On warranted deference

By their nature, skeptics have a hard time deferring. And they should. One of the classic (currently undervalued) selling points for any course in critical thinking is that it grants people an ability to ratchet down the level of trust that they place in others when it is necessary. However, conservative opinion to the contrary, critical thinkers like trust just fine. We only ask that our trust should be grounded in good reasons in cooperative conversation.

Here are two maxims related to deference that are consistent with critical thinking:

(a) The meanings of words are fixed by authorities who are well informed about a subject. e.g., we defer to the international community of astronomers to tell us what a particular nebula is called, and we defer to them if they should like to redefine their terms of art. On matters of definition, we owe authorities our deference.

(b) An individual’s membership in the group grants them prime facie authority to speak truthfully about the affairs of that group. e.g., if I am speaking to physicists about their experiences as physicists, then all other things equal I will provisionally assume that they are better placed to know about their subject than I am. The physicist may, for all I know, be a complete buffoon. (S)he is a physicist all the same.

These norms strike me as overwhelmingly reasonable. Both follow directly from the assumption that your interlocutor, whoever they are, deserve to be treated with dignity. People should be respected as much as is possible without doing violence to the facts.

Here is what I take to be a banal conclusion:

(c) Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on matters relating to how group (y) is defined. For example, if a philosopher of science tells the scientist what counts as science, then it is time to stop trusting the philosopher.

It should be clear enough that (c) is a direct consequence of (a) and (b).

Here is a claim which is a logical instantiation of (c):

(c’) Members of privileged groups ought to defer to marginalized groups on matters relating to how the marginalized group is defined. For example, if a man gives a woman a lecture on what counts as being womanly, then the man is acting in an absurd way, and the conversation ought to end there.

As it turns out, (c’) is either a controversial claim, or is a claim that is so close to being controversial that it will reliably provoke ire from some sorts of people.

But it should not be controversial when it is understood properly. The trouble, I think, is that (c) and (c’) are close to a different kind of claim, which is genuinely specious:

(d) Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on any matters relating to group (y).

Plainly, (d) is a crap standard. I ought to trust a female doctor to tell me more about my health as a man than I trust myself, or my male barber. The difference between (d) and (c) is that (c) is about definitions (‘what counts as so-and-so’), while (d) is about any old claim whatsoever. Dignity has a central place when it comes to a discussion about what counts as what — but in a discussion of bare facts, there is no substitute for knowledge.

**

Hopefully you’ve agreed with me so far. If so, then maybe I can convince you of a few more things. There are ways that people (including skeptics) are liable to screw up the conversation about warranted deference.

First, unless you are in command of a small army, it is pointless to command silence from people who distrust you. e.g., if Bob thinks I am a complete fool, then while I may say that “Bob should shut up and listen”, I should not expect Bob to listen. I might as well give orders to my cat for all the good it will do.

Second, if somebody is not listening to you, that does not necessarily mean you are being silenced. It only means you are not in a position to have a cooperative conversation with them at that time. To be silenced is to be prevented from speaking, or to be prevented from being heard on the basis of perverse non-reasons (e.g., prejudice and stereotyping).

Third, while intentionally shutting your ears to somebody else is not in itself silencing, it is not characteristically rational either. The strongest dogmatists are the quietest ones. So a critical thinker should still listen to their interlocutors whenever practically possible (except, of course, in cases where they face irrational abuse from the speaker).

Fourth, it is a bad move to reject the idea that other people have any claim to authority, when you are only licensed to point out that their authority is narrowly circumscribed. e.g., if Joe has a degree in organic chemistry, and he makes claims about zoology, then it is fine to point out the limits of his credentials, and not fine to say “Joe has no expertise”. And if Petra is a member of a marginalized group, it is no good to say that Petra has no knowledge of what counts as being part of that group. As a critical thinker, it is better to defer.

[Edit: be sure to check the comments thread for great discussion!]

78 Comments.

  1. Did you forget a #wiscfi hashtag?

  2. Doesn’t principle-a depend on who the authorities are?

    For example, we have no reason to defer to the definitions of the authorities on astrology.

    Should we defer to the authorities on theology on the question of God’s essence?

    How about the authorities in the government when they define killing civilians as “collateral damange”, etc.?

    That is, there are lots of authorities who I see no reason to defer to.

    Now, I agree with you that I should defer to the authorities on astronomy, but certainly not authorities in general.

    So, how do we know when there are authorities whom we should defer to?

  3. I don’t have an army.

    What should I do if Bob really needs to shut up and listen?

  4. Swally, good point, though it’s just as well that we ask what to do in cases of fiction. If I tell JRR Tolkien that Mordor is northwest of the Shire, then he will likely say I’ve got it wrong. I should defer to him about the geography of Middle-Earth. Similarly, I will certainly defer to historians who specialize in biblical scholarship about the meanings of words contained in those works.

    One fine thing about deference is that it can sometimes (or oftentimes) be content-free. So, in cases of astrology I am tempted to just say, “Oh, however they want to arrange their system, they can. It’s a false system, but they — whoever they are — are the authors of the details.”

    Pneumo, if Bob is getting on well in his distrust for you, then he doesn’t *need* to do anything. He only needs to comply if we assume that Bob cares about things like critical thinking and social justice, that he recognizes you as having those same goals, and that he is interested in having some kind of positive relationship with you. However, you can safely infer that his active distrust in you means that one or more of those conditions has not been satisfied.

  5. “how do we know when there are authorities whom we should defer to?”

    My personal take:

    By the application of ‘trust’, which can be earned or lost. And it’s personal preference as to whether you assume authority that you can lose trust in, or assume no authority but allow your trust to be earned.

    Science: pre-trust as a general rule, with care; but general rules can have exceptions, and undue trust can leave exceptions hidden; so expect science to be trustworthy, if done well, and reject if done badly. That requires a lot of effort that many people won’t make, and so the public are (a) convinced by a journalist’s over-hype (e.g. neuroscience is nearly there with mind reading) or (b) reject good science in preference for profound sounding flaky science and marketing (e.g. reject the MMR vaccine).

    Religion: No pre-trust because there’s no evidence, or argument, and plenty of contradictions. That’s why it needs faith, a trust without evidence or in the face of evidence against. Post-trust is on offer, but seems unlikely to ever be justified. I keep an open mind, as I do about solipsism and fairies – more a token gesture. But, let’s be honest, that works out in practice as pre-sceptic, no trust earned at all so far.

    Business: They want your money. Zero trust by default. Check your receipt. Trust can be earned, by how they respond to your errors as well as their own. They don’t earn extra credit for doing what they are supposed to, which is worth pointing out when they screw up and sound hurt when you don’t take it on the chin.

    Politics: Mistrust, because you can’t tell the difference between the good and the pathological opportunistic liars that will say anything to get elected to power (US: so that can rake in the cash from lobbying unfettered; UK: stealth lobbying is now required).

    Government-Security-Military: Mistrust as long as I live; and when I’m dead, well I told you so. Alexander Litvinenko is evidence that the days of the Cold War and the opportunity to shame the Soviets are gone. Spying on one’s own citizens is more possible now, with changes to the security laws and better technology.

  6. BLS Nelson,

    All that said, we are witness to countless examples of people who are not part of groups such as those of which you speak but can still make great contributions to those groups. Albert Einstein was not, for example, officially a Physicist in 1905, nor did he even have a Ph.D. when he wrote four papers that repaved the foundations of Physics. Sometimes the skeptic from outside a field can detect issues within the field. Naturally, rules of reasonability must apply to the conversation that ensues from assertions of skepticism, but experts in any field should always be ready to detect the reasonable claim against what it held to be the status quo of their discipline.

  7. I should add a note to say something about the culture of organizations and how they contain an inherent investment in the mingling of ideas and social structure. All human social structures, including even the driest scientific disciplines, have pecking orders. I am personally witness to this among astronomers and physicists. Buying into the ideas is partially, and inevitably, a social process as well as an intellectual process.

    Your own reference to “conservative” opinion, as though all conservatives (or, perhaps, non-liberals?) held to a monolithic intellectual structure seems to indicate an expectation of this behavior in a group defined largely by your absence from its ranks.

  8. Ron, thanks for that. Your rule reminds me of a quote from Hemingway that has been making the rounds on my social feed: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

    Lee, that’s an interesting point about Einstein. The thing is, it doesn’t look like a perfect counter-example.

    I think you’ll agree that ordinary folks working alongside Einstein in the post office should not have deferred to him. It seems like it would have been wrong for his colleagues to defer to him. And my main concern in this post was to say something about the orientation of outsiders to a community of experts.

    That said, I take it that your point was that a non-physicist, Einstein, did not defer to the prevailing opinion in physics, and we are better for it. That is indeed remarkable. But I should make a few points. First, the rapid acceptance of Special Relativity was more than just trust — it was accepted because it made sense. The physicists came to agree, but they did not defer to him (at first). Second, although Einstein was a creative genius, his ideas were also very much a part of the historical period. He was responding, in part, to deficiencies in Maxwell’s electrodynamic theory, and the direction of Special Relativity was influenced to a large extent by reading Ernst Mach and David Hume. His work was identifiable as productive in large part because he shared enough pre-existing common ground with the physicists of the time.

    Regarding politics, you have a strong case. I am the Canadian form of conservative, which is roughly equivalent to an American liberal or social democrat. I accept any of these labels (conservative, liberal, social democrat), if they are understood rightly.* But — to make a more interesting point — I will own the labels of liberal or social democrat even, or especially, when they are misunderstood. In contrast, I will not bother trying to repatriate the word “conservative”. At the present moment, I have every reason to expect that those who identify with the label of “conservative” shall behave in a cruel and unreasonable fashion.

    Mind you, my expectation is not a belief. Moreover, even if it were a belief, it could not be categorically true; as you suggest, there are some conservatives who are perfectly fine and sensible people, and mixed up with a bad lot. All the same, I’d rather disown the word entirely than risk standing shoulder to shoulder with people I do not expect I can identify with.

    So I will defer to no other liberal on the meaning of liberal. In contrast, I will defer to conservatives about the meaning of conservative, if forced to do so.

    *(I’m a conservative in the sense that I follow a reasonable approximation of the historically mainstream Canadian ideology. I’m an economic liberal in the sense that I acknowledge the existence of the tragedy of the commons, and think it is a problem we have to solve. I’m a social liberal in the sense that I acknowledge that we have to try to get along even when we disagree. I’m a social democrat in the sense that I acknowledge the existence of externalities, and think it is a problem we have to solve.)

  9. I believe in deferring to experience, but it’s important to be critically aware of what that experience actually is that you are deferring to (as opposed to what people claim it is). The problem is often that people claim to be experienced in matters of y, when in fact they’re experienced in matters of x.

    Take a member of a marginalized group for instance. They may claim to be experts that deserve deference on the subject of racism for merely being a member of that group.

    In reality they are not experts on racism. They are experts on their personal experiences of it. To be an expert on racism requires a lot of additional credentials and study. For example: a white man with a doctorate in the social sciences focused on racism probably knows more than most of the subjects of racism about racism.

    Sometimes subjective knowledge of an experience is what’s important. Other times we need a more rigid standard to establish something. A lot of skeptics struggle with knowing what qualifies as evidence and what kinds of evidence are appropriate in given situations.

    Our ignorance of Bayesian logic is a daunting problem.

  10. Jason, that’s all fine, but it’s also consistent with what I said. Anyone can have facility with the facts. The important thing to recognize is that definitions of membership (i.e., statements that have the form of “X counts as Y”) belong to informed self-identified members. The point, put simply, is that you shouldn’t try to police the boundaries of a social concept from the outside.

  11. How about doctors?

    Even since I’ve had internet, if a doctor, who is supposedly an expert, much more expert than I am, prescribes new medication, I look it up. I read at least two articles on possible effects and often I find that the supposed expert, the doctor, has not done all their homework.

    For example, I discovered that the drug to control hypertension that I am supposed to take should not be combined with the potassium salt substitute that the doctor tells me to use.

    As a result, although I recognize that doctors know much more about the human body and possible illnesses than I do, I’ve found that it is not wise to trust their expertise much.

    If doctors bullshit as much as they do, why shouldn’t I suppose that other experts do?

    Of course, much more is at stake with my doctor.

    If I defer to the astronomer, I lose nothing and if I argue with him, I may turn out to look like a complete fool, while if I always defer to what my doctors tell me, I may end up in the hospital.

  12. Swally, that seems reasonable, as well, though it is consistent with the OP. While you should generally trust the experts to know the facts they are in charge of knowing, that condition is defeasible.

    A person’s membership in a group only gives an outsider prime facie reason to believe the person enjoys the core competency of the group. So, in some contexts, the outsider may have a relatively greater facility with the facts. All the same, the doctor ought to enjoy the default benefit of the doubt which does not belong to the outsider.

  13. An individual’s membership in the group grants them prime facie authority to speak truthfully about the affairs of that group.

    One catch I see with this is that the degree to which this holds true depends a lot on the homogeneity of that group. An individual in a larger group may think that his/her experiences are representative, when they are really just representative of a subset of the group. That goes double when the group is made of subgroups that are in conflict with each other.

  14. JJ, that’s an excellent point, and worth both highlighting and explicating.

    Suppose I said that I was a member of an elite club, called the Court of Fine Opinions. As a member, (a-c) grants me proprietary rights over speaking about what counts as a member. I hereby give a list of members: {Mark Twain, myself, a fire hydrant in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt, and people with a mole on their nose}. This is a heterogeneous group. Moreover, it seems like other people don’t even have a prime facie obligation to assume that I am in a position to speak truthfully about the affairs of the Court.

    Here’s what we say, then: the Court of Fine Opinions is not a social group at all. It is what Kurt Vonnegut’s character ‘Bokonon‘ called a “granfalloon” — an arbitrary selection of individuals. It is then up for debate what counts as a “social group”. (And presumably, all non-psychopaths are members of social groups, and hence we all get to offer some claim about what counts as a social group.)

    It is up for debate whether or not a particular demographic category counts as a social group. There’s even a literature on it (social ontology). But for what it’s worth, my inclination is to say that demographic categories can indeed count as social groups, just in case members have access to information about the experiences of co-members. As information networks get more and more dense, social groups are potentially more and more inclusive. Many demographic categories that count as social groups today, would not have counted as social groups 2000 years ago.

  15. BLS Nelson,

    Indeed you are right on one hand about Einstein. He was, of course, extremely well trained in Physics and he was operating on knowledge well known in the Physics community. But he also had tremendous difficulty getting a job within the community he was revolutionizing. Beyond that the assertion of a quick acceptance is somewhat exaggerated.

    General Relativity was published in 1905 and Special Relativity in 1916. For all of that interim there were some bold cheerleaders but not a general acceptance. The change in the social paradigm came in 1919, when a British expedition confirmed with an observation of that year’s solar eclipse that the gravitational field of the Sun deflected starlight as Special Relativity predicted.

    I make this point because the social function of expertise is often idealized away in our regard of various fields. We ignore that with the acknowledgement of expertise we confer power over the decisions of others, so there is an incentive to manage that social function in ways that may have little to do with knowledge and understanding. Another example of this interference of the social function of expertise and the knowledge function thereof can be found in the work of paleontologist Jack Horner, who has been mining paleontological low-hanging fruit left by experts for forty years, much to the benefit of our understanding of dinosaurs.

  16. I like Jason’s comment. I agree with BLS Nelson’s response that it’s still consistent with what he was saying in the article, but I was reminded of a time I was arguing for Affirmative Action with a girl in my class who was part Latina (but culturally white and looked caucasian) who didn’t support any Affirmative Action whatsoever. She kept bringing up her heritage as though it gaver her authority on the subject, but she didn’t even know that California does not have Affirmatie Action. Being white, I can’t speak from direct experience about Affirmative Action, but I think we both had the equal right to express our opinions and knowledge on the subject.

  17. Lee, fair enough. The word “rapid” is open to interpretation. From hindsight, a transition may appear ‘rapid’ even while in prospect it was anything but. My point (I think) was to convey the idea that trust was earned, in Einstein’s case. There was not (and, I think, ought not to have been) any prime facie assumption that he was worthy of deference.

    On the subject of institutional pressures. It is interesting to consider whether our current institutions of knowledge would even recognize an Einstein if he showed up on the scene today. I don’t see any reason why not, but I’m open to arguments that run in the opposite direction.

  18. I think they would have a LOT of trouble recognizing him.
    And, my order of Relativity, above, is reversed. Special was first.

