Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oppy on Disagreement (Part 1)

For some reason, the epistemology of disagreement is a hot topic in the world of philosophy at the minute. It looks at a number of scenarios in which epistemic (or doxastic) peers disagree and wonders what is the rational response to such disagreements. I suspect that this interests philosophers since they tend to disagree so much, and their disagreements seem to be perpetual.

Of course, one area which generates a lot of disagreement is the philosophy of religion. There, people of seemingly equal philosophical acumen and care can have profound disagreements. So it is natural that the current fad for the epistemology of disagreement should wander into this fevered pit of philosophical debate.

While reading exapologist's blog recently, I came across a paper by Graham Oppy on the potential significance of the epistemology of disagreement for the philosophy of religion. Unsurprisingly given his previous work, Oppy is not sure that any special insight into religious disagreement can actually be gained with this fad, at least in its present form.

In the process of dampening enthusiasm, Oppy nonetheless provides an excellent overview of the epistemology of disagreement. So by going through his article we can both learn something about this burgeoning field of philosophical inquiry as well as its potential application to areas of serious disagreement.

In this introductory post, I will introduce the key concepts and questions from the epistemology of disagreement (as identified by Oppy).

1. Key Concepts
I am afraid that this will be nothing more exciting than a list of concepts. Here we go:
  • Disagreement: A disagreement arises whenever two or more people have different attitudes toward a proposition. For example, Ann and Bob might have different attitudes toward the proposition "Barack Obama is the greatest U.S. president ever." Ann thinks it is true; Bob thinks that nothing could be more ridiculous.
  • Reasonable Disagreement: A disagreement is reasonable if it does not seem to arise from any cognitive or evidential flaw or error. In other words, nothing seems to have gone wrong in the process that led to Ann and Bob forming their different attitudes. This may result in the parties agreeing to disagree.
  • Cognitive Comparators: People are cognitive peers if they have equal cognitive ability, i.e. they are equally good at perceiving, remembering, inferring and so on. It is also possible for people to be cognitive superiors or inferiors. When talking about cognitive superiority/parity we may only be talking about specific domains of knowledge.
  • Evidential Comparators: People are evidential peers if they have access to the same evidence, i.e. they are equally well informed about a given topic. Again, it is possible for them to be superiors or inferiors as well.
  • Doxastic Comparators: This is simply a combination of the cognitive and evidential dimensions. So, for example, people are doxastic peers if they have equal cognitive ability and are equally well-informed. One may wonder whether it is actually possible for genuine doxastic peers to exist.
  • Belief: A "belief" can be understood in two different ways. Either (i) an all-or-nothing attitude toward a proposition (true/false); or (ii) a graded attitude toward a proposition (e.g. "55% true"). Oppy prefers the graded conception.
  • Rationality: One of the main goals of the epistemology of disagreement is to discovery the rational response to disagreement between doxastic peers. "Rationality" here is understood as a normative standard of belief revision. Although no one's quite sure what those norms are, Oppy will assume they can be determined.

Okay so those are the key concepts. Let's move on to the motivating questions.

2. Key Questions
As mentioned above, one of the main goals of epistemology of disagreement is to answer the question "What should doxastic peers do when they learn that they disagree about some proposition P?".

Two extreme positions have been identified in the literature. The first is the conciliationist or conformist position. According to this position, when two people learn that they disagree about a proposition, and they have established their peer-status, they should split the difference between their respective attitudes. In other words, they should give proportional weight to both their own view and the view of their peer.

The second position is the steadfast or non-conformist position. No prizes will be awarded for guessing that this means, in the event of disagreement between doxastic peers, each should stick with the beliefs they originally had.

In the next part of this series we will consider some "toy" cases in which these extreme positions might be appropriate. However, we may wonder about their general applicability. Oppy suggests that the Bayesian position -- "always conditionalise your belief on the evidence" -- is a possible answer to the problem of disagreement and that it is quite distinct from the two extreme positions outlined above.

Apparently, he is preparing an article which will flesh out this Bayesian position in more detail. So we will have to wait and see what it really entails.

Okay, that's enough for now. The next part looks at different cases of disagreement.

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