciliatory position: “I should assess explanations for disagreements in a way that’s independent of my reasoning on the matter under dispute. To the extent that this sort of assessment provides reason for me to think that the explanation in terms of my own error is as good as that in terms of my friend’s error, I should move my belief toward my friend’s.”

The first potential objection to this position that Christensen perceives is that conciliation leads to spinelessness, but the rebuttal to this is that in a state where pervasive disagreement is present, a position of “epistemic humility” is more rational than being highly confident in one’s own beliefs.

The second objection is that conciliation throws away evidence as a means of dealing with disagreement. As a refutation, Christensen says that “conciliation is only a view about how to deal with one kind of evidence into account, not about how to take all evidence into account,” and that it makes no claims for the full rationality of the position arrived at through conciliation.

The third objection considered is that conciliation will give wrong results in “super-strong justification cases.” For the restaurant case, this would be a situation in which the actor can be rationally more confident that the friend is the one who has made a computational error, or who may be deceptive for some other reason. However, Christensen claims that the careful computation checking and the “personal information” of the self possessed by the actor can largely rule out these possibilities for himself.

Christensen then concludes that the conciliatory view is correct, but is not quick to defend his own conclusion, for by his own logic, the conciliatory view is self-undermining, as it says that he should not be confident of it, based on the disagreement the view faces from numerous eminent philosophers. This, however, does not show that the conciliatory view is incorrect, but merely that a degree of skepticism on the matter is merited, Christensen concludes, although he may not believe it.

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