  19. I think that a genius who makes a revolutionary discover, like Einstein, is always going to get recognized sooner or later.

    Who has more trouble getting recognized is the outsider who discovers or creates something that the insiders could have discovered or created, but were too lazy or too blind to or the outsider who discovers something a bit sooner than the insiders get around to discovering it.

    That outsider who is not a great genius like Einstein but just a bit more awake than the insiders creates a lot of resentment and hostility among the insiders.

  20. Swallerstein,
    Look up Alfred Wegener and the time it took for the Geological profession to accept Plate Tectonics. First proposed in 1905, and Wegener was an academic geophysicist, Plate Tectonics was STILL being taught as “controversial” when I was in college in the middle seventies. Sometimes even overwhelming evidence cannot move a stubbornly held belief in the authorities of a solid science.

  21. Lee Jamison:

    Why were Wegener’s theories rejected for so long and with such vehemence?

  22. Honestly, Swallerstein, I do not know, from a scientific standpoint.

    But my working hypothesis, and the reason I find this subject so compelling, is that human beings tend to protect a knowledge base as though it were a form of exploitable capital. This is especially true if the individuals are heavily invested in the state of understanding they perceive to be status quo and they see that understanding as a source of social significance. You may also recall the furor in the Art Historical world during the cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Literally hundreds of art historians were heavily invested in explanations of Michelangelo’s intent that depended on the dreariness of the former appearance of the murals.

    In my understanding the “new” appearance of the murals after the ’90s imposed a cost on their self-perceived social significance within the discipline.

  23. But what if, members of an expert group have an interest in not being completely honest with non experts.

    Someone who works with cars everyday will generally be more of an expert on cars than someone who does not.

    Ben does not work with cars. A used car salesman does. Should Ben defer to the used car salesman?

    Mountebanks and Charlatans never appear as bunksters. They even come credentials. Ben would defer to a physicist. Let’s pick a real world physicist; Dr. Andrea Rossi. Dr Rossi is a fully qualified physicist, he has a legit and real PhD. He’s run technology companies (with industry histories). His latest wheeze is a cold fusion device, the e-cat, he’s trying to raise money for. He has managed to convince a lot of rubes so far. This guy has a history of similar scams – alternative energy operations, that raise millions and then go bust.

    Now. Rossi is a professional physicist, and I am not. I know the “physics” of his device – I know how he’s tricking people (it’s been a little fun game to figure out his demonstrations on science forums). But will Ben defer to my opinion, or to Dr. Rossi?

    Skepticism is not only a problem of dealing with people who are mistaken, experts wrong in good faith, but people who are very wrong in bad faith.

  24. Katie, thanks for your thoughts, and for the shout-out.

    JMRC, you bring up an important point. My first response is to point out that my deference in the case of (b) is only prime facie (on the face of it). The fact that Mr. So-and-so is a physicist is a minimal reason to believe he has the authority to speak truthfully about the business of physicists. However, on balance, there may be reasons to not defer — e.g., it may turn out that he is a con artist.

    The ‘used car salesman’ example is also a good one. When a used car salesman tells me what it is like to be a used car salesman, I am sure I will take it on face value unless given reason to believe otherwise. But that’s about as far as the deference goes.

  25. I would just like to point out a minor straw person in your argument. Philosophers of science do not tell (or attempt to tell) scientists what science is. They tell scientists what they should do if they want to be on firm logical footing.

  26. As far as I can tell, Rupert begs to differ!

  27. “Philosophers of science do not tell (or attempt to tell) scientists what science is.”

    The Demarcation Problem is part of Philosophy of Science, and thus disproves your claim here rather swiftly.

  28. Rupert is right, or at least it is right for him to comment.

    Psychologists want the authority, credibility, and politic neutrality of science. So they try to make it look like science. No ideological agenda in science, is there?…ever? They dress it up – it’s not pseudo science, but it rides close to the line. Psychology is more in the realm of philosophy than science as it deals with subjectivity.

    In the Divided Self, RD Laing makes an appeal for a science of persons. It’s a comment on the misapplication of a scientific method appropriate for objects but not subjects.

  29. There is no wrong in offering comments, but there is something wrong with making assertions about what counts as what, when you are not one of the ‘what’s.

    This is not stifling of critical speech, I think. e.g., I am certainly confused about how, say, psychodynamic theory counts as science. But I do not assert that it is not science, that it doesn’t count, simply because it does not fit criteria which I favor.

  30. BLS Nelson,

    “There is no wrong in offering comments, but there is something wrong with making assertions about what counts as what, when you are not one of the ‘what’s.”

    Okay, let’s talk about the Pope for a moment. Papal infallibility, is something that is misunderstood by non-Catholics and even Catholics. The Pope does not believe he is infallible. And to invoke the infallibility he must expressly state that he is, it must be ex cathreda. This basically never happens. As on occasions in the past, they’ve come away looking like jackasses due to making pronouncements on subjects beyond their expertise – Galileo was locked up, not for being right, but for undermining the authority of the Church. Lamaitre, a French Catholic priest, was one of the discoverers of the Big Bang. He also became a science advisor to the Pope. The Pope made a pronouncement that the Big Bang was proof of divine creation, to which lamaitre advised the Pope to maybe keep his mouth shut on the science thing. The contemporary theory is the Big Bang was a product of a fluctuation in absolutely nothingness. Which ludicrous as it sounds, is less ludicrous than believing a divine extraterrestrial did it.

    Devout Catholics, who are not so clued in on the details, still believe the Pope is infallible. The same happens with science. In Catholicism there is loads of woo. Outsiders like the neo-atheists think they’re clever pointing out the more risible woo, and they assume the Church believes the woo, when it’s more complex. The woo is there for those who need it. If Holy water gives comfort to an innocent old woman, if she believes it has magical powers – then the official line becomes blurry; the water can be sacred because it is contemplative and symbolic. That Holy water is a European pagan tradition, and you don’t find it in the bible (at no point does Jesus say “Hey, Mathew. Pass us the bottle of Holy water, I need to do some sprinkling.”) Europe was covered in Holy wells. And when the Catholics arrived, they didn’t need to plonk holy virgin effigies at these sites, the virgin effigies were already there. They just had to point and say “that’s the virgin Mary, mother of Jesus”. As a former seminarian once told me, the fastest way to become an atheist is to join a seminary. It’s where fine young earnest people with simplistic notions can quickly become disabused of them. Some turn to atheism and anger, some become alcoholics, and some, like Stalin, who was a seminarian, turn to being Stalin.

    But is the secular world any less idiotic than the old woman blessing herself with her Holy water. No. And maybe we are doomed to our idiocy. The smug cosmopolitan Dawkinite, buys “natural” spring water by the overpriced bottle. They believe there is something sciency and more wholesome in it. But it is the same idiotic and magical belief as the old woman. Both their Holy waters come from the tap. But both have a religious experience, maybe a mild ecstasy, in their respective consumptions of their tap waters.

    When Richard Feynman formulated the term Cargo Cult Science, though he didn’t name names, he specifically had in mind people who had the right credentials but who were making claims, like an organic potato is better for you than an inorganic one. Something of which there is neither evidence of now or then. And is something that is absolutely based in a quasi religious apocalyptic dread, that man through his sins of modernity and science is bringing about the end of the world.

    Now into the ethics of truth. The naive assumption, is that something is either true or it isn’t – and that someone acting in good faith (it’s very important here to state that good faith is subjective), someone acting in good faith will never state a fact to be true that they know to be false. The reality is many people have a anti-scientific hierarchy of truth; they will lie about a lesser truth to protect a greater truth.

    A loon, with credentials and a job at a university, may have deeply held religious beliefs. They may believe man made fertilizers are tempting some cosmic power. They know there is no scientific basis for their dread, it’s purely religious (but they are a religious person). They believe scientific agriculture is another attempt by man to build a tower of Babel. So, they falsify and mislead, they know they are lying but they’re serving a greater truth. Any criticism or questioning that’s too close to finding the truth of their work they hysterically shout and scream, waving their hands and their authoritative diplomas.

    Can you have Cargo Cult philosophy? Ben, have you ever read a philosophy paper, that was completely without substance, bar emetic obsequious fawning over a senior academic that might get the author of the paper a job. The PWIP (Person Working In Philosophy) was not being dishonest, they were acting in a higher good faith; that philosophy would be better served by them getting a good job in a philosophy department, than an inconsequential little bad faith acting. That when they make their greater contribution it will all balance out.

    Truth as double entry book keeping.

    Many people believe only a fool speaks truth to power – and that the clever serve power, even if they know the truths of power to be lies. And this true to the extent that in any hierarchical society or institution, corruption is nearly inevitable, that those who serve power are rewarded, and those who serve truth punished.

  31. JMRC:

    Isn’t that a bit of poetic license that “in any hierarchal society…those who serve power are rewarded and those who serve truth punished?”

    First of all, power isn’t always antithetical to truth. For example, a hospital is a hierarchical institution with a clear power structure, but the few times I’ve been in the hospital, I’ve had the impression that those with power, that is, the senior doctors, are interested in finding the truth of my medical problems.

    Maybe I’m very innocent.

    There is no doubt that there is a certain level of corruption in most institutions. Probably, the hospital administration plays favorites in their promotion policies and they undoubtedly try to cover up instances of medical malpractice or insitutional errors, but still, in general, in my innocence I do believe that they basically seek to discover the truth (whatever that means) about what is wrong with the patients and to treat them in order that they may recover.

    That is, in democratic societies at least most of the institutions are a bit corrupt, but in general, strive towards truth of sorts.

  32. BLS Nelson,

    “There is no wrong in offering comments, but there is something wrong with making assertions about what counts as what, when you are not one of the ‘what’s.”

    How do sane psychiatrists get to commit the insane? How do non-sick doctors pronounce the sick are sick, or not? How do non-criminal jurors get to decide the accused are criminal, or not?

    A slightly more complicated case:

    1) Moderate Muslims say Muslims must do moderate A, B, C but not extreme X, Y, Z, and assert doing X, Y, Z is not Islamic and makes you a non-Muslim*.

    2) Extremist Muslims say Muslims must do moderate A, B, C and extreme X, Y, Z, and assert not doing X, Y, Z (when prescribed by the Qu’ran) is not Islamic and makes you a non-Muslim*.

    But (1) claim to be Muslim, and assert (2) are not. (2) claim to be Muslim, and assert (1) are not. But (1) and (2) seem to be Muslim, and (1) and (2) seem not to be Muslim, by their respective definitions. So we have a paradox? They are each asserting what counts as a ‘what’.

    If we appeal to the Qu’ran then superficially it seems (2) are proper Muslims, when taking the Qu’ran literally. But then the Quilliam Foundation assert (as many Christians do about the OT) that these prescriptions X, Y, Z were of their time:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22640614

    “By fundamentalism, I mean the reading of scripture out of context with no reference to history or a holistic view of the world … Specific examples of literalist, fundamentalist readings that still dominate Muslim attitudes worldwide…” [my emphasis]

    But both moderate and extremist Muslims generally agree the Qu’ran is inerrant. But then they argue over the fallible human interpretation of an inerrant text. Who gets to say which interpretation is right?

    Meanwhile many atheists assert (1) and (2) are all Muslim, and the moderates distancing themselves from the extremists isn’t really on, since both moderates and extremists are using the same methodology to justify their position: faith in claims about God and subsequent revelation of inerrant books that define their own inerrancy and are offered as evidence for the God that justifies the claim of their inerrancy …

    This latter assertion by these atheist non-Muslims, that all these Muslims are Muslims seems justified: i.e. making an assertion about what counts as what, when we are not one of the ‘what’s.

    *Sometimes the assertion is that the others are not ‘proper’ Muslims, but you do get some, particularly the extremists, claiming that those that don’t see Islam as they do are not Muslims at all, but are apostates.

  33. JMRC

    Can you have Cargo Cult philosophy? Ben, have you ever read a philosophy paper, that was completely without substance, bar emetic obsequious fawning over a senior academic that might get the author of the paper a job.

    Yes and yes, respectively. But I’m losing a sense of where you disagree with the OP. (a-c) are insufficient to build a Cargo Cult. To make a Cargo Cult, I think you need (d), or you need to believe in something like (d). I do not believe for even one hot little minute that (a-c) lead to (d).

    But yes, I do expect some philosophers to hold something like (d). And if that is so, it may be useful to diagnose the actual reasons why philosophers would be attracted to it.

  34. Ron,

    Your cases (1) and (2) are consistent with the idea that both have authority to say what counts as what, since both are part of the same group. You can have intra-group contests for a definition. That’s normal, and consistent with the present point. Outsiders should pay careful attention to the ways that people define themselves. Hence, atheists have a vague idea of what it is to be Muslim, and they defer to self-identified Muslims as an abstract group to determine for themselves what counts as Muslim.

    (A prior assumption here is that you need to have some basic concept of the word — a sense of the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions of the word — which contribute some provisional sense of how the proper use of the word can legitimately refer to people in the world. e.g., if I am a very confused person who believes that “clerk” means “witch”, and I happen to run into a clerk who calls himself a witch out of whimsy, then I am still not even prime facie warranted to defer to the clerk about what counts as witchiness. Ethnography should contribute to a semantic theory, but it is not a substitute for semantic theory.)

    I think the sane/insane example is interesting. It’s true that psychiatrists get to say what counts as insane, even though they are not themselves insane. But that’s because the setup of your example suggests that there is a social group called “people who are insane”. But that’s misleading. The logic of the psychiatrist’s sentence is more negative: “I am in charge of saying who counts as sane, and these people are not a part of that group”. Insane is literally, non-sane, not sane.

    That might cause some people to worry. The fact is, group membership in this case is formed and reinforced in a negative way by agents who pretend they’re doing something more benign and clinical (e.g., like a psychiatrist defining who counts as ‘not sane’). One might worry that similar insidious practices are behind many other forms of categorization. e.g., arguably, in patriarchical cultures women are defined in terms of what men are not — as deficient men. But when asked, perhaps some men in that culture will claim that they are not defining women, they’re excluding some people from the category of men. Do we let that stand?

    I think not. It is a fact that men in some cultures chose not to respect women, and/or convinced themselves that there was sufficient evidence on hand to treat women as deficient men. They were badly mistaken in having done so. In contrast, those who suffer from severe mental disorders — the insane — are those who either do not fit into any actual or potential social groups at all (e.g., the idealized psychopaths I mentioned above), or are struggling with a consistent self-concept (such that their dignity cannot be reliably respected). By all indications, Charles Manson does not even meet any of the minimum requirements for understanding what counts as Charles Manson, no matter what that means.

  35. Being a mathematician and linguist, I’m not sure I belong to the proper group to offer this aside, but my understanding is that psychiatrists are not those who define insane. Rather, insane is a legal term of art, referring to one who is unable to distinguish between right and wrong, and therefore not culpable for having broken some law.

  36. Mark, thanks for that. It’s true that insanity is a legal term, not a clinical one. A random psychologist walking down the street does not get to just pin down a random patient and say, ‘I dub thee insane’. It only arises in the context of law.

    That said, a necessary first step during the legal process is sanity evaluation, which is what I assumed we were talking about.

    I’m sure there is variation according to region on who gets to run a sanity evaluation. But in at least some contexts a sanity evaluation must be conducted by a physician / psychologist with appropriate levels of certification and psychiatric experience.

  37. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=7134

    BLS Nelson,

    “Your cases (1) and (2) are consistent with the idea that both have authority to say what counts as what, since both are part of the same group.”

    (1) assert they are Muslim, and (2) are not.
    (2) assert they are Muslim and (1) are not.
    You assert they are both Muslim, when you are not* a member of Muslims.

    *Presumption on my part. But even if you claimed to be a Muslim you would still be up against Muslims that claim they are and that you are not (i.e. you’d be in (1), (2) or some other self-proclaimed group that may or may not assert the others are or are not.)

    This is getting more complicated.

    “Hence, atheists have a vague idea of what it is to be Muslim, and they defer to self-identified Muslims as an abstract group to determine for themselves what counts as Muslim.”

    That’s precisely the nature of the problem right now, and why I think your point about assertions doesn’t work. In deferring to the group we are already deciding, asserting even, that they are a group we will defer to – we implicitly assert who is in the group and who we listen to when various people self-proclaim to be in a group and proclaim other self-proclaimers not to be in the group.

    In this case moderates are arguing about what makes a proper Muslim, and atheists are standing on the side lines saying they are all Muslims and that Islam is the problem here (see other post on this site about relationship between Islam and terrorism).

