Begging to differ

The current issue of tpm features a forum on disagreement, a topic working its way up the epistemologist’s agenda.  The question is, what should you do when you and another equally reasonable, well-informed, rational person disagree with one another.  Should this kind of disagreement give us pause?  Catherine Z Elgin writes:

Conciliatory thinkers such as Hilary Kornblith hold that it should. If Fred recognises George as his intellectual equal, he has no basis for thinking that his opinion is better than George’s (or that George’s is better than his). So when they disagree, conciliationists maintain, both should suspend judgement. Advocates of resoluteness such as Thomas Kelly recommend holding fast. If intellectual equals who disagree are always required to suspend judgement, scepticism looms. Given the range of topics on which we disagree with our intellectual equals, we know very little. Resoluteness is permissible, they maintain, because everyone makes mistakes. It is open to Fred to think that where they disagree, George must be mistaken. He is then within his rights to dismiss George’s opinion. Unfortunately, George can think the same about Fred. Resoluteness fosters dogmatism; we are always entitled to dismiss the opinions of intellectual equals who disagree with us by assuming they have made a mistake. Neither scepticism nor dogmatism is an attractive option. A third alternative is that disagreement among intellectual equals provides some reason to rethink one’s position but does not require revising or repudiating it. In that case, parties could reasonably agree to disagree. The challenge is to make room for this position.

If you dismiss the claims of your equals, you’re being dogmatic, but if you suspend judgement when you encounter equals who disagree with you, scepticism looms.  Interesting stuff.  You can read the whole article here.

  1. I’m not necessarily positive how to respond to disagreements with someone who is not my intellectual equal, be them inferior or superior. Let alone someone who is equal to me.

  2. Philosophy TV: David Christensen and Roy Sorensen on the Epistemology of Disagreement:

  3. A disheartening view of the state of philosophy. There is generally far too little scepticism; and when scepticism is used, philosophers tend to step back from the abyss in fear. You can see it in the TPM article: “Neither scepticism nor dogmatism is an attractive option”.

    This is philosophy 101. Dogmatism we can understand is unhelpful. There are logical reasons for avoiding it. Isn’t the very lifeblood of philosophy overcoming dogmatism, unreason, bias? I found the David Christensen and Roy Sorensen video, as linked by Myron, to be even more disheartening. Isn’t ‘live and let live’, or ‘agreeing to disagree’ the antitheist of a search for truth? Giving up? Can’t face my own cognitive dissonance at having my dogma challenged, or having to suppose my ‘opponent’ might be more right than I am? Where is the quest to find truth even if it’s not in your own ideas (which, given all philosophers learn philosophy from others it rarely is)?

    This sounds like adversarial philosophy that is more akin to theology, where faith in one’s own position is dogmatic; and where, in the stand-off between contradictory religions, agreeing to disagree is giving up the search for truth for fear of exposing one’s own flaws.

    Why will philosophers not chase down the scepticism to where it leads? It’s not as if you’ll get stuck there, since philosophy is only ever an investigation of possibilities. Philosophy does not provide answers.

  4. @ Myron – I’ll follow that link. Cheers.

    @ Ron Murphy – I don’t think anyone means scepticism as in ‘healthy scepticism’ in this debate, if that’s what you mean. It’s more like a really dubious sceptical outcome that just doesn’t seem right. Maybe a brain in a vat argument might wipe out beliefs (fair enough) but how can just the fact of disagreement render dubious all the things I think about politics, religion, the arts, ethics, etc — since for probably all my beliefs in those domains, there’s a respectable thinker who holds just the opposite.

    I think philosophy does provide answers too, by the way.

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