Can people be genuine epistemic peers?
February 27, 2014 — 4:29

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 2

[this is cross-posted in NewApps] In Louise Antony’s thought-provoking interview, Gary Gutting asked her about the rationality of her atheism if she were confronted with a theist who is an epistemic peer, someone who is equally intelligent, who knows the arguments for and against theism, etc., this was her response:

“In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.” — She further clarifies “How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe…The whole notion of epistemic peers belongs only to the abstract study of knowledge, and has no role to play in real life”.

I disagree with Antony’s analysis, and think that the criteria for epistemic peerage can be very much loosened. I do agree with her that the notion, as it is outlined in epistemology, in terms of equal access to evidence, cognitive equality etc is quite stringent, and indeed is very rare in real life. For instance, perhaps two graduate students, trained at the same department with the same advisor and the same specialization, and who are equally smart, would count as epistemic peers with respect to that specialization. However, our philosophical concept of what an epistemic peer is should not be drawn up a priori, but should be informed by how the concept is used in everyday practices, like forensic research, two doctors or midwives discussing a patient’s circumstances, or two scholars who disagree about a key issue in their discipline. Indeed, the idea of epistemic peer is thoroughly entrenched in scientific research, for instance in peer review and open peer commentary. If the notion of “epistemic peer” does not reflect this practice, it is not a sound philosophical notion, and would need to be replaced.

In a co-authored paper on the status of Homo floresiensis I argued that the condition for epistemic peerage is easily met for researchers who study these fossils, even though they have different backgrounds (e.g., archaeology, medical anthropology). These scientists who work on Homo floresiensis have the relevant expertise to evaluate the body of evidence, narrowly construed as published reports, the fossil material etc, not broadly construed as to include, e.g., the wisdom imparted by their thesis advisors. A realistic notion of evidential equality need only include evidence in this narrow sense.

Similarly, for the question of religion there are, I believe, many epistemic peers who meet this condition (philosophers of religion) – they are familiar with the arguments, such as the evidential argument from evil, the cosmological arguments etc.

Focusing on a narrow reading of the evidence, we need not worry about, say, religious (or areligious) experience that is not shareable as an obstacle for epistemic peerage. This modest notion of epistemic peerage is, I believe, in line with how we understand this term when evaluating experts, and if it is correct, there are many epistemic peers for any domain of knowledge. The problem remains that epistemic peerage not only involves evidence, but also cognitive powers (indeed, Gutting’s original formulation of the concept of epistemic peer was couched in terms of cognitive virtues like attentiveness).

Antony says “we have no idea how to seriously compare the cognitive powers of two people.” Is this needed to determine whether two people are epistemic peers? Rather than an objective assessment of qualities, epistemic peerage in science and other fields has an important social dimension: in how far do people recognize expertise (which involves not only access to evidence but also cognitive virtues) in others? It seems that people are naturally adept at recognizing expertise (note that they are better at doing so for others than for themselves, as people tend to overestimate their own cognitive capacities, something that needs to be born in mind when one is disagreeing with whom one believes to be an epistemic peer). For instance, even children as young as four or five have some emerging knowledge of the cognitive division of labor, knowing they should turn to a medical doctor for health problems, but to a car mechanic for problems with the car engine.

This social dimension provides a way out of the impasse of having to compare people’s cognitive capacities, but it does come with a cost: some groups of people are systematically marginalized, and their expertise might not be fairly evaluated. Social practices often do not reflect expertise accurately, hence not reflect epistemic peers accurately. Whether this is problematic for identifying epistemic peers, I suspect, depends on the issue. For instance, in philosophy of religion there is a tendency to focus on theism as broadly outlined in the Abrahamic traditions, and in fact, there is a strong focus on Christianity. This bias might make valuable and interesting work in, say, Mormon or Wiccan philosophy of religion go unrecognized. Also, researchers who work at non-elite universities may have a lesser say in the debates than, say, prominent senior professors who are recognized as world experts, for reasons that have little to do with their expertise or cognitive virtues.

Nevertheless, with the proviso that some voices may be less heard, there are many epistemic peers on the question of religion, if one focuses on philosophers of religion. Which still makes Gutting’s question relevant: “But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?”



  • One wrinkle with the social dimensions in philosophy is that expertise at professional philosophy is judged by us (and rightly so) differently from truth conduciveness. The consensus among analytic metaphysicians seems to be that David Lewis was the best metaphysician of the 20th century. But almost nobody thinks that the centerpiece of his system–Modal Realism–is true. And the main response is still the incredulous stare. I think our collective judgment embodies these claims about Lewis:
    – he was a brilliant philosopher who had great professional expertise, but
    – his judgment as to the raw plausibility of hypotheses was poorer than ours.
    (Perhaps his brilliance made him less sensitive to the claims of common sense.)

    It is much easier to get consensus on “how good a philosopher” someone is than on how truth-conducive her approach and methods are. Moreover, our judgment about the latter will often be based in part on how plausible we find the conclusions from these methods.

    February 27, 2014 — 17:49
  • To the extent that the concept is weakened, Gutting’s question is made less relevant. Two midwives or scholars may well be “equally reliable as knowers” across some arbitrarily specified portion of their domain, but that just tells us about an average – and averages are, of course, not necessarily indicative of how things work in any particular case. So let’s say that, across some general area of knowledge, two people are each about 70% reliable, yet on one particular case in that general area they disagree with each other with 80% confidence. In that case, it’s fairly easy to see that they should not embrace agnosticism. And I daresay that Antony’s confidence in her atheism is (rightly) higher than her confidence in her theist colleagues (even if we grant the idea that they’re weak epistemic peers).

    So, sure – you can loosen the criteria for peerage. But you can only do so if you’re also willing to relax its implications, at which point you lose the ability to make the argument that Gutting makes.

    March 4, 2014 — 19:50
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