    The antagonism in the ‘feminist sceptics’ ‘movement’ is currently another case where the simple rule doesn’t apply. Some men agree that some female members of their group of sceptics are being oppressed by some misogynist members of the group of sceptics. Some female members self-identified as feminist sceptics accept this support from these male sceptics, and accept these men as feminist sceptics. Some ‘radical’ feminist sceptics think all men are excluded from feminist scepticism (basically they can’t be feminists), and some have a problem with transgender men-to-women, by virtue of them not being women. Some women self-identified as feminist sceptics think the fuss is about nothing; and then these in turn are vilified by the radicals as not being feminists at all. And on it goes.

    Also, cheap trick trying for the negativity of inclusion in the sanity group. That’s precisely the problem with Muslims saying who is Muslim and who isn’t. Many insane people insist they are members of the sane group, while some members of the sane group insist they are not. And not being members of the sane group those they label as insane don’t get to say what it takes to be a member of the sane group. So, a ‘what’ doesn’t get to say he’s a ‘what’ because another ‘what’ says he’s a ‘not-what’, or whatnot.

    And, your OP ‘womanly’ point is misleading. The term ‘womanly’ is basically a male POV on what makes a woman a woman, and as such is a legitimate label. Now, in these enlightened times were women refuse to live solely by how men define them, and have in many cases taken the label of ‘womanly’ and redefined it for themselves, have ‘owned’ it, the same problem remains. Now I know how diverse human biology is, but as a man I still get to say what women appeal to me, and as such, if my tastes happen to match some stereotypical range then that’s what I feel is ‘womanly’, should I choose to use that outdated term. And I have no problem with some women declaring what they perceive to be ‘manly’, and I’m quite comfortable with some women not finding me manly, if I don’t insist on being a dominant male in a heterosexual relationship. I have female friends who like a ‘manly man’, or a ‘gentleman’, or a ‘modern man’, and I seem to lie somewhere in that range that appeals to my wife, but not to some female friends. I don’t see why my male perception of what is most attractively female to me, what is ‘womanly’ for me, doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of women. For the record I’m straight, but I’ve seen some transgender and transvestites that are hot, by my visual response to their outward appearance, ex-men and men who are ‘womanly’, feminine.

    Mark,

    I think you’d need to let the simplistic language pass on that. The point still stands once you have decided who gets to decide – aaargh! you’re asserting who is a member of the group that gets to assert who is a member of another group…

  38. swallerstein,

    Of course I was using license. The statement is neither absolutely true, or untrue in every context. In certain contexts it is nightmarishly true.

    And in regard to medicine you would think that everyone would value human life over social class. To a greater and lesser extent this is true. In many countries medical training and promotion within medicine is restricted by social class. This is why the wealthy elites of certain countries always travel abroad for medical treatment, even though the facilities in their own countries are better resourced in financial terms – literally gleaming. They are not going to take chances that the senior surgeon operating on them doesn’t just have the job because they were lucky enough to be someone’s nephew.

    This doesn’t just happen in oil rich sheikdoms. All I know about the US system is a friend who is a doctor is much happier working in it. Their experience of certain places in Europe they were not.

    “That is, in democratic societies at least most of the institutions are a bit corrupt, but in general, strive towards truth of sorts.”

    Yes, but a truth of sorts. And the worst form of corruption is when the powerful are pursuing something they believe to be a greater good, that justifies lesser evils. Then it becomes a system of double entry book keeping, where any kind of evil becomes possible.

    It’s nearly uncontroversial to say the UK is not a democracy. The mayor of London, the prime minister, most of his cabinet, his most powerful advisors, all went to Eton. Eton is an ultra-exclusive school for England’s elites. It’s not that the school produces extraordinary intellectuals. Somehow, in a convoluted process of careful exclusion and inclusion, the system has been rigged the public are given the illusion of choice, and what they receive is the old boys of Eton.

    In the current issue of the Newstatesmen, Laurie Penny writes on a recently little scandal for Eton. The 2011 entrance exam essay question. The students are told it’s 2040, and they are the prime minster. There have been riots in London. And to restore order 25 protesters have been shot. The student must write a speech justifying the deaths to parliament.

    The perspective of the classes who attend Eton, and what is actively inculcated into their little minds, is that their class is not only born to rule, but obligated to. And the obligation includes shooting some of the lower classes for their own good.

    Their exploitation is very sincere. They believe they’re on a mission from God, and those they exploit, even murder, would be lost without them. This idea is not unique to the English upper classes. Outsiders assume that secret societies like Yales’ Skull and Bones are irreligious drink societies for young elites. In fact they are shockingly religious. I’ve seen the ceremonial documents for some of the societies. They sing Christian hymns, say prayers, make religious pacts to serve God, each other and society (their idea of serving God and society is serving themselves). This is the kind of experience that shaped GW Bush. A man whole had countless thousands killed for their own good.

  39. Ron,

    In deferring to the group we are already deciding, asserting even, that they are a group we will defer to – we implicitly assert who is in the group and who we listen to when various people self-proclaim to be in a group and proclaim other self-proclaimers not to be in the group.

    Sort of, but not really. There are some requirements for the initial designation for who counts as being member of the group. The necessary conditions for group membership can be established without deference to the beliefs of group members themselves. However, this information falls short of providing general sufficiency conditions for who counts as a member. And when I think of an answer to the question, “Who counts as what?”, I tend to think the answer comes in the form of general sufficiency conditions.

    So, e.g., I — outgroup member — may say that a Muslim is necessarily someone who has the right kind of connection to the Prophet Mohammed. Show me a person who identifies as Muslim, but who has no real or imagined connection with the Prophet, and I shall say: “Evidently, the word ‘Muslim’ is one I find too confusing to use productively.” Before you start playing the game of naming who counts as what, you need to be confident that you know where to begin. But this is a paucity of information, and seems to fall short of what you want to say.

    As far as I can tell, the rule that I have in mind applies to the feminist skeptic’s movement, as to any other. Intragroup conflict only matters if there’s such a degree of conflict that any credible necessary conditions for membership are in dispute. But necessary conditions are a dime a dozen, and your examples seem like contests over general sufficiency conditions.

    Also, cheap trick trying for the negativity of inclusion in the sanity group. That’s precisely the problem with Muslims saying who is Muslim and who isn’t.

    No, the cases are worlds apart. The case of insanity reflects something fundamental to the issue. We have to assume that everybody except the insane are part of a social group. The insane are the ultimate outsiders, so to speak. That’s why they are negatively defined while no other group is.

    And, your OP ‘womanly’ point is misleading. The term ‘womanly’ is basically a male POV on what makes a woman a woman, and as such is a legitimate label.

    If there is such a thing as an “implicit assertion”, as you claimed above, then surely this is an instance of an implicit assertion about who counts as what. The only thing I need from you is to recognize that some speech acts have the functional role of defining people, and that this is one of them.

  40. BLS Nelson,

    You don’t need a cult to go cargo culting. In it’s most simplest terms, it’s mistaking the superficial appearance of a process, for the substance of the process itself.

    It’s not just something that’s effected South Sea Islanders. And example is Chairman Mao and steel. Industrialized countries used to use the steel production figures as important economic indicators. Mao believed if China could increase its’ steel production numbers, the rest of the economic development would magically follow. But it’s just an indicator – it does not reveal the economic complexities that gives the number meaning. To cut a long story short, Mao ended up with a lot of useless low grade pig iron, and a famine that killed millions.

    In academia, let’s take critical theory for example. A person may produce a work that is willfully obscure, but there is something substantial hidden in the text. It may be read by another person, who really doesn’t get it, and completely mistakes the style for the substance, and they go create a work peppered with meaningless references to Marx, queer theory, whatever else you’re having. It gets accepted to a journal. Sokal wasn’t cargo culting – but he consciously did what a cargo culter would do unconsciously. But the Bogdanov affair proves that you can get away with (or in the brothers case, nearly get away) meaningless drivel in the field of theoretical physics. Sokal initially thought this was a response to his hoax, but the brothers were deadly serious.

    As cargo culting is a mistaken apprehension of reality – and even a complete misunderstanding of how reality is constituted – a belief the superficial precedes the substance. The cargo culting academic may be grossly dishonest, but in good faith (they believe not only that everyone else is being honest, but dishonesty is a necessity for constituting of reality). As mad as it sounds.

  41. JM,

    I take it that you want to argue against (a). Your point seems to be that the meanings of words are not best fixed by authorities who are well informed about a subject.

    I’m just struggling to see what the moral of the story is supposed to be. Suppose we’re asking about the meaning behind “Negative Dialectics”. Is it better to ask a random undergraduate who read the first three pages, or to ask Theodor Adorno himself? Even if the work turns out to be bogged in confusion, Adorno seems like he’s the one who is best placed to give the explanation a go.

  42. BLS Nelson,

    “I take it that you want to argue against (a). Your point seems to be that the meanings of words are not best fixed by authorities who are well informed about a subject.”

    I’m not against formalism. That’s kind of fluid in how it’s achieved.

    Can the authorities get it badly wrong? Kurt Schneider coined the term schizophrenia. But he wrote in German. When the English speaking authorities read his work they misleadingly translated schizophrenia as split mind. By schizo Schneider simply meant broken. His writing on schizo personalities was misinterpreted as meaning split personalities. The English speaking experts created a body of work on split personalities – and some obliging psychotic patients obligingly performed for their doctors, as patients will (as one of the most important things you must do to escape the madhouse is satisfy their diagnosis is correct). The idea became so embedded in English speaking psychiatry, that even as they became aware of the mistake they found it difficult to let go of the idea. Even RD Laing’s Divided Self clings to remnants or revenants of the idea of the personality being split or cleaved in some way – that’s why it’s called the Divided Self.

    Can you trust the authority of the mental health profession. The different disciplines have very radical disagreements. Do you have any choice? Not if you have need of mental health services, and then it’s pot luck.

    “Adorno seems like he’s the one who is best placed to give the explanation a go.”

    Erwin Schrödinger formulated his famous wave equation – the equation bears his name. But the accepted interpretation of the equation is not Schrödinger’s, it’s Max Born’s. To be uncharitable as some people have been, you could say Schrödinger’s equation was correct, just Schrödinger didn’t understand his own equation.

    If Adorno can’t explain something, unless he’s talking to a complete idiot, then it’s possible he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about himself. I know he can’t explain anything in the present tense, as he’s dead but it still applies.

  43. When science zeros in on a concept it is interesting to go back over its history to find out what can be deferred as to how the concept has been perceived over time.

    The logos, or sound is such a concept. In Aramaic it was Memra and was known as the word, as wisdom, and was feminine. Early Christianity was in accord with this interpretation. After the Dark Age, during which knowledge was lost, Christianity discovered the Greek interpretation where the logos was considered masculine. During the waning days of the Dark Age it was determined in Christianity that Jesus Christ was the logos. In Eastern philosophy it has been perceived as the creator, that which sustained, and dissolved whatever manifests. Today Astrophysicists and Cosmologists also perceive the logos as sound and can determine at what point it went silent, the cause being when light (phos)or photons separated from protons and electrons.

    It is possible to defer to the concept of the logos as sound and possibly feminine, if what manifests could be considered negative energy in relation to what does not manifest. It is not possible to defer to a cosmic principle being totally embodied in anyone or in anything that is manifest. Although it is likely that it is possible to be in correspondence with the logos as a cosmic principle; Heraclitus described the logos as common to all. We could defer to the philosophical view that the logos will play a role in manifestation until the end of the outer cosmos.

    It will be interesting as science continues to make the concept of the logos real; real in the sense of being objectively understood.

  44. JMRC,

    I’m not sure what you think those examples are telling us.

    The first one indicates that people were improperly deferential towards a particular authority (Kurt Schneider), and that the mental health profession suffered as a result. That’s consistent with (a).

    Your second example refers to a case in physics where we defer to a secondary authority (Max Born) over the primary one (Schrodinger). But that’s consistent with (a), as well. After all, (a) only states that we ought to defer to the authorities (whoever they are). It doesn’t say, ‘defer to the primary authority’ or suchlike.

    The third example is the one I find most interesting, because it involves a lesson we might not agree on. I talked about it briefly in the previous post, on the subject of Adorno. I guess I might talk a little more about it, to see if anything resonates.

    (Background: in case this wasn’t obvious, at the moment I think Adorno’s “Negative Dialectics” is unreadable confusion. Moreover, for those works I do understand in some measure — e.g., Dialectics of Enlightenment — I find literally ridiculous. i.e., I think it is shoddy to the point where it is worthy of public ridicule. I mourn for the loss of every wasted hour I spent reading it.)

    Some who are in my position would say that ND is meaningless simply because they do not understand it. They would like to say that the author is just plain confused. A certain kind of person falls all over themselves to call a work “nonsense” or “meaningless”, because they insist that they must be the arbiter of everything.

    I demur. It is certainly possible that the work is meaningless, and that the author is massively confused. But it is also possible that it is merely confusing, or it is possible that I am myself confused in relation to the work. And so long as there are people out there with some kind of credible claim to authority over the meaning of the work, I defer to their best judgment. If there are no such authorities, and never were — then, and only then, is the work meaningless.

    That said, I also think that some people claim expertise when they have no credible claim to it. And, sure enough, it is worth asking what it takes to have a credible claim to authority over something. At any rate, I feel like that’s the direction you want to really push on. That’s fine; it’s a good question. But it’s a different one, and it goes beyond what I’ve said in the OP.

  45. Ben:

    What you say about Adorno is funny.

    I’ve never been able to understand him at all, except some non-philosophical observations from Minima Moralia. In fact, Adorno has a book analyzing astrology as the worst of mass culture that makes about as much sense as astrology does.

    Anyway, here’s an interview with Marcuse, who is understandable in general.

    Marcuse goes on and on about what a genius Adorno is and at one point (I don’t remember where in the interview: it could be in another section) Brian McGee remarks that he finds Adorno hard (or impossible) to understand.

    Marcuse, who is honest, answers that he does not understand Adorno himself.

  46. Vina, at times I do wish I were better acquainted with the history of logos as a concept. At the moment, I’m especially interested in the sense given to the concept by Plato in the Theatatus, and in particular its contribution to how we ground our canonical formulation of knowledge as justified true belief.

    Be that as it may, I am unsure how your comments relate to the topic of warranted deference. You use the word ‘defer’, at times, when it seems like you want to use words like ‘infer’ or ‘refer’ instead. Hence, we might say “…it is interesting to go back over … history to find out what can be inferred as to how the concept has been perceived…”, or “it is possible to refer to the concept of the logos as sound and possibly feminine”. But I do not know what is meant if ‘defer’ is used in place of the italicized words.

    Swally, yes, I agree that’s a great video. Almost all of the McGee videos that I have seen are good ones (the exception being the one on Schopenhauer, which is just uncomfortable to watch). And I have nothing but respect for Herbert Marcuse, and benefit a great deal from the golden oldies that he had a hand in. “The One Dimensional Man” was not a perfect book (his sociology of logic was totally off-base), but it was at least interesting, without being either obscure or pompous.

  47. Jim P Houston

    Hi Amos,
    The section you’re thinking of can be found here:

    http://youtu.be/Mn0PW-CVmxk?t=2m56s

    The book from the tv series (now marketed as ‘Talking Philosophy’ rather than ‘Men of Ideas’ in deference to modern sensibilities and the participation of the late Iris Murdoch perhaps) presents some of the relevant dialogue thus (it differs slightly as the dialogues were ‘tidied up’ for publication):

    Magee: A criticism of a quite different kind, often made, is that the writings of the Frankfurt School are not just difficult to read but usually turgid and sometimes unintelligible. Take Adorno, for instance. You described him earlier as a genius. I find him unreadable. That seems to me a tremendous barrier between the ideas the Frankfurt School were trying to disseminate and the public they were trying to disseminate them to. It is a serious criticism, in any event — and if any-thing it is made more so by the fact that alternative philosophies are expounded by better writers. In analytic philosophy, for instance, there is a tradition of clarity, even of wit. Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all — and so for that matter did Jean-Paul Sartre, the best-known exponent of Existentialism. So when one reads Existentialist or analytic philosophy one has a fair chance of reading prose which is distinguished as prose. But when one reads the members of the Frankfurt School …

    Marcuse: Well, to some extent I agree with you: I confess there are many passages in Adorno I don’t understand. But I want at least to say a word about the justification he put forward for this. It was that ordinary language, ordinary prose, even a sophisticated one, has been so much permeated by the Establishment, expresses so much the control and manipulation of the individual by the power structure, that in order to counteract this process you have to indicate already in the language you use the necessary rupture with conformity. Hence the attempt to convey this rupture in the syntax, the grammar, the vocabulary, even the punctuation. Now whether this is acceptable or not I don’t know. The only thing I would say is that there lies an equally great danger in any premature popularization of the terribly complex problems we face today.

