Every arts and humanities undergrad knows what they do is a bit absurd. From Monday to Wednesday, some of us will be deciding what caused the First World War, while others will spend the time determining whether we have free will. Supposedly, management students will be tackling how to… run the best HR department? (or whatever they do…) And who knows what questions we’ll settle in the second half of the week.
As a fresher quickly coming to terms with this constant imitation of expertise, it’s got me thinking about a question that’s always bothered me, and should bother you: ‘How can we have beliefs when smarter people disagree?’
To get you on the same page, here’s a quick questionnaire. Do you have any opinions which some people disagree with? Do you think there’s someone, anyone, on the opposing side who would beat you in an argument on it? So, you think that someone could show you a flaw in your reasoning? So, your reasoning is flawed…?
See what I mean?
I became an atheist in that hazy period of YouTub-ed Stephen Fry debates and Crash Course philosophy clips that results from a 14 year-old starting to realise the process of working out who they are is going to involve working out what they believe, at least on the most fundamental issues. I’ve been a disbeliever ever since, in deities and the practice of most humanities too. And I’ve always been unimpressed by ‘agnostics’. Pick a side. Surely most of your beliefs aren’t 100%, and you still pick a side.
But then again, you put me in a room with one of the many eminent God-fearing philosophers, and I’m sure, within the hour, they’ll provide me with an argument I won’t be able to answer. And surely ‘I know someone could show me my reasoning is flawed’ is equivalent to ‘my reasoning is flawed’. Agnosticism seems to have a point.
This problem of rational self-doubt is the focus of an emerging field known as the ‘epistemology of disagreement’. The relevance? The relevance is huge. Most of us believe in man-made climate change because supposedly 97% of climate scientists believe in man-made climate change. But would you hold your own in a debate with the smartest of the 3%? Probably not, but you say ‘look, I defer to the expertise’. Ok, but then why bother thinking about your ignorant reasoning on a whole load of issues? Leave foreign relations up to the IR experts, healthcare systems up to the medics and economists, the death penalty up to philosophers and criminologists, and COVID up to the government scientists.
Maybe you’re thinking ‘this isn’t the same thing, climate science is factual, these issues require value judgements’. Hm. The actual debate on a lot of these issues is factual – think about the actual arguments you have about foreign policy, healthcare, deterrence effect of capital punishment, etc. Anyone who’s heard a philosopher conjure a good old well-crafted counter-example will know our value judgements aren’t as secure as we may think.
So, here’s a bit of said epistemology of disagreement. Let’s sever our brains from us for a moment. Each of our brains is a cognitive machine. We take in the evidence we have, and we run it through the machine and get our belief. Everyone else has their own machine, some better, some worse. How much should we weigh the value of each machine’s judgement?
Welcome to thermometer theory. If you and I have equally reliable thermometers, it would be silly of me to trust my thermometer more than yours. It would be even sillier to trust my thermometer when there’s a group of people (experts) with much more reliable thermometers. I’d probably just disregard mine and go and see what that group is saying.
A challenge that has been made to this is that we have reasoning internal to us which we can’t share in its full vitality with other people – so, in a sense, we have a better understanding why our thermometer gives the reading it does. But the thermometerists respond ‘Yeah, but that’s true of everyone else – we don’t fully appreciate their reasoning’.
The ‘Right Reasons View’ says ‘screw all this’, arguing that we should only focus on first-order evidence and not the higher-order evidence that is other people’s views. Most epistemologists see this as an implausible get-out attempt – what if everyone else on the planet disagreed?
So, the phenomenon of disagreement seems to have a bite to it for all humanities. We are just one thermometer among many. But of course, holding up our hands and giving up serves little purpose. As we finish each essay as dawn breaks on the day of the tutorial, we bring down the sword and come up with some conclusion. Free will? No free will? Anything will do. In the same way, we play the game of public debate. We make peace with our uncertainty and present a view. And that’s good. Through that process, opinions get refined, and progress is made… to an extent.
It’s also necessary. Often our belief-disagreements become action-disagreements. We have decisions we have to take, like voting(/not voting) in an election. The issue with action-disagreements is that there’s no ‘suspend judgment’ option. It’s forced – if you don’t take the action, then your decision is… to not take the action e.g. not vote. So, we have a duty, like good humanities students, to fake it, apply our judgement, and spread the decision-making burden.
However, let’s not forget the radicalism of the point I have made; though one could equally argue such is the purview of the humanities before all else. We are only one cognitive machine, and in the face of competent disagreement, the rational response is deep self-doubt and openness to other views, especially ones of legitimate expertise. Our politics and social media dialogue necessitate conviction but we should always remember deep down that we’re all playing a part, that we’re not as sure as we pretend to be.