[note: this blogpost collects some scattered thoughts I hope to organize in article form sooner rather than later, for my British Academy project on religious social epistemology, see here]
There is an ongoing debate what we should do when we are confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer; someone who is as knowledgeable and intellectually virtuous in the domain in question. Should we revise our beliefs (conciliationism), or not engage in any doxastic revision (steadfastness)? Epistemologists aim to settle this question in a principled way, hoping general principles like conciliationism and steadfastness can offer a solution not only for the toy examples that are being invoked, but also for real-world cases that we care passionately about, such as scientific, religious, political and philosophical disagreements. However, such cases have proven to be a hard nut to crack. A referee once commented on a paper I submitted on epistemic peer disagreement in science that the notion of epistemic peer in scientific practice was useless. S/he said “It works for simple cases like two spectators who disagree on which horse finished first, but when it comes to two scientists who disagree whether a fossil is a Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens, the notion is just utterly useless.”
That referee comment has always stuck in my mind as bad news for epistemology: if we can’t use our principled answers in epistemology to apply to real-world cases of epistemic peerage, the debate is of marginal value. There seems to be an easy escape: one common response, both by steadfasters and conciliationists has been that we need not revise our beliefs in complex messy cases if we have reason to believe that we have access to some sort of insight that our epistemic peer lacks. van Inwagen, for instance, muses about his disagreements about some philosophical matters with David Lewis, whom he greatly respects: they both know the arguments, and both have considered them equally carefully. But ultimately, van Inwagen thinks
I suppose my best guess is that I enjoy some sort of philosophical insight (I mean in relation to these three particular theses) that, for all his merits, is somehow denied to Lewis. And this would have to be an insight that is incommunicable- -at least I don’t know how to communicate it–, for I have done all I can to communicate it to Lewis, and he has understood perfectly everything I have said, and he has not come to share my conclusions.
As one can see, the notion of epistemic peer simply dissolves here, since van Inwagen just asserted that he has insights in the domain in question that are denied to Lewis. To take another example, suppose you are a Christian faced with a seemingly equally intelligent atheist. According to Plantinga (WCB), this disagreement is not a defeater to your beliefs, as you can confidently assume your dissenting peer “has made a mistake, or has a blind spot, or hasn’t been wholly attentive, or hasn’t received some grace she has, or is blinded by ambition or pride or mother love or something else”. But how do we know when we are right? Is the “feeling of knowledge”, the conviction we are right, any indication that we actually are right? I will argue here that it is not, and therefore, that simply discounting the other as epistemic peer on account of this is not warranted.
Many philosophers seem to take this feeling of confidence (that they are right) as guidance. For instance, according to Elga one is not required to doxastic revision if one does not think the other is an epistemic peer, and he acknowledges that this is often the case in real-world messy examples. The Christian in Plantinga’s example has just downgraded his seemingly equally intelligent and thoughtful dissenter on account of some cognitive shortcomings or flaws in character that prevent her from being a true epistemic peer. Elga believes that doxastic revision is required if one considers the other as epistemic peer, whether that is really the case or not. So in that view, the Christian who honestly believes she has some basic belief, brought about by a reliably working sensus divinitatis, is rationally justified in discounting other views since she thinks that those people are not her epistemic peers.
Elga provides this view to solve the problem of spinelessness that conciliationism faces: if you are a conciliationist, it seems your beliefs (philosophical and otherwise) are constantly in danger of being flooded by the opinions of others–indeed, the conciliationist is being charged with inconsistency, since their position would require them to revise their conciliationism since they are confronted with all these steadfasters! The problem with Elga’s view, according to Lackey (in a forthcoming paper), is that it fails to take into account that people can discount others as epistemic peers for irrational reasons. She provides a vivid example of a sexist and a woman who are in disagreement. The sexist thinks he is right, since he believes the woman, being a woman, is simply less intelligent than he is. The woman, by contrast, thinks the sexist is her epistemic peer. Following Elga’s recommendations, we come to the outrageous conclusion that the woman should revise her beliefs or else risk being irrational, whereas the man should stick to his guns. That seems like an unacceptable conclusion.