  48. Jim:

    Thank you so very much.

    That is exactly the passage, but having listened to it several years ago, I did not remember exactly where it appears in the interview and being lazy, I did not listen to the interview again, as I probably should have.

    Why, I wonder, would ordinary language be permeated by the power structure?

    The language most people use and speak, that is, ordinary language, is exactly that language that has developed in the day to day life of common people.

    One could certainly make the case that the jargon used in economics, for instance, is permeated by the power structure, since it is often specifically developed to serve their interests.

    However, ordinary language seems to be a collective creation coming from all social classes and would thus reflect their interests and aspirations.

    In fact, ordinary discourse tends to have a rather negative view of the power structure. I have never witnessed a conversation between working class (or lower middle class) people when they speak well of the power elite.

    I get the impression that Marcuse and especially Adorno were so busy bemoaning how brainwashed the masses were by capitalism that they never had time to listen to what the masses have to say.

    I find that sad.

  49. BLS Nelson,

    “Your second example refers to a case in physics where we defer to a secondary authority (Max Born) over the primary one (Schrodinger). But that’s consistent with (a), as well. After all, (a) only states that we ought to defer to the authorities (whoever they are). It doesn’t say, ‘defer to the primary authority’ or suchlike.”

    But in science the authority is in the theory not in the person. In religion, the authority is in the person. The priest declares a holy revelation, and it bears weight as they are a religious authority – they’re often dressed up as wizards. In science the scientist presents a theory, usually to a journal. Einstein was a patent office clerk – in religious terms this is a guy who was not even inside the doors of the church. Einstein isn’t unique in that respect; several outsiders have made major contributions. The science paper may contain experimental results, mathematical relationships, etc. If it stands up to scrutiny by peers who are familiar with the field, then the theory is accepted as more probably correct than previous theory. Crucially, there needs to be a substantiveness to their claim, and not simply superficial authority. There is a place for symbolic an superficial authority, but not in science.

    But what substantiates can be a little fuzzy and imprecise.

    The public like religion and wizards. And they’re comforted by certainty. Which is why several scientists are making a good living as popular entertainers at the minute.

    Formal science really has its’ origins in outsider science – gentlemen tinkering with things, collecting rare Arabic books, etc. And universities have their origins as seminaries.

    Don’t take my point as being anti-institutional. Another example might be, though extreme, is the explosion in computer technology in the last 30, 40, years. Teenagers were producing highly sophisticated software in their bedrooms, while in many universities, professors who boasted of never touching a real computer, wrote worthless gibberish on blackboards.

    “That said, I also think that some people claim expertise when they have no credible claim to it.”

    Many people claim a directed communication with a divine being.

    “And, sure enough, it is worth asking what it takes to have a credible claim to authority over something.”

    That’s really were things are fuzzy. In the case of the religion, maybe the pope should conjure up an angel or the big man himself. And not just stand around a tell us because he’s dressed up as a wizard there is a God.

    “At any rate, I feel like that’s the direction you want to really push on. ”

    No. It’s something more fuzzy I’m getting at.

    When I was a child I believed in the authority of the priest. I believed all his mumbo jumbo about flying virgins etc. With deeper knowledge I know that authority was an illusion, and maybe for both us; the priest and myself – he may still believe he is a wizard, I do not.

    One time, the most highly qualified physicist I’ve ever known personally (he had worked for NASA, been involved designing nuclear power stations, everything). In the course of lecture, he said glass is a liquid and not a solid. This is a scientific wives’ tale – it does appear in some text books but it is completely wrong. I believed him, I accepted his authority. But he was screamingly wrong. Idiotically. Glass is a perfect example of a solid crystal structure. The wives tale has it’s origins in a mistake. Old glass has flow marks on it. Early scientists made an assumption because the glass was hundreds of years old, that it was a liquid slowly flowing. This is not what happened. Early window glass makers were not very good – the flow marks are from their sloppiness.

  50. Here’s something to illustrate a point.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/27/physics-philosophy-quantum-relativity-einstein

    Raymond Tallis in the Guardian on Monday. Philosophy is not dead.

    Raymond does have science credentials. But not in theoretical physics. He makes several errors in the piece. And when it comes down to it his problem with quantum physics is the maths. It is horrible. Even people who can operate the equations often do not understand them. And Raymond does’nt want to make the effort to do that either.

    Raymond is a much more credible authority than me, but he’s still wrong.

  51. JMRC, I’m still struggling to see your point, insofar as your point is meant to contrast with what I have said. Everything in both of your posts are consistent with (a-c). Your NASA friend understood the abstract idea of what counts as a liquid, but perhaps he was misinformed about the facts concerning glass. (b) says: prime facie, you defer to him about the facts, until given reason not to. It’s already a soft, ‘fuzzy’ claim. You can’t make it fuzzier without making the idea of authority impossible.

    The most ironclad, absolute claim I would like to make is (c): an outsider must defer to the insiders about the meaning of terms that are part of the insider’s art. (So, e.g., a few years ago, some science writers criticized the community of astronomers for not consulting the wider population about the meaning of “planet”. It seems to me that their complaint was without merit.) If you want to fuzzify something, then (c) is the thesis you might want to take aim at.

    On first blush, there is a highly persuasive alternative to (c):

    (e) The meaning of words in your idiolect are fixed by you, and any alteration of your idiolect must be justifiable.

    In conversation, Noam Chomsky enjoys using a particularly striking phrase. When the topic of correct definition comes up, he says: “Nobody owns the words”. The idea, I think, is that language is individualistic, and everyone is the master of their own idiolect in some important way.

    The difference between (c) and (e) appears to be quite stark. Following (c), I think we have duties to recognize genuine experts for their expertise. Following (e), Chomsky thinks that words are owned by the users.

    Chomsky has very good reasons for his view. Here are two which resonate with me: (i) intellectual authorities can take on a less-than-pristine character; ii) it is part of the responsibility of intellectuals that they should demand justification from their would-be authorities.

    I find these premises persuasive. However, I think (e) is consistent with (c). It’s just that (e) occurs chronologically prior to (c), when we have in hand some basic idea of what the concept is, and are trying to figure out who has a credible claim to explicate the details of how the concept is legitimately used. Once those authorities are on hand, the responsible anarchist ought to defer. Perhaps nobody “owns” the words — it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think that people have rights over words. All the same, he agrees that we should defer to authorities that have successfully justified themselves. (And, courting controversy, I think the fact I have duties to you does not necessarily imply that you have rights over me.)

    Of course, there are other ‘anarchists’ who shall never defer to anyone ever. And, fine. But, for his part, Chomsky thinks they are not representative of the anarchist tradition or the anarchist impulse that is common to the nature of all free-thinking people. Stopping short of saying they are not anarchists, Chomsky will say: “Nobody owns the word ‘anarchist'”. But he will also say that he does not think they are using the word ‘anarchist’ in the right way, in a way he understands it as a scholar of the tradition. It seems to me that his orientation to this matter approximates (c).

  52. BLS Nelson,

    “Your NASA friend understood the abstract idea of what counts as a liquid, but perhaps he was misinformed about the facts concerning glass. ”

    Okay, I’ll make it a little clearer. I wouldn’t call him a friend. He was a physics lecturer, and I was a student, and we were in a physics lecture when he said it.

    “(b) says: prime facie, you defer to him about the facts, until given reason not to. It’s already a soft, ‘fuzzy’ claim. You can’t make it fuzzier without making the idea of authority impossible.”

    The thing is it demonstrates to me, how I can have ludicrous contradictions in my own mind; have an absurdity as a certainty. The authority of several sources had made me suspend critical judgment (I had heard it before, and it sometimes appears in text books). Even for my lecturer who was very highly qualified.

    To explain how bad it is. Imagine an astronomer giving a lecture. They say at one point “Did you know the moon is made of cheese, fancy that”, and the students don’t even blink (they accepted it as a fact as child and never questioned it – everyone is at fault here). The next minute the astronomer goes into thorough detail as to the real constituents of the moon. There is a complete absence from his mind and the mind of his students, that a moment before he had spoke an absolute absurdity – the cheese moon. The study of crystals is very fundamental in physics. My lecturer would very very definitely be a world authority on crystals, and glass. Glass was his NASA job.

    What I know now, is given the right conditions I can believe an absurdity like the moon being made of cheese, while simultaneously knowing it’s not made of cheese. and that this can happen to other people – experts and authorities.

    “The most ironclad, absolute claim I would like to make is (c): an outsider must defer to the insiders about the meaning of terms that are part of the insider’s art.”

    You are absolutely correct. That is formalism. It’s very important in science and maths that everyone uses the same terms, symbols, etc. So there isn’t absolute confusion. And there is a very important reason. Because there was time, when there wasn’t standards. Everyone used whatever symbols they felt like and there was massive confusion. Imagine if Adorno for the sake of perversion, decided to write in his own esperanto based on Turkish and Japanese, in Greek script. And that’s the situation early science and maths was in. It slowed things down and drove people insane.

    And even relatively recently, the Standard Model, in physics was a response to physicists discovering new particles and giving them names and descriptions without any standards. Just before the model, it was called the Particle Zoo. Major panic and confusion.

    Bertrand Russell was heavily involved in getting maths standardised.

    Authorities can also be a major obstacle to standardisation. Al Gore did not invent the internet, and neither did Tim Berners-Lee. Before the end of the second world war, the Americans realised they needed an electronic communication system for military purposes to cover their sphere of influence. After the war they got everyone together on a committee. Plenty of committeesque absurdities to drag the process nearly nowhere for decades. For reasons of national pride, the French wanted the telecommunication acronyms to be in French, and the Germans demanded, not to be out done by the French, that the technical documents be in German. I don’t need to elabourate the awfulness. Imagine trying to read bad German to find something that resembled a French acronym that didn’t make sense in first place.

    When it came to the Internet, the Americans went wild cat and used Request For Comments RFC. So relative outsiders could propose protocols and manufacturers could build equipment without having to sit in interminable meetings in Europe, with bureaucrats fretting over the orders of letters in an acronym for the honour of France, and the Germans with their awful manuals even they didn’t want to use.

    “(e) The meaning of words in your idiolect are fixed by you, and any alteration of your idiolect must be justifiable.”

    I was going to respond to Swallerstein (which I may still do). Within a single language there are dialects, some are even crypto-dialects – the outsider is not meant to understand (this is why doctors use Latin and Greek – it’s very intentionally to make it much harder for fraudsters to impersonate doctors.). Usage of a dialect greatly depends on context.

    Idiolect. The currently accepted theory of the genesis of the universe is the vacuum fluctuation theory. That’s how a professional physicist would term it – it’s dry and obscure enough not to reveal its’ implications to a non-physcist. Krauss calls his book a Universe from Nothing, and he’s beginning to get sexy and groovy. And I like to be completely unique in my idiolect and term it ‘a fluctuation in the nothingness’ – that would make the professional physicist’s skin crawl. Ben you could ask me where do you come from and I could say “You come from the nothingness” and sound like a Buddhist monk. We’re not even made of stardust, we’re made of nothing.

  53. At this point I’m pretty sure you just agree with the OP. Even so, it’s certainly worthwhile to explicate what you mean using case studies.

    What I know now, is given the right conditions I can believe an absurdity like the moon being made of cheese, while simultaneously knowing it’s not made of cheese. and that this can happen to other people – experts and authorities.

    Aside: I don’t agree with that because I think beliefs have to be determinately true or false in order to count as beliefs. But that’s a different issue.

  54. Vina,
    The use of the word “logos” in reference to Christ occurs in the opening of the Gospel of John, which could not have been written later than the Fourth Century. That is before the Dark Ages. There is little question John was written to a predominantly Greek audience, so the Greek nature of the use of the word may simply be natural given its target.

  55. BLS Nelson,

    “At this point I’m pretty sure you just agree with the OP. Even so, it’s certainly worthwhile to explicate what you mean using case studies.”

    I am a theoretician, I leave that kind of rigour to the experimenters*.

    “Aside: I don’t agree with that because I think beliefs have to be determinately true or false in order to count as beliefs. But that’s a different issue.”

    I complete understand what you’re getting at. For a belief to be held, on rigourous examination, you must be satisfied that it is congruous with all other beliefs held or revise those beliefs. But what if you have a false satisfaction – like I did. I even showed the flow marks on old glass to friends on tours of castles as proof the interesting, but counter intuitive theory of the fluid nature of glass. I felt satisfied the belief was coherent (just because you get that warm comfortable feeling of correctness does not mean you are correct).

    First you have to join the dots. And if you have some cognitive dissonance making you falsely see an incongruity as congruous what can you do? With my own experience, I do not even accept my own authority.

    Religious people paper over all the incongruities with an Orwellian double think – they smoother a minor truth to serve a greater truth. And what Chesterton meant by “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything”, is the loss of coherence and certainty of his own concrete and satisfying experience of reality should he stop believing in God. Or gods. Pagan superstition fills all the cracks

    *I hope you realise I meant that as a joke.

  56. I am a theoretician, I leave that kind of rigour to the experimenters*.

    Har har

  57. One of the great ploys of rhetoric is to hold one’s opposition to a higher standard of precision or rigor than that held for one’s allies. This is particularly true when one is exposing work not intended for an academic audience to the sort of rigor one might apply to work that was. Chesterton clearly was writing for a lay audience.

    Another ploy is to presume that the conceptual universe in which your theories are valid is the only possible conceptual universe, and to take this as license to disdain all other possible conceptual universes. Thus it was possible for String theorists in the 1980s to call people who refused to jump on their Physics bandwagon “stupid”. Three decades later String Theory remains as non-falsifiable as Chesterton.

    Again, the primary function of deference is social control- people who do at least SEEM to understand intelligently applying people who do not fully understand, and their resources, to productively addressing issues in ways those people could not design on their own. That places a lot of social capital in the hands of those who can convince people they deserve such deference.

    As social creatures we seek to manage entry into such perception of expertise, and also seek to reliably quantify the general assessment of the society as to levels of due deference. As noted above education at Eton is taken in British society as a sign of being worthy of deference. That is probably as much silly foppery as the exalted appreciation of a degree from Harvard in the States. But the holder of a Ph.D. can generally be reliably expected to understand the depth of their particular field of study better than an undergraduate in the same field.

    The key point in deference is communicating how people who don’t deeply understand a field can assess the appropriate deference due people who claim they do. How would the layman discern whether Chesterton or Paul Tillich was the deeper theologian? Could a layman choose between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein? If you had to sort out an argument between Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer to whom would you defer, the guy who built the Pentagon, or the guy who couldn’t decide who he really wanted to be married to?

  58. BLS Nelson.

    “No, the cases are worlds apart. … The insane are the ultimate outsiders, so to speak.”

    Now you’re counting numbers to decide who the outsiders are.

    To literalist Muslims who take a literal interpretation of the Koran then clearly everyone else is an ultimate outsider. These Muslims have it right and everyone else is clearly wrong. That is why, like the confident analyst who is sure of his understanding of sanity these Muslims are really sure of the truth of Allah, Mohammed, the Koran. It doesn’t matter that they might be a minority of the human population; it is their conviction that assures them. They have a general sufficiency; they are holding to the initial conditions of the system of belief. It is all the other ‘Muslims’, the moderates as we see them and as they see themselves, that are blasphemers by watering down the strict terms of the faith, weakening it by interpretation. If Allah had wanted to provide an adaptable Koran then he would have done so. All ‘moderate Muslims’ are not Muslims, they merely use that label falsely. The word ‘Muslim’ then is no different to the word ‘mouse’ in this context, a label misappropriated for another purpose. A real mouse is a furry little mammal, but my computer mouse isn’t. Whatever religious system these ‘moderate Muslims’ concoct, it isn’t Islam. According to ‘real Muslims’.

    So, ‘real Muslims’ have a case, if we are to defer to these ‘what’s.

    Some speech acts do define people. My objection to your “there is something wrong with making assertions about what counts as what, when you are not one of the ‘what’s.” is not about speech acts defining people. I’m objecting to it being a problem when you’re not one of the ‘what’s. It seems to me that it is equally problematic whether you are one of the group or not. The ‘No true Scotsman’ is always a potential trap for any member of a group. I don’t see what the problem is in making assertions about group membership from outside the group.

    Both inside or outside, whoever is making the assertion is just as accountable to reason and evidence. There are many groups where cliques or elites on the inside try to exclude others that thought they too were once on the inside, when to those that were always on the outside can see this factious infighting more clearly than those on the inside.

    Or, to look at it another way, any definition of membership of a group becomes so complex, with so many properties defining the group, that it is easy to concoct barriers to membership. Groups are difficult to define clearly, so ‘non-what’s aren’t at any particular disadvantage and have no more need to defer to members – especially since from the outside we can see various factions each claiming to be members. Why defer to any of these factions for group definition?

    I’m not surprised philosophers have a problem with the trivial Sorites (non-)paradox. They are deferring to heaps to define themselves?

  59. BLS Nelson,

    “I don’t agree with that because I think beliefs have to be determinately true or false in order to count as beliefs.”

    Why? Is the content of religious belief determinately true or false?

    Surely belief is merely a state of a brain with regard to some topic, the extent to which the brain holds information about some topic in relation to other content, other beliefs. It has not need to be determinately true at all.

    “But that’s a different issue”

    Perhaps a different post then?

  60. BLS Nelson

    It is common to infer or defer in relation to a fact or a premise; it is a little heretical not to defer. My intention based on the topic, unwarranted deference, was to defer or not to defer to facts or premises in relation to the logos. To infer has different shades of meaning. In either case, whether by inference or deference, or not, a conclusion is reached.

    Lee Jamison

    You are right, the English translation of the Greek masculine noun, logos or word, as ‘he’ became church orthodoxy when Irenaeus, who was instrumental in its acceptance, was second-century bishop of Lyons.

  61. Ron,

    Now you’re counting numbers to decide who the outsiders are.

    Curious. I don’t know where you’re getting this from what I’ve written.

    It seems to me that it is equally problematic whether you are one of the group or not. The ‘No true Scotsman’ is always a potential trap for any member of a group.

    That’s interesting, and certainly a view you can take. I’m interested to know to what degree we disagree on this.

    Here’s what I think is wrong with the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy. The fallacy is a fallacy because the apocryphal speaker is making up ad hoc definitions for who counts as a Scotsman. But I do not want to say that the Scotsman has done a wrong thing just by offering definitions of what it means to be Scottish — I think that is the wrong lesson to take from the case. If we are annoyed at the seemingly arbitrary and capricious nature of the Scotsman’s definitions, it is only because we suspect the Scotsman is neither informed about the diversity of the Scottish people, nor is invested in fitting the facts about these common self-descriptions into his own pronouncements. I would like to say that if we have reason to believe the Scotsman is a credible authority in both of these ways, then they can define the category however they like, and we should defer.

    Keep in mind, though, that it’s possible that the Scotsman can offer definitions that undermine their own credibility as authorities. If the Scotsman says, “All Scotsmen are planets orbiting the sun”, then he isn’t even in the referential ballpark, and can be ignored. And if the Scotsmen says, “Only men from Glasgow are true Scotsmen”, and I said, “But what about people from Edinburgh?”, and the Scotsman replied, “I’ve never heard of it, and who cares,” then they have lost their credibility in being able to speak on behalf of the group. While it is possible to maintain the opinion that all true Scotsmen are from Glasgow, our warranted deference in him can only get by so long as we assume that further argument could be provided.

    Both inside or outside, whoever is making the assertion is just as accountable to reason and evidence… Groups are difficult to define clearly, so ‘non-what’s aren’t at any particular disadvantage and have no more need to defer to members

    I agree that, in principle, everyone is accountable according to reason and evidence. I do not agree that outsiders are at no epistemic disadvantage. I agree that the outsider is not necessarily at an evidential disadvantage (i.e., an outsider can be quite well versed when it comes to the facts about the group).

    That, however, does not mean that the outsider is not at a rational disadvantage. The outsider doesn’t have enough of an authentic relationship to the subject that she is able to compel our conscientious respect. Here’s an analogy. We think the writer of Star Wars fan fiction is at a relative disadvantage when it comes to the canonicity of their stories. The fan fiction might be elegantly crafted and extremely well-informed. All the same, it is not canon.

  62. BLS Nelson,

    A paraphrase: If we are annoyed at the seemingly arbitrary and capricious nature of the Muslim’s definitions, it is only because we suspect the Muslim is neither informed about the diversity of the Muslim people, nor is invested in fitting the facts about these common self-descriptions into his own pronouncements.

    Many Muslims insist that Islam is a religion of peace and seem quite put out that outsiders should consider the perpetrators of atrocities done in the name of Islam to be Muslim, or that Islam is at all a significant part of the problem. There’s a complexity of Muslim associations, where there can be vehement denial of each other, when opposing each other, while concurrently insisting that all Muslims must unite for the furtherance of Islam. There are some factors that for a non-Muslim determine that someone is a Muslim – the association with Mohammed you described. But there’s you, and outsider, declaring all such people to be Muslims, when some of those people declare that some others of those people are not. You see your perspective as being more correct. I agree. Sometimes the outsider can see the commonality where factions within the group see each other as not being in the group.

    “That, however, does not mean that the outsider is not at a rational disadvantage.” – Sure. But it doesn’t mean he is at a disadvantage, which is the requirement of your point. You assert your point as if it is inevitable that the outsider is necessarily precluded from having a clearer perspective of what counts as membership, and that the outsider should always defer to the insider. I simply don’t see that as a necessity, and therefore not the problem you assert it is.

    “The outsider doesn’t have enough of an authentic relationship to the subject that she is able to compel our conscientious respect.”

    Authenticity is overrated. It’s a handy emotive term that allows an insider to assert the priority of their perspective, hopefully unchallenged. But even if you could make a case for authenticity that would only mean that the group member could tell you what it feels like to be a member, to the extent that an outsider could not; but that might still be different knowledge than an intellectual assessment of what counts as being a member, on which an outsider might have a better perspective.

    I still object to your negativity switch.

    “We have to assume that everybody except the insane are part of a social group. The insane are the ultimate outsiders, so to speak. That’s why they are negatively defined while no other group is.”

    This is the numbers game. ‘Everybody except’ is where you are declaring the norm, the default. But ‘social group’ in this context is a bit broad, since there is no single social group but many overlapping ones. You could also pick out criminals, or Trekkies, as oddities to some overly generalisation of ‘social group’.

    I don’t have a problem with your negative perspective; I just don’t think it gets you off the hook with regard to your assertion.

    OK, so as a member of the sane group the insider sane doctor must be deferred to by the insane person as the sane doctor insists the insane person is not a member of the sane group. But still in this case we do not defer to members of the group of insane to define membership of the insane, since many would exclude themselves from that group.

    This is essentially what you assert, originally: As an X I must defer to members of Y as to what counts as being a member of Y.

    When I offer the sane/insane case, X and Y being mutually exclusive, you offer this as the correct way to view this: As an X (sane) I must be deferred to by members of Y (insane) as to what counts as being a member of X (sane).

    But this is the same as this, because of the mutual exclusion: As an X (sane) I must be deferred to by members of Y (insane) as to what counts as being a member of X (sane), and therefore, by mutual exclusion, what counts as Y (insane).

    Which of course is what doctors do: they declare who is insane, by failure to meet the standards set for being in their group of the sane. Fine.

    So I give you this: As an X (non-Muslim) I must be deferred to by members of Y (Muslim) as to what counts as being a member of X (non-Muslim), and therefore, by mutual exclusion, what counts as Y (Muslim). So a member of non-Y is to be deferred to on declaring membership of Y.

    It seems that there is no clear and general case for asserting that a non-members of Y defer to members of Y when defining membership of Y.

  63. Ron,

    I think I’ve said this already, but — the specification of necessary conditions does not involve picking out ‘what counts as what’. In my usage, talking about ‘what counts as what’ involves specifying both necessary AND sufficient conditions.

    Example. Suppose it is true that all games are necessarily playable. Surely that does not mean that I have sufficient information on hand to say that this playable thing (say, a tuba) counts as a game. Indeed, it would be absurd to say that my belief that games are playable allows me to identify what counts as a game. Right? Well, it is just as absurd to say that, just because I say “Muslims have the right connection to the prophet Mohammed”, that entails that I have specified who counts as a Muslim. Hence, this example, as you have stated it, does not work.

    With only necessary conditions on hand, the most I can say is that “If this concept means anything to me, then this unplayable thing (say, a Monopoly board stuck under a block of impenetrable lucite) does not count as a game”. But that’s not saying what counts as what. It’s not even saying ‘what doesn’t count as what’. It’s saying: “If this Lucite Monopoly counts as a game, then I am very confused about games.” I say as much in my post on May 27 2:18.

    But it doesn’t mean he is at a disadvantage, which is the requirement of your point.

    Sorry for the double-negative, if that was confusing. To be clear, I do assert that outsider status places the person at an epistemic disadvantage. That was the point of the Star Wars analogy and the emphasis on authenticity.

    You push me further by asking, essentially, why authenticity ought to confer any special knowledge which we might think of as ‘intellectual assessment of what counts as being a member’. Well, to be clear, I don’t think there must be any special privileged access to certain kinds of evidence. That’s not why authenticity matters.

    Rather, I think it is a question of authorship. If you respect the dignity of persons, you acknowledge that there is additional reason to add weight to the testimony of members, on the assumption that they are the authors of their own destiny. The insider and outsider may be on all fours when it comes to evidence, and nevertheless not be epistemic peers, because dignity places relative deliberative weight in favor of the insider’s point of view.

    If games were living things, worthy of dignity, then I would say the same about games. I would say: “Okay, here is the set of playable things; now you playable things figure out who counts as a game and who doesn’t”.

    OK, so as a member of the sane group the insider sane doctor must be deferred to by the insane person as the sane doctor insists the insane person is not a member of the sane group.

    Not so. Nothing I have said implies that the insane person has any rational social duties at all. And, as I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a social group called, “the insane”.

    I am not just pointing to the norm or the default, when I reference the case of the insane. I am saying they do not count as members of any social group whatsoever. They are an exceptional limiting case which does not fit into the schema. There is no sense in talking about warranted deference for the insane.

  64. Ron Murphy,

    “To literalist Muslims who take a literal interpretation of the Koran then clearly everyone else is an ultimate outsider.”

    There is no such thing as a literalist Muslim, or Christian, or member of any religion that derives guidance from holy texts. Every reading of a text is a subjective interpretation. There can be no literal interpretation. These texts are never cook books or manuals for mechanical devices.

    The claim to having a more “literal” interpretation is a fallacious appeal to authority. More “literal” being more authorative. And this is also the reason Salafists (“old style”) Muslims dress up in what they believe to be more traditional, hence more Islamic, clothing. It’s a fallacious appeal to tradition. And the Salafists tend to pick and chose depending on their elements of their own heritage.

    Take a Mosque somewhere in England. A Pakistani Salafist will believe old fashioned Pakistani clothes are correctly Islamic, whereas a Saudi will believe Saudi traditional clothes are. The Mullah might encourage North Africans to dress up in old fashioned Pakistani clothes.

    The Salafist terrorists are not literal in the sense they pick and chose very selectively from the texts. It is Haram (forbidden) to commit suicide. It is also forbidden to kill unarmed civilians. Christians and Jews were also expressly granted tolerance by Mohammed. And they are not Kaffir (unbelievers – which also the derogatory term used by whites in Apartheid SA).

    Essentially, the Salafist terrorists are just making it up as they go along. And it’s a pretty fluid interpretation.

  65. “There is no such thing as a literalist Muslim, or Christian, or member of any religion that derives guidance from holy texts. Every reading of a text is a subjective interpretation.”

    Yes, I know that. But that’s not what they claim. And it is their claim that counts, according to BLS Nelson’s point. You are not according them their dignity.

    Personally I don’t buy into what they say; and evidence and reason trumps claims of authenticity with regard to who is a member of what.

    I’m not prepared to defer to their claim that Muslims are members of a special group that deserves special respect because they have a special relationship with an entity that I don’t believe in. Yes, I agree they are a member of a group that call themselves Muslims, but no, they are not members of a group with any special privileges due to them.

    We use a common term, Muslims, but there are at least two groups being talked about: (a) Muslims-Ordinary, (b) Muslims-Special. They claim they are in (b), I claim they are in (a), so I do not defer to their claim at all. That we use the common name, Muslims, masks this distinction.

    I have no choice but to defer to their claims about what it feels like to be in a group that is deeply offended by criticism of the beliefs of that special group, even while I deny they are members of that special group. If they say they are deeply offended then I am unable to say they are not. All that authenticity buys them is the ability to say what it feels like to be self-proclaimed to be in that ‘special’ group, whether they are actually in it or not. In fact from my POV they lose much dignity because of the claims they make.

    We are often told we should confer respect on the religious generally. As individuals I have great respect form many religious individuals. But individuals can be members of many groups simultaneously, and can claim to be members of groups that I think do not exist. I can respect Francis Collins for is work as a biologist. I have zero respect for that part of him that believes based on faith.

    Believers believe, through faith, that they are members of a group that has a relationship with God.

    I believe, from all evidence, that they are only members of a group whose members believe that its members have a relationship with God. They are not members of a group that has a relationship with God, from all evidence and reason available to me.

    Two different groups. I do not defer to their specific claim.

    Part of the problem is that we tend to use bivalent set membership – you’re in or out of a set. But many sets in reality are fuzzy sets. Even binary logic, when actually implemented in hardware, becomes fuzzy (e.g. hanging chads, metastability in electronic systems). There are a range of Muslims that make various claims for the degree of specialness of the group they self-proclaim to be in. This just adds to the difficulty of naming sub-groups, overlapping groups, membership of multiple groups.

    So, on the whole, deference to group identity is just as much for the outsider as the insider. There is no necessity or sufficiency that guarantees group members deference in deciding membership, in practice; and I see no particular moral reason to adhere to BLS Nelson’s assertion that we should defer to self-proclaimed members to decide their membership. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I think we should defer, sometimes I think we should not. My moral judgement differs according to the group and what members are claiming for the group.

    I defer to gay people when they say they are gay, and I defer to their rejection of the notion that it is merely a choice. So, I defer to their claim that they are members of a group that has no choice in their sexual orientation and I defer to their claim that they are not members of a group that do have a choice. I do not defer, on this occasion, to outsiders that claim it is only a matter of choice.

    I’m quite happy to defer to transgender MtF’s self-identity as women, despite the predominant evidence that they are not members of that group. They ask for no special privilege that bothers me, and they are not prescribing or proscribing of my behaviour based on some imagined entity’s whims; and I sympathise with the mental struggle they have with identity and the persecution they suffer. I defer to their claim to the extent that I will treat them as women if they wish.

    How about a transvestite who simply gets a kick out of dressing and acting as a women? Should I defer to his female role at the weekends while treating him as one of the guys during the week? How does his wife treat him? Or do I accept him as a member of a different group depending on the role he plays?

    Do I defer to men that dress as women who claim to be pre-op MtF transgender, when I suspect they are really men who want an excuse to enter women’s’ toilets to play out some voyeur fantasy?

    Which of the above three variations on claims to be female would women (those born as and self-identified as women) accept for the purposes of using women’s public toilets?

    I’m quite prepared not to defer to claims by criminals that they are not criminals, if sufficient evidence suggests they are.

    I have acquaintances that I classify as members of the group of total shits, while they might classify me in that group while I do not. I’m quite comfortable with the variability of opinion on group membership in cases where the evidence and reason is determined by differences of opinion. Much politics is like this, where strong feelings can dominate reason and evidence. There are many conservatives who self-classify as such because they have some dominant affinity on some political point, on economics ideas, for example, but in all other respect I would call them liberal. There’s not a lot of deference given in politics and the set memberships are very fuzzy.

    And yet towing the party line is a function of deferring to outsiders on what group you are a member of: many back benchers might disagree with their leader’s opinion on some matter they will defer to the leader’s opinion and vote as if they were members of the group that hold his opinion; they are in an outsider group who disagree with policy, but defer to the requirement to become members of the specific group for the sake of solidarity of a wider group.

    I do not choose to defer to the claims of a member of group that claims I and everyone should be members of that group that always defers to self-proclaimed members of groups on their membership of the groups they claim to be members of. I do defer on this occasion to his claim to be a member of that group that defers to self-proclaimed group members on their membership of groups they claim to be members of.