Can we discount the other as an epistemic peer simply by virtue of feeling we that we know p to be the case? There has been research on the feeling of knowledge (FOK) in metacognition, the feeling you know something to be the case. It turns out that FOK is not a reliable measure of knowledge (research by Koriat and others). People systematically overrate how well they know a series of facts on which they will be tested, for example. People think they know in detail how a helicopter and a zipper work, until asked to demonstrate it, and exhibit surprise at the lack of their depth of knowledge. One could object, such things aren’t basic knowledge, like 2+2=4. Religious belief is properly basic, therefore, we need not be troubled by the unreliability of FOK. However, our personal memories are also properly basic in many instances, yet the correlation between the feeling you remember something vividly and the actual occurrence of this event is quite weak, as research on eyewitness testimony indicates (it is relatively easy to implant a personal memory, Loftus and others have found). I’m not saying that the unreliability of FOK should lead to some widespread skepticism. I am saying that FOK is too weak to be a defeater defeater, i.e., a defeater of the negative evidence that the fact that an epistemic peer disagrees with one, provides.
A Reformed epistemologist may have the easy way out that FOK doesn’t play a role because the properly basic belief is after all, instilled by a reliable belief-producing mechanism (the sensus divinitatis). Similarly, suppose one is a philosopher who does happen to have brilliant insights that his or her colleagues lack that lead to genuine knowledge. Then (assuming a knowledged-centered epistemology) yielding or revising would not be a good response for that philosopher. Indeed, it would be better for that philosopher not to engage in too much debate with other (seemingly equally) brilliant colleagues, lest she revises her beliefs and now comes to an overall worse philosophical picture. But we know from experience that this is not the case, that even a very good philosopher can improve by exposure than others, or that papers can drastically improve by probing and deep criticisms of referees and editors. Indeed, there is a large literature on group cognition indicating that focused groups of specialists outcompete their most brilliant members.
In a series of papers, Dan Sperber and colleagues have an interesting hypothesis to explain why we have FOK and other cognitive biases that drive us to overestimate our knowledge (e.g., confirmation bias) if our reasoning is so fallible: reasoning evolved in the context of argumentation, not in the context of individual, cognizing minds. So systematically overrating the quality of our own evidence, or feeling some sense of insight, are all mechanisms that protect us from becoming too gullible or too susceptible to influences from others, who may have their own, rather than our, interests in mind (indeed, research suggests that even young children are selective in their trust). Given the unreliability of FOK, but also the pragmatic problems involved with being too yielding, the proper response in peer disagreement in my view would be to continue to be open to the evidence of others, and not automatically take their position or one’s FOK as evidence that the other is not an epistemic peer after all. Some degree of steadfastness helps protect what one is passionate about (and feels worth protecting), and it helps prevent one from being easily won over. This combination of openness and steadfastness would protect the woman from the sexist’s arguments. It also even helps those faced with epistemic superiors: the junior philosopher confronted with a formidable counterobjection of a much more senior colleague should revisit her views, but still it seems rational not to give them up immediately.
In the case of the religious believer, there may be good reasons in the Jamesian sense to maintain faith even in the face of uncertainty and doubt (brought about, amongst other by epistemic peers), because some goods only obtain if one has this faith. I am not defending a fideist attitude here. One can have several rational and pragmatic grounds for having faith. What I am saying is that the proper attitude to religious and philosophical (and other messy cases) of religious disagreement should not be: “Well, that just goes to show they’re not our epistemic peers, they must be missing some grace or insight or something”.
Rather, this sort of disagreement does provide serious counterevidence that should lead one to adopt a critical atttitude towards one’s beliefs (not necessarily a yielding attitude as I described above). This is by the way not bad for the religious believer: the fact that a large percentage of philosophers of religion (70 to 75% depending on the survey, PhilPapers or mine) are theists is of high epistemic significance, I believe, especially given that they are well aware of formidable objections against theism. Similarly, the fact that conciliationists are winning over new converts (like me, I used to be a steadfaster) should spell good news for conciliationism. I think this open attitude of doubt in the face of epistemic disagreement, combined with a continued commitment, would work well for many messy cases.