    There’s too much fluidity in human brain behaviour to make blanket assertions of deference, and too much complexity in group definition to identify groups, from the inside or outside. I adapt my deference according to reason and evidence. Dignity is earned, generally, though often I might choose to attribute dignity by default, until I’m shown to be wrong in that judgement.

    Am I still missing something?

  66. Ron Murphy,

    “Yes, I know that. But that’s not what they claim. And it is their claim that counts, according to BLS Nelson’s point. You are not according them their dignity.”

    But you are creating some false distinctions. When a sectarian attack was carried out in Northern Ireland. Say some Catholics killing a Protestant or vice versa. No one ever claimed that those Catholics were extremist Catholics. And the Catholics who did not kill Protestants were moderates – implying that they tacitly support the killing of Protestants, just don’t feel like doing it themselves.

    The reality is, most Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims do not want to kill anyone.

    “Personally I don’t buy into what they say; and evidence and reason trumps claims of authenticity with regard to who is a member of what.
    I’m not prepared to defer to their claim that”

    When was the last time a Muslim tried to convert you to their system of beliefs? Do they persecute you for not believing? Do they even go as far as the Jevohah Witnesses going door to door?

    “Muslims are members of a special group that deserves special respect because they have a special relationship with an entity that I don’t believe in.”

    No one is asking you to respect them for their relationship with a supernatural entity.

    Even the Salafist terrorists do not want to kill you because you do not believe in their God. They want you to get your government and soldiers out of the countries they believe to be there’s.

    “Yes, I agree they are a member of a group that call themselves Muslims, but no, they are not members of a group with any special privileges due to them.”

    They are due protection from persecution. And persecution can legitimise the terrorism. The Birmingham Al-Queda cell who selected the English Defense League rally for attack, did so because the English Defense League are racist thugs intent on persecuting Muslims.

  67. Ron,

    (1) On dignity.

    One thing I need to get clear straight-away is that respect for dignity is not the same as respect for belief. If one necessarily implied the other, then there could be no difference between (c) and (d).

    (2) On group denials.

    I’m quite prepared not to defer to claims by criminals that they are not criminals, if sufficient evidence suggests they are.

    If a set of criminals do not self-identify as criminals, then you do not defer to them at all. Remember, one of the conditions for deference is that the person self-identify. So the issue here does not arise.

    (3) On intragroup contests. I said before that I don’t see this as an issue. Maybe I wasn’t clear about why I think that.

    I wrote, “Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on matters relating to how group (y) is defined.” Deference happens to the group as an abstract whole. If there is a state of deep internal conflict, then your act of deference yields few rewards. It does not solve the question of “Who counts as what?”, since it is completely unclear who can speak for the group as a whole. In this case, deference confers no immediate epistemic advantage — you’re no better off than you were before. By analogy, I defer to George RR Martin to determine what will happen in Book Seven of the Song of Ice and Fire series, but at the moment I don’t know anything at all about what will happen in that book… and (perhaps) he doesn’t either. For the moment, we might say deference comes up empty.

    Deference, in this narrow case, looks like it is a morally good but epistemically harmless thing to do. You should defer anyway, under the assumption that the authors will sort themselves out. When they do sort themselves out — by having a clear authority who speaks for them, or by arriving at common recognition of certain norms, or whatever — then you will be at a clear epistemic advantage. Moreover, your prior deference (when it seemed pointless) is the very condition that will put you at an epistemic advantage in the future. Pursuing the same analogy, you might withhold deference from GRR Martin and start selling your fan fiction as canonical, on the grounds that your fan fiction is completed and hence can be referred to. But it seems to me that this would put you at an epistemic disadvantage, because it would only serve as an obstacle to the proper recognition of Martin’s book when it comes.

    Now suppose the process of ‘sorting themselves out’ is not going to happen (within any measure of acceptability). In that case, then you have grounds for wondering whether or not the set of people you are thinking about is actually a social group at all. Perhaps they are a granfalloon, like the “Court of Fine Opinions” example I gave to JJ Ramsey above. In this case, you should still defer so long as you are able [until it becomes impossible to defer, because it’s obvious that there’s nothing to defer to].

    (4) On empty deference. You ask: what happens when the group does come up with a definition of ‘what counts as what’, and their definition involves deferring to a non-existent entity (God)? This seems like a very different question than the ones you were asking before, and I think it is both an interesting and challenging question.

    So, perhaps I refer to Christians as ‘people who have the right relationship to Jesus of Nazareth’. And perhaps it might turn out that they define themselves as ‘people who have the right relationship to Christ, son of God’ — or, cutting out the middle-man, ‘the right relationship to God’. Does that mean that, by the magic of deference, I am committed to belief in God?

    Gah! Good question, but — no! You are not under any obligation to defer to non-existent things. Moreover, any deference that bottoms out in deferring to a non-existent party is actually a violation of the maxim of dignity. The primary aim of deference is not to play a game of hot potato, passing deference down a chain. The point is to say: “I refer to you people as a group, and recognize that you people are the arbiters of your own destiny, insofar as it is consistent with the facts”. If you couldn’t refer to them in the first place, deference wouldn’t get off the ground. Second-order deference is possible, of course, since, e.g., when I want to know the law, I defer to lawyers, who defer to judges, who make precedents, who defer to the legislature, etc. But deference has to have referential traction every step of the way or else it comes up empty.

    Aside: it seems to me that religions make use of the idea of an ultimate authority (or God) because it functions to compel social cohesion. If that is so, then deference to this artificial construction, “God”, is actually just a mechanism for making the group defer back to the group. When Hobbes asks the common people to defer to an office he calls “sovereign”, he is asking us to defer to this imaginary person. What Hobbes didn’t say is that the act of deferring to the sovereign functions to get people to defer back to the group on the whole. It just happens to be a contingent fact that fooling people into thinking that they’re deferring to this non-existent entity makes them more susceptible to obedience, and this creates a certain kind of social cohesion. It’s a separate question whether or not this move is consistent with their own dignity as truth-tellers.

  68. “If a set of criminals do not self-identify as criminals, then you do not defer to them at all. Remember, one of the conditions for deference is that the person self-identify. So the issue here does not arise.”

    Then I do not defer to those people who self-declare to be members of the innocent when there is good evidence that they are not members of the innocent. And I wouldn’t need to be a member of the innocent to not defer:

    Criminal z declares he is a member of the innocent Y. But criminal x, self-declared member of criminals X, does not defer to z’s claim to be a Y, because x has evidence z is an X – and here’s the video evidence x recorded of the heist. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22304071

    “since it is completely unclear who can speak for the group as a whole”

    This is another reason your assertion is too general.

    In some specific cases, you might get members of Y that have evidence and reason on what counts as membership of Y, that both members of Y and members of non-Y would, on the whole, agree with. In such cases non-Y members might feel justified in deferring to members of Y on the basis of the reason and evidence members of Y present.

    But, if some z self-declares being a member of Y, but many members of non-Y, and perhaps some members of Y, have evidence and reason to suppose any specific z self-declaring as Y is not a member of Y, then there is good reason not to defer to z. In some cases this might be applied to all Z of non-Y that are declaring to be in Y.

    But all this depends, as I say, on the circumstances. You have excused some of the examples I’ve given as being exceptions. But there are so many exceptions I don’t see the generality of your assertion.

    “In this case, deference confers no immediate epistemic advantage”

    That applies so often that it is the reason I reject your assertion because it is too general. Had your assertion been, “Sometimes we should give deference to self-declaring members, such as on occasions when there is general agreement, or evidence and reason, … ” then I would have had no problem with it. But then it wouldn’t have been worth saying.

    “Does that mean that, by the magic of deference, I am committed to belief in God? … Gah! Good question, but…You are not under any obligation to defer to non-existent things.”

    That wasn’t the question. The deference to God is incidental; it is the definition of the group that is the point.

    Example: I am examined by any number of psychiatrists and neurologists you care to bring forward and they all declare I’m as sane as anyone. But I self-declare as being a member of a group of super-heroes with super powers, but I refuse to demonstrate my powers. So, only in this one respect do I seem to be making an irrational claim. I’m sure you will not defer to my claim, for lack of evidence and lack of good reason to do so. You might even claim that my claim must be evidence of (a) I’m lying, (b) I’m playing a tiresome prank (c) I’m insane but as yet not correctly diagnosed, … any number of plausible explanations except the one that actually concurs with my self-declared membership.

    I declare I’m a member of the League of Super Heroes.

    You, as a non-member, and believing there is no such group, declare I am not a member of that group but instead I’m a member of a group that declare themselves to be members of such a group.

    Or, you as a non-member, and believing there IS such group, declare I am not a member of that group because I refuse to demonstrate that I am, and instead declare I’m a member of a group that declare themselves to be members of such a group.

    I might convince everyone that examines me that I really do believe what I am saying. But in all rationality you cannot bring yourself to believe my claim. You will not defer to me.

    This is the nature of the issue with the religious.

    They insist they are members of a group that has a relationship with an entity God.

    In all rationality I can’t see evidence or reason to think there is such an entity, and therefore there is no such group, so I do not defer to their declaration. Instead I insist they are members of a group that merely believes there is such an entity exists.

    Or, I am a Christian who believes in God (I believe there is a group of true believers in an existent God), but I do not defer to Muslims as believers in God because even though there is a God they are not believing in the true God, therefore they are not members of the group of true believers in an existent God.

    “I refer to you people as a group, and recognize that you people are the arbiters of your own destiny, insofar as it is consistent with the facts”

    You’ve changed your tune. This wasn’t your assertion. I’ve been saying all along that reason and evidence (the facts) is the issue. This now means that non-Y can give facts for not giving deference to z’s claim that he is in Y.

    “If you couldn’t refer to them in the first place, deference wouldn’t get off the ground.”

    But it’s easy to refer to Y, pretty much any Y, because humans have the tendency to attribute existence to abstractions. Quine did so explicitly. Which is confusing with abstract entities like God, and other abstractions like groups.

    I see a distinction between the group Y1 that requires there is an actual God, and group Y2 that only believes there is a God when there isn’t. Believers only see Y. They declare they are members of Y. I say they declare they are members of Y1 but are members of Y2. We can’t even agree on the groups so how can I defer to them. Your assertion is that I should anyway.

    You could argue that their Y is consistent with the facts, as many do, because magic abstract entities tend to be consistent with everything. A good God is consistent with the observation that innocent children often suffer horrible deaths (William Lain Craig’s view). But that’s such a weak consistency that reason should have us reject it, just as we reject the consistency of everything with magic fairies, just as Christians reject Islam’s consistency with everything.

    Your Hobbes point is a good reason not to defer to self-declarers generally. It doesn’t require some magic entity to back up the definition of the group, though with a sovereign it usually is a chain leading up to the highest arbiter, God.

    A good deal of life in general is about convincing others of (a) the definition of a group and (b) why one’s self-declared membership should be deferred to.

    That’s what cliques are all about:

    “I’m better than you because I’m a Y; and Y is great; and you’re not in Y; so you’re not so great; and I get to say I’m in Y because I’m in Y; and you don’t get to say you’re in Y because you’re not in Y; and you’re not in Y because you don’t meet the criteria for Y; and we in Y get to dictate the criteria for being in Y; and that’s how I know I’m in Y and you’re not; and because I’m in Y and you’re not you don’t get any say as to whether I’m in Y or not; so, because I say I’m in Y, you, as a non-Y, must defer to me on membership of Y; …”

    By the way, what makes a good philosopher (GP)? And are you one of them?

    Ask the same questions to all philosophers (P).

    P = GP + ~GP; Y=GP, X=~GP

    If you self-declare as Y, does that mean you are Y? What if you’re X but think you are Y, but because you are X (i.e. ~GP) your reasoning for being Y is flawed. Another X may reason correctly on this occasion that you are X, but being consistent with his membership of X may reason incorrectly that he is Y. And some scientists, Z, may have reason to suspect Y (GP) is an empty set. If Y and X are not empty, who is the arbiter of membership for Y and who is the arbiter of the arbiters, X, Y, Z?

    We have philosophers of science, philosophers of this and that, but where are the philosophers of philosophy, and why should we listen to them?

  69. Ron,

    Re: criminalia:

    There is no social group called “the innocent” any more than there is a social group called “the cute”. It’s not even a legal category. In contrast, “not guilty” is a legal category, but it’s a granfalloon, not a social group. Yet it does seem plausible enough to say that “criminals” are a social group.

    Re: sorting themselves out:

    The problem of ‘who is entitled to speak for the group as a whole’ is not the same problem as ‘who counts as what’. If you think that’s a major theory gap, then that’s fine. But it’s more a problem in social epistemology than it is a problem in social ontology. They’re very close, but not quite the same.

    Re: empty deference, the league of superheroes example:

    You, as a non-member, and believing there is no such group, declare I am not a member of that group but instead I’m a member of a group that declare themselves to be members of such a group.

    I don’t even get that far, actually. I say: “I don’t know what ‘the league of super-heroes means’.” It fails the referential test before we can get to the point where we’re counting who is who. Assuming the social group is named in a transparent way, the referential test is something like, “People who have the right relationship to persons with special powers”. In your example, it is manifest that nobody has special powers of the right kind. Hence I defer to no-one.

    The analogy to religion is vexed. Religion is potentially more complex. But not for your purposes, because I think we arrive at the same conclusions as far as that goes.

    You’ve changed your tune. This wasn’t your assertion. I’ve been saying all along that reason and evidence (the facts) is the issue. This now means that non-Y can give facts for not giving deference to z’s claim that he is in Y.

    Well, it’s true that I mentioned the point about referential grounding of concepts only in the comments, and outside of the original post. I was treating the point about prior reference as a tacit assumption. It didn’t occur to me that it would be an important point, as you can see from the fact that when I did get around to it I left it in parentheses (May 26, 6PM). Though you’ve convinced me that I ought to have, and that it’s an important part of the presentation, especially when in a discussion that mentions skeptics.

    So, the outsider can certainly fail to defer to a self-identified member of a group on the subject of how the ‘group’ (z) is defined, just in case there is no such group (z), or in case the interlocutor’s conception of the necessary conditions cannot be reconciled with your own. But reconciliation of necessary conditions is remarkably easy to do. Sunnis and Shi’ites might disagree about who counts as a proper Muslim, but they can all agree that the very idea of being a Muslim is to have the right relation to the Prophet Mohammed.

    Re: meaning and abstract entities:

    At the moment I don’t know what to think about theories of reference. There is, I suppose, a difference between the act of referring (its illocutionary point), the actual reference of the act (its locutionary point), and the functional role of the act (its stable perlocutionary effects). The act involves certain intentions (e.g, referring to God), while the words actually refer to nothing, and the expression functions as group self-reference. [Full honesty: my inclination at the moment is to deny that there is any such thing as sentential reference. But this is a provisional view, and the point really goes beyond the post in all kinds of ways that are 100% non-helpful to the present conversation.]

    Some abstract objects are like that. The words are intentionally used to refer to some single abstract thing, but the social function is to refer to particulars/nothing. Other abstract objects are not like that at all. They are used to refer to real patterns in the world, and actually do refer to real patterns in the world, and are taken to refer to real patterns.

    (Incidentally, I’m not sure you’re right about Quine. Where does he say he refers to abstract objects? The upshot of his “On What There Is” is that we should have an austere ontology.)

    You argue that religious groups Y can be broken into two types: those who intend to refer to God (genuine reference), and those who only believe in God (not really reference). The believers, plausibly enough, do not make that distinction. I’m not sure why you would, either, if you’re interested in knowing about what Y means. The contents of a general concept are its minimal instructions for its use — the general necessary conditions of the concept, the ground for any possible reference, where we go to begin talking about it. e.g., the contents of the concept of ‘game’ is a playable thing. It’s up to us how we whittle down the extension of the concept in use. When it comes to social groups, the contents of concept Y tends to be, “people who have the right relation to charismatic person so-and-so”.

    Re: depressing things:

    A good deal of life in general is about convincing others of (a) the definition of a group and (b) why one’s self-declared membership should be deferred to.

    Well, sure. But it’s good to have a handle on the structure of the explanations, and in particular to know when it is appropriate to leverage dignity for evidence, and in what proportion. It is not enough to just assert that it’s all a big ball of interdependent knowledge, and that evidence has to be weighed against dignity on a contextual basis, as you seem to want to. I need to know the practical conditions which require subtle and drastic turns of thought and speech: i.e., when a combined respect for dignity and the facts compels disrespect for persons. If we don’t have a reasonably good principled theory of warranted deference, people end up making inferences on the basis of their personal affective orientations to the world and dubious analogical thinking — a culture of dipshit misanthropes, ripe for exploitation by charlatans. What I’ve proposed might not give definite answers to every question, but it at least is a structured way of thinking about how to go about things that provides minimal guidance while leaving a lot of room for discretion.

    By the way, what makes a good philosopher (GP)? And are you one of them?

    A good philosopher has most or all of these qualities: they are productive, care about understanding how things hang together generally, are insightful in belief, humble in commitment, rigorous in reasoning, and cooperative in conversation. Strictly speaking, we might think that a Western philosopher has this quality: they have the right relationship to Socrates.

    Am I a good philosopher? I don’t refer to myself as a philosopher at all except under coercion. I think it’s self-flattery for a modern person to refer to themselves as a philosopher. Even so, if I am referred to as a philosopher, I accept it as a great compliment. If somebody self-identifies as a philosopher, and has some minimal credibility, I defer to the practice. If the practice of what is called “philosophy” becomes sufficiently alien to me, I will stop taking the compliment.

    Re: questions:

    1. If you self-declare as Y, does that mean you are Y? –Not necessarily. There is the matter of the individual having minimal credibility. The True Scotsman who does not know about the existence of Edinburgh does not have a lot of credibility.
    2. What if you’re X but think you are Y, but because you are X (i.e. ~GP) your reasoning for being Y is flawed. Another X may reason correctly on this occasion that you are X, but being consistent with his membership of X may reason incorrectly that he is Y. — Sure. These things happen. But if this example is supposed to work, there has to be some sense in which X isn’t Y on prior grounds: e.g., they have no credibility as as informed members of Y, and/or they don’t satisfy the necessary conditions for Y.
    3. And some scientists, Z, may have reason to suspect Y (GP) is an empty set. If Y and X are not empty, who is the arbiter of membership for Y — If by ‘arbiter of membership’ we mean, the people who set the sufficient conditions for Y, then credible self-identified members of Y are the arbiters.
    4. …and who is the arbiter of the arbiters, X, Y, Z? — I’m not sure I understand the question. Is the question, “Who sets the conditions of sufficiency for being part of any social group whatsoever?” All the members of any social group are potential ‘arbiters’ in that sense. Everyone except the insane.

    On metaphilosophy:

    We have philosophers of science, philosophers of this and that, but where are the philosophers of philosophy, and why should we listen to them?

    In Athens, evidently. The World Congress is letting me give a talk on Metaphilosophy this August.

  70. Ben:

    I’m looking forward to reading (or listening to if there’s a podcast) your talk.

  71. BLS Nelson,

    “There is no social group called “the innocent””

    Then there is no social group called the sane and your negative argument regarding the insane fails.

    “It’s not even a legal category”

    Neither is Muslim, as far as I’m aware; except in Muslim states, in which case we are already arguing about who gets to define groups.

    And there may be no ‘official’ social group of the innocent, but clearly with regard to any crime there is such a group.

    It could be argued that pretty much any group is a granfalloon, and so your blanket assertion is as meaningless as the groups to which you propose to give deference.

    “But it’s more a problem in social epistemology than it is a problem in social ontology.”

    They are related enough to make your assertion unreasonable as a general position to hold. They are practically inseparable elements of the problem. Only in the case where there is general agreement, in Y and non-Y, about who gets to determine if z is Y, when all Y and non-Y agree that z’s self-proclamation of being in Y is accepted, is that deference actually workable. In all other cases there is no clear reason to give deference to z’s claim that he is Y; in that other members of Y, and non-Y, might be justified in rejecting his claim.

    “I say: “I don’t know what ‘the league of super-heroes means’.””

    But you would give deference to a religious believer who claimed they are members of followers of a magic entity? The ontology of the magic stuff is different only in that in the super hero case I claim it for myself, while believers claim it for God. And, note that Christians not only give deference to the claims by Jesus that he was divine, they also give deference to a book that claims to give deference to Jesus. Of course the Muslims are right, Jesus was only a prophet and not divine, if there’s any evidence at all for his existence; but they have their own problems.

    What if I had followers that made the claim to my super hero-ship on my behalf? ‘Ronnians’ are believers that Ron Murphy is a super hero with super powers. Are they a group that you would defer to? I don’t see how you rationally could, if you don’t know what ‘the league of super-heroes’ means. So, do you not defer to Christian claims that they are Christians. If you don’t know what ‘the league of super-heroes’ means, do you know what ‘super-natural being’ means?

    Even if Ronnians consists only of me, as the sole believer that I’m a super hero, do you not defer to me?

    “Religion is more complex.”

    I agree. More reason to reject your assertion. But only more complex historically, in that there is a long history of theological equivocation, backsliding, concept twisting. What if I was more religious in my claim? What if I said I have just written this note which was inspired by God, and it reads, “This is the word of the one true God. Ron Murphy is the last and true prophet of your God, and all people on earth should listen to Ron Murphy as he spreads my word. Oh, and incidentally, what he says about him needing multiple wives, and young ones in particular, is right on. It’s part of my divine decree. Don’t bother trying to criticise this, as I’m too ineffable for you to understand my purpose. Just know it is good.” Now, in principle, how is that any different than the Qu’ran or the Bible? Will you still not defer to me on this matter? Is that not religiously complex enough? Do I need to dress it up in King James English? Where precisely is the extra complexity in other religions that would trump this? All religions start small.

    “I was treating the point about reference as a tacit assumption.”

    But reference is so complex I don’t see how your assertion holds if you have that assumption.

    “especially when in a discussion that mentions skeptics.”

    Aren’t we all sceptics, of one sort or another? Aren’t Sunnis sceptical of Shi’ites?

    “Sunnis and Shi’ites might disagree about who counts as a proper Muslim”

    Might not? Some do disagree. Some explicitly claim that, first, their opponents are blasphemers for their claims, second that as such they are heretics, apostates – non-Muslim. The ‘might’ and ‘might not’ is why your assertion does not hold as a generality.

    Illocutionary, locutionary, perlocutionary? This is the philosophical splitting of linguistic hairs and trying to be overly precise in matters of human interaction and the self-proclamation of group membership, and the problem of group definition. It’s messy, and needs to be treated with all the reason and evidence that an individual case deserves, and as such each case turns on its circumstances. I’ve always found it odd that Wittgenstein is considered a genius, when he dismissed his own early work. Linguistics is one of those complex fields that is best left to professional linguists and neuroscientists. It’s too easy to make crap up. If anything the problems of linguistics is another good reason to be suspicious of when z claims to be Y and not to give deference to z too freely.

    “But it’s good to have a handle on the structure of the explanations, and in particular to know when it is appropriate to leverage dignity for evidence, and in what proportion.”

    The ‘to know when’ being the problem with a blanket assertion.

    “It is not enough to just assert that it’s all a big ball of interdependent knowledge, and that evidence has to be weighed against dignity on a contextual basis, as you seem to want to.”

    I think that is precisely what it’s about, and that this is sufficient to discard a blanket assertion of deference.

    “I need to know the practical conditions which require subtle and drastic turns of thought and speech: i.e., when a combined respect for dignity and the facts compels disrespect for persons.”

    Isn’t that using reason and evidence? Evidence of the meaning and interpretation of the subtle and drastic turns of thought and speech? For example, I see no practical or moral reason not to give deference to a homosexual male saying his is homosexual, and deference to his claiming it is unavoidable and not a choice to boot while there is no evidence that it is a choice. And I take on board the evidence of the emotively driven bigotry of homophobes who insist homosexuality is a choice to delve into a sinful lifestyle and the failure of the homophobes to back that up with evidence. I would argue that the homophobes should give deference to what homosexuals say.

    “If we don’t have a reasonably good principled theory of warranted deference, people end up making inferences on the basis of their personal affective orientations to the world and dubious analogical thinking”

    That’s precisely what does happen, because there is no useful principled theory of warranted deference. That’s precisely how some theists try to get away with playing the offence card, by appealing to their principled right to be deferred to, because they say so.

    This is a specific thing I don’t like about some philosophy. It’s arguing for a principle based on the consequences of not having the principle. This is what I find wrong with Dennett’s arguments about free will. He insist on the compatibilst free will, but tries to coerce opponents into that way of thinking by appealing to the consequences of not seeing it his way. He worries that many people that don’t understand the philosophical point will go out and commit crimes under the excuse that “my brain made me do it”, which is a hopeless case to make. I see philosophy, like science, as an attempt to figure out how things are. Ethics is about how and why we come to our moral codes, and exploring how we think about them, not dictating what they should be – I’d consult a theologian if I wanted prescriptions and proscriptions. I don’t need philosophers to dictate my principles.

    “… a culture of dipshit misanthropes, ripe for exploitation by charlatans.”

    It is. Inevitably. We’re fallible humans that come up with all sorts of irrational crap. Doing our best to use reason and evidence is all we have. Principled theories are two a penny; and mostly the province of theologians and armchair philosophers. That’s why I’m surprised you in particular are so insistent on this assertion. We don’t have the luxury of being certain of the certainty of our principles. I try not to have too many principles; but one I can’t shake off is the principle of not having too many principles. I have others as working principles, but I’m quite prepared to drop them sometimes, so it’s debatable whether to call them principles or not. Generally, principles are trouble if taken to be too generally applicable.

    “I think it’s self-flattery for a modern person to refer to themselves as a philosopher.”

    If a good philosopher, with all their “understanding how things hang together generally, are insightful in belief, humble in commitment, rigorous in reasoning” can’t figure out that he is a good philosopher then what hope is there for any z’s certainty that he is a Y, and then why is there any reason a non-Y should defer to him? I do agree that we should be humble in commitment; and while there is a humbleness in giving deference, I don’t think there is anything humble about the assertion you make regarding it. If anything such deference is akin to Feynman’s ‘not so open minded your brain falls out’. Your reason is hostage to your deference. Islamist Muslims love that sort of deference, when given to them.

    “we might think that a Western philosopher has this quality: they have the right relationship to Socrates.”

    That seems too idolatrous and theologically vague to me. I’d rather take each argument of Socrates on its merit. I’m not so sure the ‘Socratic method’ is always that revealing of anything interesting either. It’s a grand methodology that a bad philosopher might flatter himself with, in outwitting his interlocutors. It’s all too easy to open with leading questions and then to demonstrate the lack of insight of the subject. It’s a fine trick for performance philosophers. Socratic questions are excellent misdirections that any illusionist would be proud of. Useful, enlightening, but too flattering of the ego of the typical bad Socratic philosopher.

    “the matter of the individual having minimal credibility” – Who reasons for or provides evidence for that credibility?

    “But if this example is supposed to work, there has to be some sense in which X isn’t Y on prior grounds” – Yes: other reason and evidence. Who decides what and when it applies?

    “If by ‘arbiter of membership’ we mean, the people who set the sufficient conditions for Y, then credible self-identified members of Y are the arbiters.” – But who are they? Not the good philosophers, according to your “I think it’s self-flattery” point, because they are too modest to be arbiters.

    “who is the arbiter of the arbiters, X, Y, Z” – I mean, if any of X, Y, Z are going to be arbiters, A, of membership of Y, then who is the arbiter that decides who is suitable for A? It becomes an infinite regress of a search for arbiters. In the end it comes down to the application of reason and evidence, and in some cases there might be such disagreement that there is no conclusion as to whether a particular z should be given deference over is claim to be Y. A general principle on deference simply isn’t workable; unless it’s the principle that deference should be considered in each case based on evidence and reason.

    “The World Congress is letting me give a talk on Metaphilosophy this August.”

    That sounds interesting. Will you keep us up to date on that.

    Quine on the ontology of abstract objects: Pick this up at 6:00, but gets to it at 8:00. http://youtu.be/1iZvycU3I9w. +1 to Bryan Magee, one of the most underrated of British popularisers of philosophy in the UK. Had some great TV series in the 70’s.

  72. Thanks Swally. We’ll see how it turns out.

    Ron,

    Thanks for that. As the replies get longer, It is getting harder for me to do the back-and-forth. At some points, we run the risk of drifting into territory that is, in my view, not relevant. At other points, we are repeating positions at one another without substantially moving the debate forward. If I miss anything in my reply, it will hopefully be because I think it falls into one category or the other.

    On the insane:
    I do not require that there be a social group called ‘the sane’. The point was brought up only to say that ‘the insane’ are not a social group, even if ‘the sane’ were.

    On legality:
    Many legal categories do happen to be cases of social groups. When you see a legal category — say, ‘criminal’ — you have some reason to think it is a social group. I do not assert that all social groups are legal categories, or vice-versa. I only observe that many legal classes are.

    On the innocent:
    There is no such legal class. The law observes a distinction between guilty, not-guilty, and not-guilty by reason of insanity. I also see no reason to think it is a social group. You have provided none.

    On granfalloons vs. social groups:
    I do owe you a general theory. Otherwise, the account here is vacuous. I will say that much. I only want to say that it goes beyond the scope of this post. It would be unreasonable if I were to never give you one; it is not unreasonable to put that discussion on loan, so to speak, to gather my thoughts.

    On empty deference:
    I would not, under any circumstances, defer to any group whose initial necessary conditions involve empty reference. The league of magic superheroes is not suitable for deference. I will defer to religious organizations that use the language of deference to God in order to to functionally self-refer. I will not defer to religious organizations that constitutively defer to God. e.g., there may be a social group called “Judaism”, but there is no social group that fits the description of “the chosen people”. Similarly for any other religious case.

    This distinction (between speaker’s reference, sentence reference, and functional import) seems useful. It corresponds to the Austinian distinction between the parts of a speech act. It is also a distinction with practical importance, disproving your claim that nothing comes of it.

    On reference:

    But reference is so complex I don’t see how your assertion holds if you have that assumption.

    I honestly don’t see how you don’t see it. Reference is complex, but my talk about the necessary conditions prior to deference are not at all complex. Christians are “people who have the right connection to Jesus of Nazareth”. Muslims are “people who have the right connection to Mohammed”. Games are “playable things”. The Scottish are “people who have the right connection to Scotland”.

    On reason v. evidence:

    Isn’t that using reason and evidence? Evidence of the meaning and interpretation of the subtle and drastic turns of thought and speech?

    The subject here is warranted deference, or rational deference, so of course we use reason. There’s a kind of decision-procedure involved in the account I’ve articulated above. e.g., the credibility of speakers is determined through reasons and evidence. And who determines credibility? We — all of us, each of us, whenever the occasion arises. Reason is all up and down in this business. The Feynman quote entirely misapplied.

    What we don’t always have in these situations, though, is sufficient prior evidence that a person fits into our stereotyped view of the group. Because we lack prior evidence that X counts as Y, we have to hope that sufficient evidence will come down the road. That’s really the point of deferring to them — let them make up their own evidence of how they, the X’s, count as Y’s.

    On consequences:

    This is a specific thing I don’t like about some philosophy. It’s arguing for a principle based on the consequences of not having the principle.

    I was motivating the aspirations and motivations for the account, not giving reasons to adopt it. Sorry if that was unclear. (BTW: I would argue that consequences are epistemically relevant, but that wasn’t the point of the offering you were responding to.)

    Anyway, I don’t believe your pessimism is warranted. People are not barbarians. We can change our practices. Locke’s political philosophy, and his message of toleration, altered the way that social groups were organized, and changed the facts about social reality by way of changing social reality. A sensible theory of warranted deference can do the same.

    On philosophers:

    If a good philosopher, with all their “understanding how things hang together generally, are insightful in belief, humble in commitment, rigorous in reasoning” can’t figure out that he is a good philosopher then what hope is there for any z’s certainty that he is a Y, and then why is there any reason a non-Y should defer to him?

    I don’t want you to defer to me as a philosopher about the meaning of ‘philosopher’. I think that defeats the point, which is to encourage people to be philosophical, hook or by crook. But I would be happy with some other social group categorization (e.g., scholar of early modern political philosophy, perhaps).

    And, again, if I don’t self-identify, then nothing about warranted deference hangs on this case. The relevant issues don’t even arise, just as they do not arise for criminals who claim not to be criminals.

    I mean, if any of X, Y, Z are going to be arbiters, A, of membership of Y, then who is the arbiter that decides who is suitable for A? It becomes an infinite regress of a search for arbiters.

    All sane people are arbiters of who counts as an arbiter.

    But being an arbiter doesn’t mean you’ve got sufficient prior justification on hand, or that you have the best theory of warranted deference. Plenty of sane people are unnecessarily lax about the issue. It clouds their ability to see that there are practical steps we can take to live in a more rational social world — one which is neither relativistic (i.e., involving people who defer reflexively) nor dominated by insufferable assholes (who defer to no-one). Both of these orientations have a great deal of sway over how the mainstream think about identity politics. They are both disasters. We can train ourselves and our institutions to be better than this, just as we post-Locke trained ourselves and our institutions to be more tolerant than we were.

  73. BLS Nelson,

    You now seem to pin a lot on social groups being a key ingredient, in that you are dismissing my objections if you think a social group is not involved. And yet some of your examples include questionable social groups.

    For example, sane/insane are not social groups? But they are still identifiable groups into which we do actually place people, and into which people self-declare membership. The difference between these two groups is biological and behavioural. As is the difference between men and women, two groups you do include in your examples.

    I’m not sure how you don’t see criminals as a social group. They may be small groups, of one or more members; criminal hackers often form groups; as do credit card fraud teams. Some groups have members around the world where not all members know each other personally. Their activities vary, but are commonly criminal. They are criminal whether they publicly proclaim it or not – most would prefer to keep their criminality private. All these characteristics make criminals seem as socially grouped as many religions. There are differences in what they are up to, but I’m not sure the differences are sufficient to provide exclusion as examples that your assertion might or might not apply to.

    We are social animals. So any classification of humans counts as a social group. Often the groups may be nebulous in their definition and variable in the extent to which people see groups. The very act of classifying and naming groups is sufficient to identify groups.

    Could you respond to the social groups of new religions. It seems any crank can come up with any old nonsense and form a social group: Joseph Smith, Ron L Hubbard, Ron Murphy, The Apostles of Jesus, Mohammed. At what point do you stop dismissing them as not worthy of deference and start calling them a social group worthy of deference? If you dismiss my super hero stuff, then do you also dismiss UFO groups, or conspiracy groups, because there is no reality to the content of their claims?

    It seems obvious that Trekkies are a social group. They hold conventions. Do they count because you know that they know there really isn’t a Star Trek reality? How do Christians fair in the fantasy game?

    I still don’t get what it is about established religious groups that deserves deference according to your original (a), (b), (c). The definitions of their groups differ from person to person within the groups. Read any Christian blog and in the comments you’ll often get variations on “God for me is …” or “I interpret this passage in the Bible to mean …” This is how the religious get away with so much nonsense, by insisting we defer to all this crap, to their ‘truths’. This is where they use a variation on the no true Scotsman, as, for example, when religious critics of The God Delusion dismiss it as not addressing their religion, as if it is addressing a fantasised caricature of religion that Dawkins has concocted.

    Religious groups are specifically groups I don’t give much deference to automatically. I do tend to give deference to their claims of membership, but only for pragmatic reasons. I wouldn’t get far discussing Christianity with a Christian if I started disputing his self-proclaimed membership of Christianity.

    On your point of association with Mohammed, that turns out to be a general way of classifying Muslims which is used my non-Muslims (non-Y), and some Muslims. But again in specific cases there are self-declared groups, Sunni and Shi’ite, which have sub-groups that would deny each other as members. The point here is that membership is so disputable, so much a matter of self-declared claims, that the generality of your deference fails. And, I note, that it is you a non-Muslim that is deciding association with Mohammed is sufficient, when some members think it not.

    But nevertheless, if we defer to self-declared members on the matter of membership, and we defer to them on the definition of the group, then how do you address this definition: http://www.islam101.com/dawah/newBorn.htm. This position isn’t uncommon in religion. As a non-Muslim I do not defer to Muslims on this. Do you? Does my self-declared non-membership trump their group definition? Or is this another exception to your rule?

    As a further confusion I could self-declare myself as a Christian and a Muslim. Being either a Christian or a Muslim allows me to pick and choose which tenets of the faiths I believe in – that’s what they all appear to do, from the outside. Muslims do not think Jesus divine. Well that’s OK, because there are Christians who are ‘atheistic’ Christians that don’t even require an existent God. Being a Muslim seems only to require that I recite some words and that I believe it in my heart. That’s not a problem because the cognitive dissonance one might expect seems to be overcome quite easily when being both a Christian and scientist, so Christian and Muslim shouldn’t pose any problems.

    Now on this point, and extending your point about the association with Mohammed, then all religious people are members of the social group of the religious. But that’s such a broad group that many religious, such as many Christians, would have it that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that Mormons are therefore not really Christians. And so the debate over membership goes on, with no clear boundaries upon which to hand a general deference.

    “All sane people are arbiters of who counts as an arbiter.”

    That seems reasonable. But I think it’s problematic for your assertion. As a sane arbiter of arbiters I don’t think any of us count as arbiters of membership or definition of Y solely on self-proclaiming, and so I don’t think deference should be given to self-proclaimers of membership of Y in such a blanket manner. You seem to have allowed a position that opposes your assertion of deference, but will you defer to me and my definition and membership of the group of thinkers that think your assertion over deference is not workable? Or, as a non-member of such a group will you decide there is no such social group and so not require yourself to follow your rule?

    I still think my clique example demonstrated enough problems with your assertion to dismiss it as the general rule as it was offered. There seem to be enough caveats too, to make it a dubious general rule.

    And if I self-declare membership of and definition of the group of super heroes you dismiss it on grounds that now seem to trump my definition and claim to membership: because you don’t know what it means? Where in your points did it require a specific non-Y should understand the meaning of a group. In the religious sphere it tends to be the Y that claim non-Y don’t understand them or their definitions – the ‘sophisticated theologians’ use this ploy. Can I use that ploy? Can I claim your failure to know what it means to be a member of the League of Super Heroes is sufficient reason for you to defer to me on this group and its membership?

    There now seem to be so many conditions that I must consider in order to figure out whether deference is due that I remain unconvinced by the generality of you points. This is how I read your position from what you’ve written:

    (d) Members of group (X) ought to defer to group (Y) on any matters relating to group (Y); unless:
    (i) I, as an X, find there is good reason not to
    (ii) I, as a X, don’t recognise Y as a social group
    and where X can be non-Y or sub-Y, depending on my say so.

    Not a lot of deference there, and it is pretty much how I see it, but without the ‘ought’. Here’s mine, in this context:

    I, as a member of some group (X) will generally defer to group (Y) on any matters relating to group (Y); unless:
    (i) I, as an X, find there is good reason not to
    (ii) I, as a X, don’t recognise Y as a social group
    and where X can be non-Y or sub-Y, depending on my say so. But I’m most likely to give deference most easily where I don’t give much thought to Y. Where Y is brought to my attention I might be persuaded to take an interest and adapt my views, and give or refuse deference according to (i) and (ii). But that’s up to me, and I specifically do not think I ‘ought’ to defer to any group automatically, whatsoever.

    It turns out that this seems to be a natural process that humans go through as they grow and learn. It seems to be the best approach, and is consistent with the golden rule, from my perspective, and for those in Y. They can get on with their self-declared membership and group definition, until it impacts on me, for personal reasons or because my social conscience is pricked.

    Our natural deference to parents as children has a biological basis of dependency, and seems a reasonable starter, but one we generally grow out of in our teens – so common that this too might have a biological basis in the hormonal interference in our social behaviour.

    We have additional social indoctrinations into deference which work quite well, such as early deference to teachers; though we are encouraged to abandon this deference (or we should be) and to question our teachers.

    The despicable indoctrination of deference to religion also starts at an early age and is often hard to shake off. That deference can be personally dangerous, as many a young person has found out, from individual child abuse to the wholesale subjugation of women in Islam. I will generally give deference to claims to membership of religious groups, but that is often to my advantage in that I then have something to criticise, the religion, and members I can argue with about how their group persecutes or claims privilege. That’s about the extent of deference I give to religion.

    Just one example to emphasis this point. This week’s BBC Book Club featured Jim Crace on his book Quarantine*. He’s a non-believer, but in his book he portrayed Jesus, as a character that interacts with the main characters. What struck me about the programme was the response of a Christian who said: “I found your portrayal upsetting”. My response as I listened was “Who the f*#k gave Christians sole ownership over Jesus?” Jesus is supposed to be a saviour for all, and yet non-believers don’t get any say in who or what he is? We’re supposed to defer to Christians? Here is a group that defines the group as being all-inclusive (as do some Muslims, as explained in the link above), and yet some members of this universal group they define are not deferred to. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02118cw).

    * As an aside, an interesting program – I’m sure you can get some philosophical interest out of it. There are also some interesting notions Jim brings in about novel writing in which he describes as the narrative writing itself. Funny how he sees it this way, rather than as a psychological, neurological patterns popping into his head from subconscious.

  74. Ron,

    Because of the length of your replies, I have to give my replies only in chunks. Also, we run the risk of greater misunderstanding, the more that we extend our missives. You write: “I’m not sure how you don’t see criminals as a social group.” But I do! e.g., just in the last post, I said: “When you see a legal category — say, ‘criminal’ — you have some reason to think it is a social group.”

    Social scientists will sometimes distinguish between a shared sense of ‘place’ and a shared ‘space’. That helps to articulate something about what is distinctive about social groups. Social groups have a sense of shared place, whether or not they always share a single space. Think of the cast of Cheers. A random person who has a lonely nightcap at the bar every week might not be in the same ‘place’ as the rest of the crowd, i.e., possessing any common understanding or sense of solidarity with the crowd. In contrast, even if Norm vanished for ten years, and did not show up to the bar in that time, he would nevertheless still occupy the same ‘place’ as the regulars.

    I do not agree that every classification of humans is a social group. The Court of Fine Opinions is a classification (mostly human). It is not a social group. There is not even a weak sense of solidarity, no minimal common trust.

    The case of religion is so interesting because the things they defer to only function as another kind of deference. Religions self-defer, which is the only reasonable basis for which you can get away with deferring to them as a group. If they only deferred to God, then their status as group would not last a half hour. It’s only because their purported deference to God actually functions to facilitate self-deference that they are able to go on as they do.

    Sometimes, when groups are genuinely perverse, they only have a negative basis for solidarity. The impetus behind millenarianism, conspiracy theories, etc., is that people need to unite when under attack. It’s the oldest trick in the book. The only way to unite people who constitutionally distrust each other is to make them afraid of being hurt by outsiders. The functional point, in the first instance anyway, is to generate a need for community solidarity that is based on fear of outside forces. The Westboro Baptist Church is a pretty sophisticated modern version of this case, since the group has a perfect ecology. By trolling bystanders, they generate the sense of being under siege, which reinforces the authority of Phelps et al., and he in turn encourages trolling bystanders, who then reinforce deference, etc.

    So if you can get your superhero club to do the same [functional self-deference, either mediated through God or through defiance to outsiders], then that’s the basis on which I defer to member self-definitions. But you need to add more to the example to get that far.

    If it turns out that religious groups are unable to come to consensus about the issue of ‘who counts as what’, because they quibble over the interpretation of vital texts, then your deference to the group amounts to nothing. Again, it’s really a non-issue, I think.

    You think that deference to people as meaning-makers is what is causally responsible for the persistence of their religion. But actually there are many forces which are causally responsible — see the point about negative solidarity above. You’ve only got half the picture.

    I do tend to give deference to their claims of membership, but only for pragmatic reasons. I wouldn’t get far discussing Christianity with a Christian if I started disputing his self-proclaimed membership of Christianity.

    That’s fair. And we still might disagree, because I am making a further claim — namely, that you ought to defer for epistemic reasons, not just pragmatic ones. People are in the best position to determine their own character (or the character of their group) when they are confronted primarily with the facts. They are necessarily not in an advantageous position to determine their own character when you outsiders defy their agency, since that does its part in reinforcing the Phelps effect. The only hope for encouraging a culture of rational self-determination is to respect peoples’ dignity as truth-makers, while not giving respect to violations of the truth. It may turn out that my account does not do enough justice to those aspirations. But it is at least a start, and I won’t accept casuistry as a substitute unless it is the very last resort.

  75. And, I note, that it is you a non-Muslim that is deciding association with Mohammed is sufficient, when some members think it not.

    This is the opposite of what I have said. Outsiders may decide for themselves what count as necessary conditions, within the realms of plausibility and generality. Necessary conditions are not sufficient conditions. This is a vitally important point, and you’re not going to understand what I’ve said if you glide over it.

    But nevertheless, if we defer to self-declared members on the matter of membership, and we defer to them on the definition of the group, then how do you address [the definition of religious membership which includes children].

    I do not think the cited source speaks on behalf of the group. That’s a problem.

    But let’s suppose it did. In that case, I would gladly defer to the usage, and I would also accept the honorific of being called “Muslim”. Similarly, when among fellow labor activists, I accept the honorific of “brother” or “comrade”.

    That does not necessarily mean I use either term to describe myself. As an irrelevant matter of fact, I do adopt the practice of identifying myself as ‘brother’ or ‘comrade’ in those contexts, and do not adopt the practice of identifying myself as ‘Muslim’. But that’s completely consistent with the point. Dignity means I have jurisdiction over my own self-definition, insofar as it is consistent with the facts.

    As a sane arbiter of arbiters I don’t think any of us count as arbiters of membership or definition of Y solely on self-proclaiming…

    I don’t either. The practical point, when I refer to “arbiter of arbiters”, is this: we, the set of non-crazy people, get to figure out what counts as a social group and what doesn’t. Meaning, if closure ever comes on the issue, it’s us sane people who will close the case. Clearly, I am offering my own ideas about what counts as a social group, which any sane person can dispute. But I am entitled to put it forward, doing my part to increase understanding of how social reality both is and might be.

    I still think my clique example demonstrated enough problems with your assertion to dismiss it as the general rule as it was offered. There seem to be enough caveats too, to make it a dubious general rule.

    As far as I can tell, you’ve not proferred a single exception yet! The “insane” are the only thing that I’ve been able to understand as exceptional, but not in the sense you’re interested in. They’re not a social group, as much as they’re the ultimate case of people who are groupless.

    Also, I’m not sure I understand your example if you think it was that powerful. From what I can tell, the example only demonstrates that not enough has been said about who counts as a speaker for the group (the problem of proper authority), and what counts as a social group (the problem of social ontology).

    Hopefully I’ve said at least enough about the latter to show what is wrong with thinking that categories like “the sane”, “the religious”, and “the innocent” are social groups. The only thing I’ve said about proper authority is that members need to have minimal credibility as members, not violating the referential test. If “Scotsmen” are people who have a relationship to Scotland, then a self-described Scotsman who does not understand the relationship between Edinburgh and Scotland does not have minimum credibility to speak on behalf of the group when it comes to issue of whether or not Edinburghers count as Scottish.

    Notice: both of these replies are consistent with (a-c), which made a categorical statement about deferring to groups on the whole, not to particular members of groups (who may have no credibility whatsoever). No exceptions here.

    And if I self-declare membership of and definition of the group of super heroes you dismiss it on grounds that now seem to trump my definition and claim to membership: because you don’t know what it means? Where in your points did it require a specific non-Y should understand the meaning of a group

    You have to be specific about what you mean by ‘meaning’. If by ‘meaning’ you mean ‘concept’ — I wrote about the prior concept of a group in the comments, not in the OP. If by ‘meaning’ you mean ‘general sufficiency conditions’ — I claim there is no such requirement. Indeed, deference would be quite pointless in the latter case.

    (d) Members of group (X) ought to defer to group (Y) on any matters relating to group (Y); unless:
    (i) I, as an X, find there is good reason not to
    (ii) I, as a X, don’t recognise Y as a social group
    and where X can be non-Y or sub-Y, depending on my say so.

    It is like this:
    * Suppose you are a member of group (~Y);
    * Suppose (Y) is a genuine social group;
    * Suppose you justifiably understand the necessary conditions for (Y) as a social group. (What I’ve called ‘referential grounding’ above.)
    * Suppose that “who counts as what” means “general sufficiency conditions” for belonging to a social group.

    * Hence, you are obligated to defer to group (Y) on who counts as (Y) iff [insofar as] the group [Y]:
    (I) Does not functionally define other groups (~Y);
    (II) Does not subvert the justifiable understanding of the necessary conditions for (Y).

    * Meaning, in practice, that you ought to defer to the verdicts of individual members of group (Y) iff:
    (i) They have minimal credibility to speak on behalf of (Y);
    (ii) They are self-identified as members of (Y);
    (iii) Their verdicts conform to (I-II).

  76. I just noticed that this post receives a critique here. It’s an old one, but was not completely unfair, so merited a point-by-point reply.

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